John Linnell on They Might Be Giants’ Best, Latest, and Flansburghiest Stuff

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

“I think there’s maybe something schizophrenic about the way we perceive ourselves and the way we appear to be presenting ourselves,” John Linnell tells me. “We want to feel like this blue-sky project that could be absolutely anything … and yet clearly we are perceived as a certain kind of thing. We have a lot of fans who self-identify as nerds. We never thought of ourselves as nerds. That was a very harsh pejorative when we were growing up. I try not to get distracted by that.” We proceed to talk about his latest solo project, an impressive EP written and recorded entirely in ancient Latin. No nerd alert here.

But in this case, maybe “nerd” is just another, reductive way of describing that “blue-sky” spirit — the constant inventiveness and curiosity that has been the trademark of They Might Be Giants for nearly 40 years. Theirs is music that inspires obsessive fandom and repeat plays for all its polyphonic catchiness and unexpected puzzlebox lyrics. John Flansburgh and John Linnell were as at home in the arty, experimental East Village scene of the 1980s as they were on the soundtracks of Park Slope hipster toddler playgroups of the 2000s as they were on the answering end of their legendary Dial-A-Song telephone service, the perfect showcase for their polyglot rock. Now the group is on the verge of releasing its 22nd studio album, available November 12, which in itself would be enough of an absolute feat ​— but it has the added bonus of being very good. BOOK does what the Johns do best: It’s arch on the surface and soft underneath, putting words and music to some of the most minor and major, difficult-to-describe feelings a person can experience. Singles “I Broke My Own Rule” and “I Can’t Remember the Dream” are testaments to their consistent commitment to remaining so very much themselves. Whether or not any of it is nerd shit is up to you; nerdom is in the eye of the beholder. We spoke to Linnell about the highs and lows of TMBG.

Most Overrated Album

This is gonna sound really weird, but I think Flood is overrated. People really focus on that third album; it obviously made the biggest impact. But I’m a lot more interested in the stuff we’ve done in the last 15 years. Flood was more than 30 years ago now, so it doesn’t speak to me as much as the later stuff. Maybe I’m misjudging it, but I tend to focus on the things that don’t sound very well defined. It’s two very young, brash men who are making all these discoveries … and they’re not as smart as we are! I know that’s a really dumb way to assess your own work. I like Flood. I like hearing stuff that I haven’t heard in a while. It’s kind of exciting and weird to check it out.

Favorite Song from the Past 10 Years

I really like “I Like Fun,” the title track from our previous album. It contained everything that I like about the project, and it was a true collaboration between me and John. He wrote the song, but he passed off that vocal and drum demo to me, and I got to really get a hand in there and come up with some other kooky stuff. It sounds like we came up with something new. And this new album is so new that I’m still sort of looking at it from across the room and trying to work out what I think of it. And people haven’t heard it yet, so I don’t know what anyone thinks of it. The only reactions we have access to are the somewhat reckless comments on YouTube for the new single, and a lot of them are purely positive, like, Great job, guys. That makes me happier than you would think, given how open-ended that kind of compliment is.

Album That’s Rated Kind of Just Right

I would say a good, solid record that is probably considered a good, solid record would be Mink Car, which is sort of in the middle. It came out in 2001, and we certainly didn’t think that would be the middle of our careers at the time, because we had been going for so long at that point. John and I were just talking about Mink Car on somebody’s podcast yesterday. It was this combination of where we were at, plus we had the chance to work with the late Adam Schlesinger, who was one of the producers. And then we brought back in Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to work on some of the tracks as well, and it was actually very comfortable and fun working with all those guys.

Unfortunately, it came out on September 11, 2001. So that rollout was probably dented somewhat by that appalling catastrophe. There were obviously other people who were impacted much, much more than we were, but that was our little problem at the time. We had to delay the tour, and it probably impacted this sales generally. Maybe in the fullness of time, people are like, That was weird, but that was interesting.

Favorite Cover

Flansburgh generally picks the covers, and he wanted to do Norma Tanega. She’s this brilliant artist who died recently. And she did this song in the ’60s that was kind of a minor hit called “Walking My Cat Named Dog,” which we covered. She also did a bunch of other really interesting songs, but I was pleased that we did that one, and I was very flattered — this is gonna sound super dumb — that the New York Times cited our cover in her obituary. Another one of her songs is the intro theme music to the TV series What We Do in the Shadows. It’s called “You’re Dead.” I wish we could write a song that good.

Favorite Song for a Cartoon/Commercial/TV Theme

Jeez, I don’t know. This sounds really odd, but we had a great time recording jingles for the Dunkin’ Donuts corporation. It partly was just this confluence of the ad agency that got us; they wanted us to do something that sounded like us. And also the idea for the campaign, which were these sort of pedestrian ideas about day-to-day life, kind of these wry little one-line lyrics that that agency actually came up with. So it was a really fun and easy assignment, and we did about a million of these donut ads. Probably not one of the most cred things we’ve ever done. But it was actually really satisfying, and of course we got free doughnuts.

Favorite Character from a Song

People love old Particle Man. Particle Man is this sort of sad-sack character that I think elicits sympathy.

I guess I don’t really think too hard about those characters, the narrators of our songs. A lot of them are reflections of our most self-loathing notions. Not that we’re especially self-loathing, but that’s the kind of character you can get a lot of material from.

Linnell-iest Song

You know, there’s a weird thing where you kind of don’t know what you look like? You look at other people’s faces and you have this immediate sense of who they are, but when you look in the mirror, you can’t quite make the same assessment of your own face because it’s too familiar? Do you know what I mean? I don’t know what quintessential “me” really is. I don’t know how I smell, because I’ve never stopped smelling myself.

Most Flansburghian Song

I can’t reduce it to one song, obviously that’s impossible. He’s just a rainbow of ideas. It’s very hard to pin him down to one song. But I can tell you what my favorite Flansburgh songs are. My top five would be: “Black Ops,” “Old Pine Box,” “Piece of Dirt” — I’m thinking of the ones that I have this strong emotional reaction to. There’s a song called “Impossibly New,” and I guess “Spot a Spy.” Those are five Flans songs that are very Flansburghy to me, but also just amazing songs.

It’s partly to do with the spontaneity of his writing. My sense of his process is that he lets his guard down and then something comes out. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but that’s what it feels like.

I don’t know how to write songs. I just do it. I still don’t know. I have never really come up with the formula. I can tell you what the process is, which is I spend a lot of time coming up with the song form. So it’s always a musical idea that comes first, which is trying to set the vibe. It’s often a melody over some chords, and then maybe there’ll be some instrumentation that’s specific to the song to kind of set the vibe. And then I kind of cast around for lyrics. That, for me, is the really hard part. I’ve never been able to figure out an easy way to satisfy myself with lyric writing. It actually always seems impossible. I think that about crossword puzzles as well. It always seems like, Well there’s no fucking way I can do this. And then, half an hour or maybe longer, after I’ve started, I’m like I’m getting this, it’s coming along. It’s that hard, and it’s kind of no fun. And the really satisfying thing is when you actually have done the work, you’re like, Oh, great. I’m really really happy having finished this work, but I wasn’t particularly happy about doing the work.

But I like writing songs. I don’t like doing the work, but I like the satisfaction of having done the job.

Most Complicated Project

We seem to specialize in finding complicated things to do, although sometimes we do simple things, and that works really well. Last year we learned how to play one of our songs, “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love,” backward. We taught the band to play all the notes in reverse order, and John and I learned to sing the song phonetically in reverse order. It took weeks. But not only did we pull it off, we played it live just just before the COVID lockdown started up. We were on tour and we got to play it a few times. Somebody took a video of it, and then whatever the robot is that figures out what songs are under copyright heard our backwards version and could tell what song it was, and tried to ban it from YouTube. Once we start touring again, we’re hoping to revive it, because we spent so long learning how to do it.

Thing You’ve Missed Most About Performing

I would probably say everybody — not just the band, but the crew too — thinks this, which is that we actually miss each other. Which is weird because, normally, we spend so much time together; every other year we’ve done a big tour for years and years, or decades. We got into a routine where we would get into these intense discussions on the tour bus about whatever was in the news, or in the culture, and everybody’s kind of gone through withdrawal from that. I found a roll of film from a disposable camera and got it developed. I didn’t know what was on it. And it was the 2018 show that we did in New York, just a lot of backstage pictures. I sent it out to everybody and the response from the band and crew was [warbly crying] I miss you fucking guys!

Song That Comes Closest to Being a Perfect Pop Song

I think we have never really hit that mark, even though we’re always motivated by a sense of, Wouldn’t it be cool to just nail it? In a way, part of the problem is you need to be more clear and more simple than we are ever inclined to be. Also, our notion of a perfect pop song is probably something from 50 years ago, something like “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles. But in a way, you can’t go back and write those songs, even though there’s probably enough retro stuff in what we do that it could be perceived that way. I think the context has changed so much that you’re always doing something different. The river has moved past that time. We can’t write “Ticket to Ride” because that time has passed.

But to pull out a song at random, on the kids record, we did a song called “Meet the Elements.” I guess [TMBG bassist] Danny Weinkauf even said “This was the perfect pop song,” which I don’t truly believe. But it kind of felt like this very well-organized set of melodies, ideas … the whole composition felt like it came together, and because it was written for children, it could be a more simple kind of expression than the stuff we’re usually doing.

Simplest Song

Lyrically, I would go back to “Minimum Wage.” It’s an almost minimalist idea; just two words in the lyrics, but very effective. We tend to go in the other direction. Even though we’re probably coming from a 20th-century perspective of “less is more,” in spite of that we tend to overcomplicate things.

Most Esoteric Song

We did this thing called “Fingertips,” which was a whole collection of very, very short choruses, all put together. It’s sort of a psychedelic idea, I guess. It’s maybe not even all that coherent.

Prop From the Early Years You Want to Bring Back

In the very early years, we had all of these theatrical things. We had these gigantic hands that we’d wear and stuff like that. I look back fondly on all of that stuff. I suppose it’s a little bit of a pain in the ass because it kind of interrupts the flow of the show and you have to run off and pull something out of a trunk. It has to be worth it. We memorably had these ventriloquist dummy heads on the tops of sticks, and that was part of the show for a while. The spotlight would just be on them, and they would sing one of the songs. And we have actually revived the stick a number of times. I’m sure that will make its way back into the show at some point. It’s a big tree limb that Flansburgh pounds on the ground. Traditionally, it has a microphone duct-taped onto it. And the sound is going through this ’80s-style gated reverb. So it has this kind of super–Phil Collins smashing sound that just abruptly cuts off. And that’s something that is actually not that hard to rig up, and it’s very effective. So that’s one that we could totally bring back.

Your (Now Grown-Up) Kid’s Favorite TMBG Song

I have to ask him. I have no idea. He likes the band, which he didn’t always. When he was really little, he told me in no uncertain terms that Michael Jackson was superior to the Beatles, because the Beatles wrote songs and sang them, which they were good at, but Michael Jackson could dance. It put me in my place.

Later Work That Would Be Most Improved by a Stripped-Down Version

John and I did a show a few years ago in Brooklyn where we revived the old tape recorder. We had a set for which we brought out the old reel-to-reel, and it was just me and him onstage, and it was super fun. There were certain songs that I realized, Oh yeah, there’s all this found sound made in the laboratory conditions of the studio that actually is enhanced by having the tape running with me and John playing over the top of it, which was the original thing that we did. So we played a bunch of songs from The Else. We played a song called “Wearing a Raincoat” that has a backwards guitar solo in it, and it was like, Wow, we actually get to do this the way it sounds on the album. I don’t know if it completely wins over the full-band version. Maybe it does. But it was just pretty cool to try it out in that format, to take more recent songs and play them in the way that we would have played them back in the 1980s. That was very informative.

Early Work That Would Be Most Improved by a Full Band

There are a few songs that we did that in the sort-of stripped down way on the first couple of albums. We didn’t get a full band until the fourth album, and that was halfway through the tour. So we did quite a lot of stuff as a duo. It’s fun to play “Ana Ng” with a full band. And that was done with drum machines and using the computerized noise gate on the guitar. It sounds like it was constructed in the studio. But I really like our live version now with the full band.

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Additionally, I ask Linnell about the logo for Flood, which is actually just a “copped” version of the IATSE logo, in light of that union’s recent campaigning. Linnell says Flansburgh chose it “just because we thought it looked cool. Other than that, we don’t share any strong connection to that union, but godspeed to all you collective bargainers everywhere.” I tell Linnell that this all kind of sounds like what “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go,” a very Linnell-y song, is about. “Interesting,” he says. The band has released four children’s albums, in addition to writing the music for children’s series like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
John Linnell on They Might Be Giants’ Best & Flansburghiest