The word "cultish" might not have the most positive connotations for most people. But when it comes to They Might Be Giants -- the hyper-literate, defiantly strange, and almost subversively earnest alt-rockers who have been delighting a very specific group of listeners worldwide with their music since songwriters John Linnell and John Flansburgh formed the band in 1982 -- it may as well be a compliment.
For one, it's a rather sizable cult: The guys wouldn't have been able to keep up their rigorous touring schedule, not to mention release 17 studio albums (including a few for elementary school-aged ears), eight live albums, and a healthy handful of songs for television (Malcolm In the Middle, The Daily Show), without a pretty feverishly devoted fan base. And somehow, TMBG very rarely seem tired.
Glean, released April 21, represents their latest burst of productivity, containing songs from the band's newly revived Dial-A-Song project. Originally just a telephone number the band published in the back of papers like the Village Voice, urging fans to call a landline to hear a song, the concept has since come back to life with a decidedly 21st century spin: an app, a website, and a thoroughly intimidating, self-imposed challenge. To wit, the Johns have promised to release one new song for every week of 2015 -- yes, 52 songs a year. Ahead of the band's May 9 and 10 shows at the Fillmore, we caught up with Linnell by phone to hear what on Earth, exactly, they were thinking.
First, I have to tell that you that a They Might Be Giants show was one of the first-ever live shows that I remember; my dad took me and my sister to see you in S.F. when I was about eight years old, so '92 or '93. And it strikes me that even before you guys started writing music especially for kids, you’ve always been kind of a great all-ages, generation-bridging band.
That’s so great, thank you. I think that’s true; for people like your dad, probably, compared to what else was out there at the time we started, we were considered really appropriate -- stuff you could play for your kids. That was not intentional, and we kinda lucked out that it did lead eventually to making the kids’ records, with this idea of “we want to be entertaining for kids, maybe be something they can learn from, but not have it be some remedial thing that talks down to them.” Hopefully no kids have ever been forced to learn our songs.
So, you’ve decided to revive Dial-A-Song, the service that TMBG first launched in 1983 as a way to get music directly to people without it costing them (or you) very much by way of distribution. Not only that, you’re using it to put out one new song each week for an entire year. What made you decide to re-launch it? And what is wrong with you that you wanted to write 52 songs in one year?
[Laughs.] Yeah, the second question is more important. Well, first off, we’ve done other things under the Dial-A-Song moniker. It was just one of the very first things we came up with, the idea of a phone that you could call up and just listen to a song, and it still stands at the center of our philosophy, which is that we want people to feel like they’re the ones accessing us -- there’s something kind of personal about it. We’re not invading your space, or imposing ourselves on other people, you’re coming and asking us for a song. I think that’s part of why people feel like they have a kind of ownership of us, we are their personal choice; we are their band, and that’s a good relationship for an artist [to have with their fans].
I think that has led to the kind of cult following, the audiences that have been coming out for decades that I think would happily describe themselves as culty. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a good reflection on what the band signifies, that people feel like there’s something personal and meaningful about we’re doing. I mean, we’ve never been good at figuring out what people want, but we do know what we like, and most things we come up with as a band are based on the idea of what we would like to hear if we were consumers. That’s the only way that we can make decisions. Even if we could figure out what other people wanted from us, I think we’d be bad at trying to do it from that angle.
And the second question? What made you want to make 52 songs in one year?
This is exactly the kind of challenge that we’ve always been attracted to. We want to have a reason to work, and we work very well under deadline, and we’re also uptight enough that we’re not going to be sloppy. We actually started writing songs for this more than a year ago, and did a lot of work last year; we got a pretty solid backlog done. We’ll be back in the studio in June and hopefully after that will have more top-shelf material to add to the pile, but at this point we could make it through the year with what we have, if we needed to.
Between Dial-A-Song and a few other firsts -- you guys were the first to have an independent online store, for example -- it seems like you were pretty prescient in terms of the way the music industry would change going forward, the way people would consume music. Were you thinking about those issues back then?
Well, we were definitely into this notion of delivering music to people, but it’s true, Dial-A-Song was a completely weirdo idea in the early '80s, and now it's pretty normal. That’s how people buy music now, by sitting at home, so that was just lucky in a way. Back then it was like for shut-ins -- hey, you don’t want to leave your house? Great! Now that’s just normal. But we were never sure about what technology was coming next, and we’ve always been sort of open to whatever it took; we’ve never been stuck on any one particular method.
We probably are of a mindset that albums should have a Side One and a Side Two, but that’s just from being fogies. There’s lots of ways to deliver music. One early thing that we got wind of before we even made records, is we heard about these experimental, avant-garde rock bands who would do things like record their music onto one of those talking dolls, where you pull the string and it talks? That apparatus. So then you have the song and the player all in one, and we just thought that was so great.
That sounds terrifying. And also great. Do you approach digital streaming methods the same open way, do you have a stance on that aspect of the industry right now?
I mean... at the end of the day we need to pay for our, you know, very extravagant lifestyles. No, we need to make enough money to make records and tour, and we have to keep coming up with ways to do that. We have online stores, crowdsourcing-type things, and I think that for us is certainly where we’re at starting to head. Something like Spotify is not promising in terms of how we run. And I do imagine if we were starting out now, it would be much more of an uphill climb; we’re lucky that what used to be the music industry was really behind us, and promoting us. Now it seems a little bit harder to control — there still has to be a promotional machine, and even then you’re lucky just to have your video go viral. It’s just decidedly different [from how it used to be]; even for people at the top, it’s not a way to get rich.
You touched on this a bit, but you’re known for being both very prolific and kind of perfectionist about your music from a technical standpoint. How do you balance the time factor and also wanting songs to come out perfectly?
Well, I wouldn’t use the word "perfectly." I think we have to face up to the slightly deformed quality of our songs fairly often. You’re writing something and you go, "Oh, this is what it is." The song kinda leads you, you have an idea that you just follow wherever it takes you, and it may turn out to not be the most beautiful thing. For us, if we’re not happy with where a song is going, the best thing is just to start on something else.
You just did this whole tour and live album for the 25th anniversary of Flood, which of course had some of your biggest commercial hits on it [“Birdhouse In Your Soul,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”]. How do you feel about music you wrote two-and-a-half decades ago?
To be horribly honest, some of the material from then speaks to me more directly than others. I don’t know if I can nail down certain songs, but there are definitely some where I’m going, “Hmm, I don’t really remember what I meant by this.” Some of them are kind of fun, though they maybe don’t seem as deep as they did 25 years ago. They were written by different people, really, with a little bit of a different outlook. There are songs that the audience really wants to hear, and for the most part I’m really happy when I’m singing the lyrics to a song like “Particle Man” or “Ana Ng.” I suppose “Don’t Let’s Start” is one where I honestly don’t even know what I meant by that. I don’t remember at all. Fortunately, we have a really, ridiculously big backlog.
Last question, and since my dad is the one who got me into you guys, I’ll ask his: How did you wind up playing the accordion? Because he was forced to play one as a kid and hated it.
Ah, yeah. Well, if someone had made me play it as a kid I might not have been interested in it either. But when [TMBG] started, we kind of felt like we were getting to redefine everything. We weren’t the Rolling Stones, so we could kind of act like, “Hey, this is whatever we want it to be.” In the late '70s, I think a lot of musicians felt like they were given license to play an instrument that they weren’t any good at, this punk ethos of “just do it, don’t worry about being a technical expert.” I felt like the accordion was interesting, and interesting-looking.
I mean, I know people who can play accordion, and it’s a different thing. I have my own kind of very humble and self-taught way of playing that suits me okay. At that time, the accordion was definitely not a very cool instrument, and then I feel like it gradually crept back as an alternative music thing sometime in the '80s. I don’t think it will ever be as big as it was in the '50s, but you never know — 15 years ago no one was playing the ukulele, and now it’s everywhere. There are always crazy comebacks.