Giant Steps

They Might Be Giants hope that the revolution will be downloaded

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.

The two Johns: Linnell and Flansburgh are back, peddling their quirky pop on the biggest record label in the world -- the Internet.
The two Johns: Linnell and Flansburgh are back, peddling their quirky pop on the biggest record label in the world -- the Internet.

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.

The thing I like about the Long Tall Weekend compilation the most is, for whatever reason, the cumulative effect of the song selection just seems very wide-open to me. The opening track, "Drinking," is a really neat kind of instrumental. I don't think if we were looking over our shoulder at all, thinking about how people would critique this record, we would necessarily feel relaxed and confident enough to have the opening track be a low-key instrumental. I think that kind of sets the tone, and the rest of it carries on through that. It's hard to explain, but it's nice to do something that's kind of off-the-record. This is literally off-the-record.

NT: Will the next album -- or whatever you prefer to call it -- be available as a hard copy, something you can buy in a store?

JF: Oh, yeah. We're about three-quarters of the way through it. We've been recording this summer with Joe Nicolo, the guy from Ruffhouse Records who discovered The Fugees. He approached us. He called up our manager and wanted to sign us. He's a real self-starter, Joe. So, we've been working with Joe and Phil, his twin brother -- better known as The Butcher Brothers. The recordings came out really great, so we're really excited about that stuff. We're almost done, actually.

NT: Now that the band isn't on Elektra anymore, what label will it come out on?

JF: It would be a mistake for me to say. I mean, I could tell you off-the-record, but I just don't want to get myself in trouble. But it's big. Honestly, I don't even know that much about it. I know that Joe is doing a label deal, and Ruffhouse is leaving Columbia -- or Sony or CBS or whatever it's called. I mean, the guy sold like 30 million records last year, so he's moving to another big super-label somewhere. I don't want to fuck up his deal. People in the record industry are very touchy about that kind of thing. I don't care.

NT: Do you think Elektra never figured out what to do with They Might Be Giants?

JF: I don't think it really mattered that much. They afforded us tremendous artistic freedom, and I will be forever grateful for that. In a lot of ways, I think the model that Elektra was working off of was kind of started at Warner Bros. in the '70s. Very, very artist-friendly. To be perfectly honest, it was a great run. We were with them for eight years, and I got to make the records I wanted to make. That meant a lot to me, especially at that point in our career, because we were having our first success. That's the hardest part for most bands. You start having some success, and suddenly people start trying to push you around, and you become alienated from your own project. That never happened to us. In many ways, I think being on Elektra is the reason that we're still together.

Was I disappointed that they totally folded up on Factory Showroom, like, before it was even released? Of course. I thought that was an incredibly strong record that was just a lost opportunity. I don't think they saw the depth of our fan base. There were two complete personnel changes over the course of our time there. It was a completely different company by the time we left. But you know, it didn't really matter that much in the big picture. I think working with new people and having a completely different spin on things right now is clearly having a positive effect on us. Everyone we're working with is really excited to be working with us. It's great to be working with people who are into it. It gives you a whole different kind of momentum.

NT: Since you've been in a band with John Linnell since 1983, do you think the momentum was slipping over the past few years?

JF: I love working with John. The biggest problem with my working relationship with John is that we're forced to spend so much idle time together. It would be an endurance test for any friendship to spend that much time in a car with anybody. We spend more time in a car together than most married couples. Considering what a sensory deprivation chamber a lot of our life together is, we get along great. The thing is for me, it's often a tremendous relief to work outside of the official stuff. If I could be in a side project with Linnell, I would love to do it. [laughs] The problem is, I don't even know what kind of songs aren't allowed in They Might Be Giants.

They Might Be Giants are scheduled to perform on Thursday, September 23, at the Cajun House in Scottsdale, with You Were Spiraling. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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