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

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

An Open-Ended, Non-Specific Band

What’s the biggest misconception people have about They Might Be Giants?

“It’s divided between people who think we’re not serious enough and people who think that we take ourselves too seriously.”

–John Linnell

I don’t know. [laughs] I get the feeling there are misconceptions, but I think the farther away you get, the more wrong people’s image is of what you’re doing.

We’ve seen people describe the band who obviously are not that interested in it. Some people think we’re trying to do some deliberately goofy thing. I think it’s divided between people who think we’re not serious enough and people who think that we take ourselves too seriously.

Any misconceptions about you, personally? Among your fans, you have a reputation as being shy compared to Flansburgh.

I think that’s probably right. Yeah. I’m definitely not as outgoing as Flansburgh. They’re right, those people.

Since you’ve written so many songs with morbid subject matter, I think it’s fair to ask: what’s the worst way you’ve ever been injured?

[laughs] Yikes, worst injury. Well, I’ve had some major medical catastrophes. I had a horrible blood infection, but that wasn’t really an injury. I guess you could describe it as that.

I was thinking along the lines of: Have you ever almost sliced off your thumb?

“I had a horrible blood infection, but that wasn’t really an injury. Flansburgh actually did slice a huge chunk of his finger off at one time.”

–John Linnell

Hmm. Flans has almost sliced off his…I think he actually did slice off the end of his finger. He worked as a layout artist for magazines, and at that time, back in the late 80s, they used X-Acto blades to cut up the articles and paste them together. As I recall, he actually did slice a huge chunk of his finger off at one time.

I haven’t sliced my finger off. Now that you mention it, I feel kind of lucky. I haven’t had any really gruesome injuries in a long time.

Do you think Flansburgh has grown as a songwriter over the years?

Yes, I do and I think you’ll be pleasantly — have you got a copy of the new single?

I have the four advance tracks, yes.

I think something happened recently where he’s doing more really interesting lyric writing. He’s stretching out in a very good way. “Cloisonné,” I think, is a great song. That’s on the advance thing.

And his stuff on The Else seemed a lot more mature — more intellectual or deeper.

Yeah, I think that’s true. I think he’s come up with a way of writing lyrics that’s much deeper, as you said.

Do you feel like you’ve grown over the years as a songwriter?

I’ve gotten more clear about what I like. Every time out of the box is a struggle. It doesn’t get easier. It’s really hard to write good songs, and the more you do it, the more you’re trying to compete with yourself.

What did your solo effort with State Songs (1999) teach you about the nature of your partnership with Flansburgh?

Linnell released his first and (so far) only solo album, State Songs, in 1999.

It taught me that Flansburgh does a lot of the work. [laughs] He does a lot of leg work, and it made me appreciate him in a new way. I had to do all this logistical work that I found to be a complete and utter pain in the ass. There are these carousel organs: there’s one in Washington, and there’s another one in somebody’s house in Long Island. I decided I wanted to record these carousel organs for the State Songs album, and it was so much more work and so much more expensive than I had originally thought.

It was actually kind of funny, because at the end of it, I was saying to Flansburgh, “I could have hired a big band for the amount of trouble this was,” and I could see when I said that, a little light bulb went off over his head. He immediately starting thinking of ways we could get larger ensemble horn groups. We actually did wind up doing a semi-big band show after that.

And when Flansburgh did his work with Mono Puff, did you see any hole where you were supposed to fit in?

John Flansburgh's side project, Mono Puff, reached its high point with 1998's "It's Fun to Steal."

Well, he did have a very individual thing that he was doing. I actually don’t know what his thought process was, but I think he wanted to do stuff that had more of a dance quality to it. More funky kind of stuff. I don’t know if that was specifically a situation where I was holding him back from doing that kind of thing. I think it was more like that was the flavor of the project he was trying to do.

He was working with other people, so maybe they brought that flavor when they worked together.

I think that’s right. I think those guys influenced him. But I think he was making the choice — he was picking the people based on the idea that his solo project would be more that kind of a thing.

Do you ever feel caged by the “They Might Be Giants” sound? Maybe Flansburgh wanted to escape that briefly. Alienating the fan base might be a concern.

This sounds a little bit easy to say this, but I think the freedom that we give ourselves in They Might Be Giants — I can’t really imagine having or wanting more freedom. We really allow ourselves to do such a range of things in the band, and the fact that it’s this brand allows us to do stuff that would be hard without the power of the brand name behind it. The benefits are really overwhelming, and I don’t feel like I’m being held back.

So there’s not a constant urge to do solo stuff on your part.

I could see doing another thing, but it’s not on the top of my list. I really still very much enjoy this project. I very much appreciate the advantage of working with John Flansburgh. As I said, he’s a really hard worker. He’s like a workaholic. So there’s a huge benefit for me in working with him: he takes a huge amount of the work off my shoulders.

“We deliberately decided that this was not something specific; we wanted it to be open ended.”

–John Linnell

What’s your greatest musical triumph?

I don’t know if I can come up with the single greatest musical triumph. I think that the conception of the band — the philosophy of the band is the thing that’s enabled us to keep going all this time. We deliberately decided that this was not something specific; we wanted it to be open ended. And in some ways, I think that’s probably the main inspiration for what we do now. We set out to have a philosophy that [the band] wasn’t supposed to be anything in particular, and I think that’s the key to the whole thing.

They Might Be Giants’ new album, Join Us, hits stores July 19th.



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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!