Open The Floodgates: Three Decades of They Might Be Giants (Interview)

There aren’t a lot of bands like They Might Be Giants. For over three decades, these purveyors of the finest in “nerd rock” have been bucking trends and following the beat of their own drummer with album after album of wildly imaginative, boundary pushing pop-rock that has no comparison nor equal. While never quite managing to achieve “mainstream” success, they’ve created a monster of monumental proportions, leading a veritable army of adoring fans through the phases of their lives with no hint of slowing down.

Their 18th album, Glean, just dropped earlier this year and there’s no indications of wear and tear on this band, fronted and led by the partnership (and friendship) of the two Johns: Linnell and Flansburgh. I had the chance to catch up with Linnell while on break from their “An Evening with They Might Be Giants” tour—which concludes May 31 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York—to discuss their longevity as a band and their history of embracing the ever-changing face of the music industry…

James Roberts: I was thinking about your phone hotline, Dial-A-Song last night, and it’s interesting to me because the concept almost seems kind of quaint in today’s age and yet it’s still so novel. Nobody else is doing it, nobody else has ever done it. Is it bizarre that it’s still something that’s popular and still something that people want?

John Linnell: To the extent that people want it, yes. The original idea of it was quaint. I think it was already a very homely concept in 1983 or whenever it was we started doing it. I think a lot of bands would think that there was something a little too hokey about having a telephone line that you call to listen to a song. It didn’t maybe seem as edgy as a lot of things that bands would do. In some ways it’s really not so much about being edgy. It has a sort of personal touch. I think that’s why it appealed to us. It’s like saying to people “you could just call us up and we’ll play you a song.” Thinking about it over the years, I think we sort of thought maybe that’s a good thing to keep in people’s minds, to remind them that this is sort of at the heart of what we’re doing. Trying to make people feel like we are their band, you know? You kind of make a choice to listen to a band and it’s a personal choice and it feels kind of intimate when you can call them up and listen to their songs.

I think that’s evolved well over the years. Speaking as a fan, not as a music writer, I’ve always kind of felt like I’ve had a personal relationship with They Might Be Giants and I think that that’s one of the most interesting things about the band is that all of your fans seem to kind of have that same feeling.

Yeah, I agree. I would say that is something that we’re sort of aware of and that we wanted to promote, is that people felt like we were a personal discovery that you had made. Obviously, we were not forced down anyone’s throats; we were never that mainstream thing enough for that to be the case. So I think we wanted to exploit that aspect of it, that partly what you’re getting is something kind of personal.

It’s also interesting to me because They Might Be Giants have always embraced technological change. From Dial-A-Song to the first ever MP3 only album to the iPhone app and now the relaunch of Dial-A-Song. There’s so much pushback from the industry and bands these days about the changing format and the change in listening habits. You guys always seem first to embrace it.

I think that we’re in some ways as nostalgic about the past as everybody else. I kind of miss the 70’s, you know? [laughs] But maybe part of what happened for us was that we had to make choices when the scene was shifting around. Part of it was we got dropped from Elektra and we were no longer on a major label in the mid-90’s, so we had to figure out what we were going to do next. There was a company called e-Music that approached us and said “we’d like to do a download only MP3 release.” It was not our idea but we thought “that sounds like exactly the right move for us at this moment.” A lot of things have kind of happened like that. I would say that we were generally not ahead of the curve of technology but we were kind of aware of what was going on. I’m trying to think who it was…my memory is that Bar None was not really sure they wanted to make CDs in the mid-80’s, they wanted to stick with LPs. We were sort of like “we’re [going] to undermine our scene if we don’t at this point.” The writing was on the wall. By the time we were on Elektra, they were wondering if they should just drop the vinyl all together. We had to insist that we get to. We wanted to make a gatefold for Flood, so we had to go “no, no we have to keep doing vinyl.” [laughs] So I think we really have a lot of affection for the old formats, I would say. But we can see what side of the bread the butter is on.

So is it interesting to you then that, after the domination of CDs and the rise of streaming and digital music, vinyl has made a comeback?

It is interesting and it’s nice for us because we’re prepared. We always liked being involved in the artwork and of course there’s no better format for album art than the 12” LP. That’s something that was sorely missed in the 90’s when people stopped making vinyl. The size of the CD cover was so tiny, it was a very unsatisfying canvas for an album cover. We kind of felt like the album cover was still part of our concept, of what we were doing. Again, we grew up in a time where you listened to the record while you were looking at the cover. That’s just the way it was. With downloads, you couldn’t even shrink your cover. With iTunes it’s almost impossible to see the cover. It’s so tiny.

Could you see They Might Be Giants doing anything as a vinyl only release and embracing that direction?

We’ve done a lot of vinyl, I mean we’re doing vinyl for every project now. But yeah, actually, now that you mention it, we have done vinyl only. We’ve put out a lot of 7” vinyl for our fan club, so that’s something. Flansburgh, I’ve got to tell you, is very exceptionally into vinyl. He’s going around collecting it as we speak. We are fully on that side of the ledge. But yeah, we’ll continue to put out exclusive vinyl. Our regular albums come out as vinyl and you can buy them directly from us. We’ve got a new vinyl version of Flood, a 25th anniversary version that has a whole extra LP of live versions of the songs. It’s just come out, I just saw a copy. Neil Diamond did the liner notes for it. It’s a very nice package.

The 25th Anniversary copy of "Flood" released for Record Store Day.
The 25th Anniversary copy of “Flood” released for Record Store Day.

Do you think the willingness to embrace the time and the technological format changes has had anything to do with the longevity of They Might Be Giants?

I think the longevity is really about not seeing any benefit in quitting. I think John and I, we certainly explored, without breaking up the band, putting out our own solo projects. We were curious about doing other stuff on our own. I think ultimately it felt like the most satisfying thing either of us gets to do is They Might Be Giants. We couldn’t really imagine some other thing that we’re being cheated out of by playing in this band. I don’t know if whether that is what motivates bands to break up. I think there [are] a lot of reasons why bands break up. But we never had any major interpersonal problems and I think we still feel like we are greater than the sum of our parts. That’s really the definition of a functioning band. I suppose we could have broken up maybe 15 or 18 years ago when we’d had a lot of success. We’d kind of gotten to the point of making more albums and it sort of seemed like “this is going to be what it is, so if you like it this is what it is and if you don’t like it, it’s not going to be radically different from this.” We could have broken up at that point and we kind of felt like no, this is a good job. Another thing is, we were adults when we started. John and I were both well into our 20s when we got signed and we were both nearly 30 when we got signed to a major label. Maybe that’s also a factor; we kind of had a more clear idea of what the possibilities were by the time we were that far into it. That we were not starting out as teenagers with the usual uncertainty and confusion that you have when you’re that age about what to expect. I’m sort of relating that to the thing of…you know, you have child stars that have terrible adult lives. I think it’s partly because they have really extremely crazy expectations. It makes perfect sense why they would. I suppose we’re the opposite. We were adult non-stars, so that gave us the right perspective on what to expect.

Looking back on all the years They Might Be Giants has been together, I would think there would come a point where it just gets harder and harder to mine the creative well. Yet you guys always seem to just dig deeper and deliver consistently creative and original output. How do you maintain that freshness after almost 35 years?

I certainly don’t take it for granted. I don’t think John does [either]. It’s really hard to write songs. I wish it were easy. It’s really to write songs when you’ve written a lot already because you don’t want to repeat yourself. So I think we accept the fact that it is not ever going to get easier and you have to just apply yourself extra hard each time out of the box. We both have had lots of periods of struggling and there’s a lot of false starts when you’re writing. It sounds kind of grim but we take it very seriously. We don’t want to blow our standards because people like us.

Do you think that having an outlet like Dial-A-Song or the app helps you with that?

Yeah, specifically because we have the ever encroaching deadlines and that is cruelest taskmaster of all. Having to get everything ready for the recording session when you know that the other guys are going to show up at the studio and you have to have something ready. That is a big motivator. We’ve always been kind of uptight about being prepared. We do not tend to do any writing in the studio because I think we both feel like it’s a huge waste of money. [laughs] We try and get everything completely ready before. We try and email out all the demos before the session beings.

So does the backing band help flesh out the demos and the skeleton?

They do, yeah. We lean on them for a lot of arrangements. I’d say there are many times, especially as we’ve gotten to work with these guys more and more I think we’ve come to [conclusions] like “I bet the bass player can figure out a good approach to this, I’ll just give him a simple set of chords and I bet he’s going to be able to figure out how to make this work.” We’re usually right. These guys can pull it out in the studio.

Is that a different approach than you had in the beginning or was that more of an evolution?

It was in the sense that in the beginning we were playing all the instruments. So we did have to think of all the ideas ourselves. If you listen to the demos I would say that you wouldn’t say they were radically different from the finished arrangements, but I would say that there are a lot of subtle things to do with the arrangements that get sorted out in the process of recording. We’ve worked with these three guys collectively since 2002, so we know them pretty well and we know what they can do. We know what to expect.

What do you see for the future of They Might Be Giants? Have you even started about thinking about that yet or are you just too embroiled with the current goings on?

That’s a very good question. The answer is no. I have no freaking idea what we’re going to do next. But I’m very excited about whatever it is. [laughs] After this tour we’ll be back home and we’ll start cooking up some ideas. I think there’s plenty of energy and enthusiasm so I’m sure we’ll come up with something, but I don’t what it is.

Do you think we’ll see this latest batch of Dial-A-Song songs on a record or released anywhere official?

That’s already happening. The first four months of it are the new album. That’s actually the first third of the whole years-worth of Dial-A-Songs. And the next stretch will include a lot of children’s music. We’re going to put a kid’s record sometime this summer, so that’ll be another batch. And then we’ll probably have enough material by the end of the year to put out one of those b-side type compilations, although in this case it’ll just sort of be whatever’s left over from Dial-A-Song. So all of it will be coming out in album form!

A condensed and alternate version of this interview originally appeared in The Horn.

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