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Concert Preview: Giants Promising Massive Retrospective, New Tunes (And A Trumpet!)

Published: April 05, 2018 at 12:00 am

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When The Newtown Bee caught up with They Might Be Giants co-founder John Linnell, he was enjoying a brief break in between tour legs.

Up until a few days before the call, he and 36-year creative partner John Flansburgh had been promoting the heck out of the group's latest project and 20th album, I Like Fun, a brilliantly produced set of material featuring TMBG's quirky and often frenetic instrumentation and lyrical content that in many cases belies the upbeat album title.

The next leg of their tour opens April 13 in New Haven, where the band has performed a number of times. But this year, they are being enticed away from doing yet another club show and into the larger and more accommodating digs of College Street Music Hall. Tickets are still available for the 9 pm "An Evening With..." show which will include two sets packed with dozens of TMBG tunes new, old, and rare.

Just don't expect to hear much, if anything from the band's collection of Grammy-winning children's music. According to their advance, this new show will include all-time favorites, fresh rarities spanning their epic career, and spur-of-the-moment improvisations that are always spontaneous and occasionally ribald - that means just for adults, no kids will be admitted.

The duo's new tour features an expanded line-up of musicians. For the first time they're on a full tour with show-stopping trumpet genius Curt Ramm who has also played with the likes of Nile Rogers and Bruce Springsteen.

The band's tour blog lays out a few more particulars: "We start early with no opening act, and play two full sets. This expanded setup allows us to include many different songs. All the classic TMBG favorites with new selections from I Like Fun, Apollo 18, and Mink Car coming on board.

"While the show changes almost every night we always make a point to spotlight John L's contra-alto clarinet as well as the Curt Ramm trumpet," the blog continues. "And yes there is a show within a show - we have the Quiet Storm; a set of new arrangements of songs where it's often quiet but always stormy."

Expanding further during his chat, Linnell said this segment of the show represents a first for They Might Be Giants, as well as their fans.

Another exciting development for the band, as well as any die-hard fans, is the resurrection of their seminal Dial-A-Song, which is back for 2018 and available on a number of platforms.

Today, fans just need to click on the website dialasong.com, or download the free Dial-A-Song app for Apple or for Android.

Linnell said those heading out for the show will hear a good sampling from among the 15-tracks of I Like Fun, which their advance says "draws on themes of dread, death, and disappointment," albeit set to driving, hypermelodic instrumentation from the "two Johns," Ramm, drummer Marty Beller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and lead guitarist Dan Miller.

The new album was co-produced with and mixed by Patrick Dillett (St Vincent, Donald Fagen, The National, Mary J. Blige), and was tracked and mixed at the brand-new Reservoir Studios - site of that legendary Skyline Studios.

Anyone looking to dig deep into the TMBG mystique can explore the band's own Wiki - and for those somewhat less familiar with the band, here's a quick and brief look back.

Wikipedia says Linnell and Flansburgh first met as teenagers growing up in Lincoln, Mass. They began writing songs together while attending Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School but did not form a band at that time.

The two attended separate colleges after high school and Linnell joined The Mundanes, a new wave group from Rhode Island. The two reunited in 1981 after moving to Brooklyn - reportedly to the same apartment building on the same day - to continue their career.

Wikipedia cites a common misconception about the name of the band being a reference to themselves and an allusion to future success. But in a documentary about the band titled, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) Linnell said that the name refers to the outside world of possibilities that they saw as a fledgling band.

The duo began performing their own music in and around New York City - Flansburgh on guitar, Linnell on accordion and saxophone and accompanied by a drum machine or prerecorded backing track on audio cassette.

Linnell confirmed to The Bee that in 1985, they began recording their songs onto an answering machine, and then advertising the phone number in local newspapers like The Village Voice, using the moniker "Dial-A-Song." They also released a demo cassette, which earned them a review in People magazine.

That review, Linnell said, prompted Bar/None Records to sign them to their first recording deal, and they never looked back.

After signing and retiring from two more record labels, in 2004 the band created one of the first artist-owned online music stores, at which customers could purchase and download MP3 copies of their music, both new releases and many previously released albums.

Over the years, the band not only produced hundreds of songs for their own albums, but contributed material to dozens of films, television shows, even a series of Dunkin' Donuts commercials. In 2001, their single "Boss of Me" was released as the theme song to the hit television series Malcolm in the Middle, and won the duo a Grammy Award.

That same year, TMBG released No!, their first album billed to be "for the entire family." Using the enhanced CD format, it included an interactive animation for most of the songs.

They followed it up in 2003 with their first book, an illustrated children's publication with an included EP, Bed, Bed, Bed.

Then, in 2005, TMBG released Here Come the ABCs, a follow-up to the successful children's album No! on the Disney Sound Label. Another children's album, Here Come the 123s followed in 2009 and captured the Grammy Award for "Best Musical Album For Children."

The genre continued to serve the band with Grammy nominated Here Comes Science, a science-themed children's album in 2009, and their fifth children's album, Why?, in November 2015.

When the call came in from Linnell, it was unmistakable because the caller ID read: "They Might Be Giants." So we immediately launched into a conversation about the new album:

Newtown Bee: I've listened through I Like Fun several times over the past couple of days and am wondering which if any songs you had the biggest role in - inventing much or all of the lyrics and music?

John Linnell: It's about half my songs. John and I split the songwriting pretty much evenly.

The Bee: What are a couple of the ones you can look back on with utmost satisfaction?

Linnell: In some ways the first track on the album, "Let's get This Over With," is one. Our publicist listened to all the songs and suggested we put that one first. But we thought people might interpret that the wrong way. But I think she was right, actually. There's something kind of humorous about having the first track called "Let's Get This Over With."

The Bee: The instrumentation on that one really grabs you as a listener.

Linnell: Historically we don't have too many band tracks that don't have any guitars on them. So that's one notable thing. It's just piano, bass, drums and vocals, and I think there's some organ in there. And while I'm the songwriter on this particular track, John gave me the basic drum machine tracks with the hand claps, so the entire song was built on top of that rhythm tracks he gave me. So that was nice. We've been collaborating in lots of different ways recently just sending material and ideas back and forth. He wrote the title track "I Like Fun", but he asked me to work up a bass clarinet part - it's actually the even deeper contra-alto clarinet

The Bee: It's a funny coincidence but back in 1974 and '75 when I first started playing music with a grammar school buddy, his main instruments like with you, were clarinet and accordion.

Linnell: You know thinking back, at that time the accordion was considered sort of a joke instrument. I don't know how people perceive it now, but in a way John and I spent that beginning period hoping people would get past thinking of it like that. And I think by now people don't think about it in the same way. But I think by the mid-'60s it started being a joke as an instrument for playing any kind of rock or pop music.

The Bee: It sort of got shoved into that Polka shelf.

Linnell: Exactly, it had a surge of popularity in the mid-20th Century. But now I think it's settled into being just another one of those things you can add to your menagerie of sounds.

The Bee: What did co-producer Patrick Dillett bring to the project - he's worked with a pretty diverse collection of artists along with you two for quite a while.

Linnell: We started working with Pat in 1989, and he was an assistant engineer at Skyline Studios. And because we hired the studio, he was one of the assistant engineers. But he was someone we immediately took to - as a kindred spirit to some extent. And we've worked with him pretty much continually since. We're going on 30 years with Pat. He works with whomever he wants to - he's built a legacy and has a wonderful range of artists that he has been associated with, but he's been with us on virtually everything since our third album Flood. We've worked with him continuously since then.

The Bee: As I was looking up references to things in a few of the songs as conversation points, I occasionally found myself frustrated because there didn't seem to be any - which speaks to the true inventiveness and sheer creative genius you guys still bring to the table. So that being said, what is "McCafferty's Bib"?

Linnell: I think there's only one point of reference that is not perfectly obvious in that song, which is a reference to a work of art by Öyvind Fahlström. He did this wonderful thing in the mid-'60s where he filmed a bunch of people walking down the street with huge placards of Chairman Mao and Bob Hope (laughing) which I think Flansburgh and I both really latched onto. It had an enormous influence over our stage design, which was sort of like Citizen Kane with these huge black and white photos. So the song makes a reference to that 'marching down the street with Bob Hope.' But otherwise it remains a willfully cryptic song. There's no real explanation for what McCafferty's Bib really is. It sounds like a euphemism or a reference to some occult thing.

The Bee: I immediately assumed it was a constellation.

Linnell: It could be that.

The Bee: But in truth and reality, for the purpose of this interview there is no McCafferty, and if there was, he may or may not be wearing a bib?

Linnell: Yeah. It's just sort of a spooky reference to something for which there is no reference on the internet...it's an un-knowable thing. And that's really what the song is about, I guess.

The Bee: But in fact there may have been a 'Mrs Bluebeard', which I find is among the most rhythmically and musically complex numbers on I Like Fun - can you talk a bit about bringing that song to life.

Linnell: There is a fictitious Mrs Bluebeard - seven or eight of them, right? And for some reason he murdered his wives and kept them in a closet. There's a lot of versions of this folk tale, and it's referred to in operas, and short stories. So this is just another in the litany of those stories, told from the perspective of one of the wives. That's pretty much it. The piano part is something I made up (laughing) just a silly Latin-tinged piano part that became the rhythmic foundation for this song.

The Bee: In talking with a few hard core fans over the years, there's this overarching concept that you guys are like totally clever geniuses in your genre...


Linnell: I love that, let's go with that...My wife doesn't think I'm a clever genius, but she loves me anyway...

The Bee: But I imagine you don't really look at yourselves as clever geniuses when you are in the thick of your songwriting processes.

Linnell: I suppose a little humility goes a long way when you're trying to get work done, you know? I think we're very concerned with continually coming up with good material, without repeating ourselves. There's no resting on your laurels in that department. We have to keep thinking hard and interrogating all our ideas, throwing out the bad ones and trying to improve on the good ones if we can. It's a hard job writing songs.

The Bee: You seem to be open to virtually anything from a subject matter standpoint, putting virtually any two random thoughts together and making sense of it - at least by the end of the song?


Linnell: Oh yeah. In a sense it's an easy way to come up with something new, just mix things up that are otherwise unrelated. But i think we want to avoid formula, but it's a surrealist formula to mix unrelated moods. That can get a little cheap, though. We've done a number of songs where we have a really happy melody under a really heavy topic - depressing lyrics - and we've gone back to that well a number of times. But you don't want to keep repeating ourselves. We're interested in trying to do stuff that maybe seemed out of bounds a long time ago, but maybe now we're more willing to...for example writing a song with a lot of emotion, without getting too syrupy. That's an interesting challenge. Everybody writes those sort of songs, and you don't want to something generic sounding. So how do you make it personal without being offbeat for its own sake.

The Bee: But it's so hard to be syrupy when your only backing instruments are a glockenspiel and a jaw harp...

Linnell: Yeah, sometimes it's just a little too easy to keep reaching for that glockenspiel every time...

The Bee: So one of my readers, Paul Lundquist, asked me to ask you about Tonight Show performance of "Birdhouse in Your Soul" with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band. He said it was epic and you both looked giddy with joy during the performance.

Linnell: Sure, I think we were actually masking our dark terror by looking like we were experiencing extreme joy. It was very thrilling, but that show was always a very terrifying experience - John says it was like being shot out of a cannon. i mean we've done a lot of TV. We played for Conan O'Brian a bunch over the past 25 years or so. But there's something about the culture of The Tonight Show, it's much more nerve wracking than a lot of other TV shows. So what was weird about that night was we had practiced the song a bunch of times with Doc and his band, and once the show was live, he counted it off like, about ten beats faster than we had ever rehearsed it. And I don't know why because in practice, he was being very scrupulous about it. So maybe that's why it sounds so much more like a Gilbert and Sullivan rendition than what we intended to perform, or what our fans were used to.

The Bee: Does it become progressively harder to replicate when you bring some of these songs to the concert stage, or do you just do what serves the song on record and worry about the live show later?

Linnell: That's a really good question. About half the time, I'm thinking this is how a song will be performed, or I'm deliberately avoiding thinking about how to perform it because I want to go off in some direction that's not predictable, even to me. I want to surprise myself.

The Bee: So in anticipation of your set at College Street Music Hall, could you explain the 'quiet storm' portion of your show?

Linnell: We try to come up with something new for each tour. It's as though it was an acoustic segment except the drummer is playing an electronic kit, then John plays acoustic guitar and I play either accordion or clarinet. Our trumpet player is also on about half of that set. It's a fresh new thing, and then we open the second set with this intimate portion of the evening.

The Bee: So is there anything left on the TMBG bucket list in relation to things the band wants to do musically or creatively? Is there a They Might Be Giants all hologram tour - or space station gig still lurking out there on the horizon?

Linnell: I leave it up to those who come after us to put on the 'They Might Be Giants All Hologram Tour' with my blessing. I love the idea that we can keep touring long after we're gone.

The Bee: We'll call it the 'They Damn Sure Were Giants Tour'

Linnell: (laughing) In the meantime, we're looking forward to coming out to this brand new theater in New Haven.

Get tickets to see They Might Be Giants on April 13 at New Haven's College Street Music Hall by visiting collegestreetmusichall.com.

Check out They Might Be Giants playing Conan on February 28:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RG7Qw7S6kGA

They Might Be Giants performing selections at Good Records in Dallas, Tex on February 3:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0rxHo10_ac

 

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