Friday, April 29, 2011

On the phone with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

John Flansburgh (above left) and John Linnell formed They Might Be Giants in 1982. In the next few years, they became regulars in the East Village performance art scene, playing steady shows at the likes of the Pyramid and 8BC.

In the next 29 year years, they: started a popular Dial-A-Song service via ads in the Village Voice; created these energetic videos that somehow got into heavy rotation on MTV when the network played videos; released a handful of critically acclaimed records such as 1990’s "Flood" and 2001's "Mink Car"; and created several records for kids that earned them two Grammys.

Meanwhile! They Might Be Giants have a new album titled “Join Us” coming out in July. This week, four tracks were released on iTunes, including the record's first single — the suitably catchy "Can't Keep Johnny Down." (You can download it for free via Stereogum, I think.)

The band will be embarking on a 50-city, six-country tour a little later this year, which includes a free show at the Williamsburg Waterfront on July 29.

Last week, I talked with John Linnell (the fellow on the right). I asked him some obligatory music dork questions... as well as about his memories of playing in the East Village.

So what is your state of mind when you set out to write and record a new album? Do you feel as if you need to make the next "Flood" each time out?

We try not to compare each project with the last one. It's very tempting to have to say either something in contrast to — or in competition with — whatever we just did. We want to approach everything fresh as much as possible. Anyway, we have such crappy memories. So in some ways, it's possible to pretend that we're just starting out for the first time.

Does the process still seem fresh to you?

We're trying to avoid something that we've written in the past. You don't want to repeat yourself. It would be disingenuous to say that we don't think about that. Luckily for us, we do feel like we are capable of coming up wih fresh ideas all the time. And I do think we're getting better in certain ways at saying something.

Your last few records were for kids. How does that impact your mindset when recording another, uh, adult album?

What's always surprising is how similar the two audiences are in certain ways. We feel like we have a spirit that we take to what we do. It's a particular spirtit. We don't tone it down to make music for kids. We want to keep the same full-bloodied spirit in what we're doing for kids. The basis of the success of the first kids' record was that we felt like we could be as psychedelic and as intense doing the kids music as we had been for adults. That turned out to be right. It seemed as if kids responded to the directness and the playfullness.

Did you foresee this being a cottage industry?

Not at all. We did not take it seriously. We didn't think it would be the next wing of our career. We actually thought this was pure fun and the pressure was off. We knew that whoever listened to it wasn't going to think of it in comparison to, say, the entire history of rock music. The little rock critic that is on inside our own head was actually not bothering us because we were doing something that seemed so inconsequential. As a result, it was a liberating way to work.

Given your successful body of work, do you feel more or less pressure when it comes time to release a new record?

It makes us feel more pressure. We have to ignore that "problem" that we've done so much stuff now. It happens to everyone. You look at other artists and think, "Oh they're just rehasing or they just don't have the youthful energy that they had." Maybe it's not for us to say whether we're over the hill or not. We're still very enthusiastic about what we're doing.

Well, you still look pretty good.

[Laughs] Oh, yeah — we're emotionally retarded. People get old. I used to think Keith Richards looked creepy in the 1970s. Now you look at a picture of him from then, and you're like "He looks like a kid. What was I thinking?" I had no idea how old he was going to get. [Laughs]

In the mid-1980s, you were always playing in the East Village. But you were actually living in Park Slope at the time.

True. We considered moving in together, and we looked at a place in the East Village. It would have been convenient because that was where we were playing all the time. Almost all our New York gigs were in this few-block radius encompassing 8BC, Darinka and the Pyramid.

In that sense, we were an East Village thing from 1984 to 1986. We developed our fanbase in the East Village. The first people who came to our shows who weren't actually friends were in the East Village. We tried playing at CBGB because that seemed like what you were supposed to do. We never felt much support coming from there. We played the showcase nights like Monday and Tuesday. We could get our friends to come, but we were not developing our audience there. The East Village performance art scene of the early- and mid-1980s was like a godsend for us. There were people who were interested but never heard of us who started collecting around us.

[Via Ephemeral New York]

You played a lot of shows at 8BC, the long-defunct venue (1983-1985) on Eighth Street between Avenue B and Avenue C. What was that like to perform in?

8BC was like "The Little Rascals." They had this whole thing when they put on a show, the curtain was made out of like stiched-together blankets. Everything seemed really homemade. That's how 8BC felt. There was a big curtain they raised just before the band came on. The audience was in this pit that someone had dug out for the crowd. The stage was at street level and the crowd was down below. It was like a big, silly variety show. [8BC] did not appear to be taking itself seriously. But there was this enormous range of strange and interesting acts. We met so many people, some of whom are still dear friends.

[The site of 8BC today, a $6 million home]

What was the East Village scene like for you at the time?

It felt really spontaneous. We played all the time in these rinky-dink places that were very sweet. Darinka was an incredibly warm place. It was on First Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. It was someone's house. It was in the basement apartment. So it was the size the small apartment with a stage at one end. Gary Ray was the owner. He named the club after his mother, Darinka. We'd be playing a show, then he'd come out and announce that his cats just had kittens backstage.

I've talked with a few people who have said that they'd like to live in the New York of "Sweet Smell of Success." Is there a certain time period when you would have liked to live here?

Yeah, I'd go there then. "Sweet Smell of Success" is shot so beautifully. [Pauses] I wonder if it's partly because we're seeing the director's vision of it and the real New York in the 1950s was maybe more ordinary. I don't know. Sometimes I think that walking around New York City you could imagine the present-day New York seen from the future ... and romanticize the things that we think of as really ugly. Then these things would be seen as sort of idiosyncratic and beautiful once they're gone.

Here's an example. The now soon on-the-way-out car alarm, which has this cycle of six different noises. That's almost gone. I heard one recently, and it reminded me that you don't hear them anymore. And one day in the distant future, people will think of that sound in the same way that we think of the Checker cab.

Does New York City still feel like home to you?

Absolutely. More than ever. I was born here. [His family moved to Massachusetts when he was younger.] I've been in New York most of my life now. The longer I'm here, the more attached I am to the city.


Marty Wombacher said...

Great interview, EV Grieve! My favorite line was this one: "We'd be playing a show, then he'd come out and announce that his cats just had kittens backstage." That made my day!

Bowery Boogie said...

great work. those guys kick ass.

Anonymous said...

Great read! I feel like John's love of the car alarm is well documented now :)

rini6 said...

I saw them on stage in a small venue a few days ago (three, to be exact.) They were part of a "talent show," which basically a musical and improvisational comedy show with multiple performers. They were given two choices of song topic and they picked a NYT science article headline: "Reptiles eat with the bones we hear with." They had thirty minutes to write a song. It was great fun and they were hilarious. They remind me of the good old days in the 80's and 90's, when cool was cool and no one was ashamed to be a hipster or an extremely self aware nerd/geek "anti-hipster." ;-)

(Yes, that's an improvised emoticon. I'm not afraid to come out of the closet as a sentimental dork.)

obsessivenormalcy said...

Great interview!

It's interesting. As someone who grew up in an upperclass suburban environment, all big cities really have this mystical quality to me. Car alarms, graffiti, traffic - it's all exciting and so easy to romanticize when you're not used to it.