When it comes to the longevity and unpredictable turns of They Might Be Giants, autonomy has always been the one constant. When John Linnell and John Flansburgh started the band in New York City in 1982, they were deep within the arrival of the then-developing DIY sensibility. From the group’s inception, self-sufficiency has been as crucial as any set list or major label interest. Earliest tours featured the two Johns decked out in fez-like Dadaist hats, using a boombox or drum machine for accompaniment. The duo has toured with a backing band for decades, but that initial enthusiasm to create was never based on gimmickry but rather a tacit understanding of the bare essentials that any musician needs to create. Honing that sensibility, combined with that aforementioned autonomy, have served Linnell and Flansburgh well many times over.
The band enjoyed much success during the ’80s and ’90s alt-rock gold rush. They've been labeled, even dismissed, as a “comedy” act possibly due in part to a tendency to dip into manically upbeat songs and gleefully odd wordplay on idiosyncratic subject matter. The two Johns might humorously expound on science or arcane American history, but they're equally enthusiastic in addressing inevitable morbidity and death, heartache and mental collapse. You know—funny stuff.
For the past two decades, more and more folks have hopped on the TMBG bandwagon, due to film and TV soundtrack work (the Malcolm in the Middle theme song, their tune “Boss of Me,” was that era’s earworm for millions) and their Grammy win. Yet the ongoing refrain for They Might Be Giants returns to their key trait of independence. Despite relentless recording and touring, some of their achievements may be lesser known. In 1999, they were the first major-label artists to release an album online. In ’04, they launched one of the first artist-owned online music stores; their own label, Idlewild, soon followed.
Whether they’re corrupting or enlightening young minds remains to be seen, but the pair has released a series of immensely popular children’s albums; music that will arguably hit the refresh button on their audience’s ages for decades to come. On theymightbegiants.com, the band posted this request in the SHOWS section: “Please don’t try bringing kids to bars,” which is a great life suggestion; Wednesday’s concert at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall is for ages 14 and older.
Folio Weekly spoke to John Linnell before the band’s appearance at that night’s gig at The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina. He gave us the skinny on not dying on tour, Duval humidity and their latest release.
Folio Weekly: Let me age both of us right out of the gate: I saw the band play when I was all of 14, in 1986 at Einstein A Go-Go here in Jax Beach, Florida. You and John were wearing those big hats and had the boombox backing tracks as your “band.”
John Linnell: Oh, you’re kidding me! I remember that show vividly. I don’t remember there being a huge crowd but I remember the show quite well. I think it was like 100 degrees in the club and this was at night. And outside it was maybe 90. So I had this very provincial … you know, I’d never been that far south and the club was right on the beach. So my memory was, we did this whole show and I’m dripping with sweat. I’d actually brought along a pair of shorts, so after we finished up, I got changed and ran out into the ocean, thinking, “Oh, I’ll get to cool off.” Because I grew up in Maine where the ocean never got above 40 degrees even during the summer [laughs] and when I jumped in that night the water was warm. [Laughs.] It actually felt hotter than the rest of the night. I didn’t get cool; I just wound up kind of salty.
Jeez. That’s like a line in a Raymond Carver story: “The water was a warmer than the air.” So you guys are just two days into this tour. After decades of this, how do you survive touring?
Well, we’re trying to maintain a certain level of health. Altogether, we have 11 guys touring in very close confines, so if one of us gets sick, we all get sick and that’s always bad. We get a lot of sleep; get lots of rest. That’s very important. We try to eat well and we drink a ton of coffee, as some of our fans might know. That’s pretty much it.
This was not the Johnny Thunders answer I was hoping for.
I know, I know! It’s disappointing. But you know, John and I are both in our upper 50s pushing 60 now. But I’d like to think that if Johnny was still with us, he’d probably have a similar health plan. [Laughs.]
I Like Fun is your 20th studio album. This far into your career, do you have any expectations as far as how the album or certain tracks might be perceived; or is that even on the table anymore?
You know, we started when we both in our mid-20s. So we were fully grown adults when we began this whole journey and at that point I think we were worldly enough to know that you don’t just have these dramatic, “movie-like,” ascendant career moments. At least for us, we knew it was going to involve working and also just not being disappointed if it wasn’t some ridiculous, meteoric rollercoaster. And we were really lucky under those terms–within about three albums we got a lot of success. We started touring internationally and doing all of this stuff that we had no guarantee of ever being able to pull off. So by this time, obviously, as you can imagine, we kind of know how everything works and we are very open to any delightful, good fortune that might come our way, but we also know how to run our business. We know how to make a record and go out and promote it. But again, it still feels lucky that this far down the road we even get to do this at all. But we do have a kind of pragmatic approach to the whole gig.
So what are some of the overall themes on the album?
I wouldn’t say there are any new ones. We’ve been promoting this notion, which may not be that hard to figure out, that there is a lot of death on the new album. The death theme seems to be expanding. I think there are also musical ideas that we’re developing and getting deeper into. I don’t really know if I could say that’s true [laughs] but I think it’s ultimately up to the listener if something sounds like a “new idea.”
You know, lately I’ve been admittedly listening to an unhealthy amount of Sparks, but on “I Left My Body” I totally hear a sub current of Sparks and early Brian Eno. Since you were a teenager in the ’70s, did you listen to much of that proto-electronic/glam scene?
You know, you’re not wrong. I’d say it’s a little complicated because consciously, with that song, I was sort of, in my mind, ripping off those Iggy Pop albums that David Bowie produced. That’s a little bit of the sound in that. But I have to tell you that John Flansburgh was a massive Sparks fan when he was a teenager. He would probably say they were his favorite band when he was 16. And I knew him at that time and I totally heard a ton of Sparks thanks to John. [Laughs.]
I think that to many, you are surely categorized as a “humorous” band. You have other qualities in the music but you definitely work well with humor.
I will say that we don’t exclude humor. We still have that pompous thing where we want everyone to take us seriously and to not think that we’re a joke. But on the other hand, we enjoy a chuckle and there’s also stuff that sounds very serious. I’ve always thought this about a lot of bands—like The Smiths, for example. There’s a lot of humor in there. Morrissey would write a song that’s completely dark, but in a way there’s gallows humor there. And I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable.
But in writing humorous music, you have a wide disconnect from something like Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” and a really brilliant and sardonic Zappa song.
You’re saying “Disco Duck” is the path you don’t want to take? [Laughs.]
Yes. But you know what I mean: Humor can be a volatile, unstable element when combined with music. It can degrade into gimmickry. How do you work around that possible landmine in writing funnier material?
I guess it’s a question of personal taste. You add to taste, basically. We’re not primarily setting out to be funny. That’s not the prime directive. We like humor but I think the songs are trying to ultimately be good ideas, and from wherever they come from—humor or sadness or whatever—and hopefully engage you in an interesting fashion.
You’ve also written music specifically geared toward kids. You aren’t writing GG Allin-style songs as it is …
[Laughs]. No. Not yet.
… but how do you try to make a song that is specifically inclusive for kids? I imagine that on one level, kids probably like you because you’re not this tacky “kid band.” Kids can have a pretty good bullshit-o-meter about things.
I don’t know … I can’t speak for kids but I do think it’s because, like our band, they don’t have a hard set of tastes they have to conform to. Kids are much more open-minded in some ways in that they don’t think like rock critics the way a lot of adults and definitely diehard music lovers do. So that’s appealing to me. Our first kids’ album was released around 2000 so we’ve done this for almost two decades and I think we felt like we were already pretty well established in our own minds in what it was we were doing. So we weren’t going to confuse the issue in putting out a record for kids. But we also didn’t want it to sound like a kids’ record; we wanted it to be open-ended where it could be anything. It could deserve the same benefit of the doubt as an adult listener. Even they might totally be into it … it doesn’t have to have rounded edges.
Early on, They Might Be Giants utilized the potential of the internet to distribute your music and create a direct line of communication between you and your audience. But in hindsight, at the time you made that decision to go online, the internet was still somewhat rolling along on training wheels. Today it seems prescient but, back then, did it seem like a gamble?
I don’t think we had much to lose, actually. We’ve always been pretty easygoing about trying out stuff so we weren’t putting all of our marbles in the online basket. We just thought, “This might be an interesting alternative way to do this.” And there was this company eMusic that obviously liked what we were doing and wanted to try this thing. So it felt kind of like a low-stakes thing in a way. Because when we started doing Dial-A-Song in the early ’80s [the band’s ‘song hotline’ where you can hear various unreleased and released tunes is 844-387-6962] we kind of felt like there’s a lot of ways to reach people where they don’t have to go out of the house or go to the record store, or hear things on the radio.
The target audience you’re describing sounds like depressed introverts.
Surely. But that sounds like everyone now, doesn’t it?
The band has been around since the early ’80s and has survived most of those bands from that era. You’ve seen all of those fly-by-night genres and trends arc and fall. You talked about that pragmatic and healthy approach to touring. After nearly 40 years, how have you sustained this band creatively and emotionally?
You know, that’s a great question and we have nothing to really compare our longevity to. We still like doing this and we don’t have a sense of, like, “Well, we’ve finally met all of our dreams so we can now curl up and die” or something. I think we felt like this was always going to be an ongoing project as long as we were allowed to keep doing it that it would be something we could sustain. Obviously, the big challenge is coming up with new material and not repeating ourselves; that’s not gotten easier. It’s a huge challenge. As far as the “job” aspect? It’s still interesting, fulfilling and fun. So that’s what has really kept us doing this.