They Might Be Giants - Biography
They Might Be Giants has never been an easy band to categorize. From their earliest beginnings as a music/performance art act in the early 1980s, they’ve been fiercely independent and completely unique. They’ve never fit comfortably into a popular “niche” of rock music without heavy-toothed shoehorning, but their fans cross over from those of punk, metal, new wave, ‘80s college radio and absurdist comedy (they once named a B-side collection Miscellaneous T [1991 Bar/None] after the place where record stores put their albums). Their music typically combines upbeat, cheerful instruments and techniques from the pre-rock era (like the accordion, which is used without a smidge of irony), energetic rock & roll chord progressions with melodically quirky twists, and brain-bending lyrics that usually complement the tunes rather than the other way around. On the surface, the lyrics feel like whimsical nonsense, but deep down they really seem to be ABOUT something, often a heartbreaking story that paints depressing, gloomy pictures that would make you feel a lot worse if they didn’t have such a charming, almost life-affirming melody beneath them. Perhaps the juxtaposition subliminally tells us that everything is going to be all right as long as we keep dancing our way to the grave.
John Linnell was born June 12, 1959. John Flansburgh was born a year later, on May 6, 1960. “The two Johns” met in junior high school living in the affluent Boston suburb of Lincoln, Massachusetts, and became friends after discovering a mutual bizarre, avant-garde sensibility and a love of punk rock and new wave. They went to different colleges, but kept in touch and formed They Might Be Giants (named after a reference to Don Quixote), after moving into the same New York City apartment building on the same day in 1982. After experimenting with several performance methods, they finally settled on one they both liked: Flansburgh on guitar, Linnell on accordion, keyboards and occasional saxophone, and in the background, a reel-to-reel tape recording of a drum machine to keep the beat, with John & John sharing vocals on songs they’d co-write.
They didn’t look or sound like rock stars, and Linnell in particular had (and still has) an incredibly nasal voice, which some critics have called “whiny,” but they turned every negative into a positive by avoiding convention. Linnell made his voice work for the songs by embracing, rather than denying, his nasality, and they added elements to their live shows that nobody understood, simply because they liked them, like oversized fezzes and large cardboard cut-outs of William Allen White’s head. They were just starting to find their audience in East Village performance art venues like 8BC and Darinka when Linnell got into a bike accident and broke a small bone in his hand, leaving him unable to play live for several months. Inspired by Steve Wozniak’s “Dial-A-Joke,” the Johns made up for this handicap by recording a new song each day into John Flansburgh’s answering machine and advertising it in the Village Voice as “Dial-A-Song,” the demands of which made them less precious and more prolific with their material. In the days before podcasts and MySpace, this was perhaps the shrewdest music-delivery system ever devised.
In 1986 the band attracted the attention of Bar/None Records, a Hoboken, New Jersey-based independent label. Their first, self-titled LP was released that year, and though it sounds primitively recorded by the band’s current standards, it’s an excellent distillation of the songwriting prowess that TMBG is renowned for. On one track they’d mock the previous generation’s ideals through reversal (“I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die”), on the next they’d mingle old-fashioned bluesy existentialism with more bourgeois goals (“I gotta get a job, I gotta make some pay, my son’s gotta go to art school…”), and sometimes they’d peddle sheer contradiction (“There’s only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third”). They produced their first two music videos with grainy film on a shoestring budget and they both became surprise hits on MTV’s 120 Minutes, especially “Don’t Let’s Start,” shot on the abandoned location of the 1964 World’s Fair, which contains perhaps TMBG’s most iconic recorded moment: Linnell singing/shouting, “EVERYBODY DIES FRUSTRATED AND SAD AND THAT IS BEAUTIFUL!” with all the energy of a dozen revival hymns.
They followed this up in 1988 with Lincoln (Bar/None), named after their hometown, which ratcheted their music up a few notches with numbers like the wistful “Ana Ng” (about an old man whose true love lives on the other side of the world), “They’ll Need A Crane” (about the tragic end of a crumbling relationship) and the frankly bizarre “Shoehorn With Teeth.” “Ana Ng” made it to the top of the CMJ chart, and before long they were signed to Elektra Records, where they released their third album, Flood, in 1990. Flood contained three of their best-known songs — “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” a song about the warm embrace of a nightlight; “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” an exotic cover of a novelty tune by The Four Lads; and “Particle Man,” about various whimsical superheroes fighting each other (the latter two songs were made into animated videos for the popular kids show Tiny Toon Adventures, turning countless innocent children into future music snobs). Flansburgh and Linnell weren’t used to the sudden cult fame, and seemed visibly uncomfortable in interviews, especially when asked, “What are these songs about?” They’ve always been just as vague and cryptic about why they write the songs they write as they are in the lyrics themselves, claiming that they’ve never intended heavy symbolism or some sort of ulterior context.
After their fourth album, 1992’s Apollo 18, they upgraded to a full live band for their fifth album, John Henry (1994) at the behest of Elektra. The full band gave their music a harder, more guitar-heavy sound without skimping on the quirkiness that made them what they were. Unfortunately, their A&R rep at Elektra quit (and her replacement got fired) before John Henry came out, leaving them high and dry, and even higher and dryer still for their sixth album, Factory Showroom (1996), an excellent disc that suffered from no videos and precious little exposure.
That was the end of their Elektra career, but since then they’ve continued to tour and record music as prolifically as always. They released three excellent studio CDs — Mink Car (2001 Restless), The Spine (2004 Idlewild/Zoe) and The Else (2007 Idlewild/Zoe, co-produced by The Dust Brothers), and in 1999 they released Long Tall Weekend (eMusic), one of the first internet-only downloadable albums ever made. Flansburgh released two albums in the late ‘90s with his side project, Mono Puff, while Linnell released a solo album, State Songs (1999 Rounder/Zoe) featuring an assortment of songs named after states, the lyrics of which couldn’t have less to do with that state. They continued performing with the full band, releasing a live album, Severe Tire Damage (1998 Restless) featuring the single “Doctor Worm,” and the CD/DVD release Venue Songs (2005 Idlewild) featuring a new song written and named for every city they played on their 2004 tour. Since 2005, they’ve also produced a monthly podcast featuring rarities and unreleased tracks (many of which were released as a limited bonus CD with The Else).
As their fans from the 1980s grew into positions of power, Linnell and Flansburgh received several lucrative offers to write new songs. After their first children’s album, No! (2002 Idlewild), and its companion children’s book Bed, Bed, Bed, Disney approached them to record an educational CD/DVD teaching kids the alphabet. Here Come The ABCs (Disney Sound) came out in 2005, and was followed by a sequel, Here Come The 123s (2008 Disney Sound). They’ve also written and performed songs for a Dunkin’ Donuts campaign and the theme songs to TV’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, The Oblongs, The Drinky Crow Show and Malcom In The Middle, from which their pre-teen angst ode “Boss Of Me” won a Grammy in 2002. In tribute to their legacy, the independent feature-length documentary Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns (2002) was released
The songs They Might Be Giants write and perform are incredibly dense and thought-provoking without being pretentious or lacking fun, but they’re rarely the makings of successful radio singles. Throughout their whole career they’ve entertained a rabid and growing cult following, but have been largely ignored by a media that sometimes writes them off as a “comedy/novelty” act because they don’t want to delve any further. In fact their lyrics are usually the opposite of jokes — a joke loses what a TMBG lyric gains on every successive listen. Some acts strive for uniqueness, but They Might Be Giants has always been unique effortlessly.