They Might Be Giants: Conquering With Nanobots, an Interview with John Linnell

Posted June 7, 2013 in

John Flansburgh and John Linnell aspire to make an adult-oriented kids album in the near future. Photo: Shervin Lainez

Coming off their 16th studio album, the alternative indie rock duo They Might Be Giants, have been riding high on a sell-out tour spanning across three continents. With a 31-year career under their belts that hasn't suffered from a breakup or even a hiatus that we can track, John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been triumphant with catchy and quirky songs that have impacted four decades worth of fans. After doing three successful kids albums with Disney (almost ensuring them a new generation of fans delving into their catalog when they hit their teens), the Brooklyn duo has returned to making adult-themed albums on a regular basis, and have almost seemingly returned to their roots with their latest full-length endeavor, Nanobots. SLUG got the opportunity to chat with Linnell over the phone before they come to town this Saturday at The Depot, discussing the tour so far, the new album and creating music, thoughts on the R&R Hall Of Fame and what people can look forward to at this Saturday's show.

SLUG: How's the tour been going so far?
Linnell: The tour's going well! Depending on where you start counting, we're either in the middle or near the beginning of the end of a three-legged tour, which consists of the United States, Australia and the United States again. We'll be done in about two weeks with that, and we'll be sorta done for the summer, and then in the fall we're back out in Europe and the United States again. We did spectacularly well in Australia, which we were not expecting. We sold out all the shows, and added more shows which sold out, so apparently, there was a very high demand for us there.
SLUG: If memory serves me right, I don't believe you've done the full-world tour. You've always gone to a continent and then broken it up.
Linnell: I would say yes, this is the closest thing we've done to a world tour since the '90s. We have done Europe, Australia, Japan and all these places in the past. I think the “Flood Tour” was the last really big, comprehensive world tour, and there may have been ones after that where we hit every single part of the planet except for Africa. Or South America, we've never played there yet.
SLUG: Would you want to do that?
Linnell: Absolutely, yeah! My wife and I have been down to Argentina and Uruguay, and we love it there. If it were feasible, I would pull for doing shows. But I think, like with Australia, its a little harder because you can't just drive around like you do in the United States. The major cities are far enough apart that you have to fly, and that gets more expensive, and of course everything is more expensive when you're overseas.
SLUG: Moving onto the album, this is only the second you've done in the past five years, and you had the stint where you were doing more kid albums than adult ones. How is it getting back into that groove of doing adult albums every other year?
Linnell: Well, there's not ever really been a system. We ganged up on the kids albums because we had done very well with Here Come The 123s and I think Disney was ready to charge ahead and make another kids DVD. So that was why that happened but there had never been much of a plan. We started out just doing this with the grown-up records, and the kids music came 20 years into the project. 2002 was when we put out No!, which was our first kids album, and even then, we weren't thinking that this was going to be repeated. We thought we were doing a one-off kids record, but it sold spectacularly well, so we kinda got dragged into the kids music racket. So the last 10 years, that's taken up a lot of the work that we've done. But the thing that's nearest to our hearts is doing the profanity-laced grown-ups music, so we're happy to be back.
SLUG: It's an excellent album, and being a longtime fan, it took me back hearing tracks that were really short versions got me thinking about Apollo 18. Were you channeling some of your earlier work to make this album what it is, or were you just aiming to make a whole new version of TMBG, and that happened to be part of the process?
Linnell: I think that's probably a good way of putting it, that each time out, we're trying to blow our own minds. Whether or not we're successful is kinda up in the air. I think I made the suggestion that we do some very, very short songs on this record, and Flansburgh took the ball and ran all the way across the field. So most of the short songs are his, but it really gave the album a different flavor, which was great. As you pointed out, we did this thing called “Fingertips” on Apollo 18, and that was kind of a suite of very short pieces that were connected to one another as you listen to them all in a row. This is slightly different because they're sprinkled throughout the album, but yeah, there is that same spirit for the love of the impossibly short song. 
SLUG: Since we're talking about short songs, I remember when you used to write music using Dial-A-Song and the answering machine system, which forced you to make shorter songs, and that's how a lot of the early albums came together. Now with that system gone, and not so much relying on how the public listens to it and reacts to it, how does that change the songwriting process between the two of you today, and how you decide what works and what's garbage?
Linnell: Well we have to take responsibility now for our decisions rather than throw up our hands and say Dial-A-Song is controlling everything. But I think, as it emerges, we do like really short songs, and we have sort of opposing impulses with the kinds of production. It's really fun to do an overproduced track and just keep layering stuff on, and in a way, it's almost like a personal indulgence. It's just exciting and easy in a way to keep adding tracks to keep the song sound interesting, layer more guitars and keyboards, and think of other wacky instruments to put on there. The opposite sort of Apollonian impulse that we try for is to restrain ourselves and make everything count and make it as simple as possible, and that's really much harder than overproducing. In some ways, you have to start doing that from the beginning, to plan it out and decide that it's just a snare drum and tuba or whatever it is you're planning on doing because you don't have the luxuries of messing around with it. If it's not working, it's not going to work, whereas with the multi-layered track there's a million different ways to mix it and change it around. So, in a way, it's kind of satisfying to feel like you succeeded at doing something very simple and elegant when it's much harder, and I think the better angels in our nature are looking in that direction, but I think we're always going to do the incredibly overproduced, self-indulgent material as well.
SLUG: Over the past three albums, the amount of songs has increased to where you've got 25 on this one. But over the years, compilations aside, there hasn't been a double album, and it seems like you would have the material to make it. Is that something you'd want to pursue in the future?
Linnell: It's a really interesting question. The thing about the practical aspect of it is that we can make the album as long or as short as we want to now, because there are no constraints as there were back when we started. It's all electronic, there's no medium to tell us what's the appropriate length. With a double album, you couldn't cram more than 40 minutes of music onto an LP, so you'd have to declare it was a double album. But with CDs, you could get up to an hour on there so it wasn't officially an extra helping if you just made it longer. Now, with everything being downloadable, I would say it's even hard to think in those terms. I mean, it's an interesting thought that you could declare it as a double-album, but the fact that there are no breaks in the music now, there's no Side A and B anymore, its a very weird, conceptual thing to decide what kind of helping you're doling out. It's funny because we never really considered that, actually. I guess the main difference is that iTunes would charge $39 for it, so maybe it's all bad as far as the consumer is concerned with it — they'd rather get an extremely long single album out of it.
SLUG: You've reached the eligibility point for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Is there any interest in being a part of that? Or is it more “if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, it doesn't matter.”
Linnell: I don't know. I guess, personally, the part that kind of icks me out — and I'm sure I'm not the first person to point this out — is that it seems like a self-contradicting idea. There's something very un-R&R about a Hall Of Fame. I feel pretty well validated in the fact that we've been around this long, we've kinda established who we are — to me, that's the most important thing in terms of my own ego. And it's professionally helpful that we have won Grammys and have gold records and stuff like that. I don't deny the importance of getting the attention of the industry, but I'm not really turned on by the Hall Of Fame idea. One of the things that's probably off-putting about it is that it always seems unfair: Your favorite bands are being ignored, and it's ratifying commercial success, which seems kind of unnecessary. We won an award from BMI, and we later found out it was absolutely predicated on number of sales; in other words, it was just an award saying you sold above a certain number of units, so there was no taste involved — it was just a check mark that we sold a lot. 
SLUG: For those going to the show at The Depot, what can they expect to see? Is it all new material off Nanobots or a mix of new and familiar hits?
Linnell: We're doing everything. We're doing the tracks we've learned how to play from Nanobots, and we have the old songs that everybody recognizes that even people who are unfamiliar with us may have heard. Then a healthy amount of stuff which is "none of the above," which is sort of deep-catalog stuff for the people in the front row who want to hear some more obscure album tracks, which is fun for us as well: We like playing that “off the beaten path” material.
SLUG: You said the tour will be done in a few weeks then headed to Europe and the U.S. again. Once all the touring is done, are you looking forward to a new project? A new kids album or maybe more web stuff?
Linnell: We don't have a very specific plan right now, we've got a lot more touring to finish up, but there's sort of a rough idea that we'll start working on something when we get home. I think there's some interest in doing a self-produced kids record. We finished our Disney contract, so we're probably going to do something more along the lines of No! if we do a kids record. It will be an un-themed album that won't be directed at any specific age group and not educational, in other words sort of like an adult TMBG album for kids. So that's a strong possibility. We're just going to start writing when we get home, and we'll see what we pick up.
The band arrives in SLC on June 8, first with an all-ages performance and signing at the Graywhale in Taylorsville at 1773 West 4700 South (where the band has promised to sign anything and everything you can bring for as long as they can), followed by the adult show at The Depot that evening at 8 p.m. with opening act Vandaveer.
John Flansburgh and John Linnell aspire to make an adult-oriented kids album in the near future. Photo: Shervin Lainez John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants will be playing songs off of Nanobots and older, more esoteric favorites at the Depot tomorrow, June 8, 2013. Photo: Dominic Neitz