Interview: John Linnell of They Might be Giants

It’s been two years since They Might be Giants last graced our shores with their eclectic brand of alternative rock. This year saw the release of their wonderful new studio album, Glean, Aussie copies of which include a bonus disc featuring a live version of the Flood album, in reverse running order. Over the span of their hugely successful career, the immense talent and versatile creative musicianship of founding members, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, has yielded an impressive catalogue of superb and memorable songs, for both children and adults.

Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Bullet Proof, we were fortunate enough to have a chat with John Linnell about the band’s approach to the creative process, his reflections on the band’s history and longevity, and their upcoming Australian tour.

SR: Hi John. How are you going?

JL: I’m well. How are you?

SR: Good. Thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

JL: I was just speaking with somebody else about the correct response to the question, ‘How are you going?’ As familiar as I am with the expression, I never knew what the proper response was – whether you’d say, ‘I’m going well’, or ‘I am going’. I don’t know.

SR: Same as ‘How are you doing?’ I guess.

JL: Well, I suppose. But in terms of the actual grammatical structure of ‘How are you going?’… You know, in French you say ‘ça va?’, which is ‘are you going?’ That’s the French version. But we don’t really have a version of it. We say, ‘How are you doing?’, and, then, of course the answer is, ‘I’m doing well.’

SR: I hadn’t considered it. But I will now.

JL: Yeah, I’d never thought of it until today. I don’t know why. I’ve been to Australia loads of times, but I never thought about it. But, in other words, it sounds as if the proper response is, grammatically, to say that you are going well, right?

SR: Yes.

JL: I mean, in terms of the actual meaning of the response. ‘How are you going?’ ‘I’m going well.’ Not that you would say that, but that’s the idea.

TMBG-in-Australia-poster-1200x865SR: Yeah, I think it’s interesting and it’s reminiscent of ‘How are you travelling?’ as well.

JL: ‘How are you travelling?’ I’ve never even heard of that. That’s a good one. Does that mean when you’re literally travelling, or is it a metaphor?

SR: Metaphoric and in the same vein as ‘How are you going?’

JL: Right, ‘How are you travelling?’ Interesting, yeah. I’ve never heard that one.

SR: The small details can be so interesting. I always feel a bit apprehensive when Americans preface something with, ‘Let me ask you a question.’ I always baulk and think it’s going to be something very serious if they’re asking so formally.

JL: (Laughs). Yeah, well even worse than that is saying, ‘Can I ask you a question?’, because it’s too late – you already have.

(Both laugh)

SR: Alright, well I’ll ask the first of my many questions. I’m sure you won’t have time to answer them all.

JL: It’s fine. You’re the last one, so we don’t have the pressure.

SR: Still you’re no doubt a bit fatigued by the same questions, over and over.

JL: No, I give different answers every time.

(Both laugh).

SR: It’s hard to believe that Glean is now your 17th studio album! It’s also the 25th anniversary of Flood, which sounds as fresh as ever. Does it feel like time’s flown for you?

JL: It does! Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily have known, but it doesn’t strike me that that much time has gone by, and yet the inarguable evidence is that we have put out a lot of music. I was speaking to a teenager who just recently discovered our catalogue. He said, ‘Why do you have so many songs?’ So, I was just, ‘Well, I guess we’ve just been doing this forever. That’s why. We’ve been writing songs for 30 years.’

SR: Can you tell us about the writing and production process for Glean and how it differed from previous releases?

JL: Sure. It really didn’t differ that much, in terms of the workflow. John and I tend to do a lot of work at home. We usually make a pretty comprehensive demo of everything that we’re going to bring in, so that the band knows what the idea of it is. And then, they might take it in a different direction when we get to the large studio in Manhattan where we’re working. We’ll have a demo and we have them play along to the tracks that aren’t necessarily being replaced right away; like, there’ll be a vocal track and then maybe something else. And then they’ll be replacing whatever the drums and the bass are and, you know, if there’s guitar… They’ll replace all that when we’re live. But that’s normally the way we work. It’s not strictly the way we work, but it’s a common way of putting our stuff together. So, there isn’t really a moment where it stops being a demo and becomes a live version. It’s sort of this gradual replacement of materials. It’s kind of like the way fossilisation works: the ancient, prehistoric bones get replaced with some kind of other mineral or something, and it’s a slow process. So, yeah, you could say that our demos become fossilised, in some sense. Maybe that’s the wrong metaphor to use. But it used to be that we’d make a demo in the old days, and then we’d just start over in the studio with the band – just start from scratch, maybe with a click track. But now it’s more like the demo seamlessly transfers over to the album version, or the release version.

SR: How long did it take you, from start to finish, to put Glean together?

GleanJL: Well, we started recording in 2014, early in the year. Actually, some of the material goes back even a little earlier than that; but, the main bulk of it was begun in 2014. And by the beginning of 2015, we had everything, more or less, finished. These were tracks that were coming out on the Dial-a-Song Direct project – one song coming out every week. And then, from that material, we were going to figure out what we wanted put together for the first album, which was Glean. We knew were going to make at least one adults’ album and then one children’s record from that material. Now, as it turns out, we have enough material left over to put out a third album. As you can imagine…there’s 52 weeks in a year, so we had 52 brand new tracks. Tracks that had been unreleased but will have come out over the course of this year. And we’re pretty happy with the quality of it, so I think we’re ready to put out all three albums worth of material based on that. So Glean is just the first of the trilogy.

SR: Glean is a superb album. I’ve been a fan of yours for many years. You know, you always hope a new record from one of your favourite bands won’t disappoint. This one’s blown me away. You must be so proud of it.

JL: Oh, great. Thanks for saying that. It’s really nice and I’m glad to hear it.

SR: It just feels like you guys have been around forever and given many of us a soundtrack to our lives for so long now. What have been some of your own personal career highlights?

JL: I don’t know. I mean I’m a little bit forgetful at this point. We’ve kind of had a long, circuitous path and I think that a lot of the stuff that I think of as an interesting time… For example, I often think the year 1990 was an interesting year for us because everything was sort of happening really quickly. You know, we had a major release that came out internationally. We had a major label. We had hit songs in places we’d never had any hit songs before. So I always think of 1990 as this kind of breathlessly exciting time. But, of course, there are a lot of other really interesting things that have happened along the way, and some of them were a little less dramatic, I guess. Where we came to a new sort of understanding about what we liked or what we wanted to do. I would say that even in the last 10 years or so, we’re feeling now that there are things we’ve learned that we didn’t know before. It’s like I wish we could go back and listen to our old records again. We had certain preconceptions that we kind of walked away from. I think we’re maybe a little freer, in some ways, in the way that we think about stuff – and maybe a bit less uptight than we used to be.

There was one spectacular thing that happened in 1989, which was that we were in Berlin; and, they’d already announced… The Berlin wall had officially come down, but that evening they told us that they were going to be tearing down the section in front of the Brandenburg gate. So after the show, we went out and walked there and stood on top of the Berlin Wall and looked down; and somebody had set up a mattress on the other side, so we were able to jump down over the wall. And, at that point, we didn’t know whether we were supposed to be carrying our passports or not. But there was this sense of, like, ‘This is a whole new world and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.’ You know, it was a very fun and exciting time to be somewhere in the world when something like that was happening. It felt like we were a part of it, in some weird way.

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SR: How incredible for you. You were speaking earlier about how you’d have done some things differently, with the wisdom of hindsight. What advice would you go back and give your younger selves, if you could?

JL: Well, I think we used to think more rigidly about what songs were supposed to sound like, you know? And, in some ways, we’ve probably gotten better at doing certain things, so maybe we more used to working in certain ways. We’re more practised at it, so we feel more comfortable. But then, I think we also realise that a lot of the hang ups that we had about the way songs are supposed to work…we could relax about those kinds of things and be a little more open-ended. You know, we have this enormous luxury now, where we’re such an established brand that we’re not trying to define ourselves anymore. We can do whatever we want. We’re not trying to make a big point of who we are to anybody. We can do more spacewalks now, I think, and really, legitimately not have any point that we’re trying to make about the direction music should go in or anything like that. We can do something purely for the adventure.

SR: Your clever lyrics are known for their playfulness and sense of fun. Did you like to play with words as a kid and when did you first start writing lyrics?

JL: You know, I don’t know. I guess both John and I liked words and language. I think maybe when we were in high school together we had a more satirical approach to writing and that we just thought it was fun to poke holes in formal things, you know? Just to be irreverent. That was probably the most rebellious we ever were. We’ve never actually been a rebellious band. We’ve never indulged in that sort of cultural rebellion that I think people associate with rock bands, you know? We didn’t get interested in partying our brains out, particularly, or anything like that, actually. We liked the job and just applying ourselves to it. We liked ideas and doing something interesting, so we weren’t really thinking, like, ‘Down with the established order’, so much, you know? I think by the time we were fully into it, we were not thinking that we want to replace what there is with what we’re doing. Part of the thing is that were pushing 30 when we got our first major label thing. We started making records in our mid-20s, so we were not kids when we sort of became a public project. So that was lucky for us. I think we thought we got past the rebellion stage and just got into trying to do something good that we liked and thought that other people would want to hear and maybe weren’t getting already. That was the idea.

SR: Well, I think I’ve taught every child I’ve ever met the words to Particle Man, and you have those wonderful kids’ albums on which your very own Harry has performed. It must be so joyful to write stuff for kids.

tmbg tour posterJL: Well it’s actually something we didn’t even think of until we started doing it. It’s an enormous privilege to write music for somebody who hasn’t heard very much music, you know? And we’re so used to the world in which everybody that we play for is kind of an amateur rock critic. There’s just an attitude that everybody tends to have that they listen to something and compare it to everything else they’ve ever heard and you know, they rate it. I mean, it’s what I do. I don’t think it’s terrible, but it’s what adults do with culture: you put it in the context of everything else. And with a kid, they really don’t have a lot of context; they’re hearing a lot of things with very fresh ears. So, it’s something to consider – that you could be baby’s first heavy metal song. And that’s an exciting idea, that you could be setting the mould, you know…or just introducing them to you band and they’ll stick with them in some way. And maybe later, they’ll think, ‘Oh yeah, this was within the context of other stuff.’ You know, I think about that now – the stuff I grew up with – and I realise there was a cultural context for everything. But at the time, when you’re just starting out, you just take it in and accept it for what it is, or don’t like it.

SR: You have a lot of funny lyrics that have always made me smile. What makes you laugh?

JL: I like surprises – I like the unexpected. I think when you’re trying to be funny, you run the risk of reaching for a sort of cliché. And I think there’s nothing more unfunny than the expected gag, I would say; so, I would rather that there not be that expectation. You know, I think when I’m performing with John Flansburgh, the thing that’s really thrilling for me is that he often says things that are the last thing that I am expecting. Something occurs to him and he says it, and it’s so out of left field that, you know…that makes me laugh. But it’s not some prepared remark or something where it’s an obvious set up. You know, I like humour but unfortunately, when people hear that something’s funny, that reduces it a little bit in their minds to something that is just supposed to be funny. And obviously we feel that humour is a much broader thing. It’s part of what we do, but it itself is a very wide-ranging thing; and, a lot of things can be funny which would not be considered as material for comedy, you know? And also, we take ourselves pretty seriously; you’d be surprised by how much we take ourselves seriously.

SR: Really?

JL: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s ridiculous.

SR: I like the absurdist nature of some of the things you do.

JL: Oh I think so, yeah. But I don’t think that everything is absurd, you know? Like I was saying, there was a point when we were teenagers where it felt like everything was absurd and like it was necessary to point out how absurd everything was. And we’re in our 50s now and we realise this is reality – this is what it is. This is the way the world is. I suppose if you can manage to appreciate the absurdity of stuff… It’s a rare thing now, to be able to step back and say, ‘This is crazy.’ But things don’t seem very crazy anymore. There’s more of a consensus, I think, of what reality is when you reach middle age.

SR: And the stakes get a bit higher, don’t they, as you get older?

JL: Yes.

SR: Nonetheless, is there a song of your own that you’ve ever found it hard to get through onstage because you’ve been cracking up?

JL: No, I think we’re good at concentrating on the goal and finding solutions. And, in fact, a lot of the work of song writing is work, you know? You’re really trying to solve a problem. You’re thinking about what you’re doing, and you’re trying to avoid pitfalls and clichés; and you want to say something that is interesting, challenging, real, and fresh and doesn’t just sound tired. And it’s a job, you know? It’s an interesting job and it involves real problem solving. So that’s what it’s like. I mean, sometimes it can be excruciating, you know? It can be really hard work. Sometimes, you have to put everything down and go take a nap and come back to it fresh. Sometimes you get frustrated. I always say I don’t so much like the work, but I really like having done the work.

SR: Yes, as Dorothy Parker once said: ‘I don’t like writing; I like having written.’

JL: Exactly. Yeah, I’m probably paraphrasing Dorothy Parker.

SR: I’ve heard a lot of creative people describe the process in a similar way.

JL: It’s really true. The work of it is painful; it can be. But in amongst that…in the middle of doing the work…you have a good idea and then you get excited and you’re motivated again.

SR: Having discussed the humorous aspect of your work, you have darker themes, too. Bastard Wants to Hit Me, End of the Rope, When Will You Die? and Lucky Ball and Chain come to mind. They’re still catchy, though. Do you enjoy the irony of juxtaposing that sort of darkness with an uptempo melody?

JL: I think, yeah. I have to cop to that. I don’t know if it was strictly ironic, but certainly a lot of it was about juxtaposing different elements – not necessarily with an ironic attitude. But, for example, we’ve done this a lot, as I’m sure you know. We’ve had music with pop song melodies, and then the lyrics are something other than the typical pop lyric. And the idea is that it sort of plants a seed in your head – it goes down easier because of the sugary pop melody. Then you have this set of lyrics running around in your head which are, you know, maybe running slightly against the grain or running entirely against the grain, or just something that’s not the expected kind of pop lyric. And I think that was something that always seemed interesting and fruitful. Every time we tried that idea, and there are a thousand different ways you could do that…where you have an appealing melodic idea and that you put the lyrics to it and the lyrics are taking you in a slightly different direction. And, you know, I think we could spend all our time writing those songs. That would be perfectly satisfying for me.

SR: You’ve got a lot of very dedicated fans, including the people who put the TMBG Wiki together. Do you have much personal interaction with your fans and how have you seen your fan base transform, throughout the years?

JL: Well, some of them we recognise because they’re people in the front row now who are really there… I mean some of them almost continuously – some of them on and off – for decades now; so they’re getting old, too. When we look out, we can see the grey-haired people in the front row who are the same people who came to see us in the eighties and the nineties. You know, that’s nice. I mean, I don’t know why they’re still coming but it’s wonderful that they still want to come. It’s nice for us. We obviously…well, I don’t know if it’s obvious to you, but to us it’s remarkable that we continue to attract young fans. I don’t know why that is. I know plenty of bands our age who do not seem to attract younger fans. But maybe it’s because we’ve put out kids’ records as well that we have a system of recruiting new people now; because, they start out listening to our kids’ music. I’m not sure why, but I’m very grateful that there are people in their teens and twenties who come out to see us. It seems kind of miraculous, actually. Maybe part of it is that older people don’t go out as much, so the people who come out tend to be a little younger. I don’t go out much to see bands so I understand why anyone my age wouldn’t. But yeah, it’s lucky. I don’t personally know the people who come to see us, I guess. There’s one or two people I’ve spoken to who’ve been around for a long time; but I don’t interact with them socially, so much. But I get that there’s sort of identification, you know? The people who feel that they’ve thrown in their lot with us and have decided… I mean, they probably like plenty of other bands but, for some reason, they’ve also latched on to us. So, I also feel some respect for that, you know? I don’t really know these people but they’re sort of on our team in some way, you know? They’ve signed up to be with us, you know? I don’t know whether they necessarily have anything in common with one another, aside from the fact that they like us. I mean, some of them are sort of nerdy people, but plenty of them are not nerdy…or they came on their own – they’re not from any particular clique or group – and they just decided, individually, that we were the band that they liked. So, I don’t have a very deep sense of who any of them are, but I absolutely do not take them for granted. They are the people who are supporting us.

SR: Maybe you’re being a bit modest in being surprised that these people follow you. Your music is of such consistently high quality, for one thing.

JL: Oh, I know why I like us. I like what John and I do, and I know what I think is good about it. But I’m surprised that there are other people who are tuning into it and I don’t have perfect confidence that they like us for the same reasons that we like us.

SR: I see. The people I’ve known, personally, who are TMBG fans have come from such a broad range of musical tastes and backgrounds. I think they all appreciate the timelessness and intelligence of your output.

JL: Well, thank you. That’s nice.

SR: I’ve always wondered how you came to do the cover of Istanbul (not Constantinople). For the record, yours has become the definitive version for me.

JL: Oh! You know what’s weird? I think John and I have completely different versions of why. I always thought that it was because I saw The Four Lads on television in the early eighties and told John about it – and maybe he would agree with this. I mean what happened was there was this television special about music from the fifties; and, by the eighties, there was this received idea that the fifties had been this rock and roll decade. And, if you watched the show, that clearly was not the angle they were going for, because there was no rock and roll involved. It was all Patti Page and The Four Lads and stuff like that – stuff that was like adult popular music. I was so impressed and The Four Lads came out and sang Istanbul and I wasn’t really familiar with the song, but I really loved it. So I remember talking to John about this. I think that he had already heard the song when he was growing up; so, according to him, he knew the song already. So I can’t necessarily claim that it was my idea to cover it because I can’t remember which of us finally said that we should do that song. I think that we had both come to it different ways. But, for me, it was sort of about this alternate history of music, which was not the clichéd one of the fifties being all about rock and roll. By the time of the early eighties, that was sort of the established idea, you know – that Dean Martin didn’t exist. Instead, it was all about Elvis Presley, you know?

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SR: Do you have any weird fan requests or tour stories that you can share with us?

JL: I don’t know. I can’t answer on the spot, unfortunately.

SR: Something unusual you’ve been asked to sign, perhaps?

JL: I think that often we’re so much caught up in the day-to-day thing about touring, where you’re preparing and everything’s about the job. It’s remarkably ‘un-weird’, I would say, a lot of it. A lot of it is just about where we’re going to have dinner. I mean, you could say that it’s weird that we’re doing this in the first place; we’re a bunch of middle-aged men who sleep in tiny coffins on a bus. That’s weird. We’re trying to keep it as civilised as possible. We have an espresso maker on the bus to keep everybody awake.

SR: Not very rock and roll of you.

JL: Yes, it’s very grown up (laughs).

SR: You obviously love words and writing, John. What’s on your reading pile at the moment?

JL: Oh! I’m reading a bunch of things that are really interesting. There’s this guy, Rick Perlstein, who’s written a bunch of books about conservatism. He’s a left-winger, but he wrote a book about Barry Goldwater, which I finished reading a few weeks ago. And now I’m reading the middle book, which is called Nixon, and is obviously about Richard Nixon. So, that’s terrific. I’m really enjoying that one. I also picked up off the table this Hilary Mantel book called A Place of Greater Safety. She’s written the popular Wolf Hall series about Henry VIII.

SR: Yes.

JL: Everybody’s discovering her, and I discovered her through that. She’s a terrific writer, but I’ve started reading this book which is about the French Revolution, and it’s great. I think I’ve found something to read on the airplane flight to Australia, which is going to be something like 22 hours. We’re connecting in L.A, and then connecting again in Sydney, and then we’re going to Perth. That’s where the tour begins. So, we have a lot of reading time on the airplane.

SR: Yes, a gruelling flight. Hilary Mantel was a sensible choice. After this tour, what’s next for you guys?

JL: We’re coming back and continuing with shows in New York. Then we’ve got a tour of Britain at the end of January/beginning of February. We’ll be in London on January 25th. And then we’re doing a major tour of the U.S in the spring – our spring, which is March and April.

SR: And, finally, do you have a message we can send out to your Aussie fans, ahead of your tour?

JL: We’re so looking forward to this. We had such a great time in 2013. That was really fun. We sold out most of the shows and added lots and lots of shows. The response was really overwhelming, so we’re really happy that we get to come back. I mean, we’re dreading the flight, but we’re happy about getting to come back and play there. We love Australia, it’s a wonderful place. Of course, we’ve been playing there since the early nineties. But until two years ago, we hadn’t been over to you in about ten years, so this is great. It’s a real treat for us.

SR: Anything you want to do while you’re here that you haven’t had a chance to do as yet?

JL: That’s a good question. We managed to get a lot in, last time around. Of course, we’ve never been to the serious outback, but we did do a lot of fun recreational stuff. We went up to Magnetic Island and spent a day up there; that was fun. I’ll have to think about it. We probably don’t have a lot of free time on this particular tour, because it’s going to be a tighter tour. But we’re winding up in Melbourne, so we’ll think of something to do in Melbourne. We’re looking forward to it.


Monday 2nd November: PERTH, The Astor Theatre

Wednesday 4th November: ADELAIDE, The Gov

Thursday 5th November: BRISBANE, Tivoli

Friday 6th November: SYDNEY, Enmore Theatre

Saturday 7th November: MELBOURNE, Forum Theatre