A common misconception about nerd rock outfit They Might Be Giants is that keyboardist John Linnell is the introvert, and lefty guitarist John Flansburgh is the socialite. And while the former generally doesn’t hang out with people outside his circle, he doesn’t exactly classify himself as an introvert.
“[Flans is] much more outgoing than I am. But it's not an extreme situation,” Linnell told Creative Loafing during a recent phone call from his home in upstate New York. “We’re actually not that different from one another.”
Luckily, he’s all healed up, and the Flood anniversary shows—one of which is a sold-out stop at St. Pete’s Jannus Live on Tuesday, March 14—have been taking the band’s fanbase by storm since last August.
Not only are the guys playing the vast majority of the album all the way through—with a horn section, no less—but they’re also throwing in moves that other bands wouldn’t dream of doing, such as performing a song backwards, videotaping it, and during intermission, playing it on the big screen reversed, so it comes out as forward.
“It’s just a unique way to hear one of the songs unplugged, and that is probably the most extreme going-out-on-a-limb thing that we're doing over the course of this show.” Linnell admitted.
And during breaks in the tour, it’s off to the studio to work on whatever’s next. Linnell and Flansburgh are chipping away at a new album, and have been conducting their regular process of that, which includes recording 20-30 tracks and later selecting the best ones to include. “I think we've got about 10 tracks that are done, or tracked anyway,” he revealed.
When new material isn’t the focus of the day, the guys—primarily Flansburgh—are making a point to get their entire catalog reissued—or issued—on vinyl. Not to mention that with as wide of a catalog under their belts, there’s never going to be a shortage of Giants material. The guys recorded songs for “Coraline,” most of which got rejected, along with countless others that never made it onto albums.
Get our full interview with Linnell below, and go see him and They Might Be Giants at Jannus Live on Tuesday, March 14. Oh, and per their request, do bring a mask with you. I know it’s an outdoor thing, but they’re giving you your money’s worth by putting on a long-ass show. It’s the least you can do.
Thanks a lot for doing this with me, John. I'm really excited to see the Flood show in St. Pete.
Yeah, me too.
I know these are anniversary shows for the most part, but do you ever think of them as a way to toy around with ideas for the songs that like you didn't have thirty years ago?
The answer is yes. As you pointed out, we're playing songs from Flood, but that’s not all we're doing, because that's not enough to fill up the evening. I mean, Flood was recorded when John and I were a duo, so we didn't even have a band when we started for the first few records. So it is the case that we are doing different sounding versions of these songs. But yeah, we are definitely playing around with them.
There are a couple of things that we're doing pretty differently, aside from the fact that it's all a live band. There's one thing that's kind of the elephant in the room, which is that we're playing one of the songs backwards. In other words, we’re playing it as if it was a backwards recording.
I know. You know, everybody's first response is like, “why would you do that?” And I gotta say, it was so much work learning how to play it backwards that we were asking that question ourselves. But the big payoff is that we perform it, we videotape the performance, and then halfway through the show, we are off stage, and we project the reversed video of what we just played, so that people can hear the forwards version of the song, and so that's really the experience. It’s just a unique way to hear one of the songs unplugged, and that is probably the most extreme going-out-on-a-limb thing that we're doing over the course of this show.
But yeah, we're obviously doing a lot of things differently now, and it's been more than 30 years since we recorded it, so we've moved on in our lives in a lot of ways. You know, we're taking something very different to the Flood album. We’re not doing soundalike versions of the album, in other words,
Love to hear it. Is the horn section going to be involved in that backwards segment?
The horn section is not involved in that particular track, but they are a major part of the show. That’s another exciting thing about the live show, that these guys get to step out and do fiery stuff.
Nice. I’m gonna go back to your early days a little bit. Having grown up in an era when the British Invasion was all the rage, what or who inspired you to learn keyboard, and later accordion?
Right, well, that's a good question. Part of it was that I felt like everybody played guitar, and I sensed that for the purposes of playing with other musicians that there were so many guitarists out there already, that maybe keyboard was a more practical thing. But I don't know. You know, it's hard to pin down how I got started. I think I just enjoyed it.
We had a baby grand in my house when I was growing up, and that was one of the things that really attracted me to music. It was just like, "there's this big instrument in the living room,” and I could spend hours and hours messing around on it. So that was super fun. I think I tried to learn guitar at some point, but I just felt like I was not that good at it. And other people, including my brother, already played guitar, so yeah.
And then the accordion was something that I picked up after John Flansburgh and I started working together. I guess we had a roommate who owned one. I tried messing around with that, and it suddenly seemed like, “oh, well this would really be good for performing, because we can both just stand up and move around. And it looks cool." This was in the early ‘80s, and I think it was it was a pretty unpopular instrument at that time. But it seemed like something I could own. Like, I could be the guy who plays accordion. So maybe it was the same kind of thinking like “nobody else is doing this. I can do it and I'll be the guy who does it.”
I'm not sure if I was thinking in that strictly practical of a way about it, but I think I just liked the accordion. And so, John and I had already started doing this thing. We'd already performed live, and then, I picked up the accordion, and actually switched over to it full-time in the very beginning. And then eventually, we developed a show where I have a keyboard and an accordion, so I could switch off between the two.
Right, right. While we're on the topic of accordions, have you heard “Weird Al” Yankovic's They Might Be Giants style parody, “Everything You Know Is Wrong?"
I have! It took me years to get around to hearing it, but at some point in the last ten years or so, I finally checked it out. And I feel sort of dumb saying this, but it really appealed to me as a piece of songwriting, and I realized that's because Weird Al is copying our style, and I just automatically liked it. I suppose you can hear somebody imitate you and then be annoyed by it, but I thought the song was great. I really liked it.
Yeah. I mean, Kurt Cobain once said that when Weird Al takes on one of your songs, you know you've made it as an artist.
So, a friend of mine wanted me to ask you if you had any stories about working with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on Flood.
Sure, yeah. Offhand, it was a really good match for us. We worked with a lot of other producers, but there was something about Clive and Alan that really clicked for us. And we just felt very comfortable. And it’s interesting, because Clive was very involved in working with us on the arrangements, and Alan has this amazing ear, where he can just hear all the stuff that's going on.
They perfectly complemented what we were doing, I thought, so we had a good enough experience with Flood that we went back 10 years later, and worked with them again some more on the Mink Car album. So yeah, it was just pure pleasure, and they're fun guys to hang around with.
I’ll bet. Speaking of the post-Flood era, when you and John released Long Tall Weekend in 1999, you swore it would be a digital release only, in a time when getting music on the Internet was a new and revolutionary idea. But with physical sales skyrocketing in the last decade, do you think a physical release of the album is possible?
Oh, yeah, yeah. We’ve been trying to get everything in our catalog out on vinyl gradually. It requires a certain amount of work to make the package, but that's something that John Flansburgh is particularly interested in. He's a big vinyl collector and he does the liaising with the pressing plant. He's always been interested in the package design and all that, so he could tell you specifically if that particular one is on the docket, but I know that he's been keen on getting everything out as a vinyl release that wasn't originally released on vinyl.
That's so sweet. No, we've never met him, but I appreciate that. I guess he's a fan, that’s nice.
Oh yeah. So, I saw online that you guys were in the studio recently. Where are you guys at with your next project?
I think we've got about ten tracks that are done, or tracked anyway. But ideally, we get like, 20 or 30 songs together before we even decide what the album should be made up of. In the past, I think the best albums we've made, we got like, 30 songs finished, and then we picked the best ones to put on the album. Or the ones that go together as an album, I guess is a better way of putting it. We're not even halfway through that process, but we are busy. We’re very busy working on stuff, and I'm pretty happy with what we've got so far.
Right on. Moving into live performances a little bit, it’s been said that Flans is far more extroverted than you are. So, asking as a fellow introvert, what would you say the hardest part of performing live is? No offense or anything.
No, no *laughs* it’s fine. I think the stereotype gets exaggerated. I think we're both high-functioning people. We can both be in the world and talk to other people, but John likes to stay out later than I do, and he likes hanging out with people that he's never met and stuff, and I'm probably less into that. The performance for me is, in some ways, where I feel the most comfortable. Like, I know exactly what to do when I get on stage.
I don't know if I'm telling tales out of school here, but I think Flans—I’m sure he'd be comfortable with me saying this—he actually suffered more from stage fright early on than I ever did. So in some ways, maybe you could argue that we kind of switched modes when we got on stage, in that I felt relaxed and able to go up there and play music. John was much more nervous, at least in the very early days. He's a more high-energy guy, I guess, so maybe that was part of it, that he had nervous nervous energy. But offstage, I'd say he's much more outgoing than I am. But it's not an extreme situation. We're actually not that different from one another.
That's good. But you know, all those years of stage fright on Flans’ end paid off in a sense, because you guys are opening for Sparks at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. That's amazing.
What's your favorite Sparks album, John?
The first one I heard was Kimono My House, and it was actually John Flansburgh who was the big Sparks fan between us when we were teenagers. When I first met John, he was a massive Sparks fan, even to the point where he went to the record store on the day that, I think it was Propaganda, came out. He actually went because the album was out on that day. He went to the record store to pick up his copy, so, he was a really dedicated Sparks fan when he was sixteen or whatever. And I mostly knew about them through him at that point, actually.
Hey, when you’re sixteen, it’s the important things in life, like getting that album on release day.
I know we're getting a little short on time, so I have one more question for you. Coming from someone who grew up with the kids albums (No!, Here Comes series): Will you ever give the children Here Comes History?
Here Comes History…well, the thing is about that Here Comes series was that was a specific project that we worked out with Disney, and there was a key man involved, who was the president of the record company at that time. He took us under his wing, this guy David Agnew, and it was really through him that we released those three DVDs: It was because he stuck his neck out, and made it comfortable for us.
We were able to have complete creative control over what we were doing, because he put himself in, nominally, as the producer of those three albums. So, he's no longer there, he’s moved on. And we don't have that relationship with Disney anymore, so I don't think that particular franchise is going anymore. But we're always up for doing all kinds of projects, we just don't have any plans to do anything like that right now.
That’s fair. And in the meantime, we have "Schoolhouse Rock."
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity*
Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.