They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell
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John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been making music together as They Might Be Giants for nearly 30 years, over the course of 15 studio albums and a seemingly endless array of offshoots, including a Dial-A-Song phone line, a podcast, animated sequences on kids’ shows from Tiny Toon Adventures to Courage The Cowardly Dog, more than a dozen EPs, a documentary called Gigantic, a DVD of videos for their Grammy-winning children’s album Here Come The 123s, and much more. Since 2002, TMBG has been making as many kids’ albums as “grown-up” albums; 2011’s wildly diverse new Join Us marks the band’s first adult release since 2007’s The Else. The A.V. Club recently talked to both Johns about Join Us and hitting the 30-year mark. Today, John Linnell talks about the difficulty of avoiding repetition, the difference between TMBG and Steely Dan, and why the group doesn’t care about its history. Tomorrow, John Flansburgh discusses his thoughts on the band’s recent A.V. Undercover taping, hating hooky songs, and the joys of turning music into objects.
The A.V. Club: You guys have been a band for 30 years at this point. How do you keep this fresh for yourselves?
John Linnell: I would say looking in hindsight, it seems like we made some good choices early on. We made a conscious choice not to decide what the hell it was that we were trying to do. We had both been in bands where there was more of an idea, like, “This will be this kind of project.” I think with They Might Be Giants, John and I thought, “Let’s not define it for ourselves. Let’s just gravitate toward anything we like, and it will follow its own logic.” I think that really helped keep it interesting for us, because we never had a sense that it was a particular—I think outsiders would say they have a clear idea of what it is we’re doing and where we belong and so on, but we have managed to blinker ourselves to that, whatever it is. We don’t know what we mean or what we are, precisely, and that’s helped us continue to see the band as a work in progress.
AVC: And that hasn’t varied even when you sit down to do a theme album that’s all of a piece, like the kids’ albums, or Venue Songs?
JL: Well, those are defined, yeah. In some ways, within the larger world of They Might Be Giants, we have these more specific assignments, like, “Do a song about numbers or letters,” but even that’s more of a framework. That doesn’t say what it’s going to sound like. In particular with children’s music, we didn’t want to sound like children’s music. We didn’t want it to be identifiable as children’s music. It’s called “children’s music,” but we thought it could be anything. It can be psychedelic or metal, but until somebody complains, there’s not really a reason to restrict it to something you already recognize, something that’s been done before. It is more restricted to do something that’s defined as children’s music, and to do something themed, but within that, we didn’t have to define it any further.
AVC: How much do things like new instrument technology or new distribution methods play into keeping you interested in the band?
JL: I think it shapes it automatically. The things you discover when you’re working in a new way, particularly with computers—when we’re working, we start hearing things that are coming up because of the technology, and it affects the way you think about it. But again, it’s not pre-ordained, we’re not saying, “And now we’re going to do electronica.” Generally, I would say we’re failures at planning things, saying, “We’re going to move our career into this direction now, and we’ll have this hairdo, and—” I think there are bands that are very successful in terms of cooking up the package—that’s a very mixed metaphor, isn’t it?—deciding what they’re going to look like and sound like, and planning the whole thing out in advance. But we’re no good at that, and I think we sort of felt like, “Well, we don’t need to do that.” We seem to do okay without a business model or a game plan.
AVC: Or an image consultant?
JL: We would definitely be far away from doing that.
AVC: Was there ever a point where that kind of thing was forced on you, like when you were at Elektra?
JL: No, and we’ve been very lucky, because there are stories about other bands that have. This might just be rumor, but I have the impression that of all bands, The B-52s, when they had their hit, and then suddenly got the attention of their record company, all of a sudden everybody was an expert on what they were supposed to be and sound like. It was as if they needed guidance at being The B-52s. Which is a really weird story, like, how did that happen? Fortunately, they survived that experience. But Elektra, to their credit, they figured we knew what we were doing. We made two albums before we got to Elektra, and we were pretty vocal about how much control we wanted to have, and so on.
We had smart, really good people working, like Sue Drew was at Elektra, and she signed us because she thought we knew what we wanted to do. And I remember having this conversation where she said, “There are bands that need help and ask for help, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a different kind of band that says, like, ‘We don’t know what to do. What should our sound be like for the next record?’ and we can step in at that point and give them assistance.” But we really didn’t want that kind of help. So our relationship with Elektra was very good, I would say, until those people left the company. Nobody was trying to meddle with us, but we were also not getting a lot of attention toward the end. I think the people who were interested in us had all moved on to other jobs, so we felt a little neglected by the end, but we had an amicable parting of the ways with Elektra, and nobody since then has been insisting that we do one thing or another.
AVC: The idea of not having a set plan or sound sometimes plays out in your individual albums—Join Us is particularly eclectic, with a lot of diversity in instruments, song pacing, and the voices you use. It feels like one of your earliest albums.
JL: This was the longest we’ve ever worked on a record, and we had a lot of material to choose from. That was the main thing that shaped the sound of the record—we picked things we thought were good and went well together. There wasn’t really an idea of what the hell we were trying to get across. I think we just thought “We’ll pick the best music we can.” I’m glad it’s eclectic. That’s something we like. That’s something I like about other artists, when I hear one song, and the song that comes after it takes you somewhere else, and you feel like they complement each other because it’s exciting to hear a fast song after a slow song. Those kinds of contrasts are exciting and interesting to me.
AVC: You’ve talked in the past about the need to not repeat yourself, which has got to be difficult over a 30-year period. Do you have conscious processes for avoiding repetition?
JL: I would say it’s work, and the awful thing is, when you’re lost in the process of coming up with an idea, you sometimes catch yourself repeating something you’ve already done, or something that’s uncomfortably close to something you’ve already done, and often it’s too late in the songwriting to go back and change everything. Or it’s much too hard, or you’re spoiling something good about it. So that is a real challenge. I would say the best stuff we’ve done is when you can get carried away by the music and you feel like, “I’m inventing music for the first time ever!” It can be a real splash of cold water to realize that you’re just ripping yourself off.
AVC: Do you have to go back to past songs to make sure you aren’t repeating yourself? Do you vet each other along the way?
JL: I think there have been cases where John or I have said, “Well, that’s a little bit like this other thing.” I mean, without beating myself up, I would say there’s one song on Join Us where the middle, the bridge bit, is almost identical in melodic, harmonic structure to part of the song “The Statue Got Me High,” and it was so late in the process when I realized it, it was like, “Fuck it. There’s nothing I can do about it now. This song is kinda done.”
AVC: Was there any particular reason you shifted back to adult music for this album?
JL: Well that’s what we do. You know, we never thought of it as adult music until we started doing kids’ music. It’s the non-themed thing that we do, stuff like Join Us. It’s the actual heart of They Might Be Giants.
AVC: Is there any sense of freedom in getting away from theme albums, so you can do whatever you want, and you don’t have to come up with a rhyme for “plasma”?
JL: Yes, but I think when you set restrictions, that can make the job easier, in some ways. It’s freeing, in a way, but it also means it’s harder. It’s like when you write without rhyming—what’s exciting about that is that it’s manifestly clear, when you hear a song where the lyrics don’t rhyme, that every word is chosen very deliberately. There’s nothing where it’s slotted in because it rhymes properly, or it has this feeling like, “Um, yeah, we had to create a couplet for the second line.” It’s a way more conscious decision, and it’s cool to hear an idea like that that really has no other defense. There’s no other rationale for the words in the song, except they are the ones you specifically chose. You have to take full adult responsibility for them.
AVC: You and John Flansburgh have both given interviews to music-tech sites, and you’ve also talked about how your band members are technically minded, to the point where if one of them plays the wrong chord, it can ruin a whole show for him.
JL: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: When you were setting out to recruit band members, was finding other people in that technical mindset a factor?
JL: I don’t think we thought of it that way. I think it’s actually kind of disturbing to think that that’s the impression that we’re giving, that we’re technicians. Because I think that we—John and I, at least—think what we’re doing is about ideas, that that’s the real heart of it. That’s the thing that motivates us. And the technical end of it, we sort of seize it, grinding, with this sort of grim quality of fussing over the exact… We’ve been talking about this, hearing stories about Steely Dan doing 180 takes of a song, and thinking, “Boy, that sounds kind of miserable. That doesn’t sound like any fun.” It wouldn’t be for me.
We work very quickly. We record very quickly. We try not to belabor stuff too much. I think it’s important for John and I, because you stop hearing something if you hear it too many times. You can’t remember what the point of it was. From what I understand, Steely Dan really enjoyed that process. For some reason, they were really happy to grind into something that much. I personally cannot do that. I can’t spend too long writing a song or it loses its flavor, and we can’t spend too long recording it. So I think we do feel like there’s a danger in worrying too much about technical concerns—even the sound, the playing of it, or fussing over the structure. I think one thing we’ve learned is, maybe because we’re uptight in the first place, we’re still giving the impression to people that we’re uptight, but we really prize spontaneity and freshness. I see that as essential to doing good work. It’s often the uptight people who wanna let their hair down.
AVC: Is there a conflict, then, between finding a song really quickly in the songwriting and the studio so it doesn’t go stale, then going on to perform it night after night after night?
JL: You might say that. My sense is that we—in a sense, it’s something that starts off as fresh, and then you enshrine it in the show. We do change up the arrangements periodically. I think there’s the thing that it takes a little while even just to become comfortable playing it. So you have to play it a bunch of times in this set way to get to the point where you’re relaxed and not scrunching up your face and staring at your hands while you’re playing. There’s a great benefit in playing the same song the same way over and over, which is you relax and feel like you can listen to everyone around you, and feel the vibe of the show, and there’s not so much concentration required.
AVC: Is it important to reproduce the song in a certain way every time?
JL: No, I think it’s not in and of itself that there’s any special value to maintaining the exact original arrangement. Also, because we do a lot of stuff in the laboratory conditions of the studio, where we have the freedom to do something not in real time, and not necessarily reproducible live—we do a lot of that in recordings. We come up with stuff that’s actually almost impossible to play live. So as a result, we do live arrangements, which are not, ideally, slavishly imitating the studio version. We take a different attitude toward the live version, where it can be something completely else.
AVC: Has the collaboration process between you and John changed much over the years?
JL: I think it’s always different. Everything we do, we try and come up with something new. John and I have come up with various ways of collaborating over the years, and it’s kind of pleasant and fun to have that possibility that we could come up with some completely new way of working together. In the past, we’ve done things where one of us cooks up a bunch of samples, or an instrumental track, or a lyrics sheet, and passes it to the other person. We’ve done a lot of different versions of that, and some of them have been successful. On Join Us, there’s some of that. There’s is a song, for example, where I had a chorus and verse, and I didn’t like the verse, so I erased the vocals on the verse and gave the whole thing to Mr. Flansburgh, and he cooked up a completely different melody and lyric for that section. That’s the one where one of us sings the chorus and the other sings the verse. That worked, I thought. That’s the song “Never Knew Love.” We’re always coming up with different ways of working together, and I was pleasantly surprised by Flansburgh’s new material. I think he’s changed in certain ways on this project. It’s this late in our lives, I can say his lyrics have opened up into a whole new interesting area that I don’t know whether I can define, exactly, except that I and other people are recognizing that this is a new way that he’s cooking up lyrics that is pretty cool.
AVC: How often are your songs inspired by real events? From Join Us, “Never Knew Love” seems like it’s about a real situation, and “Judy Is Your Viet Nam” sounds like it’s about someone you know.
JL: I like songs that sound like they’re about something that really happened, but I would say in most cases, they’re not. And I would say John has a really good impulse to cook up… He’s written songs that you would swear really happened to someone, because they’re so specific. “Judy Is Your Viet Nam,” to me, has that quality, and I’m pretty sure it’s not about anybody specific, but you could you ask him. Neither of us have either written a fully autobiographical song. That’s not where we’re at. We don’t find our own lives that interesting. I think there are certain details from things we hear that might find their way into our songs, but the person saying “I” in the song, the protagonist, is neither one of us. They’re not expressing our experiences.
AVC: So even though you’re citing all your bandmates’ names as getting in on the hate, you don’t have an actual person in mind when you’re singing “When Will You Die”?
JL: Correct, there is not someone. It was funny, because when we were working on it, everybody was looking at me, like, “Who is this about?” [Laughs.] And no, it was kind of hilarious to keep people… It’s a funny thing to lead people to believe that there is somebody that it’s about, because in a way, the energy of the song is derived from that. I would joke and say, “Well, it’s about someone in this room, but I’m not going to say who.” Similarly, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” it made it seem funnier and more interesting to me to use my own name in the song. I think people who know me recognize that that’s not me at all in the song. The guy in the song is a complete asshole. I might be finding some inner-asshole and drawing from it, but it’s not drawing from any experience that I’ve had.
AVC: Do you guys have any specific plans for your 30th anniversary?
JL: We managed to completely drop the ball on the 25th anniversary, so I don’t know. Maybe we’ll cook up something. We don’t have anything specifically planned yet. I suppose John and I both feel… New Yorkers have said this about the city of New York, that even though it has this long history, it’s not interested in its own history. I think that’s probably true for us. We don’t want to memorialize ourselves. That seems like a distraction. It’s almost a way of telegraphing that your best days are behind you. It feels a little wrong to me to start getting nostalgic about They Might Be Giants. This came up during the discussions about the September 11th memorial, because it seemed like New York doesn’t have memorials. It’s a town that doesn’t indulge in memorials so much. Spectacular, horrific things have happened here, but people want to look forward to the future, and I think that’s a great quality. I feel that way about time. Occasionally it sort of has a marketing strategy—we’ve done a couple of compilations—but I don’t think we want to make a big fuss about how we’ve been around all this time, and we’re going to look fondly back, wipe a tear away. It just doesn’t feel truthful, and it doesn’t suit us.
AVC: Which all seems to fall together into the idea of not necessarily having a plan.
JL: But you’d think you’d either have a plan or look back, but to do neither is like an existential void, like there’s no future and no past. [Laughs.]
AVC: Isn’t that likely to be one of the things your fans respond to?
JL: I would hope so. We are motivated by a desire to be the band that we’d want to listen to, so it’s very hard to second-guess other people. We don’t really know what other people want, but we do know what we like, and we’ve managed to accumulate fans who are the same kinds of listeners. They apply the same attitude, they just like what we like, and I don’t know why. I don’t necessarily know why I like what I like. I think there’s just something where you recognize something good when you hear it, and that’s really all there is to it. Anything more than that is reductive. Anything where you try to figure out why it’s good, some specific quality, “It’s not really that, so what is it?” “Well, I just like it.”