Last week, They Might Be GiantsS hit the road to celebrate the 20th birthday of their signature album; Flood. To mark the anniversary, Giants founders John Flansburgh and John Linnell talked to Rolling Stone about the making of the record, then prepared exclusive new liner notes for each song.
Issued the first week of 1990, Flood was a landmark release in the evolution from college rock (the awkward handle for music like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü that dominated university radio stations in the 1980s) to the alternative movement that defined much of the 1990s. Flood is still a hallmark in geek chic’s rise, too: the Giants’ two previous LPs proved a skinny guy with an accordion and a partner in crime wearing black-plastic glasses could rock a party.
Lifelong friends Flansburgh (guitar, glasses) and Linnell (accordion, keyboards) performed their first show as They Might Be Giants in early 1983. Both sang and played an increasing array of instruments including guitar, clarinet, Dustbuster vacuum and xylophone. After two minimalist records made with drum machines, Flood saw the duo let loose like a riptide.
The album launches with “Theme From Flood,” which plays like the soundtrack to a Technicolor movie, followed by “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” a leadoff single driven by a joyous keyboard, backward snare-kick beat and pogo-worthy bassline. The rest of songs rotate through folk (“Women and Men”), manic new wave (“Lucky Ball and Chain”), inspired noise outbursts (“Hearing Aid”), and retro-pop homages that split the difference between the duo’s contemporary heroes and the 1950s aesthetic that imprinted on them as they absorbed TV reruns in their youth (“Twisting”).
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Nine guest musicians were featured on 12 of the 19 songs. Most were soloists drawn from the Johns’ friends in the NYC rock music scene, like DNA’s Arto Lindsay (the noisy anti-guitar solo in “Hearing Aid”). The also brought in journeymen like veteran Latin-jazz trumpeter and Dizzie Gillespie sideman Charlie Sepulveda (the solo in “Your Racist Friend” — to the Johns’ lasting regret, he’s misspelled as “Spalvida” in the credits).
TMBG recorded Flood at the ultramodern Skyline Studios in the heart of NYC in fall of 1989. The Johns spent two two-thirds of their budget to lay down “Birdhouse,” “Your Racist Friend,” “We Want a Rock” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
Though the album sounds like a straightforward production, it was technically adventurous. After years using tapes and drum machines, the Johns had become entranced by a new tool: the Casio FZ-1 sampler. “The De La Soul album [3 Feet High and Rising] had just come out,” says Flansburgh. “And that was a huge sonic impression left on most people making records, even though it seems very simple now.” (Read De La Soul’s track by track guide to 3 Feet here.)
It’s hard to detect, but the sampler yielded some of Flood‘s key moments. The “Birdhouse” trumpet solo is sampled from a studio session by Frank London, who played the memorable trumpet-plunger hook in LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali.”
After all the studio innovation, the elementary-simple “Particle Man” became the album’s iconic song. Flansburgh, the Giants’ business delegate, says it was “far and away” the group’s most file-shared track in the early Napster days. And it’s still a perennial bestseller.
Flood‘s copyright says 1989, but label held its release until the first week of 1990 to keep peak sales weeks within one year’s tabulations. The album broke across the world over spring 1990 as the duo toured, backed by a rock metronome and taped tracks, playing to twisting audiences who bought unusual merch like fezzes in the lobby.
“We were in a very singular place entering into the Flood situation, because we had been a successful as an independent act, on a commercial level,” reflects Flansburgh. “I think we felt like we had earned our place at the table.”
“There was a thing about the year 1990, when Flood came out,” says Linnell. “Our manager was getting much more excited and saying ‘We’re blowing up, this is kind of a big deal.’ But artistically, we felt like we had already got a grip on where we were at in relation to the rest of the world.”
“Theme From Flood”
This brief intro begins a cinematic theme that carries through to album-closer “Road Movie to Berlin” and the cover’s Flood logo, which is similar to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees emblem.
Linnell: “It was indeed written as the introductory theme, but ‘Road Movie’ wasn’t slotted in at the end until later. I didn’t think of the record as a movie, but it seemed appropriate to inaugurate our major-label debut by having the listener pass through a ceremonial archway.”
“Birdhouse In Your Soul”
This abstract ode to joy has impenetrable lyrics like the couplet “My story’s infinite/like the Longines Symphonette.”
Linnell: “The melody and chords were cooked up years earlier, and the lyrics had to be shoehorned in to match the melody, which explains why the words are so oblique. I mean beautiful. I didn’t find out what the Longines Symphonette was until after the song was released. It rhymed with ‘infinite’ (sort of).”
“Lucky Ball and Chain”
Flansburgh: “We have a lot of unreliable narrators strolling around our songs. This one isn’t so unreliable. It’s a simple regret song — kind of a ‘Here’s to the one that got away’ song — but the idea really turned on the title, which is very much in that country-western tradition.”
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
An enduringly popular cover of the Four Lads’ 1953 Top 10 single.
Flansburgh: “This song I knew from my childhood, and we learned it simply to have more songs in our repertoire. It was in the show for a couple of years, and John and I would perform without the drum machine. It had a very spaced out middle section where we would basically yodel into an echo effect and it all went very, very trippy. It always got a good response, and when we got our fancy Casio FZ-1 samplers, this track was one of the things we put together to test it out.”
Appears to be one of TMBG’s most abstract and personal songs. It’s about being reincarnated as a bag of groceries (“I didn’t apologize/For when I was eight/and I made my younger brother/Have to be my personal slave”).
Linnell: “There’s no real little brother; we would never confess something like that in a song. I think I ripped the vocal interplay off from the Proclaimers. There, I said it. Let the lawyers emerge, feathered helmets and jousting spears at the ready … The dreamlike relationship between returning expired groceries and returning from the grave after you expire appealed to me.”
“Your Racist Friend”
It might be the Giants’ supreme political statement, but takes the form of a social conflict.
Flansburgh: “The song is a composite of experiences, and really about the relativistic back-peddling people go through trying to get through this creepy world. This song is really wrapped up in the problem of tacit agreement, and the line ‘Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding’ just sums it up.”
The accordion shuffle chronicles a mythos of brawling supernatural characters, including the mysterious Particle Man, the giant Universe Man, and the apparently invincible Triangle Man. The Johns wouldn’t say whether early drafts included other characters.
Linnell: “It does kind of echo the  Spider-Man cartoon theme. Triangle Man was based on a friend’s observation that Robert Mitchum looked like an evil triangle when he took his shirt off in Night of the Hunter. Nothing else not explicitly stated need be inferred. If the money were right, I’d consider a whole TV series.”
Flansburgh: “This piece of farfisa [organ] rock is directly influenced by the bands it references. The Young Fresh Fellows from Seattle are a group whose happy, sad-sack sensibility we probably related to, and the dB’s were one of the great under-recognized bands of the New York scene we started with, and their great song ‘Amplifier’ is a more melodramatic iteration of the same idea.”
“We Want a Rock”
Features a violin melody by prolific violinist Mark Feldman, whose recordings span from Johnny Cash to Bill Frisell. The song’s cryptic lyrics include passages like “Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads” and “Everybody wants a rock to wind a piece of string around.”
Linnell: “Mark Feldman was and is a joy to work with, partly due to his deadpan wit, but also because he can play any kind of music. I guess the song is a metaphor. We who have nothing to ‘wind string around’ are lost in the wilderness. But those who deny this need are ‘burning our playhouse down.’ If you put quotes around certain words it sounds more like a metaphor.”
“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”
This breezy rock song became one of the album’s crossover successes. It’s a great side-two track one.
Linnell: “It’s a song that notes the exaggerated importance of petty concerns when everything else is going haywire. Which, I have to admit, happens sometimes even in my usually peaceful household. Pacing the album was a big concern for both of us, especially John F., who usually comes up with the final sequence.”
Tells a story of a miserable work environment, and ends with an extended instrumental passage.
Flansburgh: “The sonics of this were a real step up. Contrasting the genre-approved beat with the Arto Lindsay guitar solo and the vacuum-cleaner synth sounds in the middle was really just a balancing act to hold the listeners’ interest. I remember trying to do some dub moves, but no one we worked with had any practical experience with how to do it, and it all seemed very tame, so we scrapped that part.”
The roller-rink keyboard interlude starts with the lyrics that are just two words long (“Minimum waaaage“) followed by a cattle-drive cry yaah and a whip crack.
Flansburgh: “With a conceptual tip of the hat to the song ‘Rawhide,’ this song is really the soundtrack to any crummy job. Sonically, this was a real adventure in sampling both original and illegal, and we ain’t saying which is which, but more of it is played than you might think, considering the sleazy sounds. The whip crack sound itself was fully created in the studio, as we couldn’t locate an effective sound effect (although you’d think they were abundant). The wind sound of the whip coming from Linnell’s decaying Moog synthesizer and the actual crack sound created by a wet towel snapped in the air and some creative miking from Roger [Moutenot, producer]. He was kind of revealing his inner-jock with that move.”
Elektra hoped for a hit, but TMBG’s major-label debut is filled with songs like this spitfire folk tune, which features deft vocal interplay. Linnell says despite the complexity, it didn’t require many takes.
Linnell: “Elektra, we believe, knew what they were getting when they signed us, so we felt comfortable doing our usual thing. I think this song was in our show for awhile before we recorded it. In general we try to learn the songs before the tape starts rolling to avoid embarrassment.”
“Whistling in the Dark”
After a tinny demo debuted on TMBG’s Dial-A-Song service, the finished version sounded like it was recorded by members of a marching band.
Flansburgh: “The bass drum sound was something we actually worked on for quite a while in the studio and we weren’t so happy with it even in the end — but I think in our imaginations even an atomic blast would have been too small. We actually recorded it and possibly sampled it so we could retrigger the biggest sound.”
Linnell: “I thought it would be funny if there were two guys who have a seemingly brief, hostile interaction and the camera pulls back and they’re in jail together. Bear in mind, if you insist on interpreting the words to this peculiar song, that the narrator is comfortable and capable in the role of being what he’s like. However, as the wise men say, an ‘is’ is not an ‘ought.'”
Flansburgh: ” ‘Hot Cha!’ is actually the name of one of the wooden horses in a lesser celebrated Parker Bros. game called Derby Day made back in the ’20s, and the title is really a reference to the rhythm of the song, although we weren’t really trying to make a traditional jazzy song by any means. While the feel of the song is pretty swinging, it’s also a bit damaged sounding, in part due to the stiff programming, and amplified by the herky-jerky nature of the homemade samples being triggers. This song contains the actual sounds of mallets and drumsticks on my kitchen sink, the base plate of my refrigerator, oven and door buzzer. The horn samples are recorded through a guitar fuzz box, and all the drums are programmed.”
“Women and Men”
A breezy tune that takes a mythic look at the human race’s expansion over land and sea.
Linnell: “The words have a very blank, disengaged view of human reproduction. The lyrics neither celebrate nor condemn the expanding population. But the music is cheerful.”
“Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love”
This percolating tune finds a lover on the run from the law.
Flansburgh: “This was a track we reworked for Flood. The sounds are very cool, but it’s quite a production. We also used to do this song as a duo, and that version had a nice simplicity to it.”
Linnell: “I thought it would be good to expand on the [identical] title of a very short instrumental Mahavishnu Orchestra album cut from the ’70s. ‘Bullets of love’ is a funnily dissonant idea. That was a few years before the Sex Pistols arrived.”
“They Might Be Giants”
This revisited nugget is the band’s entry in the tradition of title songs.
Flansburgh: “While we’d have a tad more street cred to cite Black Sabbath, I think we were really trying to make some of ‘Hey Hey We’re the Monkees’ our own with this one. Any song like this is kind of a manifesto, and although we had recorded a version early on, I think including it here was a way to telegraph to all who might care that we were very much going to carry on as we had started — which is to say complicated and impossible to pigeonhole.”
“Road Movie to Berlin”
Flansburgh: “This song was designed to feel like a fragment of some bar room song just starting up again and again. Even though the verses resolve, there is a little bit of tension that is left hanging each go around, and that hopefully is a bit more unsettling with each verse. My voice is slowed down, which is kind of creepy. Indicative of the speed with which a lot of the second half of the album was recorded, we inadvertently left out one of the verses we had been performing, and then didn’t feel we had the time to fix it. The trumpet blasts, entirely synthetic or sampled, include the sample of the very same Frank London trumpet heard on ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul.’ ”