John Linnell of They Might Be Giants: A Technologizer Tech Interview

By  |  Monday, June 13, 2011 at 12:22 am

Linnell Goes Online

When did you first use the Internet?

Pretty soon after I got that Mac, I got a CompuServe account. There was no Web yet. The Web didn’t exist, but the Internet was up and running, so you had these posts like CompuServe. I started to get into email with people I knew. It was such a non-universal thing at that time that it actually wasn’t all that useful. It was nice to write letters to these particular people that I knew who also had email accounts, but it just wasn’t all that useful at the time. This was probably about 1990.

The other thing was that, with my modem, I could call up our band’s management agency in New Jersey to send calendar schedules. The guy who worked there also had a computer, and we’d — I can’t even remember how we did this, but you’d have their computer pick up the phone when you called them. Your modem would call their modem, basically. Sort of like you’re faxing them and then you could transfer files. And of course it took an hour to transfer a tiny file.

That was another thing that seemed like, “Well, this is kind of useful, maybe.” You could send a photograph to somebody over the phone.

Did you ever call any BBSes? Bulletin board systems?

Yeah, sure. I remember messing around with that stuff. It was kind of a time waster. I don’t think it was a big part of my life at that time. Most of the people on them were tech people who wanted to communicate about tech stuff.

Not music people.

Not so much, yeah.

When did you first use the Web?

They Might Be Giants embraced the Internet early on. Seen here is their Web site, "The Big Steamy Thing," in 1996.

Well, that was a little later in the 90s. I think my wife was the pioneer in my household. She got a laptop and one of the early browsers and she was saying, “You know, now you can get encyclopedic information really easily.” And she explained to me how the browser worked. As I recall, it was her who was touting this new thing, and I was saying, “I like my old, bound encyclopedia.” She’d say, “I know, but this is faster.”

What computer were you using at that point?

She had one of the early Mac laptops that was this dark gray color — a PowerBook. And it had the little phone jack on the side.

What did you think about the Web when you first saw it?

It wasn’t that big a deal to me at that time. It didn’t assume the importance that it has since then. I felt like, “This seems like this a sort of faddish thing.” Actually, before Netscape, there was a browser called Mosaic or something like that. Does that ring a bell? Do you remember Mosaic?

Yeah, I used that too. It was the first major graphical browser.

That’s right. And originally the Web seemed to be all text, right?

Yeah, it was.

Right. So, I was aware of that and I knew it was a thing people were excited about. The whole thing of getting your computer to hook up to the Web was a little bit complicated. You had to configure your computer, and it was a real pain in the ass.

It definitely was. Your Mac Plus got you started on the Mac platform. Have you continued with a Mac throughout the years?

What’s funny is that I just bought Performer 7. Twenty-five years down the road, and I’m using the same computer and the same software. That’s the crazy part. It went from being a MIDI sequencer to being a digital recorder. I never bothered to jump to another program. I’ve tried using Logic and some other things, but I’ve stuck with Performer because it’s easier for me.

You never use a Windows PC?

No, I’ve never done that. I don’t think Flansburgh ever did. We’ve both been on Performer this whole time. That’s the funny thing.

Do you keep up with technology or science news these days?

“I’ll have some gear that works, so I’ll just keep using it until it falls apart.”

–John Linnell

Well, I’m always interested in that stuff, but like a lot of people, there’s a point where I step off and it starts to seem very fetishy and dull.

We don’t update our software as much as they want you to. I’ll have some gear that works, so I’ll just keep using it until it falls apart. We feel like there’s a pressure to constantly upgrade everything, and I’m a little bit of a puritan about that stuff. I feel like I don’t want to be pushed around and forced to…and the other thing is that often, the upgrades are so tiny and incremental that it feels like a lot more trouble than it’s worth.

Sometimes upgrades break the software or make it worse.

Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to get the point-zero version because it’s not even working properly yet. So I go back and forth between wanting to check out the new thing or not.

I told you I just upgraded to Digital Performer version 7. Well, the previous version I had was 5. I worked with 5 for — I don’t know — years, actually, because it was fine. It did everything I needed. And then finally I got curious, and I had already gone through two different versions.

Are there any advantages to 7 over 5?

[Laughs] I haven’t quite found out yet. We did all the work on the new record on version 5, so I waited until we were done with all of the recording to upgrade because I knew it was going to slow me down. So, I haven’t had a chance to put it through its paces, but it doesn’t seem dramatically different. It’s pretty familiar looking.

Do you and Flansburgh do most of your work in your home studios these days?

We do a lot of the pre-production stuff. We do the writing at home and make demos. We’ve had the same musicians working with us for more than ten years now, so we have a pretty regular routine with them where we send them the demos before the recording session so they have a chance to listen to everything.

John Linnell, Asteroids Champion

What was the first video game you ever played?

I was a very talented young Asteroids player. When I was 19, I could play with just one quarter, which gives you some picture of how useful I was, you know, as a person. What a directed and productive member of society I was.

Well, it’s fine. Nineteen is OK to be like that.

John Linnell honed his game of Asteroids (1979) until he could play on one quarter.

I guess so. As far as my son is concerned, I think that is the cutoff.

“Don’t be good at Asteroids beyond 19.”

Exactly. I have a funny feeling he’s going to be really good at stuff like that even into his twenties and possibly beyond.

Did you play any home video games? Own any game consoles?

I never got into that stuff, nah. On the early Mac I told you about, I had a copy of Tetris. There was a period in my household where everybody was addicted to Tetris for a little while, but we managed to get over it. Nothing has ever come along to take its place. I also played Tetris in the bar where my first band used to play.

Did you play any other games on the Mac back then?

Not really. I’m not much of a gamer. I can’t bring myself to spend hours — the amount of time you have to invest in it. It just doesn’t appeal to me now the way it did when I was younger.

There may be a direct relationship between someone’s success in their field to how much they don’t like playing video games.

Macintosh Tetris (1988): Linnell's favorite computer game of all time.

[Hearty laugh] Well, I don’t know. I’ve got to say, working with the Homestar Runner guys…they’re about 15 years younger than me, and they seem like really intelligent, productive people who are still obsessed with video games. That made me more sympathetic to that use of your time, because they’re really funny, interesting guys, and they obviously are still deeply into video games.

Have you considered writing music for video games? It’s a big industry right now.

I’m not against it. My sense is that it’s a pretty interesting world. But we’ve never really locked into it. We met with the guys who developed The Sims and did a version of “Take Out the Trash” using their language. We wrote some incidental music as well for the game. I’m not sure where that wound up getting used.

We probably haven’t pursued video game music as hard as we could. I do feel there’s good and bad game music. I can tell that. There’s stuff that’s really interesting, and then there’s a lot of crap, so I appreciate the idea of wanting to raise the standard.



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4 Comments For This Post

  1. ccsuwxman Says:

    I never heard of these guys until my granddaughter started watching the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Between "The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" and "Hot Dog" I realized that this was a band with some serious talent. And not just for kids.

  2. KarlHungus Says:

    I've been listening to TMBG since their title album in '86 (I was in 9th grade!). I think my favorite is Apollo 18 though…(no, maybe Lincoln). They two Johns always have interesting things to say and new areas to explore. I hope they continue their collaboration for many years to come…

  3. @tealwren Says:

    Awesome article – Love to hear about my favorite band!

  4. Nefarious Wheel Says:

    They Might Be Giants changed my life. Ever since I got a prosthetic forehead for my real head, people have been sending their telephone calls to me. Thank you!