They Might Be Giants, the long-lived alternative-rock duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, have a handsome side-career going in the children's-music field. So it makes perfect sense that they're extending the TMBG brand into sports, sort of, by sponsoring kids' baseball teams.
"We are sponsoring some teams, insofar as we're sending clean clothes that match," Flansburgh said in a recent phone chat. "Personally, John and I are both tremendous indoorsmen. But we're all for other people getting out more often. The fellow who runs our e-commerce site got this order for 14 small T-shirts and inquired as to why. This fellow in Seattle was coaching a T-ball team they were calling They Might Be Giants, and both coaches were named John. When they sent photos, we were knocked out because they looked so...fierce. There's something about matching uniforms that makes a gang of 5-year-olds look much tougher.
"We got the idea we'd be happy to do more of this and put out an offer to the general baseball public, and we've fulfilled a number of other requests," Flansburgh added. "The T-shirt we've made for the new album works really well. It has a word balloon with the word 'NO' coming out, and there's a very aggro thing about that word for every kid. It's very amusing to us on a lot of different levels."
For more, including details on TMBG's two shows in Raleigh on Saturday, see the interview in Friday's paper. Also, here's an interview from 2007; and as long as I'm at it, below is a story of mid-'90s vintage, when TMBG's "Dial a Song" hotline seemed like the height of futurism. For everyone's sakes, I sincerely hope it's the last time I ever typed the phrase "information superhighway."
Giants keep on growing
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Feb. 17, 1995
As the Infobahn steamrolls through the entertainment industry, it seems overrun with the equivalent of fancy sports cars and 18-wheel trucks -- Aerosmith releasing a song over CompuServe, for example, or gigantic record companies with Web sites and interactive on-line gadgets.
So it's refreshing to see something a little less grandiose out there. Like They Might Be Giants (who play Sunday at the Ritz in Raleigh), who are skittering along the information superhighway's shoulder like an electric bumper car. The Brooklyn duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh have always been years ahead of the multimedia music curve, albeit in a low-tech sort of way, going back to the mid-'80s when they started their "Dial-A-Song" hotline at (718) 387-6962. Close to a decade later, they still put a different new song on an answering machine at that number every day.
From those humble origins, They Might Be Giants have grown into a good-sized cottage industry. Along with recording and releasing their own music in the conventional way, they oversee a mail-order record club, the "Hello CD of the Month Club," which releases music by friends and associates.
One spinoff that operates independent of the band is an amazingly pointy-headed They Might Be Giants discussion group, alt.music.tmbg, in which fans ponder topics such as Linnell and Flansburgh's religious beliefs (the band claims to "believe in separation of church and They Might Be Giants," in case anyone is interested); whether people's parents like the band; and unexpected sightings, such as the recent science-fiction book character who prevented anyone from reading his mind by continuously humming They Might Be Giants songs to himself.
Linnell occasionally browses through alt.music.tmbg himself and confesses that he finds it bewildering.
"It's sort of touching, the way people reach out to one another through their mutual interest in what we do," Linnell says, speaking by phone from his Brooklyn home. "But it's doubly weird for me. For one thing, I don't think I'd want to meet people that way -- I'm not really adjusted to communicating through computers, maybe because I'm old and still remember the old-fashioned thing of meeting in person. For another, it's so utterly peculiar to read people talking about our work and us personally.
"I think some of these people honestly thought a lot harder about our songs and lyrics than we did, analyzing them to the merest minutae. But there are also some really strange interpretations, and the stuff that's wrong is just hilarious. Although the way it bounces off people and what they take to it, that's part of the whole experience."
Of course, there's plenty of room for misinterpretation with They Might Be Giants, who are practically a junk-culture tribute band. Their music is perfect for the attention span-impaired: cheesy jingle/parody versions of everything from punk to polka, ska to salsa, folk to funk, rock to roll.
Philosophically, they put forth an appealing combination of whimsy and common sense, summed up by their 1986 song "I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die." Their albums, especially 1990's "Flood" and its delightful ode to a night light, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," play like brainy children's records with lots of adult appeal. Buy their latest, "John Henry" (Elektra Records), and you can ponder the similarities between relationships and car wrecks ("The End of the Tour") on one song; and, on another, "Meet James Ensor," "Belgium's famous painter."
"James Ensor was an interesting painter, a sort of oddball guy who was briefly embraced by the saloon hotshots in Paris," Linnell explains. "That's a song in a general category we have, biographies of people, partly based on the idea that when you write a song about a subject, it immediately becomes more interesting. Like Johnny Horton and 'The Battle of New Orleans' -- literally everything I know about the Battle of New Orleans comes from that song. It's so peculiar that we can't retain anything like that from history class, but a song has this strange power to put things in our heads."
Yes, They Might Be Giants' erudite streak is alive and well. But after almost a decade of low-key surrealism, "The Johns" (as they're known to fans) are actually turning almost sort of...well, normal. They Might Be Giants used to work as a two-man band of Linnell and Flansburgh, augmented with sound effects and an electronic rhythm section. Now they have an actual live backup band, which makes its recorded debut on "John Henry."
As a result, "John Henry" sounds deceptively direct. "Unrelated Thing," for example, sounds less like a parody of country music than an actual, relatively straightforward attempt at country. Same for the driving, horn-driven ska of "Sleeping in the Flowers," and the Beatles-ish pop vocal harmonies on the anti-thought police anthem "I Should Be Allowed to Think." Linnell, however, downplays any conscious decision to de-quirk.
"Because we've got a band now, we're taking in influences from other musicians more than we used to. I don't know if that's really moving us toward the center because our band comes from some pretty odd backgrounds. [Bassist] Tony Maimone is from Pere Ubu, who are pretty left-of-center. And our drummer has a very varied background, from the Silos to Freedy Johnston's band -- and also a lot of wedding bands. He knows that gig and a great deal of that repertoire, which is useful.
"We just sort of follow our own logic," Linnell concludes. "There's no plan on which way we're heading, we just try to come up with something interesting. I saw this interview with [writer] Robert Crumb where he said, 'Everything is not for kids,' and also, 'Everything is not for everybody.' We feel that way. What we do is not necessarily for everybody. It's really just for us. Whoever else wants to like it is fine."