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They Might Be Giants' John Linnell: "It Can Be Really Hard to Play For Kids"

John Linnell and John Flansburgh
John Linnell and John Flansburgh

30 years is a long time. You might think that after 30 years in a career as unique and unpredictable as They Might Be Giants, (college rockers to children's rockers) principals John Linnell and John Flansburgh might be wondering how much longer they can keep it up, but that's not the case according to Linnell.

"No, not really, no. In some ways, we are so much taking the same approach to music: Performing, writing, and recording, as we did 30 years ago," Linnell says. "It's not quite 30 years -- it's almost 30 years -- but in some ways it just feels like this very comfortable thing that we know how to do, and we've established such a sort of consistent and you know, reliable following that it's kind of the opposite of weird. It just feels normal now."

In the case of TMBG, "normal" means singular. The band's latest album, Join Us, is another sterling entry in the band's catalog, with sparkling tunes like "You Old Pine Box" and The Who-on-a-sugar-rush "Judy is Your Viet Nam" cementing the band's return to wry, self-deprecating pop.

Linnell and I spoke about the band's history, new album, and the difference between playing to kids and playing to adults.

They Might Be Giants is scheduled to perform Sunday, January 29, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

Up on the Sun: On your site it labels the upcoming shows as "14 plus" affairs. Is that an effort to let people know you aren't playing children's music?

John Linnell: Yeah. I think that it's a weird formula. We're trying to figure out a way to make the shows safe for the audience, but have it be a full-grown, adult show. To do a full rock show. We have sort of felt in the past that it's very difficult to do a show where you just invite all ages and feel like it's going to be comfortable for parents of young children. Particularly for those young children. We want to make sure that they're not liable to be in some kind of dangerous situation. It's really distracting for us as a band to see really little kids and a crowd where everyone is moshing or it's very noisy. So that's really the reason for the "14 plus" disclaimer. We want to be relaxed and have a good time and have everybody else feel free, and not have to worry about the welfare of small children.

So what about the opposite? What's it like when you do shows specifically for children?

Yeah, when we do "all-ages shows," I guess is what you call it, obviously we're inviting adults to come as well, but we're doing kid's material. We do stuff from our four kids albums, and we feel like they are perfectly fun shows for grownups, even ones who aren't accompanying kids to come to. So those are the all ages shows.

I assume those are fun as well for you guys, but that it's a different kind of feel from those audiences.

In some ways, not to complain, but [shows for kids are] harder shows to perform, because it's a different environment playing for very young kids. It's not as obvious a feedback loop for us; we don't get the sort of automatic applause response. Kids are a little more brutal if they are bored by what's happening on stage. They don't try and hide it. It makes you realize how much you're cushioned by the automatic, formal response adults give. So again, I love this job, it's a lot of fun, but it can be really hard work to play for kids. It pretty much makes audiences nervous not to applaud, even if they are not that excited by what you are doing, you know? In other words, everybody wants to show to go well, except for little kids who aren't socialized enough to know that when you finish a song there's stony silence, or the kids are talking to each other. So again, I love this job, it's a lot of fun, but it can be really hard to play for kids.

Your children's records don't pander. You seem to have always looked for challenges over the course of your career, and that's certainly a big one, creating music that kid's and adults like. I know people who love those records who don't have kids.

Thank you. That's our hope. I heard Dr. Seuss say this about his work, and I think it applies to us. I want to do something that I actually like myself. We don't have any other basis for knowing if its good, so we can't kind of rely on this second-guessing of the kid's response, we have to actually feel like we like it. For some reason, magically, it is possible to make music that only kids like. I don't know how to do that. But somebody does, because that music exists. To me it's very weird, because its often a very unpleasant experience for adults who have to listen to something over and over again. If they're kids are into it, they want to listen to it over and over again. Speaking as a parent, I know that can drive you crazy.

 

Your 2011 rarity collection, Album Raises New And Troubling Questions includes the "Tubthumping" cover you did for Onion A.V. Club's cover series, A.V. Undercover.

That's right.

I really enjoyed watching that. As someone who writes about music, it was great to see people who write about music, you know, going nuts. Enjoying themselves so much, you know?

Sure, yeah. They are a nice crowd. We feel simpatico with them. They haven't always written exclusively nice things about us, but personally, they seem very friendly, and in general they've been nice. They've written some nice things about us. There are actually some funny Onion articles about They Might Be Giants. There's one in particular which was just about how uninteresting the They Might Be Giants' Behind the Music episode was, how it got the lowest rating of all time, because there was no drug wipe-out followed by a comeback. That was the gag, basically, that we don't have that. It was kind of funny.

You guys have been playing together for 30 years. Is that a strange feeling?

No, not really, no. In some ways, we are so much taking the same approach to music: Performing, writing, and recording, as we did 30 years ago. It's not quite 30 years -- it's almost 30 years -- but in some ways it just feels like this very comfortable thing that we know how to do, and we've established such a sort of consistent and you know, reliable following that it's kind of the opposite of weird. It just feels normal now.

Do you have any big plans for the anniversary?

Not specific to the anniversary. We've done one thing over the course of this tour, which is we've learned almost all the songs off our second album, which we had to put a little bit of effort into that because a lot of them have never even been played in any way by us, and we're trying to adapt them to the current band. So that was a good project for us. So we'll be playing songs from Lincoln when we come out to your part of the world.

I really like the new record, Join Us. I think "Can't Keep Johnny Down" is one of your best openers, and I really love "Judy is Your Vietnam." You know, I was listening to the record with a friend and reading the liner notes, and I got to that set of lyrics and just had to skip ahead to that song. It's just a great set of lyrics. It sounds like a million people I know.

I agree, I have to says, with John Flansburgh's lyrics...he's interesting. As he's reaching, what is is, his sixth decade? He's now over 50, like me, but I think he's come into this whole new way of writing lyrics that I really like a lot, as of this album. For a couple of old guys I feel like we're still mining new stuff.

They Might Be Giants is scheduled to perform Sunday, January 29, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

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