A Giants Leap for Mankind

Every boneheaded, self-serving or blatantly just-plain-wrong thing the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has ever done can now be looked upon with a newfound degree of mercy, because They Might Be Giants just won a Grammy. Granted, it was for the theme to Malcolm In The Middle, but still, anyone who thought three years ago that the innovative, cerebral, skewed-pop duo that brought you "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Anna Ng" would ever receive the Ol' Bronze Gramophone, for anything, would've made a fine addition to your local asylum's menagerie.

Plus, you know, it's actually a pretty good song. Think about it. If you hadn't heard it 37-million times, each one in conjunction with that fucking kid's infuriating wide-eyed mug, you know very well you'd be down. After all, it is a They Might Be Giants tune, through and through.

"Of the commercial stuff we've done, it's the one that sounds the most like us," agrees TMBG vocalist John Flansburgh.

And there's a reason for that.

"The song was written to be a They Might Be Giants song. This guy called and said he needed a theme song, and it was kind of ready to go."

You may not have recognized it, but the pair has done a lot of work for screens both large and small in recent years, from music for The Daily Show and the WB's The Oblongs (don't worry, nobody else saw it either) to the song "Dr. Evil" for the Austin Powers sequel, and even Dr Pepper and Chrysler commercials.

"We've done a lot of music that sounds so completely different than what we do on our albums," Flansburgh says. "We've learned a lot over the last couple of years about working in these different ways, things we'd never even have a reason to do. Knocking off stuff, taking instrumental parts of Lit songs."

Flansburgh and his cohort of 20 years, John Linnell, have grown quite comfortable with an operating procedure that seems antithetical to your average rock act's way of doing things. Six or so years into a critically acclaimed career as a quirky underground duo, Flansburgh and Linnell shocked their fanbase by signing to Elektra Entertainment. And shortly after, they added insult to injury by taking a full band out on tour with them, something they continue to this day.

"For us, it was an exciting and challenging thing to start doing what other bands had been doing all along," Flansburgh remembers. "We were 10 years down the road, so it was a weird experience.

"I think a lot of our fans reacted negatively. The thought that playing in a band would detract from this thing that made us more unusual and special. But for me, the things that are unusual and special about what we do are aren't beholden to the format."

Which leads us to another ass-backwards TMBGism: While some artists have made a large but brief dent in the pop-culture consciousness through calculated weirdness, the duo have led a lauded, two-decade career by smelting their own natural eccentricities to a bizarrely endearing combination of deft pop songcraft and sonic tinkering. As iconoclastic as their music might seem (a perception vastly compounded by the band's videos), it's never sounded contrived. Last year's excellent Mink Car shares the same unaffected, disturbing-yet-infectious vibe as their landmark 1991 album Flood, but scarcely resembles it on a song-by-song basis.

"We always put ourselves in the category of the most ordinary stuff, and the part about it that didn't strike other people as ordinary was more accidental. We were never trying to be weird," says Flansburgh. "I don't think anybody does — especially doing something for this long."

Flansburgh is calling from Austin's annual South By Southwest music festival, where I would be right now if I'd held out for an expense budget. In addition to the group's triumphant return to SXSW, a documentary on them by award-winning music-video producer AJ Schnack (Blink-182, Papa Roach, 311), titled Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), premiered during the festival's film soiree this week. Gigantic probably won't see more than a limited art-house release, but the expanded DVD will surely find its way into hip little video stores in plenty of time for Christmas (or perhaps even Halloween) shopping.

When speaking about the flick, Flansburgh seems slightly amazed that someone would even want to make a movie about They Might Be Giants, much less see one. He calls the film "kind of a love letter to us," but points out that its most redeeming quality is a sense of idealism, the way it champions the concept of original, substantial music finding a place for itself in contemporary American culture.

"It's not a film about celebrity, or about the excitement of rock rebellion or something," he says. "It's about the role of the band, sort of the purpose of what we're doing. It's so about the music and the potential for something to be good, and still reach people."

So is that how he and Linnell see themselves? As crusaders for pop music as art?

"I think there would be a kind of hubris in our going around trumpeting that idea," says Flansburgh, "but personally, I believe that yeah, in our best moments, we do."

It's a belief shared by many of the band's longtime, die-hard, or otherwise pre-"Boss of Me" fans, within whom, no doubt, surged a tsunami of joyful irony as TMBG was announced as the Grammy winner for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. Flansburgh himself was "extremely surprised." He'd gauged their chances at exactly zero.

"As soon as we got nominated, I started checking it out, seeing who usually wins. And then I realized there was no way we were going to win," he laughs. "Stuff that tends to win wins for these particular reasons, and it just seemed like we didn't exist in that world."

A TMBG compendium titled Dial-A-Song: An Anthology — a nod to the band's venerable new-tunes call-in service (try it, the number's 718-387-6962) — will be issued late this summer by Rhino. But, really, there's only one thing they can do after snaking the Grammy, and that's release a CD for children. A simultaneously thrilling and chilling prospect, and one that's about to attain reality. Called No!, the album's been in the can for almost a year-and-a-half, but will finally drop next month on the twosome's own label.

"I think it's my favorite project," Flansburgh says. "We liked the idea of throwing ourselves into a project like that. It was an opportunity to do something sort of guileless. We often write songs where you have to be aware of the culture, you need to have a sense of contemporary stuff to fully understand it.

"I like the idea that you don't need any training to get the songs," he adds. "You can be 3."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or e-mail him at [email protected].