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They Might Be Giants: View From the Middle of a Career

on April 24, 2015, 12:00pm

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Geoff Nelson speaks with They Might Be Giants on the return of Dial-A-Song this past January, the 25th anniversary of Flood, and celebrating each without becoming an nostalgia act.

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A few months ago, John Flansburgh, one half of They Might Be Giants, looked out into the stage lights of the Music Hall of Williamsburg and said, “This song is from the exact middle of our career.” The band prepared to play “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” from 2001’s Mink Car. Before the first chords, John Linnell, the band’s other equal-share partner, interrupted wryly, “I think we’re at the middle right now.” The crowd roared.

Some quick, back-of-the-envelope math later and the debate over the tenure of one of rock’s longest and most prodigious partnerships proved to be both more and less revealing. Flansburgh, if taken literally – and proceed with caution here when it comes to the slippery subversion of TMBG – placed the band’s mid-career 19 years from their 1982 founding, giving them an expiration date of, roughly, 2020. Linnell’s rejoinder that the band was in middle age at this very moment in February of 2015 meant that the Giants would still be churning out quirky, literate pop, impossibly, in 2048. By then, Flansburgh and Linnell would both be in their late 80s.

Yet, for anyone who has followed the career of the two Johns and their enduring project, They Might Be Giants, the notion that these two would make it to mid-century is anything but foolish. Flansburgh has, allegedly, joked to his wife that he would stop touring when he broke his hip.

TMBG, perhaps due to their career’s length and breadth, seem to have a well-attuned sense of history. In 1982, John and John, old high school friends, moved to Brooklyn after college, naming their musical project after an incident in Don Quixote where Quixote launches an attack on inanimate windmills, misapprehending them as monsters, explaining, “Why, because they might be giants.” The band’s literary and cultural wordplay never strayed far from their 16 studio albums, displaying a gift for genre-mashing, post-modern pop songwriting. They remain one of rock’s great underdogs – popular but obscure, cultish in their following, workman-like in their longevity. Their name told a larger truth as the band grew older: They occupied a space as the close-but-never-quite titans of rock and pop, growing monolithic in their own peculiar fashion. 

Beginning this past January, the band re-launched Dial-A-Song, one of their first projects, an ode to their past and their unfolding future. The original version of the service began in 1983, featuring a phone answering machine that could play out-going messages of unlimited length. The band used the machine to demo new material. “It was a difficult piece of equipment to get ahold of, but once we found a machine that worked that way, it was a simple thing to set up,” says Linnell. The Giants took out ads promoting the number in the Village Voice, often in the personals section to save money. The service could only handle one caller at a time, the band deploying cheeky slogans like, “Dial-A-Song: Free When You Call From Work” and “Always Busy, Often Broken.” For those listeners that got through, fans and some confused strangers, it was a window into the weird world of TMBG, from the comfort of their jobs and homes. In ways, it was the very first streaming music service.

Though Linnell denies any portentous quality in the first Dial-A-Song, he admits, “It was a way of connecting to an audience that was unique. It bypassed the system of making records and performing in public. The idea was, you could sit at home and listen on the telephone. Little did we dream that 30 years later it would be an incredibly common way to listen to music, to get it directly into their homes.” The original Dial-A-Song didn’t aspire to profit – more like performance art, Linnell notes, “It was conceptually interesting to us.”

The models for releasing music are now radically different, but the project’s original spirit carries on. The band now releases a new Dial-A-Song composition every week on Tuesday to a toll-free number that can accommodate more than one listener – though the toll-free number itself is an intentionally Luddite-ish move. New songs also release to YouTube, a subscription download and streaming service, Dial-A-Song Direct, and, this part is a bit more unclear, some of the new material will be culled into three LPs, the first of which, appropriately named Glean, will find release on April 21 on Idlewild Records, the band’s own label.

It’s an ambitious project, to be sure, especially at this stage of the band’s career. Linnell elaborates: “We felt that the brand name and franchise ‘Dial-A-Song’ was something essential to who we were as a band. There was a philosophy behind it that we still subscribe to, which has to do with having a direct connection to the audience, and giving the audience the opportunity to feel like we are their personal discovery. It was like a mystery being unwrapped.” He continues, “It was like being introduced to a possibly interesting alternative world. I think people still like us because they feel like we’re their discovery.” Linnell won’t say this, but like any performer, his band’s self-conception is, in great measure, a product of their audience. Run this calculation backwards: If the Dial-A-Song ethos continues to drive the band in 2015 to “feel” like a new discovery to their fans, it is also as much to drive themselves – the great mystery of unwrapping your fourth decade as a band. Cast as an aphorism: To be discovered anew is to discover oneself.

Linnell is far more interested in what lies ahead of the band than what receeds in their cultural rearview. “John and I aren’t into looking back. We’re very concentrated on what we’re doing,” he says. While Linnell clearly values the band’s history, there is danger in nostalgia when you’re still creating. Though TMBG presided over the emergence of Brooklyn as a cultural center, Linnell demurs about there being any meaning in the transition. It’s true, there were used needles on the Williamsburg waterfront near Kent and N. 8th where the band shot their first video, “Put the Hand Inside the Puppet Head”, the same location that East River State Park now occupies, a space that often hosts the graphic bourgeois-palooza Smorgasburg.

In the early ’80s, Linnell says dryly, “It actually just seemed like a cheap place to live. Most of the artists and bands seemed to be gravitating to the East Village, so Brooklyn was a backwater. Williamsburg was a pretty sleepy Polish and Italian neighborhood.” By the end of their time in Williamsburg, other artists had begun their migration to the neighborhood, and it was time for Linnell and Flansburgh to move on but not out. Above all, Linnell finds the band’s endurance and longevity in Brooklyn remarkable, unexpected even. They Might Be Giants can’t be understood as only an endurance race, but the band is inextricably linked to its biggest successes, looming titanic in the increasingly distant past.

In 2015, They Might Be Giants celebrate the 25th anniversary of its most famous and best-selling record, Flood. It is a complicated history for the band, their brief flirtation with crossover into the mainstream of the American cultural zeitgeist. If you’ve already heard of TMBG, it’s likely you are in one of two camps: 1. Superfan who knows the words to, at the very least, most of their releases or 2. Someone who has heard “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, “Particle Man”, or “Birdhouse in Your Soul”. The last of these three is the band’s best-charting single, reaching #3 on the Modern Rock chart in 1990. The other two were licensed by Tiny Toon Adventures and began the band’s relationship with younger audiences. (TMBG have since written whole records for children.) While the band still plays Flood in its entirety, and “Birdhouse” still is a staple of the live show, songs like “Istanbul” and “Particle Man” prompt a more complex reaction. On performing Flood, Linnell grows meta: “While it’s obviously us, it’s the sound of our band, I don’t feel like the songs are exactly the kind of songs that John or I would write nowadays. So, it’s a little bit like we’re covering another band, like a band from the ’80s that we have a very fond relationship with.”

When I press him on the complexity of the band’s most iconic music being some of its oldest, Linnell, intentionally gracious, sort of splits the middle, not wanting to diminish the songs and impulses that made the band’s career but also not wanting to dwell in that creative space. “Thinking of the choices of music and lyrics we’ve made, there’s some stuff that we’ve made where I think, ‘Oh, those aren’t really the kinds of choices I would make now.’ But I know it’s us. I remember writing the songs.” Linnell pauses. He is taking that short look down the long hallway of the band’s career, glances that are dangerous – they prompt navel gazing, nostalgia, complacency, all things for which Linnell and Flansburgh have little time. “I feel really good about the material we’re doing right now,” he adds, as I realize I’m encouraging historical reflection from a band comfortable with but unwilling to dwell in its history.

He finally offers a distinction between the band’s early work and its more recent material: “We were more reckless and more excited about experimenting with very left-field ideas, and now we’re a little more in command of our material.”

With such a prodigious catalogue, the two Johns listen often to their previous work, if only, as Linnell tells me, to remember the notes and arrangements. “We don’t have every song memorized,” he notes with no hint of irony. Even 2007 LP, The Else, needs re-listening for the band to play it as a part of their on-going Music Hall of Williamsburg residency. The past is, in some sense, never past. Linnell, much more than Flansburgh, will modify the pacing of lyrics and the notes of a melody in their live performances, playing in the wake of the band’s prodigious forward movement.

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And this last part is complicated. The band is writing 52 new songs this year; they’ve written hundreds, if not thousands, of songs in their career. All this pushing forward produces an oxymoronic historical wake – each song becomes part of a growing history, part of a brand.

At the show in February where Linnell and Flansburgh debated the mid-point of their band’s career, they were nominally playing their entire first album, the 1986 self-titled debut. Early in the evening, Flansburgh informed the crowd that the band would be playing the album, but out of order and with other songs in between. They Might Be Giants, the record, slipped invisibly into the set. The band plays Flood from time to time, but often will play it backwards, the first track, “Theme from Flood”, with its bombastic intro, “Why is the world in love again?/ Why are we marching hand in hand?/ Why are the ocean levels rising up?/ It’s a brand-new record for 1990/ They Might Be Giants brand-new album Flood,” arriving as the set’s closer. History, too, can be rearranged.

But reverence for one’s own work, the replaying of it, carries a special burden for Linnell and Flansburgh, both now in their mid-50s. How does the capacious artist avoid self-plagiarism? With so many notes and melodic impulses already committed to answering machine, CD, and streaming services, how do you avoid stumbling into the same pathways, worst of all, mistaking retreads for original ideas? Linnell describes songwriting as “trying to hear a sound you haven’t heard before,” even more poetically as “searching for that lost chord.” He elaborates: “I’m very concerned about not repeating ourselves, trying to come up with something original that’s also good. We don’t want to just muddle along. We’re trying to keep writing good songs, if we ever have” – a moment of almost absurd magnanimity from one of the great pop melody writers of the past three decades.

“And that’s the challenge, and it does not get easier. It gets harder as we go. But there’s something sort of miraculous about the act of coming up with an idea that’s a little hard to explain. It’s very hard to describe why an idea gets inside you and where it comes from.” Linnell oscillates between thoughtful and glib, later cracking a joke about the “bullshit” of the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit and how to avoid getting sued, but it’s clear he thinks a great deal about songwriting, originality, and innovation. He considers carefully the weight of music history, both others’ and his own.

Linnell expresses surprise that he’s spent most of his life in Brooklyn, an unexpected but pleasant reality. When he says, “It’s amazing my son can just get on a train and go to school,” you can hear how much both he and Brooklyn have changed since the early ’80s. You can sort of picture him 30 years in the future, toting his accordion to whatever venue will have replaced the Music Hall of Williamsburg – Flansburgh, at his side, maybe nursing a replaced hip. It is a common trajectory, their continued productivity, a desire to connect and create cast in unsexy long form. What drives a band to release 52 songs in their 33rd year of existence? It is love, mystery, and maybe a bit of desperation –  a creative shark-mode where when you stop moving forward you die.

The first iteration of Dial-A-Song was born out of its own necessity: Linnell had broken bones from a bike accident, and Flansburgh’s apartment had been burglarized, costing them much of the band’s equipment for playing live. They could only reach fans through the phone. The original Brooklyn number, (718) 387-6962, like so much of the borough’s bonfire of history, has since been disconnected and reappropriated. They Might Be Giants remain.

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Geoff Nelson writes for Impose, lives in Brooklyn, and tweets.

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