Slipping in the Dark
They Might Be Giants might be rock's wittiest institution.
By John Sewell
SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: Humor has essentially disappeared from the arena of rock music. In today's post-grunge music scene, cynicism, anger, and self-loathing seem to have replaced love, sex, and avarice as the hot topics of most popular songs. Just tune in to any commercial rock station for a few minutes and you'll surely come out of the experience feeling a little more depressed.
There is, however, a unique history of skewed humor existing on the fringes of rock that has thrived for quite some time. An alternate school of funny, satirical artists like Frank Zappa, Devo, Frank Black, and Oingo Boingo have employed a humorous lyrical approach that oftentimes belies an underlying darker perspective.
A quintessential cult band, New York's They Might Be Giants are key players in this tradition of enigmatic, humorous pop. Now nearing the end of their second decade as purveyors of musical Vonnegutism, the band is a veritable institution.
Yes, TMBG is a rock band, sort of. For all intents and purposes, the band is really a duo consisting of founding members, John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Musically, the two Johns have utilized a full palate of sounds to create a sonic world centered on rock with many permutations. TMBG is surely the first band to consistently use an accordion, still rock hard and still be taken seriously.
Though the band has credibly avoided much of the egotism and testosterone overdrive of arena rock, Flansburgh says that life on the road for TMBG is not really that much different than it is for, say, Guns 'n' Roses.
"You know, in some ways I think we actually almost live in a parallel existence with most people who are in touring bands," says Flansburgh. "Most people in bands, whether you're on a Rastafarian tour or a heavy metal tour or an oldies packageyour existence is about the same. You all stay in the same hotels, sleep on the same buses, hang out with the same crews... I've always worked with a really wide variety of people, so touring life is very much dictated by rock 'n' roll, whether you like it or not. It's kind of like being in the armyreal guy oriented. It's a real guyathon."
No, you won't catch any members of TMBG wearing leather pants or hanging scarves on microphone stands, but Flansburgh admits he has gotten overly dramatic on stage at least once.
"In terms of the most dunderheaded rock 'n' roll thing I've ever done, I guess it was one time when I actually punched myself in the face on-stage for a dramatic effect," he says. "I really managed to hurt myself pretty spontaneously. It was one of the first really big shows we ever did, and I was very excited. So I thought to myself, 'That would be an interesting move 'cause nobody ever punches themself in the face.' And so I did it and I realized that it's just as bad of an idea to punch yourself in the face as it is to get punched in the face by someone else. So I took that one out of my repertoire of stage moves."
Throughout their career, TMBG has always chosen the road less traveled. Their different approach to the pop marketplace is probably a key to the band's longevity. Early on, the band promoted itself with "dial-a-song," a service where fans could dial an answering machine that featured new songs by the two Johns. The dial-a-song service has now gone the way of the future and is available through the worldwide web. In a new twist, the band has released its latest album exclusively through the Internet on the MP3 format. Flansburgh says that releasing Long Tall Weekend through this outlet seemed like a logical step in the evolution of the band.
"It's basically just something that we just wanted to get out," says Flansburgh. "We had a bunch of songs we had recorded and we were talking about doing another compilation. [TMBG has previously released several compilations of songs from the dial-a-song service.] We had a lot of different stuffyou know, odds and ends, stuff from the dial-a-song thing, and we just wanted to put them out in some form, but not just have it be just a continuous parade of marginalia on CD from TMBG. There's some really good songs on the MP3 compilation, and it just afforded us the ability to get that stuff out quickly and easily. Sales-wise, it's not even close to our other releases, but we're in the process of making a new album which will be released on CD through the usual outlets.
"A couple of the best songs on the thing are songs that you can actually download for free. So it's kind of like a reinvention of the wheel to essentially give away the single to the record. It costs less than a usual record costs, that's for sure."
The band has also been expanding its horizons through more mainstream outlets such as film soundtracks and background music for a number of television programs. Most notably (and probably most profitably), the TMBG song "Dr. Evil" is featured in the opening and closing segments of the summer smash movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Flansburgh says he is excited about the new opportunities and challenges that are afforded by the soundtrack work.
"For the next four weeks, we're doing appearances on ABC on this thing that's like Nightline Primetime," says Flansburgh. "It's essentially rock videos, but what's different about it for us is that it actually involves songs that we wrote for the show (Brave New World with Ted Koppel), and that's a different kind of challenge. Actually, doing the performances was different because we take on characters in these videos that are not our own. So that's a huge stretching out for us.
"Another thing we're doing right now is the incidental music for this animated sitcom on Fox called Malcolm In The Middle. It's like a huge amount of work. In the past two weeks we've probably recorded like 60 minutes of music, which is just insane. Trying to come up with a whole music library for this show is a very huge task.
"What's interesting about it is, it's not like they want 60 minutes of TMBG music. They want 60 minutes of every kind of music. It's actually really interesting to try to create something completely outside yourself."
These effortsThe Mono Puff, a solo music project, and Flansburgh's video projectsmay have offered a brief respite from the concentrated togetherness with John Linnell, but, for the most part, the duo are veritable creative Siamese twins. Flansburgh says that through the years his and Linnell's relationship may have changed somewhat, but their friendship is the glue that has kept it all together despite the ravages of time.
"We knew each other when we were pretty young, so I'd say it (the relationship) has definitely changed,' says Flansburgh. "I first met John (Linnell) when I was like 10 years old.
"We're really good friends, and I think the biggest test of our friendship is just how much idle time we are forced to spend with one another. It's enough to drive most people crazy. Actually, we're often stuck in a Ford Econoline van for four or five hours of a day just sitting next to each other.
"As John once said, you can come to resent the way somebody else breathes if you're with them too much. We're sort of stuck with each other so much that we just have to be patient somehow. It's kind of a real endurance test in some ways. I think the reality of the situation is that we both like each other very much. but it's almost like being chained to the all-you-can-rock buffet, we spend so much time together."
Sure, the band's all-you-can-rock buffet is a little different than your standard rock 'n' roll fare, but Flansburgh says the people that come out to their shows are pretty much cut from the same cloth as any rock show. Though Flansburgh and Linnell are now approaching the uncool age of 40, their audience is still mostly comprised of the adolescent set.
"When we started playing in New York, it was all for people in their 20s coming to the shows," says Flansburgh. "When we started touring, it was for college age people, and it's pretty much stayed that way. It's pretty much like the usual concert audience.
"A lot of people that are coming to our shows now have kind of grown up with the band. I don't mean grown old with the band, I mean actually heard about us through some songs we had on Tiny Toons and things like that. A lot of people, when they were 10, got to us and kind of grew up through their teen years with our music. We get plenty of kids who are at their first concert, even. It's a very general audience in certain ways. I don't think it's that different from a regular rock show. I see plenty of Limp Bizkit T-shirts in our crowd."
Flansburgh says that TMBG's whimsical approach may utilize humor, but it's not mere comedy. Although there is plenty of humor in the band's approach to music, Flansburgh says that the band has other insights to offer as well.
"It's not a secret to people who are into what we do in a big way, that there are a lot of very adult themes in our songs," he says. "I mean, what it all comes down to is that nobody wants to be pigeonholed. For example, if you asked a guy from Motley Crue if they feel that they've been pigeonholed as a metal band they would probably say yes, that they're much, much more than just a metal band. Of course they're not...
"In some ways, in the most general sense, if you wanted to categorize what we do, you wouldn't be wrong to say, 'Oh, they're a humorous band.' The distinction I would make is that, even though what we do has a sense of humor, that's not its function. There is a lot of humor music that's very, very empty in its musical content and its intention lyrically is very unambitious insofar as lyrics. We think of ourselves as legitimate songwriters, and we just happen to have a sensibility that has a humorous quality to it. It's not just simply for laughs, and, if it was, it would be a lot funnier than it is.
"I just feel like there's more merit to our songs. We've written some really good songs that I think are pretty interesting and pretty memorable. For us, the different kinds of things we write about make it all more interesting. I think we're definitely a kind of group that, if you hear an entire album, you'll have a more interesting impression than just by hearing one crazy song. If you hear the whole thing, you'll realize that there's a lot of range and that we have more than one thing to say. I don't like being pigeonholed, but I also understand that that's what people do. They're probably right."
Flansburgh goes on to say that he feels like the band's lighthearted approach is perhaps a key to its staying power.
"Have you ever noticed how on soap operas it seems a lot like real life in certain ways except that nobody ever makes any jokesthat there's no levity to it? I feel like in lots of ways the rock scene is strangely analogous to daytime soap operas.
"I know a lot of really fun, funny musicians who feel like there's no way that they can introduce any of that part of their humanity into their music. I'm just kind of relieved that I'm not in that kind of trap that doesn't allow me to be myself. I think the reason that we've been in this band so long is that we get to do something that is a really basic reflection of who we are, whether it's serious or just for fun. We get to do the whole range and that's very satisfying. It delivers job satisfaction."
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