They Might Be Touring (actually they are touring and soon).
Several hundred years ago, I was watching music on the television when an amazing thing happened. (If this was a Wayne’s World movie, this would be the part where Wayne and Garth would start waving their fingers around going ‘doodle-la-do doodle-la-do and the picture would go wavy and we’d be in a flash back scene.) I saw a video on, maybe Australian MTV. It was a song and a video that completely grabbed my attention from the very first second. I sat bolt upright in my chair. What the hell was this? Who the hell were they? What the hell were they saying ‘Wake up and smell the cat food in your bank account’? Jagged pop, strange lyrics and a video which saw the main protagonists alternating between close up gurning faces to bizarre stomping and jumping choreography, giant cardboard heads, oversized hats. The band was They Might Be Giants and the song was Don’t Let’s Start. This, I thought to myself, is beginning of a beautiful friendship.
That was 1987 and throughout the remaining 1980s and 1990’s they were all over alternative or ‘college’ radio, staples of Triple J and music television with always striking songs and visuals. There was a string of hits Istanbul, Ana Ng, Birdhouse in My Soul, The Statue Got Me High. The two John’s (Linnell and Flansburgh) were on high rotation at home and in the Indie clubs I DJ-ed in. Each album packed full of beautiful gems like Shoehorn With Teeth, I Palindrome I, Mammal, Purple Toupee and Kiss Me Son of God. Through the 2000’s and 20teens they have continued to inspire and challenge with a staggering body of work. Dr Worm, New York City, SEXXXY. Unlike a regular, size 40 regular group, TMBG’s generate a lot of material. Apart from the main records. They are always putting out collections of b-sides and rarities. They make music their legendary Dial-a-Song Service (people can ring an answering machine and hear rare or new material), they contribute music for TV shows and movies (Boss of Me from Malcolm In the Middle, Dr Evil from the second Austin Powers movie) and have a pretty sweet line in music for kids. They tour constantly and as a result are one of the best live acts on the planet, (seriously if you have never seen them perform Fingertips live you are missing out). They are about to return to Australia for their seventh tour and I had the opportunity to have a lovely conversation with John Linnell about everything in TMBG World.
Firstly Happy Birthday for Flood.
Oh my goodness yeah.
So 29 years old this week.
Yes 29. I don’t normally celebrate the birthdays of albums. Did it come out today?
A couple of days ago. It was a very important album for me. I made friends over that album. I had a very dear friend whose last request was that Dead be played at his funeral, which was very emotional.
That’s nice. I’m touched.
There was quite a long gap between Australian tours before you returned in 2013 wasn’t there.
I was speaking to somebody before and we looked it up on this massive website somebody has made which has every date we have ever played on it. So the big gap was between 2001 and 2013, when we did not come to Australia apparently. (*that website is the outstanding This Might Be a Wiki, which is packed with details of shows, lyrics, news and all things TMBG.
I remember at that 2013 show you that you seemed genuinely shocked at the rapturous welcome you received.
Yes, but to be fair we have have that other places too and I have come to realise that if you just stay away from somewhere long enough you take the lid off the long period of expectation. We just did a whole tour of Western Canada, which we had never been to before. We’d done some places but had never played Saskatchewan for example. So similarly there was an extreme response from people who probably never seen us before in their lives and might have been fans from long ago. That was fun.
Some of the shows TMBG’s are doing in Australia are two nights and being billed as the Decades shows, 1980’s Vs 2010’s and 1990’s Vs 2000’s. Have you been doing those elsewhere to?
No this is a new thing for us. When we do multiple shows in the same town we try and come up with a way to make people feel like they are getting their moneys worth if they come and see us more than once in their city. So this is a different take on that. We have previously done album shows with a particular album as a focus. So if we are playing three nights in San Francisco we might do three different albums.
Well that sounds great by the way, if you want to do that down here please go ahead.
Well it is for some people. It’s really good for the front row and the big fans, but obviously we have to do a show that considers the people who have been dragged there by their boyfriends or whatever. We want to include those people as well, so we try and present a more universal show.
The show in Adelaide is two halves in one night, is that likely to be a variation of the Decades show?
I can’t quite remember what we decided to do in Adelaide, but we have been doing a show in the US which is in two parts with an intermission called ‘An Evening With They Might Be Giants’. Is that what it’s billed as in Adelaide? It is? Okay – so there is an early set and a short intermission, maybe twenty minutes and then a later set. Kind of like you’d have at evening at the theatre. People have time to go get a drink or something. We have structured the show so it has a particular flow to it.
I think you are going to love the venue in Adelaide. The Riverside Palais is specially built over the river just for the Adelaide Festival. It’s a kind of Riverboat vibe and behind the performance area is open with views of the river, city lights and panoramic vistas. It’s very cool.
Well that sounds great, I’m excited.
You guys put out three albums last year right?
Yes we did. That is correct.
Sometimes I look at your output between the albums and Dial-a-Song, and the songs for movies, stage shows and TV shows and the kids albums and it seems like you have this bottomless well of great songs and I am sure that when you are putting them together you don’t feel like that?
No it is a struggle. Particularly now that we have been doing it this long, we feel the absolute worst thing we could do is just crank out a lot of stuff this late in the game. Even the people who have decided they like us already have loads of material to listen to and if we start putting out mediocre stuff on top of that it would dilute the whole project in a way. We are very averse to dropping our standards. But, it doesn’t get easier to write songs as you start to get older.
Part of the problem is we don’t want to repeat ourselves and we are always trying to come up with something interesting and new each time. But we did put out a lot of material last year. That was partly because we’d done this Dial-A-Song project, releasing a song every week in a format were people could download it, or subscribe to it. Certain participating radio stations would play it as a regular They Might Be Giants moment. Then we thought it was appropriate to put that material out, but there was a lot of it. The first thing was a full scale, real They Might Be Giants album. I Like Fun is what we would consider our ‘top shelf’ kind of album and then My Murdered Remains is the left overs. So I Like Fun is the stuff we stand behind and My Murdered Remains is like B-Sides. The third one was a project, like character songs for these creatures who were mutant, monster outlaw people called The Escape Team. That was a collaboration with an artist, and the characters sort of relate to the cartoonist Big Daddy Ed Roth, do you know him?
Absolutely monsters and hot rods!
So he created a bunch of these characters that were influenced by that and we wrote songs about each one of them. So that was The Escape Team project was.
That sounds like it’s begging to be an animated series.
Y’know it could be that. He made a comic book which we gave out as part of our Fan Club. If you are a member of our fan club you get the CD plus the comic book.
I did want to ask you about your Instant Fan Club which is awesome. There is a lot of care and attention to the fan club members base, that you don’t often see that these days.
Well as I am sure you are aware, the whole economy of doing this kind of thing has changed drastically. We are brutally aware of this. There was a time when we were young, that you put out CD’s to make money. The source of your income was the record or CD and then you’d go on tour to promote the CD. But that’s all turned on it’s head these days because you can’t make money from selling music any more either with CD’s or on-line. You just don’t make enough money to support the project. Now touring is the way that you support the rest of the thing. But a lot of bands now, including us, do a sort of premium thing which is similar to a Kickstarter idea, where you are selling special, premium, fan-clubby type stuff in order to support the project. It’s like there are certain people who want to fly first class and they are subsidising the people who are in coach.
I understand the economics of being a band and making the wheels go round work.
A lot of young people kind of shrug and say ‘I wasn’t around when it was any different’.
The fan club stuff does a couple of things to my mind. It generates income, but it also gives the fan club people something special with those items that only they get. It makes them feel special. (*There are currently over 40 different TMBG t-shirt designs, tons of vinyl, shot glasses, yo-yos, aprons, posters, car air fresheners and lots more. https://theymightbegiants.merchdirect.com/)
Yes, it’s fun to produce that stuff. And we are a creative outfit and we like doing more creative things. In some ways this is just doing more of that.
Given that you guys are practically ‘Indie’ again I wonder if you were on a major, they would encourage your musical output and things like the fan club extras?
If we were on a major label? It would be different. Surprisingly we did have a lot of leeway when we were signed to Elektra during most of the nineties, and we had a lot of freedom. I wouldn’t complain too loudly about that relationship because we were able to do a lot of stuff. Part of that was that we had established ourselves with the first two albums on an Indie label in the eighties. So by the time we were on Elektra in the nineties, they had the idea that we knew what we were doing and that we didn’t need a lot of guidance. So we were choosing our own video directors and producers, stuff like that. They didn’t feel like it was profitable to push us around or tell us what They Might Be Giants was supposed to be. So that was fine. But now one of the advantages of being on an indie now, is a lot of things that were expensive, like making videos, are a lot cheaper now. You can make a really nice looking video now for way, way less money than you had to spend in the 1980s. So we have a lot of freedoms that we didn’t have then because of changes in technology. You can record an album for a lot cheaper and it can sound good.
There are masses of videos on YouTube and so forth. Some of it official and a lot of ‘fan made’ clips. Is that another way fans strengthen their bond with the band?
Yes that’s right. It has always been a thing for us. A lot of our followers feel they have ownership of our thing. We are their personal discovery. So when we invite people to make fan videos for example, the people really like that and like having that relationship with us. That we are their band. Rather than having to decide if we are cool, if we were a mass market band.
They Might Be Giants – I Left My Body (Fan made video – competition winner)
Are there any parts of that relationship that you are not comfortable with?
Oh sure (laughs). Absolutely. I like talking. I like talking to you. This is an easy part of the job. But I think there are times when we feel like promoting the project is besides the point. We can spend a lot of time promoting the project rather than doing it. I think every band, in fact anybody who does any kind of creative work feels like that. I know authors who kill themselves doing book tours. Often when we are complaining about our lives, I think about how hard it is to sell a book these days. It is amazing how hard it is. You think wow being an author must be an easy gig, but them on these gruelling press junkets. I guess everybody likes to complain, but it is an incredibly lucky thing that we get to do this and we don’t take it for granted for a second. It’s crazy that our lives turned out the way they did because a think a lot of people do really good creative work and they don’t get rewarded. Or they don’t get recognised in the way that we have. So we feel massively lucky.
If the band hadn’t succeeded where would you be now? What would you be doing?Well I’m guessing that I would still be interested in music, but I would have had to get some other kind of job. Of course at the time, back in the eighties, John and I had jobs in New York doing freelance audio visual kind of jobs. I was doing corporate presentations and stuff like that. John was actually doing paste up for magazines. He worked for the Conde Nast chain doing physical magazine lay-out. Now you’d do it all on computers but then you’d have to cut up all the type and put everything together that way. Sadly the computer version of that is even more drudgery that the old fashioned way. I worked a STAT camera, I don’t know if you know what that is? It’s an enormous camera the size of a washing machine with the lens pointed at a fixed plate down near the floor and then there were all these ways of re-photographing art work. It was a necessary step in all these kind of audio visual presentations. It was kind of cool because I had a dark room and I could lock myself in there and nobody could come in. It is completely obsolete technology now.
I guess a lot of phones have the same pixel power that used to be in that washing machine!
At least. I could bore you to death explaining the process of separating everything into three colours. It was a long process. All that stuff can now be done very easily. I suppose you still have to photograph objects, but after that everything lives in the computer.
I have a daughter who is five and a half years old and she LOVES They Might Be Giants.
We started on the kids records but now she’ll be sing Dr Worm and most recently Istanbul, but she was having trouble with the Can-stin-oobie part!
Those records are really fantastic fun, educational and still good solid songs, and not dumbed down in a way that a lot of music made for kids tends to be.
Well thank you. I hope that’s true. We were very much aware that a lot of music made for children drove adults insane. And that it was typical for an album to be played over and over again, ad nauseam, because kids like repetition. So with that in mind we were thinking ‘How can we make this music less annoying?’
Some of the songs on the kids albums are among my favourite TMBG songs. I Am A Palaeontologist for instance, is a rockin’ song, it’s educational, got a great hook. But learning stuff from They Might Be Giants songs is nothing new. I would have have no idea who the eleventh President was (James K Polk’ or who James Endor was (Belgiums famous painter) without hearing those songs.
Sure. I guess the thing we were telling ourselves at that time was that it is fun and interesting to have songs that are based on factual or biographical information. The reason for that is that is is a richer kind of entertainment and not that we wanted to do something…remedial. So when we started doing music for kids we really felt like this has got to be entertaining and fun first and we thought that maybe the whole premise that it was ‘teaching’ kids, was kind of a fraud. It was something that satisfied Disney, when we were making the Disney records and it made parents more interested if they thought it was good for their kids. But, we thought kids deserved to be entertained in the same way we are trying to entertain adults. So at times we felt like it was a cover story, that maybe we were disguising entertainment as educational material, but it was really just fun to listen to.
We particularly love the NO album, which had all the little games you could play on your computer with each song. That sort of thing, trying out the new tech, is something They Might Be Giants have always embraced. From the Dial-a-Song, to releasing music on the internet, you were doing podcasts before they were really a thing. Is that something you actively pursue or are they just another vehicle to get the stuff out there?
I think we are just open minded. I don’t know that we were on the cutting edge but we were willing to try out anything. We didn’t feel like we had to constrain the project to any one way of working. Having said that we have been making albums and touring in a cycle for thirty something years at this point, so it does feel like we do, do this one thing even if there are some other side parts to it. John is a visual artist and he does all of the art directing for all our projects basically. He is really keen on that stuff so he likes engaging with any kind of visual things that changed up the approach anyway we could. Sometimes we feel like there is technology which trying to put the technology up front and not worry so much about the content. Our concern has always been to put the content first, however it is presented. The ideas are the most important thing. If the ideas are no good then the technology won’t save it.
One of the things that annoys me as a fan of the band is when the mainstream media paints They Might Be Giants as some kind of joke band. The almost forgone assumption that the tag ‘quirky’ will be thrown around. Is that incredibly annoying?
(laughing) No. It’s something we have gotten used to it at this point. I think there are worst things they can call you right? I don’t mind. The funny thing is we talk about our fan base and we have a lot of younger people, who are themselves a lot younger than the project. Some people are just now discovering what we are doing. There does seem to be a sort of celebration now of what, for a depressing lack of a better term, a lot of people call ‘Nerd Culture’. We were annoyed and upset that we were considered that from very early on. We felt like it was a serious dumbing down of what we are doing and we did not want to be thought of that way. But I have softened on that whole thing now. If people want to attach some kind of cultural idea to it, then we could do worse. When John and I were in high school being a nerd was like the worst thing you could possibly be.
And now nerds run the world.
Exactly. I hope that people don’t focus too much on that pigeon hole. They way things get presented or the way they first hear about it. Because for us we are trying to do something that is subtle and interesting and hopefully, isn’t defined by a category, but it it’s own unique and ever changing thing.
When They Might Be Giants started putting out records in the late eighties, they really hit a chord with people who didn’t fit into the mainstream MTV culture of Bon Jovi, Poison, etc latched on to you in an extra special way. I feel the same thing happened with bands like The Smiths and The Go-Betweens, it offered people something that stood outside the McDonalds happy meal of culture.
So those bonds were very strong right from the start.
Yeah I think that’s right. In a way this thing that we have encouraged, and that we do like as a way of being appreciated is We Are Your Band. We are your own personal lifestyle choice. I’m sure I didn’t invent that but that is a nice place to be and it doesn’t mean you have to be pigeon holed. You just be whatever complex, beautiful mixture of contradictory ideas you want to be. And somebody can decide that is who they are, or part of who they are. That is great and a wonderful thing to aspire to.
We are really looking forward to coming down. The venue sounds exciting and I’ll make sure to take some serotonin to get over the jet lag.
Interview by Ian Bell
Catch They Might Be Giants on the following tour dates…