They Might Be Giants at 33: We're (Still) Here, We're Weird, Get Used to Us

How a pair of misfits reconfigured what it means to be cool and earned one of music's most unique fanbases

They Might Be Giants have cultivated a unique audience of eccentrics, obsessives and entire families. Credit: Anthony Cruz

On the evening of They Might Be Giants' sold-out performance at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg, the band's founding fathers John Linnell and John Flansburgh are backstage preparing to present the first of the many ambitious projects they have slated for 2015. A few yards away, the crowd is packed with everyone from locals in their twenties to multigenerational families, including one whose three clean-cut teenage sons know every word to "Ana Ng," just like Mom and Dad. Diehard fans in faded TMBG shirts of yore can be overheard comparing show totals, some having seen the band 30 or 40 times.

Linnell is a little baffled by how dedicated these fans remain 33 years after the band first formed, but he also puts forth a serviceable theory as to how They Might Be Giants found this niche. "We didn't know how to second-guess the audience in the first place," he says. "So we just thought, 'We have to apply our own standards, because we don't know what anyone else likes.'"

Now, the band and their audience are in better sync than ever. By shaking off the harness that "cool" imposes on the creation of innovative and surprising music, Linnell and Flansburgh have remastered the meaning of the term — or else embodied its barest definition. "You want to draw out of yourself something a little bit wrong or kind of nuts, and that actually makes for a more interesting lyric or idea. You're cultivating this crazy person by themselves in their cell," says Linnell.

"Thirty years ago, I remember being a little scared," he continues. "Like, 'How do we take this to the next level? What the hell does that even mean?' The question answered itself. We just carried on doing what we were doing. The effect of that was, anybody who wanted to could feel included. It wasn't like, 'Oh, you're not part of the in-crowd.' There was no in-crowd! We were not — we've never been — cool."

"I was cool," says Flansburgh, pretending to pout.

"Flans was cool!"

This spirited show began a five-month residency coinciding with the recent relaunch of Dial-a-Song, a project where They Might Be Giants record demo tracks to a public answering machine. The service first launched in 1983, anticipating the rise of every web-based method of making rough work available to the masses. This year, the band is bringing it back to release one new song each week, and the series of gigs will culminate with a release party for the first installment of an accompanying compilation, Dial a Song Direct.

"The way that we've thought of Dial-a-Song historically is, it's the first step in the production of songs for any purpose," says Linnell, backstage. "Songs that wound up in the live show, or on the albums, originally began their lives on Dial-A-Song. We're mixing stuff in a studio — not just putting it up on the phone and giggling behind our hands like, 'I wonder what they think of this one!'"

"That might change!" interjects Flansburgh, who seems concerned that fans could be "surprised" that the new service, which can be reached at 844-387-6962, doesn't feel as homegrown as its predecessor. "People have very different expectations as to whether they're going to be sketches or finished songs," he says, noting the response has been mostly positive, even though the recordings are more polished than the slapdash, capricious output of old.

So far, they've prepped 44 songs. "Of course, they're all fantastic," he deadpans. "They're all Number One hits!"

Linnell is just being droll, but in their 30-plus years, They Might Be Giants have won two Grammys, released 16 studio albums (including 1990's quadruple-platinum Flood) and provided instantly recognizable soundtracks to smash television shows like Malcolm in the Middle. Yet they're still considered, seemingly against all odds, odd — even among the irreverent, Brooklyn-based sect of DIY culture that they themselves pioneered. And today, acts like Dan Deacon and TV on the Radio have cited their influence.

"There's always a bohemia," says Flansburgh. "I think that there is stuff happening in Bushwick right now..."

Linnell finishes his sentence: "...that's mentally ill!"

"I think there's a growth industry for fucked-up shit," says Flansburgh, as Linnell cheerleads: "I hope so!"

Back in Williamsburg, a healthy squadron of fans had arrived even before the band's staff, waiting over eight hours to be in the first row. This is not unusual, according to the band's affable merch guy. Surprisingly, this collective screams most furiously for the four new tracks played live for the first the time. On the best of these, "Erase," Linnell's voice bends expertly over Flansburgh's warbling guitar melody, which it matches and then splits from as the singer rattles off the kind of densely-packed lyrics that have become one of the band's few hallmarks.

The crowd's enthusiasm for the fresh material is unmatched even when the band proffers what is perhaps their most-loved song, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," but this could be because everyone is too busy making out to cheer — even the parents. Somehow, their Dockers-clad progeny do not look embarrassed.

"We live in such a world of love," says Flansburgh. "Our audience is so up for all the different things that we do in this wonderful way." This would make some bands complacent, but for They Might Be Giants, it has the opposite effect: "There's no time for slackin' off just because we've got a great audience!" After the show, which lasts for hours, he returns to the stage to pass out stickers to them.