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Posted March 5, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

They Might Be Giants: Still full of surprises after 30 years

Photo by Dominic Neitz
Photo by Dominic Neitz

Formed 30 years ago in Brooklyn, New York, They Might Be Giants have certainly had a long, seemingly improbably run. The nerdy duo — John Flansburgh and John Linnell — started out performing their quirky indie pop tunes accompanied by a drum machine, released a self-titled debut in 1986 and soon found fame thanks to MTV, which put the videos for “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” into heavy rotation. Subsequent songs haven’t received the same kind of exposure, but the band has continued to tour and record at a good clip. Its new release, Nanobots, offers more terrific indie pop with nasally vocals and retro-sounding synths. John Linnell recently phoned in to talk about the album.

The band is now 30 years old. Did you ever imagine it would last this long?
Well, no. I don’t think we had any idea what to expect. We entertained every possible fantasy about it. We just took it as it came. We didn’t really have a concept of the kind of thing we were doing or where we were supposed to end up. There were lots of examples of successful musical acts that seemed like a fait accompli. You think the Beatles were supposed to be famous because they just are. If you consider that they were from this depressed backwater of Britain which at that time was not producing big famous music acts, that was completely weird. We didn’t know that there was such a thing as college radio when we started out. We thought it would have been enough for us just to make recordings and get people to hear them. We made stuff that we thought people would want to consume. That was our only guideline.

What feature most distinguishes you from the other John in the band?
You know, there’s a lot of overlap in our skill sets. That’s part of the reason why we work together. We see eye to eye on a lot of stuff. We both like the idea that we are doubling our productivity by working together, but there are obvious differences. John would probably agree that I’m more of a technician. He is more of a producer. He has an overarching view of production and packaging. But aside from that, we both write songs and really like songwriting. We both sing. He plays guitar and I play keyboards. Those are complementary. Our singing voices aren’t dramatically differently and people think our speaking voices are similar.

You’ve never done an interview as the other John, have you?
One of us has to spot the other, but we wouldn’t want to speak for the other person.

How has your live show evolved over the years?
We try to take advantage of having all these other people with us. We have a talented band, so we mix it up a little bit in terms of what the other guys do. We encourage them to stretch out. They’re very versatile. We try to keep it as entertaining as possible. There are things that are planned out that are our version of pyrotechnics. We have a puppet show. We consider that a show stopper. Other bands wouldn’t consider that to be an exciting part of the show, but we’ve found from our experience that adult audiences really respond to puppets. Those things are planned out, but there’s a range of things that happen spontaneously. When the show has ground to a halt, we will talk and the conversation will wander off in some direction that is interesting to us, though maybe not compelling to everyone else. It does make each show unique.

You recorded 25 songs for the new album. How many will make it into the set list?
We’ve learned eight of them so far. We may add some more onto that. That’s a good portion for us. When we’re touring to support a new album, we do a lot of the old stuff as well. There’s some stuff that people expect us to play, the old standby songs. There’s also a certain amount of deep catalogue stuff that people enjoy hearing us do.

You could chop our heads off and we’d be able to still play “Birdhouse” if there’s some brain stem left in the neck.

We always love hearing them, but do you ever get sick of playing “Birdhouse in Your Soul” or “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”?
I wouldn’t say we do. The show is a very active show. It’s certainly not boring. We have a lot of new material and a certain amount of old material and it’s comfortable for us to play something we know very well. There’s a thing in the theater when people do a show over and over that by the 50th performance, they’re so familiar with the material that they can do stuff with it that’s subtle and interesting. I feel that way about “Birdhouse” and the ones we play over and over again. There’s a subtlety to performing that you get to do when you’re very familiar with the material. You could chop our heads off and we’d be able to still play “Birdhouse” if there’s some brain stem left in the neck.

The newest effort starts out sounding like typical They Might Be Giants, but then takes a turn mid-album into some really weird stuff. What happened?
I guess we had some kind of breakdown. I don’t know. Every time we’ve made a record, we consistently did this thing where we try to keep the songs from sounding similar to one another and we try to keep things surprising. That’s something we’re interested in all along. I’m not clear whether people listen to albums all the way through any more and think of it as a sequence. I did while growing up. There was side one and a side two and you had a real sense of the flow. People listen to songs much more individually. We think of it as an arc with a beginning, a middle and an end.

“Tick” checks in at 12 seconds. Is that the shortest song you’ve ever written?
That’s on the short end. We came up with a couple of short ones, but it’s a different idea from “Fingertips,” which is on our fourth album. That was a suite of something like 21 short songs meant to be listened to in sequence together. These are more like individual, short songs.

On the title track to the new album, you put a dark spin on new technology. Do you really think our technology is going to turn on us one day?
I think it already has. Anyone who owns an iPhone knows that it’s not your friend. The song is also about anything you set into motion and out of your control, and about things that reproduce on their own, including human beings. You have kids and they don’t listen to you. That’s a universal experience.

They’re like disobedient robots.
They are. It’s like they’ve gone haywire.

Tour Dates

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Cincinnati, OH @ Madison Theatre

Louisville, KY @ Headliners

Nashville, TN @ Cannery Ballroom

Birmingham, AL @ Workplay Theatre

New Orleans, LA @ HOB

Houston, TX @ HOB

Helotes, TX @ Floore’s (indoors)

SXSW TMBG Interviewed by Eugene Mirman @ Long Center, 5pm

Dallas, TX @ HOB

Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom

Columbia, MO @ The Blue Note

St Louis, MO @ The Pageant

Chicago, IL @ Vic Theater

Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom

Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theater

Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr Small’s

Tarrytown, NY @ Tarrytown Music Hall

Huntington, NY @ The Paramount

Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club

Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club

Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of Living Arts

Baltimore, MD @ Ram’s Head Live

Richmond, VA @ The National

Charlottesville, VA @ Jefferson Theatre

Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle

Charleston, SC @ Music Farm

Asheville, NC @ Orange Peel

Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse

Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse

Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue

Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall

Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue

Iowa City, IA @ Englert Theatre

Des Moines, IA @ Wooly’s

Omaha, NE @ The Slowdown

Kansas City, MO @ Crossroads

Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre

Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot

Boise, ID @ Egyptian Theatre

Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore Cabaret

Seattle, WA @ Showbox SoDo

Portland, OR @ Crystal Ballroom

San Francisco, CA @ Warfield Theatre

Anaheim, CA @ HOB

San Diego, CA @ Belly Up


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.