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What keeps the band ‘They Might Be Giants’ making music 40 years on
Hari Sreenivasan: There have been many ways to enter the orbit of 'They Might Be Giants', an eccentric musical group that has been writing and recording together for the last 40 years. From the early 1980s New York art scene to MTC music videos to television theme songs it's a band that has never stopped creating.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker caught up with the founding members of 'They Might Be Giants' as they get ready to release a new album and embark on a new tour.
Christopher Booker: The world of They Might Be Giants is a curious one. From esoteric projects like their dial-a-song service that allowed anyone to call in and listen to one of their recordings on an answering machine ….to….their steady beloved presence in the alternative music world, the eccentric output of high school friends John Linell and John Flasburg - never seems to slow.
John Flansburgh: We're especially lucky in the fan department because our audience doesn't mind it when we do stuff that's unusual. I mean its not always this way, I mean, there are lots of bands that do great work. And then at a certain point, it's almost like the world says, like, thank you very much, we've had enough of you. You can leave now. Contemporaries that we came up with who had much greater success than we have, have definitely gotten the, like, reality check. Like, wouldn't be a bad idea to just let it go.
John Linnell: Cut your losses.
John Flansburgh:: Yeah. And that's I mean, to a little to a certain extent, we've it's always been a bit of a struggle for us to a certain extent. We've always had a lot of small lucky breaks.
John Linnell: But maybe the key really I mean, I don't know if this is true, but it seems like the fact that we didn't have one explosive out success kind of allowed us to think, oh, yeah, we're still still chasing that ultimate high.
John Flansburgh:: Yeah. And we still got it.
Christopher Booker: There have been flirtations with chart success, most notably from their third album, Flood. Released in 1990, it was a staple of college radio in the years just before Nirvana's Nevermind blew up the music scene. With double entendres, clever idioms and unreliable narrators the music of They Might Be Giants travelled through the grunge years as a subversive alternative to alternative. W happy band with a key changing bouncing sound that could make you dance, but dance to songs that lyrically could be as dark as they come.
John Flansburgh: We've always kind of tossed in like some super dire high voltage death trip lyrics that kind of offset the merriment of of of a, of a melody.
John Linnell: The melodies are like the nice smell coming from the flypaper, you know, that eventually traps everybody,
Music lyrics: "You're older than you ever been and now you're even older, and now you're even older, and now you're even older"
Christopher Booker: Their ability to create these off beat melodic traps has allowed the band to move between genres and mediums. From television theme shows like Malcolm in the Middle to a collection of critically acclaimed Children's albums and later this month they will move into another medium, releasing an album of new material and a book as well. Featuring original photographs by Brooklyn street photographer Brian Karlsson and illustrated They Might Be Giants lyrics by Graphic Designer Paul Sahre, the project was recorded and completed before and during the pandemic.
Christopher Booker: And this is album five hundred?
John Linnel: [laughing] Yes, yes, yes. A difficult five hundred.
John Flansburgh: Everybody's career gets messier and messier as you go along because you have like compilation albums and do those count and do live albums count the children's albums count among our fans who like do not like our children's work. They, they were there was a interval on our on the fan wiki where they were like not including the children's albums as like cannon.
Christopher Booker: The TMBG Wiki is a fan generated online database of all things They Might Be Giants. If you want to know what the cover of the Japanese release of their album Lincoln looked like or where the band played and what their set list was on February 10, 1995 you can find it there.
John Linnell: We actually wind up relying on this wiki, the TMBG wiki, to look up whether we played somewhere when the last time we played and they even list the setlist. So it's for for old people whose memories are not what they used to be. It's an amazing, beautiful resource.
John Flansburgh: I have to admit, I have used that they might be Giants fan wiki to figure out if songs have been released, I mean, sometimes I feel like we're running out of nouns like, you know, like we can't write another song about a dog. We can't write another song about birds, like, you know, it's like just like cross it off.
Christopher Booker: But yet the fire is still there to to write and record?
John Linnell: It doesn't get easier, but yeah, we still we're still still struggling. and I can't get out from under this, but I'm always feeling intense self-doubt as we're completing the project. I feel like this is the worst thing we've done. And then it's only after we're done and the smoke is clear on like go. Yeah, OK, that was good. This is fine.
Christopher Booker: But after 23 albums, 2 Grammy awards and an upcoming tour in celebration of their album Flood in which nearly every show is sold out, it may seem such anxiety is ill-founded, but self - doubt and the questioning of one's accomplishments have been a part of their artistic exploration from the very beginning.
Music Lyrics : (Don't lets start) "No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful" Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.
Christopher Booker: Have you gotten what you want?
John Linnell: We don't actually. I personally or the band, I feel like we don't have a specific goal that once we've completed, we're done. I mean, that's sort of what we've been saying. So we'll die frustrated and sad, in other words. And that's beautiful.