Growing up, John Flansburgh, co-founder of the Grammy-winning alternative rock band They Might Be Giants, loved to tinker. He loved sound and he also loved new technology—rudimentary as it might have been, even at the time. For example, he loved listening to the radio in his parents’ car. He was “hypnotized” by Top 40 songs. As a kid, he also got into tape recorders and bought a three-inch reel-to-reel to play with sound. Later, his popular band became known for its “Dial-A-Song’ gimmick where They Might Be Giants recorded new songs and put them on an answering machine for people to call in to hear. Today, the band is continuously innovating, staying fresh. It’s part of their mission, evident by the group’s newest album and accompanying tome of the same name, BOOK, out October 29.
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“I was really into sound,” Flansburgh says, “really into recorded sound. I’m not even sure why it had such a hold on me. Ultimately, I’ve spent a lot of my life just thinking about and working with sounds.”
At the time, the emerging technology seemed to offer infinite possibilities. It was new, flashy—from Casio keyboards to now-collectors items tape recorders. This was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. For Flansburgh, now 61 years old, these days offered new ways to connect with people, to share ideas and creations. It was pure possibility. As Flansburgh grew up with these passions, he later formed a friendship with John Linnell in their Boston high school. The two would formally co-found They Might Be Giants in Brooklyn, New York in 1982, creating innovative, at times-raucous music, from their debut 19-song album to later, themes for kids’ cartoons.
“We went through a lot of very formative experiences together,” Flansburgh says. “We lived through the classic rock scare of the mid-‘70s and came out the other end of it with all the first wave of pick rock bands out of New York and Boston. We were 17 years old when all the bands from New York just emerged.”
Together, Flansburgh and Linnell attended myriad shows. They lived in a poor section of Brooklyn so that they could afford artist lives. In the audience, at these gigs at clubs in the Big Apple, the duo learned implicitly what they liked and didn’t like in terms of sound, performance, and creative production. It was a master class in clubs like New York’s CBGB and elsewhere at Boston’s Rathskeller (aka The Rat).
“Those were really formative,” Flansburgh says.
Both Flansburgh and Linnell honed their chops in small east village clubs in New York. At the time in the ‘80s, performance art was hot and bars and stages wanted original material, not covers or the more mindless stuff played for partiers. Instead, the more thoughtful and more experimental the better. That fruitful gestation, petri dish period has since propelled Flansburgh and Linnell to great success. As a result of their experimentation, they were allowed to find their voices and bolster the courage needed to stick with them.
“We’ve always been ambitious,” Flansburgh says. “Everyone wants to write the most powerful songs they can and explore all the musical territory they can think of. But I think the one thing for us is that we gave ourselves the permission early on to not limit ourselves to just working within the established guidelines of what defines a band.”
While They Might Be Giants’ origin story will always be linked to the “Dial-A-Song,” gimmick, Flansburgh says that the duo didn’t start that to gain attention from record executives, as many have claimed in the past. Rather, those same executives cautioned them that it was a bad practice, that it upended the more traditional relationship between pent-up fans and artists.
“When we were in fact approached by major record labels,” Flansburgh says, “we were often asked if we could stop doing the ‘Dial-A-Song’ service. Not only didn’t it make money, but they saw it as short-circuiting the process.”
The band’s newest record is lively, eccentric, and lovely. It begins with a bang with the first cut, “Synopsis for Latecomers,” which humorously reintroduces the band to new fans. Other hits include the electric lullaby “I Broke My Own Rule,” the quirky “If Day for Winnipeg” and jaunty “Part of You Wants to Believe Me.” The music is indicative of a playful and yet serious ambition. And the accompanying book includes at times-haunting photos (by Brian Karlsson) and wonky, offset print copy (by Paul Sahre).
“The truth is,” Flansburgh says, “the thing about our project is that it feels like the challenge is bigger than just a single song. I think from the jump, we almost wanted to figure out how to remain in some way musically unknowable. If you really want to break out of the simple-new-band-alert-check-out-their-hot-new-single-thing, you have to declare it in some way.”
They Might Be Giants certainly has made its fair share of declarations over the years, from wacky songs to Tony nominations to Grammy wins. While the band has never taken a break in its history as it has during the pandemic, its members remain tuned into what might be next in the current topsy-turvy world, while still enjoying the process of writing new songs and making new material. Together, they hope the future is bright so that they can continue a career that, to date, has felt like a bolt of juiced lightning.
“This whole thing has just gone by in a flash,” Flansburgh says. “I like everything about music—I just hope people can figure out how to get vaccinated so we can get back on stage.”
Photo by Shervin Lainez