They Are Too the Boss of You
They Might Be Giants are in an enviable position. Eighteen years into a recording career that has seen their evolution from indie label fledglings to corporate rock stars and finally into a self-sufficient cottage industry unto themselves, these two unassuming guys named John have stuck around a lot longer than anybody might have expected. Or feared.
"I'm not really sure how that happened, to be honest with you," chortles John Linnell, a.k.a "the one with the accordion." "There was definitely a time back there in the mid-'90s when it might've made sense to sorta throw in the towel. It just never occurred to us. We always enjoy doing it, so we never think to stop."
The "it" that Linnell and bespectacled guitar-slinging TMBG mate John Flansburgh continue enjoying has always been a little hard to pin down. On a song-by-song basis, Giants music can easily be likened to what you'd find in a genre-blending Cuisinart. On the first album alone, they jumped at will from the impossibly infectious and propulsive breakthrough 1986 hit "Don't Let's Start," to a phoned-in noise break courtesy of notoriously careless ax-man Eugene Chadbourne, to an odd, stripped-down dirge reporting the nuptials of Marvin Gaye and Phil Ochs, with myriad equally whiplash-inducing stops in between. As many songs as were on the albums (19 on the first, a mere 18 on the second), there were always more waiting in the wings. Legend has it that for a time the pair made it a point of pride to write a new tune every single day, which would then be fed into their dial-a-song service, still up and running at 718-387-6962.
The sound of They Might Be Giants, for all its eclecticism, has tended to strike rock purists as rootless, possibly even soulless. Sure, alongside late-'80s "alternative" contemporaries like, say, Jane's Addiction or Lucinda Williams, Flansburgh and Linnell's often silly-sounding studio grab bag seemed a bit arty and facile on the surface, as if dada conceptualists the Residents had actually made good on their Commercial Album threat. But the soulless charge just doesn't stick. One striking thing about TMBG has always been the alienation and sadness at the core of many of their lyrics. Early songs like "I've Got a Match" ("Your embrace and my collapse") and "Piece of Dirt" were at least as despairing as anything on Joy Division's Closer, although the harsh emotions were often barely detectable under the sonic tomfoolery. Heck, even "Don't Let's Start" contains the memorable "everybody dies frustrated and sad" line -- a dark heart beats even in their poppiest moments.
Of course, back then, there was a lot more for these two guys to be frustrated and sad about. They were touring crappy clubs as a two-man band with backing tapes, barely making ends meet and constantly fearing having to go back to straight day jobs. This last terror was mentioned over and over on the first several albums, with lines like "quit my job at the car wash" on the debut, to "money's all broke and food's going hungry" on Lincoln, to the self-explanatory two-words-plus-whipcrack anthem "Minimum Wage" on Flood. However, this was all before TMBG had solidified their reputation and been sought out for high-profile soundtrack work like Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Malcolm in the Middle. You're not the boss of me now, indeed.
"I hadn't really thought of it that way," murmurs Linnell humbly. "I guess we really have turned into kind of an institution over time. There was never any grand plan to do it that way, it just worked out. We're pretty grateful."
Beginning with their third album, They Might Be Giants began a long relationship with WB-affiliated Elektra Records. This period saw the boys gaining increased visibility, with heavy rotation on MTV's then-ascendant 120 Minutes for songs like "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "The Statue Got Me High." Their live show went through some serious changes as well, with the former "Rhythm Section Want Ad" transformed into co-leaders of a five-piece band. A few years ago John and John left Warners and got the chance to start their own imprint, named Idlewild, which receives distribution through the venerable independent label Rounder.
This deal allows the duo a huge amount of flexibility, and one result of the increase in freedom was the release of No!, the first They Might Be Giants children's album. This may seem an odd choice on the surface, but for years TMBG fans who were parents had been reporting to the Johns that kids loved their music. It was a natural progression for a combo that had already released songs like "Toddler Highway," "Particle Man" and "Why Does the Sun Shine?" to dive headfirst into the juvenile market.
"It's a very different mind-set making music specifically for kids," Linnell enthuses. "Adults have so many preconceptions they bring to music. References and influences and stuff like that. Everyone's a rock critic. But little kids don't think that way at all. They have no idea about the so-called rules of music, they don't know how it's made, who you sound like. They're just much more open than grown-ups in a lot of ways. And as musicians, it gives us an opportunity to be open too, and creative in a different way than usual." Other TMBG kids' projects include the book Bed Bed Bed and an upcoming Disney DVD meant to help kids learn the alphabet.
Not to worry, though: They Might Be Giants haven't turned their back on adult music just yet. Their July 20 show at the 21-and-over Meridian will feature songs from their newest disc, The Spine, which finds our brainy, facile, alienated heroes in fine grown-up fettle, cursing with the best of them on "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" and sweating the bureaucratic blues on "Memo to Human Resources."
"There's nothing on the new record that's a drastic departure for us," Linnell says. And why would there be? Almost 20 years on, They Might Be Giants have complete control over their music and its distribution, a loyal fan base and generous commissions from both entertainment monoliths and big advertising firms. If it turns out that everybody does die frustrated and sad, here at least are two lucky, hardworking guys determined to make the most of it in the meantime.
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