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Sun Zoom Spark, 1995

They Might Be Giants interview

Sean McManus interviews the two Johns in They Might Be Giants and discovers that they're deadly serious

Purveyors of fine spirits and cheerful experimental pop, the They Might Be Giants' experiments have included writing only the choruses of seventeen songs for a spoof greatest hits commercial and covering educational songs.

But this is all deadly serious to them.

"We don't want it to sound weird," says John Linnell. "That isn't the idea."

John and John hold a sugar cube up to the camera

They Might Be Giants, photographed after this interview by Mark Turner. This photograph has been scanned from my student newspaper reproduction of this article, and it appears here with Mark's permission.

The group which has just released their fifth album "John Henry" is so rampantly original that their quirkiness seems almost deliberate. "If we were trying to be quirky, we'd be a lot more quirky," Linnell corrects me. "We're doing something that is personal. We don't want it to sound generic and so our music is defined by what we like as opposed to what we think other people will like."

John Flansburgh continues: "Pretty early on we had aspects of the show that were definitely to get the attention of the very fickle New York audience. When we started touring and had national success in the US, we quickly lost those attention grabbing parts of the show because we didn't want to come across as over the top. I feel that since then it's been a very straight forward music performance. From the descriptions of our show, you'd really think that we were putting on a much more elaborate smokescreen of theatricality. I see bands on MTV that are considered integrity acts doing stuff that is way more foolish than I would consider doing."

Such bemusement from a band that documented an unwelcome spider's fate as a 30 second sequence of cries to kill him and counter-cries to save him. "There is no way we could perform that live," says Linnell. "There are fans who just want to hear 'Birdhouse in your Soul' and then there's this group of people who have picked specific obscure things we've done and really fixated upon them, like Spider. Our audience is like a tribe. They really go for things that are more severely They Might Be Giants-like."

Our Audience is like a tribe!

So is TMBG a cult in the making? "I hope so," says Linnell reflectively. "That's really what we envision as our retirement plan: to be a cult band with a very reliable audience like the Grateful Dead's audience," he continues drily. "They can play as many crappy shows as they want for all eternity. They'll still sell out."
"Cruising is our word for the nineties. We worked through the eighties, we're cruising through the nineties." says Flansburgh.

After four albums of working alone and playing most of the instruments themselves, the two Johns have dumped their concert backing tape and put a band together for the latest album and tour. "Well, you know Erasure's just about to catch up with us on this," says Linnell. "We were touring last year and we thought we'd make the show more interesting, so we talked about hiring this guy, Kurt Hoffman, to play sax with us. Then we thought maybe we could get more musicians in and we should get rid of the tape. We ended up having such a good experience playing with the band that we decided to make the next record with them." The band includes a horn section, which helps to fill out some of the gaps caused by putting a studio project on the stage. In stark contrast to the previous gradual layering of tracks, the new album was recorded mostly live. "Since we've got the band, it's a much more organic sounding record," says Flansburgh. "We basically worked out a lot of the songs live in front of audiences and we work out a lot of the stuff in the show."

Accordian player Linnell is playing live keyboards for the first time with They Might Be Giants. "We're still a little disoriented," he says. The live set includes a conducted jam. "That's fun. We could never do that kind of thing before and there are all sorts of things like that that we are becoming aware we can do as we go along." Stump the Band was the audience's opportunity to challenge the band to play popular songs outside of their repertoire. "We'd pretty much run through the hundred songs in the top of people's consciousness," says Flansburgh. "On the fiftieth request for YMCA, we realised we couldn't keep this part of the show going."

The new album continues the puzzling blend of rock nursery rhymes and comical asides. "All our songs work on a bunch of different levels," says Flansburgh. "They're not going after the same idea. Some are extremely hard edged and a song like Istanbul, a featherweight song, is an opportunity for arrangement ideas that are not part of regular rock music. There are other songs that might be metaphoric or relatively straight-forward or might have cultural allusions in them that are hard to understand if you didn't grow up where we grew up. We're more complicated than the average band that's just trying to achieve the same thing over and over."

How the new band members will fit into TMBG's virtual world remains to be seen. Judging by this Summer's London gig, life after Henry could make them giants after all.

What happened next?

They Might Giants have continued to have a successful career, and have now released over 20 studio albums, including several children's albums. In 2018, the band released three albums, largely collecting together songs released through their Dial-A-Song project, which published a song online each week during 2018. At the end of 2018, They Might Be Giants also released a CD of John Henry demos. Although similar in most respects to the final album, the demos feels like a fresh performance for fans well acquainted with the album. The two Johns continue to tour with a band. Catch them if you can! Their show in London in 2018 had a varied and surprising setlist, and was superbly performed.



© Sean McManus. All rights reserved.

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