(originally published on Oct. 1st 2010)
They Might Be Giants were one of my first musical obsessions as a teen. A geeky duo sporting a guitar and an accordion, playing odes to my heroes The Replacements, I wasn’t sure where to fit them into my punk rock lunchbox. Blowing me away with their short blasts of genius that stretched from perfect power pop, to Oak Ridge Boys country doo-wop and everything in-between – I didn’t care. I just knew I liked it. Since those early days, they have never lost their quirky sensibilities, or ability to write a damn fine tune. Together, they remind me that we don’t always grow up, as much as we grow older.
We had a chance to exploit that special place they hold in my heart as they head to town to play The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Listen in to John Linnell being a sweetheart.
After a false start in which we laugh about the bizarre possibilities involved with transcription software – should you have a funny accent (and we both agree a funny accent is a prerequisite for a decent interview) and we try to conduct the conversation as if John were John Linnell – the English landscape painter – we are ready to “don’t let’s start:”
(Note: John actually is the first interview subject to call me early because he was worried we wouldn’t have the full amount of time needed – nicest of men from start to finish!)
JL: I phoned you slightly early as I’ve only got 15 minutes.
BYT: That’s okay, as I am only interesting for seven.
Ha! You’ve got me beat. But I bet you won’t tell me which seven minutes.
That’s right – only seven minutes a day.
I want to stick to the visual part of things (following our aborted landscape painting detour), as I am a bit of a design dork – your discography is immense at this point, with a diverse set of album covers – which one has been your favorite and why?
Wow. I’ve never really been called on to pick a favorite.
Today is the day.
I have a very special fondness for the “Lincoln” artwork, because, in a way, it almost felt like the most personal. We have a good old friend who made these beautiful shrines – Brian Dewan. He built this based on a discussion we had and the three of us are all from Massachusetts, and he felt like the album title. Coming from the name of our town – Lincoln, Massachusetts, and he is from the neighboring town, and there is something very “New Englandy” about it. It’s very odd and looks like a piece of furniture and the table legs and the front has the bare podiums with a sort of patriotic design and behind the podiums are two photographs – one is of my Great Grandfather Lewis Linnell, who was a entrepreneur, and the other is John Flansburgh’s Grandfather, who’s name is Ralph Hospital, who was Brigadier General or something like that.
That’s a great name, by the way.
Yeah, so there is sort of an Americana vibe to the whole thing with the steeple and a cannonade made out of beer bottles and there are all these architectural details on it that are really colonial and federalist. It’s this really brilliant and strange combination of elements that – all of which connects deeply to where we come from. Which Brian obviously had a personal feeling about as well.
There is something about that cover, I remember when I got it and the typography was so heavy across it, which I think detracted from the mystery. I remember wishing that there was no type on it at all.
Oh yeah! The CD cover is just that way – doesn’t have the type and is just the photograph of the shrine. I think you are right and it would have been a better LP cover if we had gone that way.
I must be showing my age that I bought it on vinyl I guess.
Yeah. You can still get it on CD. It is such a pretty picture.
We are talking obviously because of your upcoming Kennedy Center show (this Saturday at the Millennium Stage) and I can’t lie, I recall seeing you guys as this infectious but humble duo sporting giant heads at the old 9:30 Club. It is kind of hard to imagine the career you have had to this point and something like playing a Kennedy Center affair – did you ever imagine being associated with an institution like that?
I don’t think we ever imagined anything as far as what we were destined to do. It was sort of inevitable what happened. We didn’t know college radio existed when we started or much about clubs. We didn’t come to New York expecting to play CBGB’s. We managed to get booked at the Mudd Club and then the place closed right before we got to play. It was like the “mirage” of New York disappeared right after we arrived.
We ended up establishing ourselves in performance art spaces. It was an entirely different kind of thing that just started up in the mid-80’s – which was these places where mostly non-musicians were doing theatrical and highly abstract artistic expressions and full of profanity and just a weird grab bag of stuff. So we couldn’t have predicted getting airplay. What we found was something like MTV was perfect for us with our interest in visuals and in making videos.
Right, there was always such a great visual element. I think it is kind of funny that, in a way, you are so accepted as a mainstream sort of entity now. At the time, when you first started up, it was almost subversive.
Well, I don’t know that we are quite exactly mainstream – I don’t know that we even know what it is to be mainstream. Not to teenagers at this point I guess. What we are now is a fait accompli in a lot of people’s minds – especially people younger than us. And it is very strange to see ourselves meeting the culture that way. Sort of like the way I used to think of Rolf Harris (perhaps best known here for “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”) or something. Something that was on the landscape that was really weird when it first showed up but then everyone just accepted it as a fact.
The point is, we’re not universally famous and we still move through the world and encounter all kinds of people who have no idea who we are.
I was sort of putting it out there more as the entertainment industry considers you like a safe bet now. It reminds me like Andy Kauffman on Taxi. Something that was out in the clubs that wasn’t expected and also had that “gee whiz” attitude about it – yet is also something that is being digested by millions now.
We are definitely a brand name now – even if it isn’t a particularly famous brand.
If your name comes up in a pitch meeting – people are excited – as opposed to scratching their heads. This kind of gets me around to this funny sort of parallel audience thing going on now with parents and their children – with few chances to combine them. It sounds like you are going to try to do that here in DC.
Yeah – I don’t think we are ever going to fully integrate the two audiences but there is already a lot of crossover. Before we made kid’s music, there were parents who played our ordinary music for their kids because it was considered okay. So it was like the seeds were already there for us to do kid’s music as we were not something utterly inappropriate – even if we think of ourselves as not exactly for kids. Stuff that we usually do is – a lot of it is dark, and not really appropriate.
Now we are in this weird position where we play shows and adults try to bring their kids in. A lot of shows we have it stated that you can’t. I don’t think it is fair to anyone to have parents bringing their kids to places where it is noisy and not very clean and I wouldn’t say the front of the room is a safe place for kids. So we try to control that as best as we can for the adult shows and then we try to make the kid’s shows as welcoming and friendly as we can. The volume is a lot lower and we refrain from swearing – try and behave ourselves.
As hard as that is to do?
Well (laughs) we can be kind of explosive in our live show when we hit our stride we have a lot of free-associating so we have had to learn to at least channel those reflexes.
The show has really transformed over the years – growing from the beginning you have then surrounded yourselves with really innovative and muscular musicians once it turned into the four piece and that really comes across live.
Early on, we realized that the recordings and the live shows were entirely different things. The best thing about a live show is the unplanned and the immediacy. You don’t want to just hear a perfect performance.
You guys are really one of the busiest songwriting duos of all-time. How many songs would you say you work on per month?
Well it is very hard to even say. We often are working on a lot things at once where something is going to get chopped up and used in something else – that’s the way we have been working for a long time. It’s never even completely clear what is a song and what isn’t a song. The only way to gauge it is by the output. We really have just been at it for so long that we have an enormous backlog of stuff. We don’t write that many more songs than other bands and there are two of us writing.
Even before the first record, with the Dial-A-Song, it was almost like you guys had that Brill Building mentality of “I am going to try to finish a song today.”
Yeah, I think we have had an ideal of trying to capture this fleeting thought quickly and not over-think it. That is something that we have tried to cultivate early on in the sense of you have a good idea and you ant to get it out and get it down quickly and not destroy it or revise it to death.
One thing that was really productive to us was touring we tried to write a song for each venue we played and we were writing and arranging and recording a song every single day which is way beyond our normal output – write and whip it into shape and it was exhilarating and crazy.
I keep waiting for someone to cover “Don’t Let’s Start” and have a huge Top 40 hit. Which artist would you entrust to get the job done?
In a way, I feel like there is something possibly fruitless about with our thing being skin-grafted on to some other artist.
Are you surprised that you don’t have more covers done of your songs?
No, that’s what I am saying. I’m not surprised. Speaking about this from the inside of the project – I often think that there is a problem with that type of project for other bands – it is so much about what you love about the original in the recording that was so hard to nail down – the song it’s self isn’t always the beautiful thing, as much as the sort of perfectly captured moment of the performance of it. There are occasions when a cover really is interesting in it’s own way – but that’s rare. I can’t name many covers that I like more than the originals.
Well, kind of almost going back to a 50’s-60’s mentality where you would have four different artists all tackle the same song – you guys so confidently jump from different genres. Someone could do “They’ll Need A Crane” and have a huge country hit.
I’m not trying to deter it! I’m perfectly happy to wait for the checks to roll in.
What you are saying is that you are willing to buy a fleet of cars (we both laugh). Everyone here is really excited to see you play at The Kennedy Center and The Millennium Stage is a cool set up. The one thing they don’t usually have is acts that can have the cross appeal you guys have so it’s going to be fun – we can’t wait.
We are looking forward to it!
(We quickly move into a conversation riffing on our earlier attempt at identity confusion with the semi-famous landscape painter where John reveals his fascination with an Italian crooner named John Foster (clearly a fake name) and this 45 he picked up by him in Italy that he loves that is dripping with sentimentality. When he bought it the woman next to him remarked that it was that song that she first made out with someone to. With close by announcing “I made babies to the sounds of John Foster!” he was kind enough to send a photo of it along afterwards – here is my namesake!)
Be sure to catch their incredible live show (For free!!!!) in the unique setting this Saturday – not to be missed!!!!