Q&A with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants
In the 1980s and 1990s, Brooklyn-based They Might Be Giants – John Linnell and John Flansburgh – became defining figures in the indie rock movement.
Often, they are touted as one of the bands to define the music and mood of Generation X, with playful tunes paired with sometimes dark lyrics about breakups, death and job dissatisfaction.
Their fans associated them with a series of anthems such as “Mammal,” “The Statue Got Me High,” “They’ll Need A Crane,” “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” and lyrics describing characters such as Ana Ng, Mr. Horrible, and Particle Man and his nemesis, Triangle Man.
In recent years, the duo, both 50, have found broader audiences, with a theme song to the television comedy, “Malcolm in the Middle,” a jingle for Dunkin’ Donuts and a series of recordings for children.
Linnell recently talked about their upcoming performances.
Q. What do you have planned for this show?
A. We have been putting out children’s music and DVDs for the past 10 years or so, so we have got what is in our backlog now for children’s music since about 2000.
The funny thing is, we were not thinking of any age group. I supposed we were just writing music for ourselves. But we were surprised and pleased with the response. We made a deal with Disney to do music of a more educational theme.
Also, we have been a rock band for 28 years, so we have a huge backlog of stuff – not necessarily intended for kids, but a lot of it is perfectly appropriate for all ages. So we will also play some of those old songs from the past.
Q. Are there challenges to doing a family-friendly show, versus an adult show?
A. We’ve gotten a response from certain songs … we didn’t ever really have a specific audience in mind. Some of our songs were considered OK for parents to play for their own kids. For example, “Particle Man” [about several beings variously named Particle Man, Triangle Man and Person Man who get into power struggles for dominance.] It’s not really aimed at kids, it’s a very trippy metaphor, but the kids like that song.
Q. What are some reactions to that song – I mean, it’s about these beings who beat each other up. Do you get any concerns, with all the discussion about bullying these days?
A. [Laughs] I don’t think we articulated that to ourselves. The kids just like the songs. Probably most young kids are not picking up on anything like that. I don’t think it would encourage any kind of horrible behavior. I think actually kids who are not inclined to do mean stuff to other kids like our music … the stuff that is specifically for kids, Disney has backed us up, so I don’t think our music will hurt your kids.
Q. Over the years your music has been variously described as absurdist, satirical, humorous – how do you see it?
A. I would say that we are very intuitive about the way we work. We are not satirizing stuff. We are writing original material. It doesn’t refer to other music, and it’s not a parody or anything like that. But I would often stay something humorous, like you pointed out, and other elements are pretty dark. There are a lot of colors in the palate. … I think we take ourselves seriously, maybe too seriously. I mean, some people would be very surprised to find out how uptight we can be. [Laughs.] Maybe that is a reflection of our work ethic.
Q. There is a process.
A. Yes, there is a process. Before we show up in the recording studio, John and I both do a lot of work at home, to get as ready as possible, cooking up ideas. We have solid ideas about what we want to do. We don’t want to waste a lot of time in the studio…or having musicians waiting around, waiting to be told what is going to happen next.
Q. Do you work separately to create songs?
A. Mostly, we work separately, and occasionally collaborate on songs. We have come up with a lot of different ways of work, sending material back and forth during the writing phase. We have gotten some good results with that…the great thing about being in a duo is that we have perspective on each other’s work styles…John and I have worked together for so long, we know how one another works. We don’t have to waste each other’s time. We can cut to the heart of the matter.
Q. You seem to have a very strong rapport with the audience. When I have gone to your concerts … it’s like an understanding. Everyone knows all the songs and they even request certain songs.
A. They tend to feel like they are insiders. They are feeling like they have made a choice to be in a club in this way. It’s not like we are a spectacle, a car accident or something – I think they feel like they are participating, like you said. We’ve said this in the past – it’s not for everybody, but anybody can get it.
Q. What about with a kids’ show - is it a similar participatory attitude? It seems with kids’ shows, they want to be involved too and not a passive part of the audience.
A. With kids’ shows, it’s a whole different ballgame. They don’t have this critical view of our culture yet. They tend to take everything in, and they are listening in a different way. We encourage them to sing along. We try not to get into the clichés of kids’ shows, which can get a bit cloying. We can’t bring ourselves to come out in foam costumes for example.
Q. Who do you think comes to the kids’ shows – is it parents who always enjoyed your music and are now bringing their kids?
A. I think that’s absolutely right … that’s something the parents like. They feel that we are not talking down to their kids. We are doing something adults can enjoy as well – actually enjoy, not just tolerate. We have a lot of fans of ours from 15 years ago, who now have kids. There are people who just need to bring a kid to a kids’ event because they want to get out of the house. … I think that’s pretty cool. We don’t do just either group. We can float either way.
Q. What about yourselves – do you guys have kids now? And does that make a difference?
A. I have a son who is 11. I don’t test market with my own son. He has a very individual set of interests. One thing I guess is that it has exposed me to a lot of kids’ culture I would not otherwise be aware of … we have also looked at people we admired who did kids’ stuff, like Dr. Seuss, who just wrote for himself. It was appropriate for kids, but he was his one and only critic … it was really just based on pleasing himself. I think that’s the right attitude – that’s what has worked for other artists who do stuff for kids.
Q. After having such status for so long in the so-called indie music scene – does your career seem to have taken a strange trajectory?
A. We never successfully predicted what we were going to do next. We didn’t really know how you distribute certain kinds of music – back then, you would write music, make LPs as they were called, and then you would play concerts. ... In the beginning, we were nervous about doing things commercially, because we hadn’t established our identity.
In the late 1990s, we started getting jobs, and one thing led to another. We had enough self-esteem that we could do a single without completely selling out, and that was great, revelatory.
In the commercial realm, we liked a lot of TV theme songs when we grew up … but, like I said, we’ve been very bad at predicting the future. I wouldn’t say what we did was inevitable.
We made choices. We might have made different choices along the way. It all could have happened a different way, but I’m happy with the way things turned out.
Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England's Northwest Unit. E-mail her at email@example.com.