In the mid to late 1980s, They Might be Giants came up alongside what might be called “first-wave” alternative bands like The Cure, REM, Depeche Mode and The Smiths: all known for a certain kind of melodrama and self-absorption.
TMBG, on the contrary, took the piss out of a lot of that with smart and quirky tunes like “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” and “Minimum Wage,” blending elements of minimal new wave and post-punk alongside art prankster-ism, acting as an inadvertent satire of the self-seriousness and darkness of adolescent life.
It was music for arty kids to whom downing a six-pack of Dew was hitting the hard stuff. TMBG seemed to speak for that crowd, and the crowd has remained loyal for life.
John Linnell, half of the legendary duo, is talking to me on the phone from his tour bus in Indiana. He’s crawled up onto his bunk, “the little coffin I sleep in,” he says, to find a quiet place to talk.
Linnell agrees there’s always been an element of humor in TMBG’s stuff, but he stops short of calling it satire.
“There’s no reaction to some other thing,” he says.
Since their initial success, Linnell and his songwriting partner John Flansburgh have launched a dial-a-song phone line — call a number and get a new song every day, which is perfectly in keeping with their look-around-the-room-write-about-what-I-see songwriting style.
They also made the shift to kids’ music, and if you’ve ever heard the Giants, that shift felt like, well … duh. The move was made right when much of their audience was having children as well.
Last year, TMBG returned with a well-received regular grown-up Giants record, I Like Fun.
“We’ve been warmed by the reception,” Linnell says of the response to the new music and a tour that’s been selling out all over the country. “It’s been going well.”
I Like Fun is very Giants but also feels subtly more grown-up and a little more personal. “There’s a lot of death imagery,” Linnell says, calling the record “sincere but not autobiographical.”
Linnell is excited he got to play a contra alto clarinet on the album-track “I Like Fun” — band geek for life! — and, overall, Fun has the kind of goofy genre-skipping TMBG is known for.
“Most of the songs on the album are in the mode they were created in,” Linnell says — from rockers like “An Insult to the Fact Checkers” to the vaguely cha-cha “Mrs. Bluebeard” to the quiet wind arrangements on “The Greatest.” And there’s also plenty of funny: “Complete, completely, completelier / Defeat, defeated, defeatlier” is the chorus from “All Time What.”
Mostly it remains a little miracle that two guys named John found each other in this world to make music that only these two guys named John could make together. ■