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They Might Be Giants Thrive Through Songcraft, Lyrical Wit

Posted in MusicWorld on April 20, 2005 by

In their 20-years-plus musical association, They Might Be Giants partners John Flansburgh and John Linnell have pursued a remarkably varied and adventurous path that's allowed them to evolve from charmingly homespun lo-fi novelty act into a prolific, accomplished two-man cottage industry. The pair's large and varied body of work includes more than a dozen albums of their lyrically witty, musically eclectic compositions as well as an adventurous panoply of solo and side projects.  

In addition to their reliably popular albums of smartly humorous pop/rock tunes, the duo have written music for films (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me ) and TV (Malcolm in the Middle ), recorded an album to accompany a 2001 issue of the literary magazine McSweeney's , and are featured in the new Cartoon Network series Squigglevision . TMBG's exploits were also the subject of the 2002 documentary feature Gigantic , and they're currently working on a project with noted animator/director Henry Selick (of Nightmare Before Christmas /James and the Giant Peach fame).

What all of the Giants' far-ranging projects have in common is the twosome's trademark combination of irresistibly melodic songcraft and left-field lyrical wit — qualities that are prominent on their two most recent albums, The Spine and Here Come the ABCs . The former is a typically crafty set of memorable pop numbers, while the latter is the band's second collection of children's songs. Here Come the ABCs manages to be both educational and fun, thanks to the two Johns' knack for merging the cerebral and the playful.

According to Linnell, the difference between making records for adults and children is "Not as much as you would think. Aside from the issue of what's appropriate, which tends to get overstated to the detriment of the quality of kids' music in general, the main difference is that kids don't tend to compare our music to the whole history of popular music. Young children live in a less context-dependent world, and the great advantage to us is that we can make up a song that will be the first of its kind the kids will hear."

They Might Be Giants' recent ventures into the youth market have led to them performing concerts in front of all-kid crowds. "Kids are pretty tough audiences," observes Linnell. "They're not as concerned with the flow of the concert as adults are. They don't applaud if they don't feel like it, and it doesn't seem to make kids nervous or embarrassed to watch a band struggle and fail. They also don't hold up their lighters during the ballads."

Flansburgh and Linnell have been friends since childhood and began writing songs together while in high school. After moving to Brooklyn from their native Lincoln, Massachusetts in the early 1980s, the resourceful team began to make a name for themselves on the local scene, compensating for the lack of a record deal by launching Dial-A-Song, serenading their growing fan base via answering machine.  

The same D.I.Y. spirit that spawned the lo-fi Dial-A-Song — which continues to this day — has led to TMBG emerging as an innovative force in online music distribution. They were one of the first acts to release a full album — 1999's Long Tall Weekend — exclusively as an MP3 download. They continue to explore new digital vistas, maintaining an online music subscription service via EMusic, offering fans exclusive new tracks every month.

"It seems like we've been rewarded for being ourselves, rather than calculating the formula for mainstream success," Linnell states. "We've never figured out what the recipe for a hit song is, so we've made our way by producing what we ourselves would want to hear. We've also been very lucky in the opportunities that have come along, and prudent in the offers we've turned down. We're still very excited about (They Might Be Giants) because it's still personal and fun, and that excitement has always been the jet fuel that keeps us going."