They Might Be Giants: Cultivated Eccentricity
On first listen, the music of They Might Be Giants can come across as lighthearted, even glib. Don’t be fooled.
They Might Be Giants is a long-running rock group founded by songwriters John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Known for their singular upbeat sound and clever, often absurd lyrics, they have recorded twenty-two studio albums selling over four million copies.
Linnell and Flansburgh met as teenagers in Lincoln, MA, and formed They Might Be Giants in 1981 after moving to Brooklyn, NY. In 1985, they began advertising their Dial-a-Song service, where callers could listen to music on an answering machine; the service stayed active until 2006 and has relaunched several times since. Videos from their 1986 self-titled debut album and 1988 followup, Lincoln, gained popularity on the nascent MTV network. The band’s third album, Flood (1990), was an international hit, peaking at number 14 in the UK and number 75 on the Billboard album charts; the whimsical single “Birdhouse in Your Soul” was a success in both countries.
Since 2003, They Might Be Giants has recorded five albums for children in addition to a steady stream of music for adults. They won a Grammy Award for their 2008 kids album Here Come The 123s and were nominated in 2010 for Here Comes Science.
(Performance of ‘Doctor Worm’)
For two high school friends who started out with a guitar, an accordion and some prerecorded drum tracks, John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants have had a very good run indeed. In the past 35 years, they’ve released 20 albums, and contributed songs to films, TV and most recently, Broadway. But one thing they’ve never managed is a US hit single, and that, says John Linnell, has turned out to be an advantage.
John Linnell: We’re not annoying the hell out of anybody, you know. There’s not something in our repertoire that people are groaning about. I think the people who recognize us and remember us do so generally with a kind of pleasant feeling.
More than just a pleasant feeling, but a level of devotion that keeps them singing along three decades later. Generations of die-hard fans have been taken with the Giant’s infectious melodies, and reliably clever, occasionally absurd, lyrics.
(performance of ‘The Mesopotamians’)
But while this music sounds like fun, the group’s founders are deadly serious.
Linnell: We are very uptight, in a way, about what we’re doing.
John Flansburgh: Most people who work with us quickly come to understand that we are control freaks, and I am very specifically, like, this huge gatekeeper. I’m more than happy to be the bad cop if a bad cop is needed.
If the duo is particular, it’s because they’ve been captains of their own, fairly offbeat, creative ship for a long time. Even now, John and John retain the gritty ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude that brought them success early on. In 1983, they started Dial-A-Song, which offered new They Might Be Giants songs as the outgoing message on the answering machine at John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn apartment. Their early music videos, mostly homemade on a shoestring budget, earned them national exposure on MTV. But their real breakthrough came in 1990, with the band’s third album, Flood, which has sold more than a million copies worldwide to date, thanks in part to ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’, quirky tales of ancient history, as told by a blue canary nightlight. It reached number six on the UK pop charts.
(performance of ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’)
And though the group’s light-hearted approach resonated with British audiences, some in the media were less amused.
Flansburgh: “Admit it, this funny thing can’t last.” “What were you thinking “when you thought you could succeed “with this humorous music? “Doesn’t it seem like a mistake “that you’re doing music with a sense of humor?”
Linnell: The same question over and over.
Flansburgh: The reiteration of the same question over and over again. And we’re just like “Yeah, lady, it’s cool.”
Flansburgh: We don’t have a problem like, saying very glib things about our work, but we really have a difficult time hearing other people say it.
But this sense of humor that so offended that reporter has made They Might Be Giants a big hit with young children, for whom they’ve made several albums.
Linnell: We didn’t want it to be some kind of remedial, good-for-you type of thing.
Flansburgh: I mean, I don’t think we’re uniquely qualified for many things, but I think what happened with the kid’s stuff was we actually had a transferrable skill.
Of their four children’s albums, three have gone gold. One even earned a Grammy, but the duo still writes mainly music for grown-ups. Despite its title, their 2018 album, I Like Fun, explores more weighty topics.
(Performance of ‘I Left My Body’)
AJC: ‘I Left My Body’ is what it suggests?
AJC: It’s a visit to the pearly gates?
Linnell: Possibly, that’s one, yeah. I mean, I think we don’t, we’re not nailing everything completely down, but there’s a strong element of death throughout the album, but there’s also fun. You know.
Flansburgh: The fun of death.
AJC: There’s also some fairly unveiled references to opioid addiction, if I’m not mistaken?
Flansburgh: ‘I Like Fun’ is about prescription drugs, which of, I guess there are some.
Linnell: Could be opioid.
Flansburgh: It’s in a sense a cautionary tale, it’s sort of, I think one of the things that people, when people talk about drugs, is so strange to me, is the reason people get into drugs is that it’s fun. So, it’s like, you know, that part they skip over really gingerly, and the song is kind of about that confusion. How can something as simple as the idea of fun get so messed up by this, by this addiction stuff?
(Performance of ‘I Like Fun’)
With each new project, Flansburgh and Linnell strive to impress their most difficult critics, each other.
Linnell: I put something together and I think “What will John think?” And even without him there, I’m already, I can see it possibly curdling, you know.
AJC: Oh, so you’re almost self editing before it gets to the other person?
Linnell: Yeah, absolutely, yeah, yeah.
AJC: Oh, that’s interesting.
Flansburgh: I think the idea of the other person being the first audience is very, in a way, I think that’s what defines us as a group more than anything else. That’s a part of, sort of invisible, part of the collaboration, it’s that, you know, you just wanna kind of impress the other person.