John Linnell and John Flansburgh formed They Might Be Giants in 1982. They’ve stayed together for longer than most marriages. With their inventive, surreal and absurdist approach to songwriting and their unusual initial line-up of accordion, guitar and drum machine, Flansburgh used to joke that they were “the most stoppable force in rock music”. With 22 albums behind them, plus TV themes (Malcolm In The Middle) and a musical (SpongeBob SquarePants: The BroadwayMusical), they’ve proved themselves wrong on that count. Last year alone they released three albums. John Linnell, who is now 59, reflected on the last three-and-a-half decades from the Catskills in upstate New York.
BARRY DIVOLA: When I got your debut album in 1986 I was intrigued by everything from the childlike Rodney Greenblatt cover to the wonderfully surreal nature of the songs. But back then did you have a strong idea of what you wanted They Might Be Giants to be and what you didn’t want it to be?
JOHN LINNELL: There were some directions that John and I did not want to go in. And I can name two in particular – reggae and the blues (laughs). In some ways They Might Be Giants was undefined and we thought that was our biggest strength. We didn’t define what kind of band we were going to be or who it was for. We wanted to keep it open ended. That was our mission statement at the time.
What kind of things were you inspired by initially?
A really wide range of things. It began with The Beatles, for example. They were the basis for popular music in our lifetime. And then there were all these other oddball things that we liked, like underground rock of the ’70s, in particular things like The Residents. We aspired to be as interesting as they were without necessarily copying them. They had a weird appeal that had to do with mystery and a sense that there isn’t an answer to that mystery. That was part of what we were engaged with.
When you and Flansburgh met as teenagers in Lincoln, Massachusetts, did you immediately feel like kindred spirits or was it more like a romantic comedy where you hated each other at the beginning?
I wouldn’t say it was either one in particular. We had a whole circle of friends and everybody we knew had some interest in the alternatives to popular culture at the time. We just loved the idea of doing creative work and trying to do something original without necessarily having an audience in mind or a business plan. It seems obvious now, but we were not careerists. We started out thinking “Let’s just do something fun.”
Are your personalities very different?
There are definitely differences between us, yeah. In terms of the way we work together I would say that John is somebody who has a more practical idea of what can work and how it can work. He’s more in the managerial mindset. He writes the setlist, he organises the show in terms of production and he also does all the visuals and graphics. He’s always been the art director of the band. I’m more of a schooled musician with a music theory background and a maybe more academic approach to music. We admire each other’s strengths and a lot of them overlap. We try to copy each other sometimes. I think there’s a bit of healthy competition going on.
You released three albums last year. It seems like you two have the opposite of writer’s block. Is it a compulsion for you to write songs?
We have said in the past that we’re compulsive songwriters, but left to my own devices I’m pretty lazy. I feel a sense of responsibility to go down into my studio in my basement in Brooklyn because I feel I ought to. It’s a meaningful pursuit even though it’s a challenge. The truth is you have to sit down and get to work. It doesn’t come automatically. It’s very satisfying to have done the work but it can be gruelling in the middle of doing the work. There are times when I despair when I’m in the middle of a problem with trying to make a song work. The satisfaction comes at the end when you’ve solved the problems and you’ve figured out how to make it hang together. That makes it all worthwhile.
With 22 albums, you’ve got an embarrassment of riches to choose from every time you play. Is it a bit daunting to know what to include on the setlist each night?
It’s not daunting so much as a challenge to make a good show that will satisfy the whole range of people who show up. There are people who may have only heard a couple of songs by us and they’ll want to hear those songs. And then you have the front row people who really look forward to hearing us do stuff we never do, all the odd deep catalogue stuff. And then there’s everybody in-between. So we have to put a show together that’s fun for everybody. The band cannot learn every single song we’ve ever done. It’s just too many. I would say there’s around 50 songs that at any given time the band can play. From those songs we put together a setlist.
You embraced innovation early with putting your music on the internet, didn’t you?
We weren’t exactly pioneers but we were always open to trying out stuff. Maybe that was the key. We weren’t a super well-defined project so we felt we could be anything. We put a record out as an MP3 back in the ’90s. We were approached by emusic, who did only digital releases. They wanted to do an exclusive and we said, “That sounds fine, that sounds low risk.” We weren’t giving away the farm. So it seemed like an easy decision. It’s been a learning curve for us because we’re old guys. Learning to do stuff online and things like iPhone apps, we need the clever young technical people to help us figure out stuff.
Of course, looking back to Dial-A-Song in the ’80s, when you would record new songs regularly and put them on your answering machine so people could call up, it was like a very lo-fi version of what would happen years later in the digital world.
Yeah, Dial-A-Song was a way for you to be at home and listen to music using your phone. Now that’s the way everyone listens to music. So the world finally caught up with us.
They Might Be Giants play The Rosemount Hotel on February 27.