What do the 1964 World’s Fair, the TV show Malcolm in the Middle and a piece of dirt have in common?
All are the subjects of songs by They Might Be Giants, an independent and prolific rock duo that’s hit the big time after 20 years.
“For 10 years, we basically toured our brains out,” John Flansburgh explains to Mountain Xpress as he breaks from production of the Giants’ new album. Flansburgh (vocals and guitar) and bandmate John Linnell (vocals, keyboards, accordion and assorted other instruments) have toured Europe seven times, Japan four times, and Australia and New Zealand thrice.
We stopped doing that about a year-and-a-half ago,” Flansburgh says. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but we took on this other job, which is doing the incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle.” Setting the mood for the Fox TV series turned into a much bigger task than the band ever imagined. Yet the success of the show and its theme “Boss of Me,” coupled with the Giants’ contribution of the song “Doctor Evil” to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, has brought the band back into the spotlight. (You might remember their last hit, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” from the early ’90s.) Despite their offbeat lyrics and a devotion to pop songs that feature accordions, harmonicas and even the occasional vibraphone, the Giants finally seem to have tapped the mainstream.
“I think it’s just part of our incredibly tortoiselike career trajectory,” Flansburgh says. “It took a long time for people to even notice us in the first place, and it took us a long time to get national recognition, and I think it just took a long time for creative people in Hollywood to feel like we were a safe bet.” Many of those Hollywood people, says Flansburgh, are longtime TMBG devotees who are now old enough to enjoy decision-making power: Both of the band’s Johns (and many of their first fans) have hit 40. And They Might Be Giants continues to churn out the same half-spoken, half-sung gems that stick to people’s brains like peanut butter — songs with catchy hooks and lyrics way more substantial than those in the average pop song. If you can understand them, that is.
According to the New York Times, “Fans spend hours dissecting their lyrics … discussing whether ‘Ana Ng’ might be a critique of the Vietnam War or whether ‘S-E-X-X-Y’ has something to do with a sex chromosome disorder.”
At the end of the day, it’s a tossup. And some of the Giants’ less, um, straightforward songs really blow fans’ minds. Take “Stand on Your Own Head,” for instance: “I like people, they’re the ones who can’t stand/I see smoke signals coming from them/They say ‘We are out of furniture’/Stand on your own head for a change/Give me some skin to call my own.”
“Ultimately, I think the thing that really confuses critics is that it’s hard to understand if we’re just, like, a fun band, or if we’re a serious band,” Flansburgh says. “And you know ,the reality is I think we’re both.”
In the early days, TMBG song themes tended toward esoteric topics and trivia (even the band’s name comes from an obscure movie starring George C. Scott).
“We didn’t write songs about romantic love, so that leaves everything else. And it just naturally leads you to biographies and descriptive songs and things like that. … I think it’s an interesting approach to include facts in songs. … I think there’s a way to do it that’s not too ‘Schoolhouse Rock-y,'” Flansburgh says. John Linnell has released EPs of “official” state songs (“Nevada,” “Maine,” “South Carolina,” etc.) and odes to New York City mayors, and the Giants frequently celebrate animals or science in their tunes — even in their choice of covers, such as their version of Tom Glazer’s “Why Does the Sun Shine?”
“What’s strange about the lyrics to that song,” reveals Flansburgh, “is that actually they are straight out of the encyclopedia. The entry under ‘the Sun’ [reads], ‘The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace where hydrogen is built into helium at temperatures at millions of degrees.’ It doesn’t rhyme at all, and what’s interesting is the song doesn’t rhyme at all, but you kind of don’t notice.”
Unbelievably, he’s right. The lyrics take hold because of danceable beats, arrangements that can turn on a dime, and interludes featuring a variety of unexpected instruments.
“We indulge our short attention spans by allowing songs to have kind of ‘stunt’ arrangements,” Flansburgh explains. “You know, there’s a lot of musicians [who] feel like if an instrument can’t play through an entire song, it shouldn’t necessarily be in the arrangement. … But a lot of my favorite records from my childhood, like Beatles records and Beach Boys records, and even Simon & Garfunkel records … just have a sound kind of enter in an appropriate section and then just leave. … And that’s how you get into a more orchestral way of arranging. Having a template seems like a little bit of a bummer. We’d rather just kind of keep it wide open.”
That’s how the Giants prefer to keep their future, too. Their TV and movie work, ambitious on-line projects (as seen at www.tmbg.com and www.dialasong.com), and Flansburgh’s own side projects (directing music videos and leading the band Mono Puff) help keep them off the road and with their families. But there’s a downside to Hollywood.
“It also makes you feel really grateful for just straight, personal, creative work, which I think in some ways is much more satisfying, even though it might not be as lucrative,” Flansburgh points out. “I think the key for us is to make sure it’s not a routine. “We’ve been in this band for 20 years,” he declares. “We have no interest in being an oldies act. I would rather be buried standing up, alive, than be perceived that way.”