They Might Be Giants
Of all the highly esteemed minds—Ira Glass, Harry Shearer, Janeane Garofalo, Michael McKean—who wax poetic about the wonderfully campy They Might Be Giants in the 2002 documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), it’s author, essayist and This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell who best sums them up with the following (paraphrased) line: “If you were to look at a printed lyric sheet of their songs, you’d assume they were all depressing dirges.”
It’s hard to tell, when you’re actually listening to the smile-a-second, happy/clappy music TMBG make, that there’s an undercurrent of something more serious going on within it. Here’s proof, from the band’s first hit “Don’t Let Start”: “No one in this world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful/ Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.”
“Don’t Let Start” is so shiny, so happy, it makes the most upbeat moments in B-52s songs seem dour—big, toothy, sing-a-long fun without being dumb; a whimsically fantastic two-and-a-half minute trip.
Their songs are aural mounds of wet clay, sculpted into whatever shape the listener’s mind dreams up. Or, put another way, “Some of [what we do] is really pretentious. Some of it is really lighthearted. It’s a real mixed bag,” says John Flansburgh, half of the “two Johns,” over the phone from New York City. “I think we’re the most pretentious lighthearted band in the world. And we’re probably the most lighthearted pretentious band in the world.”
John Flansburgh and John Linell grew up alongside one another in Lincoln, Mass., separated by one grade. Flansburgh moved to Brooklyn after high school to attend Pratt; Linell moved to Rhode Island and formed a new wave group called the Mundanes. Later they’d move into the same apartment building in Brooklyn together and form a band, which recorded songs as the outgoing message on an answering machine tape in the mid-’80s and took out classified ads in the Village Voice with the number to call to hear their work.
Appropriately titled “Dial-a-Song” it would later be released as a demo tape. That tape was reviewed by People magazine. (One of the biggest revelations in Gigantic, in fact, is that the tawdry celeb rag once had a “Golden Age.”) Shows began to sell out. Major labels took notice. They added musicians. And now, 20 years after forming, they’re introduced by Conan O’Brien as “Brooklyn’s legendary They Might Be Giants” when they appear on his Late Night.
“I feel kind of the same as when we started, except a little more exhausted,” laughs Flansburgh when asked if he feels legendary. “We think about [TMBG] as something we’re the biggest advocates of. We probably wouldn’t be able to work as hard if we really felt like we were legends. We’ve been doing this long enough that there’s been plenty of ups and downs.”
Those downs never seemed to stick, though. And after being dropped by Elektra after several years of success on the label, the band got busy doing other things—making Grammy Award-winning music for children, writing songs for television, releasing an entire album digitally over the Internet before anyone ever understood that such a thing could become the future.
While the music business has crumbled around them, TMBG have continued to do all right on their own, garnering a steady and fervent audience over the years, all still thrilled to hear the lighthearted pretentiousness coming out of the singular place TMBG still inhabits: accordion-driven pop, polka spiced up with a sprinkle of punk salt, children’s music for adults, happy dirge rock.
“It’s interesting seeing the entire music business just disintegrate,” he says, thinking back on it all. “When we started there were these huge cultural gatekeepers making sure that rock music stayed very much in whatever the mode it was in. I went to like a million conferences in 1999 and 2000 where people were saying, ‘There’s no way file sharing could kill the music business. It’s so huge. Everyone is so rich. How could it ever kill the music business?,’” Flansburgh says with a sigh. “It did seem preposterous that something so simple and so small could dismantle it. But I mean, goddamn, there are no CD stores left. The most valuable thing that ever happened to us was we learned to get by on our own. We didn’t look for anybody to save us or for anybody to put our ideas forward. In that way, it has made all these different transitions very easy.”
One of those transitions was the Grammy Award-winning childrens’ music mentioned earlier. Oddly enough, it’s put into sharper focus the music TMBG’s made for adults because, frankly, there’s hardly a difference.
“Writing a good song takes a certain amount of time, whether it’s for kids or adults,” Flansburgh says. “In general people tend to approach kids stuff like, ‘How good does it have to be? It’s just for kids.’ When we’re writing for adults, we’re probably a little more aware that ultimately there will be rock critics and audiences involved. We want the children’s music we make to be to children what The Sopranos is to adults. There’s this notion that all things made for children have to be good for them. It would be nice to simply be the thing kids like because it’s really, really entertaining.”
Really, really entertaining is what They Might Be Giants plan to be when they bust out an eight-piece band complete with horn section for the two New Year’s Eve shows planned at the TLA. Says Flansburgh, “We’ve got to spruce our extended disco version of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’”
Wed., Dec. 31, 7:30pm and 11:30pm. $25-$35. With Corn Mo. 334 South St. 215.922.1011. www.livenation.com
PW's Music Issue 2014