INTERVIEW: John Linnell, They Might Be Giants
- Daniel Aloi
"You're older than you used to be, and now you're even older," They Might Be Giants sing on their new, MP3-only rarities album, Long Tall Weekend.
In the Giants' case, they're not only older, but busier. Since leaving Elektra Records and releasing a live set, Severe Tire Damage, on Restless last year, TMBG mainmen John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been in high gear - with touring, film and TV soundtrack contributions, and high-profile appearances on public radio's "This American Life" and (in segments directed by Flansburgh) on ABC's "Brave New World" summer series.
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The off-center rockers, who could hardly be described as cult figures anymore, also have more work cooking, ranging from a children's album due next year to more music for TV, and ongoing side projects like Flansburgh's band Mono Puff and Linnell's upcoming full-length CD of "State Songs."
"We've really got tons of home work to do this summer, working in our home studios," Linnell says from his Brooklyn home.
Long Tall Weekend, a 15-song album, includes unreleased work from the past two years, with some songs (like "She Thinks She's Edith Head") expected to appear on the band's next proper studio album.
"I have no clue as to how well it's doing," Linnell says, when asked if he was up on the number of hits and downloads one week after the album's July 20 release date. "I have no clear idea, despite the popularity of MP3, whether people want to pay money for them. I guess once they make it so you can't get them for free, that will change."
Linnell himself is not one who'd readily go online to download music, citing some bad past experiences in trying to stream audio.
"I haven't really had success at downloading an album from the Internet. I suspect until I do it will be frustrating for me," Linnell says.
"Maybe I just don't have the patience. I really like the convenience of a CD. You put it in and push the button. You do have to go leave the house to get it..."
MP3, an audio compression format, is popular for its sound quality, compared to streaming audio. "Plus you get the whole thing onto your hard drive, and from that point you're not at the mercy of your faulty telephone line," Linnell says.
They Might Be Giants actually pioneered song delivery direct to fans - in a low-tech way - with its Dial-A-Song service.
"Dial-A-Song is a free thing, although we pretty much put up our demos. We've had a lot of different things that were not exactly pop songs," Linnell says. "But the premium work of They Might Be Giants is what we want people to pay for. Unless they can figure out some way to get it for free."
"My partner (Flansburgh) is pretty much the one who maintains and stocks Dial-A-Song," Linnell says. "It used to be a phone machine in his kitchen. The setup now is a voice mail on his computer, also in his kitchen. It's about as unreliable as the phone machine was. It's only been one phone line for about 17 years. With http://dialasong.com, I think more people can listen at once."
Flansburgh has put up anywhere from a handful to 30 unreleased songs - Linnell isn't sure how many -- on the Website. You go to http://dialasong.com, punch a big telephone button illustrated there, and you are linked to a song. "We've stuck to this policy of you don't get to decide what song you hear," Linnell says.
As a sort of "premium" Dial-A-Song compilation, Long Tall Weekend collects unreleased studio material that, taken together, stands up as well as any other TMBG release. It's full of surprises -- from the longtime Dial-A-Song favorites "Dark and Metric" and "Token Back to Brooklyn" (with Soul Coughing drummer Yuval Gabay) to the country stomper "Counterfeit Faker" to "The Edison Museum," co-written by Flansburgh about an actual famous haunted mansion in New Jersey, and sung by WFMU deejay Nick Hill. Linnell found some surprises as well when they compiled the tracks.
"When I listened to it last week afer I got the CD (a few promotional CD copies went to the MP3-unready, including Linnell and this writer), I was very pleased with the instrumental that opens it, that's probably about six or seven years old, called "Drinkin'." I had forgotten about it," Linnell says.
"I like the performances by the band on `Certain People I Could Name' and `They Got Lost.' Something really clicked on that particular session."
"They Got Lost" is a true-to-life story about the two Johns not making it to a radio gig.
"It's a composite of pretty much every single time we went in a car anywheres," Linnell says. "John Flansburgh and I have this particularly weird habit of getting turned around wherever we go."
"It's the slow version of the song, originally intended for Factory Showroom (Elektra, 1996) but unreleased until the very sped-up version came out on the 1998 live album.
"I think it's a good record," Linnell says of the MP3 release. "I feel like I needed to be reminded of the reason why we wrote and recorded the songs. When you listen to your stuff after a period of time, it's kind of a fun experience."
They Might Be Giants' Long Tall Weekend is available in MP3 format for 99 cents a song at goodnoise.com (linked to from the official TMBG sites and from http://emusic.com ). One track, "Older" (featured on the ABC show) is a free download.