They Might Be Giants Tall Tales
Published Sep 01, 2004Many bands find entire career defined by a single song or pigeonholed by a single style and are unable to shake it. Being called a quirky, novelty band should have been enough to stop a career in its tracks, but They Might Be Giants have defied the odds. As writers of clever, literate songs, John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been described as the "older brothers" of a new generation of geeky rock bands like Ben Folds Five, Barenaked Ladies and Weezer who managed to find the right balance between quirk and intelligence. Even the "quirky" accusation is one the band try to put a positive spin on. "I don't think we're nearly as silly as our toughest critics might think," says John Flansburgh, "but I can sympathise with them because we are a wilfully complicated band." These days, They Might Be Giants might be best known for the theme music they have provided for Malcolm In The Middle and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. But during their 20-year career as Brooklyn's self-proclaimed Ambassadors of Love, the band have flirted with fame and commercial success before returning to their underground roots and their legion of faithful fans.
After meeting at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Massachusetts in the 70s, John Flansburgh and John Linnell move into the same apartment building in New York. They start to record together and make their live debut in Central Park. In an interview, Linnell claims the show, where the duo played performed as El Groupo de Rock and Roll, took place on January 23 with 23 people attending. The band played 23 songs, they were paid 23 dollars, and Linnell was 23 at the time. The Johns had recorded some experimental tape projects during their high school days and Linnell was a member of the Mundanes and the Baggs during his college years while Flansburgh was in the Blackouts, but it wasn't until the move to New York that They Might Be Giants are born. The band's name was taken from a 1971 George C. Scott movie, where a deluded man believes he is Sherlock Holmes.
After a couple of years of touring, the Johns face an involuntary hiatus when Flansburgh's apartment is broken into and all his equipment is stolen, and Linnell falls off his bike while working as a messenger and breaks his wrist. They continue to record but need a new method of distribution because they can't play live, so they come up Dial-A-Song. By dialling 718-387-6962, callers could hear a new song every day on Flansburgh's answering machine. Not only does it get them exposure (more than 100 calls a day at one point), it would later lead to their first record deal. "It had more to do with what we could afford to do than what we wanted to do," Flansburgh says now. "It didn't requite much more than buying the answering machine to start it up and that made it very appealing." In the early days, callers can leave a message, providing much fodder for recordings. On the She Was A Hotel Detective EP, one caller discusses at length the mystery of They Might Be Giants. The service still exists, both by telephone and as a website, and is still as popular as ever expect to hear the busy signal. "We kept going after the first couple of years because we didn't want anyone to think we were just chickening out, but over the years it's made us fearless about giving our music away."
The band's first release is a one-sided, two-song flexidisc called The Wiggle Diskette. They distribute it by attaching it to telephone poles and street signs around Manhattan. It is quickly followed by their 23-song demo tape. Most of these songs end up appearing on the band's first two albums in a different form, but the band's unique combination of guitar, accordion and drum machine is very much on display. Their live shows continued to draw an enthusiastic audience. At one show in Milwaukee, the Johns invite a sluggish audience to get up and dance with them during "The Famous Polka"; the crowd, standing on a covered orchestra pit, is too much and it collapses but no one is seriously injured.
1986 to 1987
After signing to New Jersey's Bar None Records, the Johns release their self-titled debut, called The Pink Album by fans for its cartoony cover art with the two Johns riding along the Toddler Hiway, as described in the song of the same name. While gaining a cult following in North America, the album is warmly embraced in Europe, where they become a popular live act. Nearly a year later, U.S. college stations notice "Don't Let's Start," a song the band themselves don't think is anything special. "We're a pretty un-neurotic band, but one place where we have a real blind spot is trying to figure out the relative merits of songs. For the first six months, we had no real idea that Don't Let's Start' was any more viable than anything else then it took off." "Don't Let's Start" becomes a hit on VH1, and works its way up the UK Indie Charts. It remains one of the band's most requested songs, although they don't play it frequently anymore.
Their single "Ana Ng," from their second album, Lincoln, displaces U2 from the top of the college charts. The attention Lincoln garners with signature TMBG tunes like "Purple Toupee" and "Shoehorn With Teeth" leads to the band being labelled a quirky novelty act. The album cover features a photo of a unique shrine to the Johns' grandfathers created by furniture craftsman and zither master Brian Dewan. It isn't hard to imagine how songs with hidden Spanish messages in Morse Code ("Pencil Rain") might confuse some people, but the band's ability to write fun pop that resonates with a growing audience helps Lincoln reach #89 on the Billboard album charts.
The band breaks through with their first bona fide hit, "Birdhouse In Your Soul," which reaches #6 in the UK and #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts, propelling Flood, into the charts. This first major label album is also their most successful, reaching platinum in the U.S. "It really didn't seem like success happened quickly in America. It felt like an organic, natural evolution. What was more unexpected was being able to hear our songs on the radio in the UK," Flansburgh says. "Flood is still considered the starter album for new fans because it has a pile of perennial favourites." A younger audience is exposed to the band when kids cartoon Tiny Toon Adventures creates two videos featuring their mini-Looney Tunes stable, for "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man."
At the height of their popularity, they release Apollo 18, an album that puts more stock in ideas and experimentation than cohesive songs. While some moments work well, like "The Guitar," a goofy reworking of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," others are less successful. "It is a nutso, psychotic record and considering how ambitious it is, it was pretty warmly received," says Flansburgh. "We had been the critics' darling for the first three records, but by now there were plenty of critics who found us perfectly tedious. It is still an interesting album not without its charms." Feeling the pressure of performing as a duo, they recruit a band and performances get more ambitious. "I really felt that we did very interesting, effective two-man shows, but now I realise that it was very much of its time." The band launches a new concert feature, called Stump The Band: audience members call out a song title and the band has to try and play it. Vowing to never play the same song twice (that would be cheating), they end up tackling chestnuts like "Smoke On The Water," "Aqualung," and "Disco Inferno," but Stump The Band doesn't last long. "Because of grunge and stage-diving, the audience was moved back from the stage and so it got harder to ask them what they wanted us to play," explains Flansburgh. "And it turned us into a wedding band where people just yelled Madonna!' or YMCA!' so it had to stop. We changed it to What Was The First Record You Ever Bought? and that was interesting lots of Neil Diamond." The concept returned in the late 90s with a new version, Spin The Dial. The Johns turn a radio dial to a random station and then try to emulate the song they hear. "The impressionistic ones where we get some Mexican station beaming off a satellite can be neat, but we also do a pretty strong cover of Usher's Yeah' and that comes as a surprise to most people."
John Flansburgh starts the Hello Recording Club, a subscription-only label that issues ten CDs a year until 1997. When it peaks in 1997, its 2000 subscribers include writers Neil Gaiman and Dave Eggers. Although some Hello's early releases were predictable, like Brian Dewan and Kurt Hoffman (who later joined the band) and the first solo releases by each of the Johns, more imaginative selections included Frank Black, XTC's Andy Partridge, the Residents and Stephin Merritt's Gothic Archies, who all contribute exclusive material, most of which has never been reissued. Flansburgh attributes the stellar line-up to the fact that it was a musician-owned label, and the artists retained all rights. Early subscribers were given some rare They Might Be Giants releases as both an incentive and a thank you, including the only legal issue of the band's demo tape, and a official bootleg CD of a 1994 New York concert. "I really just did it for fun, but I learned a lot, which helped me do a lot more legit things later on," says Flansburgh. "It really peaked in its third year, and the fourth year was really, really tough. Nobody thought it would last forever."
For the first time, the touring band enters the studio. The Johns regard John Henry highly, calling it a "nicely crafted album," there is a backlash from fans who think the band have turned their back on their roots. It rocks much harder than any of its predecessors thanks to the likes of former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone, yet hasn't lost the band's unique style. "It was the stepping off point for a lot of fans who thought it was just too weird hearing a whole band playing instead of just us. That was kind of odd because it is much easier record to listen to than Apollo 18. There was also a big cultural shift in the kind of music that got played on the radio thanks to grunge. The diversity from the 80s was gone."
Factory Showroom includes Flansburgh's favourite moment of his career, "I Can Hear You." The song is recorded, as part of a public demonstration at the Edison Museum, on a wax cylinder using a non-electrical device made by Edison himself in 1898. "It felt like we were climbing into a time machine and hearing it being played back with all the strange sonic qualities than a wax cylinder has, I felt like the luckiest guy alive." Flansburgh also releases the first album by his side project Mono Puff, Unsupervised, setting off more rumours that They Might Be Giants are on their last legs. Instead, "it expanded our format because Mono Puff had a lot more aggressive use of electronics and rhythms that we hadn't used and so they've been folded into our music now," explains Flansburgh. "We're no longer afraid of the electric boogaloo."
Even the innovators, the band teams up with fledgling online music service eMusic to sell their songs online. "We felt the value of creating your own audience through a new medium, and Dial-A-Song made us much more fearless about giving our music away. That was a very useful lesson to learn early on," says Flansburgh. Thanks to both eMusic and the band's own website, the band continue to cultivate an impressive online following. "We get a lot less media attention now than we did back around the time of Flood, yet we have a much more active audience than we ever had because of the internet. So many people are directly involved with the band every week via our web site."
After a near endless tour, the band releases live album Severe Tire Damage. The muscle of the band's online presence is flexed when John Linnell is voted one of People's "Ten Most Beautiful People" in an online poll; Flansburgh will receive similar treatment two years later when he finishes fourth in Time's "Person of the Century" poll, after Adolf Hitler, Jesus and wrestler Ric Flair.
Long Tall Weekend becomes the first album by an established band to be only available online. One song, "Older," is given as a free download with the eMusic service and becomes one of the most widely heard They Might Be Giants songs and as a result, a live favourite at concerts. The Johns contributes a song to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the Goldfinger-esque "Dr. Evil," which features the vocals of Flansburgh's wife Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser. John Linnell finally completes his solo album, State Songs, which was started back in the days of the Hello Recording Club. Only 15 states are represented and, not surprisingly, it sounds a lot like They Might Be Giants.
Commissioned to write a theme song and incidental music for Fox sitcom Malcolm In The Middle, the band reaches into their back catalogue. "The theme was very easy because Boss Of Me' was written in 1995, pretty much as you hear it on the show. But we ended up recording 20 or 30 minutes of music a week, and misdirecting so much energy as a result," says Flanburgh. "I've never worked harder than we did then, but something had to give." "Boss Of Me" gives the band their second Top 40 hit in the UK, and wins the Grammy for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media in 2002, beating out Faith Hill and Sting. They have equal success in advertising, composing original music for a string of Diet Dr. Pepper ads and numerous other commercials including Play-Doh.
The band launches TMBG Unlimited, which offers subscribers a new batch of exclusive songs to download every month. When some of the songs end up on subsequent releases, albeit in radically different versions, their plan sorta backfires. "By the time that the album came out, quite a few people were so over it because there was no surprises and it did have a negative effect on how it was received. We are more careful to make sure that we don't have too much of a new record online before it is released." Mink Car appears in September 2001, but gets lost in the post 9/11 mess and is the band's forgotten recording. Those who did seek it out are rewarded with an eclectic album featuring a collaboration with Soul Coughing's M. Doughty. They provide a soundtrack CD for Issue Six of Dave Eggers' literary journal McSweeney's. Each song on the CD is a musical response to an article or picture in the hardcover book and it comes with a list of instructions on how to properly listen to the music. "It was such a psychedelic project and it seemed like such a crazy idea that we really wanted to do, because we'd never get offered something like it again."
The band looks back with the two-disc Dial-A-Song collection, and a rarities compilation, They Got Lost, as well as the theatrical release of Gigantic, a career-spanning documentary. Their next album, No!, is oriented to children but retains its TMBG sensibilities while dealing with "issues" like going to bed and crossing the road safely.
Mixed media dalliances continues: they provide music for the audiobook of Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot; the all-star cast includes Seth Green, Conan O'Brien and The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert. Bed, Bed, Bed is a book with an accompanying four-song CD, based on one of the songs from No!, featuring artwork by Canadian artist Marcel Dzama and vocals by the Moldy Peaches' Kimya Dawson.
Twenty years on, they're busier than ever. The Indestructible Object EP (on Barsuk) features six songs that dabble in swirling electronics, plus a cover of the Beach Boys' "Caroline No." Their eighth full-length, Spine, is their strongest album in some time. First single "Experimental Film" is accompanied by an animated video made by the Homestar Runner website (www.homestarrunner.com). The video references many classic art-school touchstones of experimental film and features all the characters from the website. A separate version of the video is made for MTV, because Flanburgh fears that MTV isn't cool enough for the whole Homestar Runner experience. In return, the band provides music for several features on the site. "Homestar Runner is so anti The Man' because no huge company owns it and you don't have to pay, yet millions of people follow it on a weekly basis. I hope it will be an ongoing thing," says Flanburgh.
The busier John, Flansburgh, continues work on his radio show Now Hear This on WNYC public radio in NYC, and as a performer in off-Broadway musical People Are Wrong, but primarily he's working as an organiser for the anti-Bush MoveOn.org compilation Future Soundtrack For America. "Considering how public and political an act this is, a lot of my motivation with the MoveOn.org project was very personal," he admits. "The Bush administration is not going to last because it has been a disaster he doesn't deserve to be re-elected. Optimism is not a natural trait among lefties and it is really easy to switch on self-defeat mode, but it feels like good guys are going to win this time." They Might Be Giants record Tippecanoe and Tyler Too' for the compilation, a campaign song that dates back to the 1840 election, used by presidential candidate Willian Henry Harrison. It doesn't simply sing the praises of its candidate, it also insults the opposition, demonstrating that negative campaigning is not a recent invention.
The Essential They Might Be Giants
Lincoln (Bar None, 1988)
The moment when all the planets in the Johns' solar system aligned perfectly. Lincoln has great pop songs, surreal moments and enough downright wackiness to keep anybody happy. This is their most well-rounded record by far, one they have never equaled.
Flood (Elektra, 1990)
Flood is most people's introduction to the band, and it is a satisfying way to discover the band because it has their biggest hit ("Birdhouse In Your Soul") and other instantly recognisable tunes. This fun record has aged remarkably well, even if it does try too hard at times.
Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants (Rhino, 2002)
A comprehensive retrospective that covers every aspect of the band's career, including some of their kids songs. With 52 songs spread over two CDs, there aren't many unjust omissions, although it doesn't offer much in the way of rarities. Nevertheless, still a good way to get a cross-section in one fell swoop.