Dismiss them as twee or cute if you want, but nearly 30 years into their career, the duo of John Fansburg and John Linnell — better known as They Might Be Giants — can't be accused of being lazy. The pair have never stopped challenging themselves, trying to top oddball ideas like Dial-a-Song, an answering machine service that beamed at least 500 TMBG songs to fans lucky enough to get through the "Always Busy, Often Broken" service, or their string of '80s and '90s albums, with tunes like "Don't Let's Start" and anamorphic college-radio hit "Birdhouse in Your Soul."
The past decade has found the band exploring children's music, a genre littered with insipid sing-alongs or, worse, "lullaby tributes" to Tool and Guns N' Roses. Here Come the ABCs (2005) and Here Come the 123s (2008) were critically lauded, and Here Comes Science (2009) won the Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children. Most impressively, the albums don't seem to drive parents insane.
"That's our hope," Linnell says. "I want to do something that I actually like myself. We don't have any other basis for knowing if it's 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," he says. "I don't know how to do that. But somebody does, because that music exists. To me it's very weird, because it's often a very unpleasant experience for adults who have to listen to something over and over again. If their 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."
Last year found the band returning to the world of adult music with Join Us — though it's easy to miss the difference if you aren't paying attention. Sure, the songs feature the kind of bouncy melodies that grab the kiddos, but the lyrics are subversive and sneakily melancholic, like "You Old Pine Box," in which the duo harmonize over lines like "They called the fan club / But they resigned / Left your car in a field and some questions behind," or "Judy Is Your Viet Nam," a windmill-spinning rave-up, with its bitter proclamation "Put it down, that torch you lifted . . . Judy is your Vietnam."
As such, TMBG's current tour has been designated as a 14-and-older affair. Again, the distinction is subtle but important, Linnell says.
"We're trying to figure out a way to make the show safe for the audience, but have it be a full-grown, adult show," Linnell says. "It's really distracting for us as a band to see very little kids and a crowd where everybody is moshing or it's very noisy. So that's really the reason for the 14-plus show. We just want to be relaxed and free, and not have to worry about the welfare of small children."
Besides, playing for kids is tough business:
"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," Linnell says. "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," he says. "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." — Jason P. Woodbury