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They Are Giants

The Tech Speaks with Alt-rock Originals They Might Be Giants

By Katherine H. Allen

John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the front men for They Might Be Giants will bring their act to MIT as the Spring Weekend headline band. The Tech talked with Flansburgh about the show and the band’s beginnings.

Tech: Welcome to MIT. What do you think about playing here, and what do you think it will be like playing for MIT’s Spring Weekend?

John: We played for MIT four or five years ago, and it was really fun. We also had a really good experience with the AI Lab: They have a machine, Cog, that was learning to play the drums. Our drummer and Cog had a drumming duel that was recorded for ABC’s Nightline. My dad is an MIT alum, and I grew up around Boston, so it’s not too unusual.

Tech: So do you have any special plans for MIT this time?

John: Not really: we’re planning on playing our regular tour show. There are a lot of songs from our next album, so there will be some new stuff. I can see, though, how more thoughtful people might appreciate some of our songs more.

Tech: The opening band for Spring Weekend is Reel Big Fish. What do you think about playing with them?

John: We’ve actually done shows with Reel Big Fish before. They’re super-talented, and very nice guys.

Tech: You and John Linnell have been playing together for a long time now. How did TMBG get started, and how did you get to where you are now?

John: John and I were friends in high school, mostly because we worked on the newspaper together. We spend lots of time drawing cartoons, writing articles, doing paste-up work, everything. John was very talented and musical even then. The new-wave explosion in the 80’s made John feel like he could actually be a part of the music scene. Aspiring to be in a rock band was like aspiring to be a superstar, but we got caught up in the Boston punk-rock scene. It was a very fruitful time for individual “art-school” rockers: Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, but we, like many others, were struggling in obscurity throughout the early 80’s. It was a slow road out of the living room and into the N.Y.C. clubs, and once we were there we were “the other guys.” We were always the exception: not quite in the art-school scene, not quite in the club scene, because our set-up was so odd.

Tech: So when did your real success begin, then?

John: We really took off when our record started showing up on the college charts, and when we had a video on MTV.

Tech: You guys started in normal records, then, but you had the “best-selling MP3” last year. How did you get into MP3?

John: Frank Black of GoodNoise, which is now E-Music, approached TMBG about releasing on MP3 a couple years ago. It’s strange though: anyone who makes their living by recording feels a little uneasy about a medium that is so easily bootleg-able ... but MP3 was a means to an end, a way around the politics of the big record companies.

Tech: So you didn’t intend to be a non-mainstream group ?

John: I would be lying if I said that we didn’t want to be successful, but it just never seemed to be a good time for good music. We’re not terribly excited in streamlining our music and ideas for the mainstream, but we do want to have an audience. This makes MP3 a good way for us. I have never been surprised that the good music never had big audiences. There’s too much attention paid to the charts, the radio stations and all that. People get into bands because they are fun, not because they are popular.

Tech: Speaking of good music, what kinds of music do you listen to?

My personal musical obsessions are pretty relentless and dull. As a child I grew up with a transistor radio tuned to Top 40 waiting for Beatles and British Invasion songs, with my folks playing Joan Baez and Cambridge folkies on the hi-fi. Currently, I have an on-going obsession with Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, along with R&B and soul songs from the ’60s and ’70s (exceptionally well compiled by Rhino). I enjoyed the Green Day album, and got our drummer Brian to pull out his Weezer tape a million times on this last tour to listen to that “Buddy Holly” song for its Brian Wilson-like vibe. Recently I’ve been listening to this great collection of songs by Allen Toussaint (a New Orleans R&B and pop record producer/pianist who made a few very cool records over the course of the seventies). I really dug the last Superchunk LP and recently got the new Guided by Voices album. In the past I have been into early Mills Bros. (their pre-band, 30’s era stuff) and Tennessee Ernie Ford.