By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
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By Brian Palmer
It's never too late for a comeback in rock 'n' roll, when every has-been is one fluke hit away from being a still-is. Yet even with that in mind, They Might Be Giants is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a resurgence, although it might be too soon to term the group's recent activities a revival just yet. The fact that the band is even still around this late in the game is surprising enough. After all, They Might Be Giants -- otherwise known as John Linnell and John Flansburgh -- appeared to be dead on the arrival of 1996's Factory Showroom, although it didn't help that the band's home at the time, Elektra Records, couldn't have promoted the disc less if a rival label had released it instead. Linnell and Flansburgh would have been better off if it had been.
Of course, in Elektra's defense, there wasn't much on Factory Showroom to work with. And Linnell and Flansburgh's longtime partnership appeared to have run out of ideas even before Factory Showroom: 1994's John Henry barely had enough good songs to make a strong EP. When the next two years only brought a pair of best-ofs, 1997's Restless Records roundup Then: The Earlier Years and last year's live Severe Tire Damage, it was obvious that the cupboard was full of crumbs.
Or maybe not. The band recently released its first new album in more than three years, Long Tall Weekend, a 15-song collection of unreleased studio tracks available only in the much-debated MP3 format through www.EMusic.com. Linnell and Flansburgh have also been in the studio for much of the year with the Butcher Brothers -- producers Joe and Phil Nicolo -- the twin brothers behind Ruffhouse Records, the label known for its success with The Fugees and Cypress Hill. The as-yet-untitled disc will come out on Ruffhouse sometime next year, joining Linnell's soon-to-be-released solo set, State Songs (a disc of tributes to, duh, a dozen or so states), on the shelves.
And this summer, the pair penned the theme song for the Austin Powers sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, kicking off another part of their career. They will continue their film and television work in the fall, contributing music for five episodes of ABC's series of science and technology specials Brave New World (which also features segments directed by Flansburgh), as well as providing the theme song and incidental music for Fox TV's new sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.
But of all the projects They Might Be Giants are involved in, none of them excites Flansburgh as much as Radio They Might Be Giants, a round-the-clock Internet-only radio station that is programmed by the two Johns. Located at www.wiredplanet.com, Radio They Might Be Giants kicked off late last month, featuring a playlist of old and new TMBG songs, as well as some of the artists who participated in the band's now-defunct Hello CD of the Month Club, which released EPs every month or so by XTC's Andy Partridge, Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes), The Residents, and Frank Black, among others. Flansburgh is thrilled by the Internet's "reshuffling of the deck," giving bands like They Might Be Giants a chance to reach their audience, a chance to be heard. Whether anyone's still listening remains to be seen.
New Times: The new They Might Be Giants record is only available in the MP3 format, right?
John Flansburgh: Well, I guess you probably shouldn't call it a record, because that's like two formats ago.
NT: Your new "collection of songs," then.
JF: You know what's funny? My wife actually pointed out that it's always funny when you'd hear Liza Minnelli or Sammy Davis Jr. referring to cutting sides. You know, "I was cutting a side." [laughs] And, of course, to them that is what it was. I wonder if you and I, when we've got our grandchildren on our knees, if we're going to be going, "Yeah, that's a good record," and if that's going to sound as hopelessly old-school and jive. But yeah, EMusic.com is a very cool company. They're doing really cool stuff, and we're really excited about being associated with them.
NT: What is Radio They Might Be Giants?
JF: It's a really cool little thing. There's this Web site called wiredplanet.com that has like a streaming audio type thing, a really efficient, tiny player that you can be at work and be online and play music at your work station. They approached us about doing a completely dedicated, 24-7 They Might Be Giants-programmed site. Basically, we get to be the DJ. It's very ambitious in a way. It's great, because between the MP3 thing reshuffling the deck of the record industry and this streaming audio stuff giving other people the ability to do radio stuff, it just seems like the whole world is tilting a little bit.
NT: Do you think the projects you're doing with EMusic and Wired Planet are both kind of updated versions of the Dial-A-Song concept?
JF: What it reminds me of the most is the thing we did for about five years, the Hello CD of the Month Club. We put out EPs by other people and ourselves, and we created, like, 40 different discs with this thing. It was a very ambitious project, and totally draining to do, but what was nice about it is that it was kind of open-ended. It wasn't about figuring out how to get played on modern-rock radio. It was just about making interesting music.