They’ve been called the “Vanguard of Alternative music”. They’ve been mentioned as revolutionaries who helped open doors and spark a revolution in the rock n’ roll music scene. They’ve been called Dr. Spock’s back-up band. I must say, that other than the Dr. Spock assertion, I agree that They Might Be Giants’ influence on alternative music cannot be underestimated. Here’s a band that started with two men in New York City during the post-punk revolution – that performed live shows with a guitar, an accordion, and a tape machine. As glitter-rock hair bands began infesting rock n’ roll clubs and radio stations, They Might Be Giants persevered, did it their own way – and they continue to make a huge impression on the musical scene from Grammy’s, to platinum albums, television appearances, and kick-ass concerts. I found that John Linnell of They Might Be Giants was less interested in the accolades, and more focused on creating art that can reach people – creative expression – a breath of fresh air in a very materialistic day in age. In a time when style matters just as much, if not more so, than substance, They Might Be Giants are still an example of what can happen when creative substance meets eclectic style. Theirs is quite the fascinating, inspirational story – a story of two Johns, making their way the only way they know how.
Thirsty: They Might Be Giants is releasing a new children’s album called “Here Come the 1,2,3’s”. That’s very exciting. I’m assuming this album has a more of a specific numerical focus?
Linnell: It does, it does. There’s no hiding the fact, it’s a um, you know, the thing is about these – it’s actually a DVD. It’s an album and then there’s a DVD, which, with the same songs, but with videos that go with them. This one, as the previous DVD we made which was called, as you might imagine, “Here Come the A, B, C’s” are sort of, you know, what parent’s, I think, are comforted by - the idea of something you give your kids that is theoretically good for them. That’s the pretext. And whether or not kids actually need to be taught the alphabet or the numbers by learning twenty-five songs on each topic is really anybody’s guess. I think in the past we’ve said about this project, and the one before it, is that they are entertainment disguised as education.
I would certainly agree with that. I’m a big fan of a lot of your children’s albums. I love “No!” It’s a fantastic album, children or not.
I’m interested as to what sparked the initial interest to begin producing children’s albums and your involvement in television shows like “the Oblongs”.
Linnell: Right. Yeah, well, we’ve had to talk about it before, I guess, and figure out what happened exactly. We spent about twenty years deeply committed to doing They Might Be Giants albums that had no other auspices, you know, they were just, for want of a better word, they were rock albums, you know. But it’s been a very personal project all along. We were not really thinking in terms of working for other people or working during specific, special projects. And what happened with the first kid’s record “No!” was that we, we were in the midst of doing other projects and somebody said, “Why don’t you put together a bunch of kid’s songs?” Somebody around the record said, “We can put that out”, and it just seemed like an incredibly fun alternative to some of the stuff we were doing. We were, um, we’d done the theme song for “Malcolm in the Middle” and we were spending a lot of our week in the studio recording incidental music for that TV show, so we were basically living in the studio, so we thought, well, while we were here, we could make up these songs and it’d be fun and easy – and they offered us a little money to do it, so it just seemed like, you know, it seemed like an incredibly low-pressure kind of gig. And what happened was that that record “No!” completely outsold everything else that we were doing at that time. So, we weren’t thinking of it as a serious gig or as a way to make money or anything, it was just like a fun little thing and it turned into a whole new gig for us – very unexpectedly.
That’s interesting. I am a little curious as to what makes the quote unquote “children’s albums” intrinsically different from, say, a “Lincoln”?
Linnell: Yeah, it’s maybe not drastically different from “Lincoln”, although, I think we have a sense that some of the themes on “Lincoln”, uh, you know, the lyrical themes are not - they’re not completely comprehensible by kids and that some of the stuff on – I can’t think of what this is true of on “Lincoln” - but on some of the records, kids are not really…maybe that they’re not compelled by songs about death and, you know, decay, and stuff like that. I mean, there are themes that come up in our work which, I think, we find really compelling - that a five year old would sort of just think we were a little over-the-top with.
Yeah, probably shying away from like “Dig My Grave”
Yeah, I understand. I think you should include “James K. Polk” on all of your children’s albums. I think they need know about Manifest Destiny.
Linnell: Mmm. Well, I think that there’s a category that we’re not actually so much thinking of, which is the, sort of, middle child – you know, with the Disney stuff we’ve been very much focused on two to four year olds, I guess. And then “No!” was not aimed at any specific demographic at all, it was just kind of like a general, all-purpose kids record.
We had this specific idea of doing songs about numbers and letters, which was very different from the stuff that we'd done in the past that was informational – you know, we’ve had a couple of songs that were sort of, almost like encyclopedia entries, and not very many. I mean, the reputation that we got for doing that kind of stuff was out of proportion to how much we’d actually done. We did “James K. Polk”, and we did a cover of a song about the sun, and John (Flansburgh) wrote a song about the artist James Ensor, and this is amongst several hundred songs that we’ve released up until then, but for some reason, everybody focused on those things and thought, “Oh, these guys are writing songs to teach you things”, or something like that, which wasn’t really our intention.
Well, I’m curious, there seems to be…I know “James Ensor”, “James K. Polk” and then, you know, “Purple Toupee” is a very historical song in a way…
Linnell: (Laughing) Well, we’ve always been attracted to the disinformational song as well. I guess that’s another category that – I don’t know why we’re not as well recognized for that – songs which tell un-truths are sort of important a in our catalogue.
Indeed. Well, you guys have certainly come a long way from performing in small clubs and converted apartments in the East Village in the early to mid 1980’s. You hit the New York scene in 1981 and you expecting what (John) Flansburgh described in your documentary as a “glittering punk-rock heaven”.
Linnell: Mmm. Yeah. And we were deeply, deeply disappointed. Well, we tried to get booked – we got a gig at the Mud Club fairly soon after we started doing this and then the Mud Club closed before the date that we were supposed to be playing. So, it was really like the whole thing was folding up just as we arrived.
But fortunately, there was a whole other scene that was developed that was utterly unexpected and didn’t, wouldn’t have of really seemed appropriate, really, for us – except that it turned out to be perfect – which was the performance art club/scene of the early to mid eighties. You know, there was this whole, pretty large collection of venues of performers in the East Village during that time in the early eighties. And we were, sort of – we sort of got in the side door or something. We were considered not inappropriate, even though we were a band, to play along side people who were not playing music, who were doing multi-media performance pieces or standing up and, you know, taking their pants down or just doing some thing that you wouldn’t associate with the rock clubs.
It must have been sort of odd breaking into that scene when you’re expecting a more punk-rock scene.
Linnell: Everything was new and odd. We didn’t really have any expectations after a certain point. I think we just thought, “well, this is what there is here”, you know, it was a very friendly vibe. The nice thing about all these clubs that we played at that time was that there wasn’t any sense of what things were supposed to be like, you know. We were the most “normal” thing on the whole scene. We were actually playing instruments and singing songs – and then Karen Finley would go up and kind of have a mental breakdown, there was just a lot of …you know, the fact that it was all together on the same stage was the only thing it had in common – you know, that these different things had in common. And we made a lot of friends with performers at that time.
Considering you guys tackle about every musical genre, I know asking who your influences are is probably a completely loaded question, so I’ll narrow it a bit. Who were some of your early rock n’ roll influences that inspired you as artists?
Linnell: Yeah, I like talking about this in the generally, where it’s not like, “well, I got the idea for what we were gonna do based on this”, but there is – I mean, obviously there’s some element of that. When John (Flansburgh) and I were very, very small the Beatles arrived in the United States and we were still kind of feeling the echoes of that for pretty much our entire childhood. That was sort of an undeniable cultural tsunami.
But very soon after kind of getting a more detailed picture of what was going on in the culture, I think John (Flansburgh) and I were both attracted to this thing, which at that time was called underground music, which ranged from stuff that was very, just noise, you know, experimental sounds to, like for example, The Residents, to things that were more like bands. I also had a period where I was interested in things like Frank Zappa, you know, sort of the “post-hippie” kind of stuff was all very compelling to us when we were in high school. And we also liked pop music. We liked ABBA.
Who didn’t like ABBA, really?
Linnell: Right. I think that in the seventies, you didn’t have a choice and you had to listen to ABBA, because that’s what was playing everywhere. Although, actually, it was sort of between that or the Bee-Gees, and we really hated the Bee-Gees, so I think ABBA just seemed like more less-oppressive somehow. I don’t know why.
Did you guys open for Guns N’ Roses?
Linnell: No. Never met them or played with them.
That’s a myth. Never met them or played with them. That is mentioned in your documentary which is why I asked.
Linnell: Oh, geez, I dunno who said that. There’s a lot of hilarious, disinformation in that movie – most of which was disseminated by Syd Straw, who does not let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Well, it’s a great documentary nonetheless. I love it.
Linnell: Yeah, no, I liked it too.
And you guys have also recently released another album called “The Else”. It’s fantastic.
Linnell: Thank you.
Most musicians or artists or writers or whatever, theatre artists, cannot consistently produce quality work at a They Might Be Giants rate.
You must never suffer from writer’s block.
Linnell: Oh, we certainly do. And, I would say, as a job – the job that we have taken on – the job of cooking up, sort of, keeping going, trying to write new songs year after year gets continually harder, I would say, for us. It is really a challenge to try and do something, not so much like, you know, try and please the critics or the audience, but to give something that we sincerely believe is worth doing and worth continuing to do. You know, we can look back on the stuff that we’ve already done and say, “well that was good, I can’t top that”.
It’d be very tempting to be discouraged, after we’ve been working for this long, to be thinking that we’ve done all our best work and that there’s no point in carrying on. But I think we – part of it is that we’re also kind of obsessive, you know, we just really like writing. But I would absolutely feel disheartened and discouraged if I felt like we weren’t doing something new. That’s really the goal. You don’t just bask in your glory.
Well you’ve had plenty to bask in. You’ve been able to achieve a level of artistic freedom that every artist really craves.
Linnell: Yeah. I agree. I think that was lucky. In some ways I have to credit John Flansburgh for being very hard-lined about setting ourselves up in such a way that we could kind of – you know, he really helped us define what we were doing in such a way that was open-ended, that it was automatically open-ended. I guess we both had this impulse early on that we didn’t want to do a band where there was this specific thing that we were supposed to be doing – there was no idea to it. We didn’t know what it was and we didn’t know what it was supposed to be and consequently we didn’t know how to do what we were doing. There wasn’t a specific formula or method for it. You know, so that’s a little bit scary. It’s very tempting to define yourself to yourself as a way of feeling like you can explain yourself to yourself and it’s a little bit weird to not do that in a way, you know, that you sort of feel like, “whoa” - the way when you’re a teenager you invest a lot in your identity, trying to figure out who you are and define yourself – I think that that impulse carries on into adulthood as well. People want to figure out what car represents them, or what kind of clothes represent them and it’s a way of comforting yourself. There’s something very uncomfortable about not knowing exactly what you’re doing.
Yeah, that’s very interesting. You guys – you record what you want to record, you tour when you want – was their ever a time in the past twenty-five that you ever felt restricted or forced to hold back for commercial reasons or for a record label?
Linnell: I think that we’ve had plenty of times where we bitched about stuff, but, you know, I think that we, on those occasions, we were probably just taking our freedom for granted. Like you said, we – I mean, on paper, everybody’s free to do whatever they want. But I think you do – you can get yourself into a state where you think, “Oh, I won’t be able to feed my kid if I don’t do what somebody’s saying”. Luckily, I guess, for us, very early on, we were not – we didn’t really make any money early on from what we were doing, so we spent a long time doing this without thinking of it as a source of income, and that allowed us to be more free-natured as to how we defined it.
Now you have a band of professionals at your disposal.
Linnell: Mmm Hmm.
It’s a far cry from the “machine” and the stick you used to use…must be nice.
Linnell: These guys are great. They are a great comfort to us in our middle age. They know exactly what we like, what we’re into, so we feel sort of comfortable in letting them take the wheel sometimes.
Your songs, there’s definitely, in my opinion, there’s a heightened level of intellectual sophistication to your lyrics.
Linnell: Why, thank you. (Laughs)
No problem. When you compare it to most “rock n’ rollers”, they don’t really involve themselves with historical figures or palindromes.
Linnell: Well, in some ways it’s all just a vehicle for some kind of creative expression. I don’t think it means that we – I don’t think it means one thing or another. I don’t think that we’re more– you know, I wouldn’t say that we’re more sophisticated than bands that don’t talk about historical figures – in other words, I don’t think that’s the part that’s sophisticated or that I congratulate myself on. I think it’s this indefinable thing which is the song, you know, and it’s not really about the level of sophistication, I guess.
Did you have to learn Greek for “Greek #3”?
Linnell: I tried to learn Greek, but my Greek just stinks. So, I learned enough to be able to very roughly pronounce some of the words, but I never really learned how to speak Greek…
Well it sounds good.
Linnell: Sounds good if you don’t speak Greek, (laughing).
And I don’t, so I guess that’s part of it. So many of your songs have dark/depressing lyrics accompanied with a very upbeat tempo.
I’ve often found myself singing along with a seemingly cheery They Might Be Giants song, and I suddenly realize, “Wow, that’s actually really dark”. Is that sort of an intended effect when you write?
Linnell: Well, yeah, you know, that’s one idea of the songs – to say something, it’s kind of parallel to humorous, to say really dark stuff, and it’s not just depressing…I think it’s actually kind of uplifting, in a way, to say something that you think is true that’s kind of grim, that would normally be not polite dinner conversation.
Indeed, you mentioned death and decay.
It also irritates me, you know, I’ve been a fan of you guys for a real long time, when people who kind of have limited exposure to your work kind of label you guys as gimmicky or nichey or something. But I’ve found that when I take these people to see you perform live, they have a whole different perception and respect for you. Do you feel like that live performance is the best way to advertise what you do and who you are as artists?
Linnell: You know, I think that either way, if you come to the show and see the whole show or if you listen to the record all the way through, that you automatically get a deeper appreciation that sort of removes some of the caricature. I think that true of anyone – you know there’s a lot of bands who have great documentaries about them that I would not consider to be – I don’t know or didn’t releasing were as interesting and as I thought they’d turn out to be as a band till I saw their movie. You know, that’s sort of a way of getting deeper into the material and all that stuff. Just as an example, the Metallica film, I really felt like I was not that interested in their work by the time their movie came out. And, you know, there’s something very vivid about seeing a film about a band, you get more deeply into it, you stop thinking in terms of this sort of shtick or the caricature and realize that its people that spending all of their time doing this thing.
Right. Well, you’ve won a Grammy Award. You’ve had seven top one-hundred songs in the UK and the U.S. You’ve had a platinum album. “Here Come the 1,2,3’s will be your 13th studio album to go along with 6 live albums, 8 compilations, countless EP’s and singles, enormous online success. You’ve written songs for TV shows, commercials, and films – a documentary was made about you. Yet there seems to be a lot of creativity left in the tank. Can we count on more albums? More tours?
Linnell: Well, I’ll tell you what’s going on this year. We’re coming out with this Disney thing; we’ve already got a sort of a rough idea for another Disney project. I think we’re gonna be home a lot this year, so we’ll probably spend a lot more time writing this year than we did last year, for example. And that’s about all I can tell you. We’re just getting ready to do some more home, studio work.
Any thoughts on the Rock N’ Roll hall of fame? You guys should be eligible soon…
Uh, I’ve never been there, and, I mean, I hate to say this but I’m kind of turned off by the whole notion. I mean, this is not why probably anybody got into it, right?...to be sealed up into a casket and lowered into the…I mean, it sounds a little bit like…I guess, you know…I guess it’s a wonderful thing…I think that those kind of things tend to have this sort of weird effect where they tend to, by making an icon out of somebody or some group and making them heroic, it tends to reduce your understanding and appreciation of the thing, that I would say – that it’s not - it doesn’t shed extra light on it, it tends to make it more remote. And also there’s this kind of suggestion, when you’re in the Hall of Fame, that it’s kind of over, which is not what you want to hear about yourself.
Well, I certainly hope that you make it back to Chicago soon.
Linnell: Yeah, like I said, we love Chicago. It’s always a really fun experience.
It’s always a treat to see your show. We appreciate you doing this with us.