Interview: John Linnell of They Might Be Giants Discusses Legacy of Band and What’s To Come

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Photo courtesy of John Uleis 

By Tatum Jenkins, WERS Staff Writer

Thirty years after the release of their popular album, Flood, They Might Be Giants was on tour to perform songs from the album, as well as others in order to celebrate their decades of success. Because of recent events, they've had to cancel dates, but John Linnell of They Might Be Giants took some time to talk with WERS Staff Writer Tatum Jenkins about the history of the band, their lasting connection with their audience, and their latest tour.

I read that you got your name from a movie from 1971 called They Might Be Giants. Does that movie still hold significance for you, or has it ever felt important to you?

John Linnell: No, I think it was mainly just the sound of the name that appealed to us. There's a thing when you name your band, you're trying to come up with something interesting and it was a phrase that just seemed unusual that we thought would stand out, and it didn't really have anything to do with the film. At this point, we really don't think that hard about the meaning of the name anymore and it just becomes a brand. There are lots and lots of band names and brand names in general that people stop thinking about once they've become familiar with the thing.

What inspired you to reuse Dial-A-Song? It's a super clever idea and, in a way, mimics the instant streaming services of now, yet you originally created it in the '80s. Why now?

JL: It was definitely an oddball thing when we first introduced it. We just thought this is the kind of thing that would get people's attention and give them an unusual connection. If people called Dial-A-Song, they feel an intimate sort of connection with us that made it special in a way that would make us stand out. There were a lot of things about Dial-A-Song that were appealing in the beginning for us, and this is long before people routinely used their phone to get music. There was no way we could've anticipated that becoming the absolutely normal way to listen to music. But, at the time, it also was when a lot of people were sort of fussy about high fidelity and stuff and a regular dial-up kind of landline telephone was one of the lowest-fidelity ways of listening to anything, never mind music. So, that sort of appealed to us in a perverse way, that it would be like listening to a cheap transistor radio where all you can hear is really the melody and get an idea of the chords and hopefully you can make out the words. But everything got to be fairly simple, very forward, being communicated over the telephone. It's something that we wanted to identify with the band early on. If people have this relationship to us when they call from the phone and they think of that as their personal way of appreciating what we're doing. That was a pretty good kind of branding, though I loathe using the word "branding," that kind of wanted to make that association and that is still the case now, almost forty years later where we're still kind of feeling like this is who we are. Dial-A-Song in a way is very intimately connected to what we're doing.

Do you think doing Dial-A-Song helped you establish a stronger audience because you're making that connection with them?

JL: I think it made the people who were our audience feel a stronger sense of our identity. I don't know whether it expanded our audience, but I think it made the people who did like us feel a deeper connection to us.

Bringing it back to today, you're doing a tour to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of your album, Flood. What inspired you guys to do that tour? Are you excited to perform those songs again?

JL: We've already been doing the tour, we've just been interrupted by this unfortunate event of the last week or two. We have done shows in the past where we played entire albums. Those have been really popular. This season we don't have an album out, but we're working on one. It's kind of a sure-fire formula to say we're doing a Flood show since the thirtieth anniversary rolled around this year. We thought this was the appropriate time to do that. Low and behold, all the shows were sold out. This is probably the most sold-out tour we've ever done actually. Partly, I think we're inspired by the idea of selling more tickets. People do really want to come out and see a Flood show. And we're not just playing songs from Flood and I should also say, in general when we perform, we do a lot of songs from Flood anyway because that was a really popular album. But I think identifying it as sort of a "Flood show" is a good hook for people. 

Are there any songs from that album that still stick with you, that you still enjoy performing?

JL: As I said, we always play songs from Flood. This is an opportunity to play a lot of songs that we don't always play because we're playing every single song off the album. They're all good. I like playing the popular ones because for one reason and, for another, it's fun to dig out the ones that never get played. I can't point to any in particular. Truthfully, there really are very few that we haven't played even on non-Flood tours in the past. We have a couple of dozen albums at this point, so there's a lot of songs. They're all pretty familiar to us. 

You're both from Massachusetts. Do you find that your shows back home feel different than other shows? Or are there any shows in particular locations that feel different?

JL: They're all different. Everywhere we play, we have fond memories of being there. Nothing we're scheduled to play in May is a place that we haven't played in the last couple of years, these are all familiar places. After Boston, we're heading up to Burlington and Northampton, so there's a little New England thing going on. One of the things about doing Boston and shows within driving distance of New York is that we can drive our cars to the shows and there's something very present about that. Typically, it's fun for us to go and we'll bring our family members with us when we're doing short little drives like that.

Does performing feel any different when you have family there or is it easier without them there?

JL: It is really nice to have them on board. It's not necessarily fun to be on tour with a band if you're not part of it, like just a family member. It's sort of more of a comfortable experience.

You have been in this band for over 30 years. What keeps the songwriting process, concerts, everything that goes into being in a band exciting for you?

JL: In terms of the songwriting, it's our job in a way to keep making it new every time. We take that seriously. We're trying not to repeat ourselves every time out of the box. A lot of the mechanics of it is very repetitive. A lot of the job is doing the same things over and over again. There are always surprises. I would say one of the main things that changes, every single time, is the live show. A lot of that is because we're doing a lot of spontaneous stuff in between songs and, sometimes, even during songs. I never know what he's [John Flansburgh] going to come up with - out of Mr. Flansburgh's mouth - when we're chatting on stage and I think he has made it a kind of rule to try to be spontaneous, let loose during a performance between songs. It makes it really fun and interesting for me. 

Would you say that's one of your favorite parts of performing?

JL: Yeah, I would definitely credit that. I like just playing the songs. Again, it's always different even if you're playing the same songs, trying to play it the same way, somehow it's always different anyway. The energy is different from one show to the next and the crowds are always different, it's a different vibe. It's pretty surprising how much variation there is in a live show.

What keeps the songwriting process feeling as spontaneous and new as shows might be?

JL: We try to mix it up, like I was saying. When we're cooking up songs, we try to start a different way I would say. I think I can speak for John [Flansburgh] and myself, there's a lot of different ways to write a song. There are ways that are typically comfortable. For example, a sort of ordinary way for me is to come up with chords and a melody that I like. As I said, there's a lot of ways you can sort of throw the cards up in the air in different ways and make it different. It's not just interesting and fun, it's actually critical to continuing to do this, just to try to keep yourself on your toes and keep thinking consciously about what would be an interesting idea. You have to have a new idea each time, which is a huge challenge, especially with how long we've been doing this.

Do you think having another person, having John there, also helps to keep the process fresh?

JL: It makes it better in this particular way. It's just that John and I imagine the other person's reaction. We do write individually, but I'm always thinking about John's response to what I'm doing and, if I'm feeling less than enthusiastic about what I'm doing, then I think, "Well, what will John think when he hears this?" And I think he does the same thing and that's a way to focus what you're doing and sort of this "What about this is good? What is the good part? How do we kind of nourish that bit of it and make it into a full-grown idea?" I think we are one another's editors and, to some extent, one another's audience in that way and that's really helpful.

Is there anything you can tell us about the new album?

JL: I think we are suddenly finding ourselves with a lot more time on our hands to write, so I'm sure that's going to impact the whole process in a big way. We've only written probably about half of the songs for the next album, but we'll see where it goes. But there's a silver lining to this situation to this, which is that we are all of a sudden at home much more than we thought we were going to be and, when we're not worrying about anything else, we're able to get a lot of work done. I think it's probably going to help the whole project actually in one way.

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