For more than 15 years, Brooklyn's John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been writing and playing quirky, clever pop songs as They Might Be Giants. But after countless albums, EPs, compilations, and side projects–not to mention a recently severed major-label deal–the group's future would seem in doubt at this point. Not so, say both Flansburgh and Linnell, who just released a live album (Severe Tire Damage), are touring, and look forward to releasing as many as two records (a conventional studio release and a possible children's album) in 1999. Flansburgh and Linnell both recently spoke to The Onion in separate interviews, outlining the band's future plans, reveling over their place in popular culture, griping about critics' generalizations, and insisting that they're still inspired to keep cranking out They Might Be Giants records.
The Onion: What's going on with They Might Be Giants right now?
John Flansburgh: Well, it's pretty straightforward. We're doing a big national tour, which is a month and a half of road work and living in a bus. We're on the road in support of this album [Severe Tire Damage], and we just did a video for the song "Doctor Worm" [a studio track that precedes a batch of live recordings on the album], which is getting a lot of radio airplay. It's getting a really great response, which is super-exciting. It seems like we're coming perilously close to having a hit single, which is, you know, neat.
O: You guys have had hit singles before.
JF: Yeah, but you put your songs out there, and they get a response: Sometimes that response is overwhelming and sometimes that response is underwhelming. You don't get to decide whether things click. It's just interesting to see something kind of resonate with a crowd. I mean, it's probably the most exciting thing, and the reason it drives most writers and performers crazy is that it's really out of your control. But it's interesting: This "Doctor Worm" song seems to get… It's a really weird song. Even on the relative scale of They Might Be Giants songs, it's pretty far over on the left-hand margin. I guess we're kind of surprised that it's getting so much attention.
O: "Doctor Worm" is one of the only studio tracks on this record; most of it is live versions of previously recorded material.
JF: Yeah, though there are a couple of other studio tracks. In some ways, this live record sticks to the basic rules of a good live package: It's got a pretty big career overview, and there are selections from pretty much every record we've made. We sort of went out of our way to include the material that has really evolved. So it's not just strolling through the hits. It's got a lot of songs that in a way are revelations compared to their original incarnations. It's got that going for it, plus it's got a bunch of new songs that were recorded live, and a couple of new songs that were recorded in the studio, so there are definitely some extra points of interest for people.
O: You mentioned a career overview. You're sort of in this transitional phase of your career where you're between labels. Do you feel like this is the first part of chapter two, or the last part of chapter one?
JF: Well, you know, it's funny: I guess professionally, that might be the way to assess it, but as a person who's been doing music for his whole life, it was a much bigger transition for me going from being an amateur musician to being a professional musician. I didn't really count on music to pay my bills for a very long time into my adult life. I remember the week I was deciding that I had to quit my day job, and feeling kind of strangely sad. It's strange: I feel like the mere existence of They Might Be Giants in the world of commercial music is an untenable, unworkable idea. It's not that we're trying to be unmarketable, but I think that what we're about and what we're good at… It's very tough to convince a big enough group of people that it's an interesting thing. It's really not for everybody, and what's good about it is sort of intrinsically messed up. It's weird business to try to pretend that you're a mass-appeal thing when you're not. And I know that sounds really elitist and snobby, but we started this thing for very personal reasons; we started the band in '82 or '83, and really only got to make our first records in the late '80s, and only got signed to a major in, like, 1990. There was a long period of time when it was really just our very passionate hobby. When the gestation period is that long, you get kind of protective of it and precious about it. I think that can be a good thing, but it's also… It's weird: I don't want to be an integrity act, but I have no interest in selling out. And also, we're just not that good-looking. It's weird… I mean, what kind of rock music really works? Chances are, they're pretty attractive people. Sometimes, I just feel we're completely out of our depth even trying to compete in this world. But we make interesting music, and as long as people have a chance to hear it and check it out and judge it for themselves, I think we'll be okay.
O: All your career, you've had to combat a sort of novelty tag—like you're a "college band" or a "geek-rock band."
JF: When I read the band described on paper in previews, I understand how that would be the way people would sum it up. But I think that what's good about [the band] is not what's in its thumbnail description, and that's not true of everything. What we're doing is kind of complicated, and it actually has a fair amount of subtlety. And moreover, it's not mean-spirited, which is probably the biggest gripe I have with the incredibly cynical reviews we get: Everybody acts as if we're even more cynical than they are. It's really strange for me, because I don't feel cynical at all. We're not as cynical as the Beastie Boys. We're not as cynical as half of what are considered the sort of straight alternative-rock bands, which often put forward a very jaded, kind of arch, super-ironic stance. Everybody's got their own deal, but at the risk of sounding sentimental, we really put our stuff out there on a personal level, and are very committed to what we're doing. We write character songs; we write songs that aren't from our point of view. We don't really pander to our audience or talk down to our audience at all. We sort of expect people to be up to the challenge of having a more sophisticated musical experience. Some of our stuff is really light-hearted, and some takes a little bit of thinking to understand, but… I don't know, I guess my only problem with that sort of pocket description of the band is that it makes it seem like it's about this really obvious thing—that we're a joke band. And that's really not our bag at all.
O: Some of those descriptions also tend to characterize all your fans. You're one of those bands like Phish, where all their fans are perceived as stinky hippies; all They Might Be Giants fans are perceived as pocket-protector types.
JF: Right, and that is certainly not true. I mean, I see so many Pearl Jam T-shirts in our audience, it kind of shocks me. We put on a high-energy rock show; we're a crazy, loud band, and that's the thing that people… A lot of people previewing our shows have never seen our show. They don't have any idea what it's really like. Just like anything, that kind of prejudice is a little bit of a drag.
O: Where do you go from here, as far as record labels and your careers are concerned?
JF: Uh, well, we're talking to different people, and we've got a bunch of different things in the fire. We're talking about doing a children's record, and we're working on our next album pretty much in earnest. We've got a fair amount of material written for that. After we get off this tour, we'll probably be working on those things simultaneously. There's a lot of different things going on; I'm doing a lot of different kinds of writing. It's hard to say. We like making records. We get a lot of job satisfaction out of making records, so I think we'll continue to do that. And we're getting better at it, too, which is pretty exciting.
O: Are you still inspired to do this? I mean, you're very busy: You've got Mono Puff [Flansburgh's other band], and you had the Hello CD Of The Month Club [his subscription-only record label] for a long time.
JF: Yeah, and I've been directing rock videos for other bands and doing other things. To be perfectly honest, I'm kind of more into everything than I was before. In the past three or four years, I've been feeling more confident about everything I'm involved in. I think there was a long time in the middle of our career where I was very intimidated by having to do everything in such a public way. When we started, we were sort of like bedroom rockers, and there was no audience for what we did. A lot of our early stuff was kind of created in a vacuum, and there was no… We made tapes and played them for our friends, and we created a lot of material in the spirit of the band which still defines us to this day, but a lot of those ideas were really not done with any notion of what an audience was or how things worked. In a way, that was our lucky break, because it didn't have that streamlined, simplified thing that makes rock music such a lifeless and dull form. Once we actually did start playing out, really having to do stuff on an active level, I found the whole thing kind of intimidating. Now, I feel like I have control of stuff just a little bit more on a technical level. I feel like we've really learned how to make the records; that we can actually create the sounds we were thinking about, which was really a struggle for a long time. We didn't really know how to make records. There's no school to go to, no Beatles University.
O: What would you say is the number-one lesson you learned from running your own record label?
JF: Well, it was a really interesting thing to do. We started it with the notion that we weren't going to get way into debt, so it was a very controlled sort of thing. We knew it was going to be a limited run. It was something we really did for fun; it wasn't entrepreneurial. I think a lot of people start record companies because they think they're going to make a lot of money, or they're going to have a huge cultural influence. I don't think we entertained fantasies of either of those things. You know, I think it was just a way to get loose, a way to do something for fun that was still real. Those kinds of opportunities don't come around that often, and I think we created an outlet for doing work that wasn't just straight.
The Onion: What's up with They Might Be Giants?
John Linnell: Well, we have a live album out right now, and we're playing a wide variety of shows. We just played Milwaukee last week, at this really strange sort of national gaming convention called GenCon. That was a really odd gig. There were lots of kids wearing capes and Spock ears.
O: Are those kids They Might Be Giants fans?
JL: Some of them are, it seemed. I think some of them probably didn't know about us and would be interested, so that was a good reason to do that show. You know, it's tempting to kind of sneer at their geekiness, but I think that in the culture at large, we probably are considered part of that same world. I think we consider ourselves to be just existing in our own tiny world that's different from every other subculture, but, you know, it was a good gig for us to play, actually.
O: Well, I think They Might Be Giants has a little bit of a reputation for being a geeky band.
JL: Yeah. I mean, I'm not happy about that, but I think that we just find friends where we can get them. We obviously appeal to lots of shut-ins. [Laughs.]
O: You're working on a studio album right now, right?
JL: Well, we're writing songs sporadically this summer, and we are touring to support the live album, which we'll do for about six weeks, and then we'll be out again next year. We haven't really got any schedule for the next record.
O: What happened to your deal with Elektra?
JL: Well, with Elektra, it was kind of a case of the company sort of shifting under our feet. We signed with Elektra in '89, and put out Flood and Apollo 18. And then, at some point on the heels of Apollo 18, the staff started disappearing. All the A&R people we had worked with, who were kind of our friends, had left the company, and then the president left the company, and then the whole company was sort of taken over by another company called East/West. And that was really a disaster for us, because we were no longer working with people we knew, and I don't think there was very much interest in what we were doing. We had a few discussions with the president about what our best situation could be, and her attitude was basically, "You give us a record and we'll run with it." But instead, what was going on was that we were making these records, and then there would be no budget for promotions or anything. We didn't make videos. The record would be put out, and it would sell kind of a reliable—but not very high—number, and Elektra would make back the money they spent manufacturing it. And they were happy with that arrangement, because it was a very easy thing for them. But it was a real problem for us: We felt like we were standing still.
O: Well, they probably felt like you were a sure thing, like you would make a little money with your little cult of fans, and nothing more.
JL: Exactly. That was what was going on. I mean, at least we got to make records, but we felt like we could go farther and find people who were more enthusiastic, and who could work with us in a more personal way. So finally, after we put out Factory Showroom, they kind of agreed to end the deal with us, and that actually worked out better than we expected, because we were bought out of our contract. We got paid for the records we hadn't made and were free to do something else, though we haven't quite figured out what that's going to be.
O: Elektra bought you out?
JL: We were paid out of our contract. We haven't got a record contract right now. We're putting this thing [Severe Tire Damage] out as a one-shot.
O: So, they were willing to pay to get rid of you?
JL: Well, legally, they had to at that point. It's funny, because there was a point where they could have just terminated the contract; the term of the contract had ended, and they could have not renewed it, and they wouldn't have had to pay us anything. That would have amounted to the same thing, but they wanted to sign a new contract, which they then decided to get out of. They were not particularly clever about what they were doing, but it worked out fine for us.
O: When do you envision another studio album coming out?
JL: Next year some time. I don't know exactly when, but we are always writing, and we have enough material now to make another record. We just have to get a record deal and record it. That's not… Those are not enormous hurdles.
O: I would imagine that the interest from labels is there.
JL: Yeah. We have people that we're talking to; we're just trying to find the best deal.
O: Is the next record going to be with a full band, or is it just the two of you?
JL: Well, I think that with our last record [Factory Showroom], we figured out that we could not really decide that it was going to be a document of a rock band, the way we did with the one before, John Henry. John and I figured out that what we really wanted to do was make whatever kind of records we wanted to make, and not have some formal idea of what it was we were representing. So we had some songs that had drums and bass on them, and some that didn't, and I think we're going to continue with that idea. We can cook it up in the studio however we want, and it's not about trying to make it sound like a band. But the difference now from the '80s is that we actually do have… We kind of have the people skills now to work with other musicians, which we really didn't have before. We were not inclined to work with other musicians so much. I think partly it was a control issue, and partly we didn't imagine… We didn't have this picture of why it would be any good to have other people playing on the records. So we've grown. We've matured.
O: Are you guys still inspired to be They Might Be Giants?
JL: Oh, yeah. I think so. I mean, there are different kinds of inspiration. I think that we have always been inspired to come up with songs and come up with new ideas, and it happens that They Might Be Giants is a great vehicle for that, because it's this institution now. It's this brand name, so it's a great resource for us for that reason. We kind of set the boundaries pretty wide early on, so we have a lot of freedom within They Might Be Giants to do whatever we want. And the other thing is that we're inspired by the need to support ourselves. [Laughs.] That's very inspiring. That's another resource the band brings to us.
O: You don't feel like you're growing into other projects?
JL: Oh, I think we're doing that, as well. I don't think there's any necessity to burn bridges; I think we both feel very into They Might Be Giants, and we have a lot of warm feelings about the band. And then, at the same time, we've come up with lots of other stuff. I think that even if we went through a period where we weren't doing They Might Be Giants so much, it wouldn't be because the band had broken up; it would be, like, "This is something we can always return to."
O: When you look at They Might Be Giants at the end of the band's run, what do you want to have accomplished?
JL: I don't know if there's anything left for us to accomplish. I think we've been doing the thing we really want to do, and there isn't some incomplete aspect to it. We always wanted to make records and have people hear them, and be part of this… I don't know if we ever articulated it this way, but I think that in a personally important way, we have been part of the cultural dialogue. We have been, and we hope to continue to be, part of the cultural world. And that's really enough. That's plenty. I don't think we are embittered because we didn't actually knock Madonna off the top of the charts.