Q&A with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants; Playing Variety Playhouse March 5 & 6

[ 4 ] March 4, 2010 |
By Jim Simpson

Two-time Grammy winners and college-radio veterans They Might Be Giants bring their playfully surreal sound to Atlanta for two shows at the Variety Playhouse, March 5 and 6. The first is a “grown ups” (14+) show Friday, and a Saturday matinee for families (tickets for both shows are on sale here), where the Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) will feature their smart, jumpy tunes – and puppets! – just for the kiddies. We spoke with accordion virtuoso John Linnell just before the TMBG show in Tallahassee Wednesday evening.

We’ve always heard that too much television is bad for us, but your music seems to owe a certain amount of its appeal and quirky, goofy charm to that medium.

It had an influence. We felt like TV was just part of the culture, typically, and I think that we’ve had the opportunity, especially over the last 10 years, to pay back our debt by doing television themes, incidental music and commercials.

I was thinking specifically about the selections that appeared on Apollo 18 as “Fingertips,” the 15-second songs that sounded like commercial jingles.

Yeah, I’m glad you pointed that out. Those were based on a kind of TV ad that was prevalent at the time, which was an ad for a collection of songs where they would play just the choruses of each song as the titles scrolled past. For many of those songs, the only versions we got to know were the ones in the commercials, so we only knew just a little snatch of a particular song. It seemed like that was its own kind of music, just knowing only three bars of a song.

You also did a song called “Oranges and Graphic Design” as a commercial for a web design company called The Chopping Block. Were they friends of yours?

They’ve done design work for us and we’ve done jingles for them in return, and we’ve played at parties for them. We’ve had an agreeable relationship with them, and they were just happy to trade with us.

TMBG are well-known for their exceptionally smart lyrics. Are you the primary lyricist?

John and I really do share all the different parts of songwriting. We’ll both write entire songs, for the most part, and we each try our own songs and bring them to the project.

This might not be the best description, but I’ve always got the impression that some of your songs, at least the lyrics, have a sincere insincerity about them, but in a playful way – with healthy does of paradoxical wordplay thrown in.

I don’t know if I’d describe it that way, but there’s kind of an oblique mysterious kind of lyric that we were into fairly early on, a kind of surrealism. But we’ve always done a broad range of types of lyrics with different rhetorical modes … we’ve done stuff that’s very earnest, and we’re ultimately sincere about what we’re doing. There’s not too much that’s unclear about the intent of what we’re doing, there’s nothing hidden. A lot of the songs are just objects that are meant to be appreciated on their own merits.

You’re just laying out interesting ideas for people to think about.

Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.

Some of your early work has a definite country or roots music feel to it – on a quirky level, to be sure – like “Hideaway Folk Family” and “Alientation’s for the Rich.” Have you ever considered recording your own unique brand of Americana record?

We haven’t really done a stylistally themed album before. We’ve done EPs that have a particular attitude that’s roped together. We had one called The Spine Surfs Alone where the material was more aggressive and sort of a little more demented than usual.

Along with that tour, back in 2004, you did a series of “venue songs” where you wrote and performed original compositions for each city’s venue. You even released an album called Venue Songs. For Atlanta, you wrote “Variety Playhouse Freak-In” that compared our venue to a hospital where the “nurses are guitars” and the audience pays their hospital bills in applause. Will you be playing that this Friday at the “grown up” show?

We absolutely will. We’ll be playing it at the Variety Playhouse grownup evening show, but not at the family matinee show on Saturday.

I would hope not, because the song’s ending is rather freaky.

[Laughs] Right.

You’ve received critical acclaim, including a Grammy in 2009, for your children’s music. Your first two kids’ projects, the album No! (Rounder Records) and Bed, Bed, Bed (a book/EP set from Simon & Schuster), predated the stuff you’ve done with Disney: Here Come the 123s (the Grammy winner), Here Come the ABCs and Here Comes Science, your latest. How did the deal with Disney come about?

We were approached by David Agnew who would eventually become the president of Disney Records. He gave us this amazingly attractive offer that we could do a set of themed DVDs on educational topics like learning the alphabet and numbers. That was the general idea, but we were free to concoct the whole thing ourselves. He knew that we were capable of hiring our own animators and videographers to do the visual stuff, and we produced all the music ourselves. It was an incredibly great relationship. We were allowed an extraordinary amount of freedom, which I think is probably unusual at Disney.

That’s interesting; that was my next question. Did they give you carte blanche to do whatever you wanted?

It’s been a great experience for us because we felt like we could just present David with what we were doing, and he just put his thumb up and said keep up the good work. It was a lot of fun, very gratifying to have that. Of course there are guidelines to follow which seemed arbitrary to us, but are very much the rule at Disney. [In the DVDs] you’re not allowed to show kids swimming without protective water-wings or whatever, no bike riding without helmets, and you can’t have flames or fire.

Was that disappointing? Are you guys big into fire?

It wasn’t disappointing, but it was a bit confusing. In the last DVD we were trying to present scientific ideas, so we couldn’t show, for example, a Bunsen burner heating up a liquid because it involved flame. We went along with their suggestions, but we had to go back and re-do some of the visuals.

ABCs and 123s seem pretty easy to deal with, but was there more fact-checking involved on Here Comes Science?

We contacted the curator of the New York Hall of Science. He was our advisor for everything and he rescued us from errors and misleading information, helped us clarify things. There are probably some screwups on the Science CD, but those were all our fault.

I read somewhere that you said kids need to be let off the hook sometimes, that they don’t always have to be learning things, but should just be allowed to enjoy music because it’s fun.

Absolutely. I still think that. I don’t really want to be the schoolmaster. Although we’ve certainly done stuff that’s, on the face of it, educational, I like to think it’s secretly entertainment
disguised as education.

What can audiences expect at the kids’ shows? Will the Deeply Felt Puppets be involved?

Yeah, there will be puppets. I hope I’m not spoiling it for anybody, but – well, there will be plenty of surprises. It’s a really fun show, and lots of memorable things happen, and not all of it is just us singing and playing.

Are you planning another kids’ music CD or are you going back to the “adult” side of They Might Be Giants? Anything in the works?

This year we’re working on a They Might Be Giants adult – well, we hate to use the word “adult” because it sounds like pornography. We used to just call it our work, before we did anything else, so I don’t know what to call it – we’re working on one of those. At the rate we’re going it will be out the beginning of next year. We’re very happy with what we’ve got so far.

At an “adult” show (not pornography) in the early 1990s, in the middle of “Twisting” you slowed the song way, way down, digitally altered your voices to sound syrupy, and then offered to the audience: “This is for those of you on acid.” Are those unique moments planned or do you and John (Flansburgh) improvise these on the fly?

[Laughs heartily] Those tend to be spontaneous. Those moments are probably an example of the things that will occur to Flansburgh while we’re performing, and occasionally they just get built into the show. That happened so long ago, I can’t really remember the acid trip version of “Twisting,” although I’m sure it did happen.

The band also has its own Wiki web page, a knowledge base choc-a-bloc with information, including setlists from shows 20 years ago. There’s a stunning amount of information there.

We rely on that for a lot of information. We look at that for setlists of the town we’re in to see what we played the last time around.

That’s got to be very handy.

It’s incredibly useful. Somebody is definitely keeping track, writing stuff down. It’s all available in one place; it’s great.

You’ve always seemed to be innovators in your approach to your music, as far as packaging it for your listeners: you had the Dial-A-Song feature in the ’80s, “Fingertips” using the shuffle function on CD players in the ’90s, download-only MP3 releases in 2000. Have you always been tech savvy?

We’re tech curious. We’re interested in what’s possible, but not particularly adept at the tech stuff. We have The Chopping Block – they know how to make it happen; we just nag them about what we can do.

They Might Be Giants play Variety Playhouse on March 5 and 6. Tickets are on sale now at TicketMaster.

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Category: Gigs, Interviews

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  1. susan simpson says:

    Great article. I’ve always been a big fan of TMBG’s interesting and entertaining music. They’ve always been clever without “singing down” to their fans. I actually attended the concert where they did the acid trip version of Twisting. Looking forward to the show.

  2. BEN Young says:

    It’s good to see these guys in an interview. I didn’t get to talk to them the one time I saw them at Rogue’s in Virginia Beach, but was really hoping to. Anyway, not only are they my favorite band, but my son really likes them now too.

  3. kevin says:

    I can’t believe that you salvaged this interview after starting with the “quirky” and “goofy” slant right off the bat. I bet a small part of Linnell died inside when you led off with that. Otherwise a nice read. This is a band you must experience LIVE at least once, people. AFter their musicianship smacks you across the face, you’ll stop calling them quirky.

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