They Might Be Giants Discuss the Future of Concerts, Puppet Shows for Adults + More
Near the end of our interview with John Linnell, one of two Johns (Flansburgh being the other) at the core of They Might Be Giants, the songwriter notes that “the majority of the crowd” he sees from the stage wasn’t yet born when the band began in 1982. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was born in 1982, but it wouldn’t have thrown him. Linnell maintains a realistic and healthy respect for his band’s longevity, and he would rather draw in young people than see the audience grey along with him.
Earlier this month, TMBG released their 16th full-length, ‘Nanobots,’ an album that, in the eyes of many critics, proves the veteran band is still a vital force. During his chat with Diffuser.fm, Linnell spoke about concerts of the future, puppets shows for adults and how songwriting changes after 30 years of practice.
After 16 albums, there must be a routine that has developed in creating music between you and John Flansburgh. How does an album start for you?
Well, we have a lot of time to be at home in our little home studio, and I think we spend a couple weeks staring out the window. And, I can only speak for myself on this, but there is something very compelling about having a deadline, and you realize that you have to get something done. So, you start, and you have to put up with the fact that the first ideas you come up with aren’t always going to be great.
So, John and I will start to make demos, and at a certain point, we’ll think that we probably have enough material to go ahead an book studio time at a place we work in New York with our producer Pat Dillett. So, we’ll send the demos to the other guys in the band and then we meet at the studio in Manhattan and hammer out a live version of the tracks.
The thing we do though these days is we tend to stack the live recordings on top of the demos, which is a benefit of Pro Tools. Assuming that you left the tempo the same, you can move really smoothly from the demo to the album version, so there isn’t a point where it stops being one thing. We’re often using the demo vocals as a reference for the band to play with and many times some elements from the demo will stay all the way through to the finished recording.
That’s the typical way, but there are other times where we try to disrupt the way we do things or record something from scratch in the studio, but we are sort of uptight, in that we don’t want to show up at the studio empty-handed. We can go through and change everything, but at least we’ll have it mapped out before we get into the high-priced Manhattan recording studios.
‘Nanobots’ has been well received, and there are still fresh ideas coming after more than 30 years of recording. Does creativity come easier to you guys now, or is it more difficult?
I would say the latter. When you start out, you use the ideas that are most obvious to you. You have a limited amount of time to record that first album, but you have your whole life to think about it. From that point on, you have to record new material without repeating what you’ve already done. And of course, when you recorded that first album, you did your very best and used all of your best ideas, so you can’t use those again. Over time, you do get better in certain ways, like working more efficiently, and certainly there is a point in a lot of bands’ careers that they are doing well enough that they can stop doing their day job and spend more time on their writing.
But it doesn’t really get easier to impress yourself, and that’s the biggest challenge of all. It’s harder to make music that still meets our standards and that would be a record that we’d still want to buy. It’s a hard job. I’m impressed that we’ve kept doing this, but I don’t think we’ve had any expectation that it was going to be the case. And, that holds true now. For instance, I don’t know if we have a 17th album left in us, just because we’ve done 16. We’ll have to write it and record it before I can say for sure.
When you think of these 16 albums, does each one have something that sticks out about it? If you were to place ‘Nanobots’ on the mantle or bookcase with the others, what would you note about it?
Well, they all do have distinct flavors. In some ways, though, the older ones, it is a little like finding that old high school paper you wrote, where there is something slightly goofy about it, or you remember what went into the idea of a song, and it seems kind of quaint over time. So, one advantage of continuing to do this is that your most recent work, it, well — how do I say this?
It’s a reflection of you at the moment, who you are right now?
Yeah, that you’re closest to it. That’s a good way of putting it. And what’s really entertaining about hearing the old records is they are sort of reckless. I mean, the reason why people tend to love the earliest records by their favorite bands is because there is something more carefree about the original stuff.
Have you had the experience of seeing yourself as an influence on other bands?
You know, I haven’t really seen it, but maybe that’s because I’m inside the project. People have said that, like, “These people sound like you,” but I can’t identify the part they think was influenced by us. It must be that I’m too close, like how you don’t know what you smell like. You know what everybody else’s characteristics are. And, when we hear ourselves described by a critic, at this point, we know how we are described, but I don’t really see ourselves in what that description is. I think of what we’re doing is what you do. I think the way we make a record is just how you make a record.
You are heading back on the road for ‘Nanobots.’ What can people expect that’s different from previous tours?
The show is different every time out. There are always elements of past tours, because we hang on to stuff that we like, and of course, we have tons of new material. But beyond that, there are other elements of the show that are different. One of those is the puppet show we have now. We debuted that on the last tour, and we found that adults really like puppets. That’s a big part of the show.
The other thing is that technology keeps getting better. Every time we go out, it seems like there is something new to consider, and whether we want to use some new piece of technology or not that often makes the show different. Obviously, in being active for as long as we have — I mean, we started out with tape recorders — we’ve seen some change. One of the things we have now are these inner-ear monitors. They are moulded to the inside of our ears. So now we have these things in our ears that are so tight fitting that they block out sound effectively and you can hear everything that’s happening onstage and what’s being mixed for your ear. It really has improved the live performance for us. It’s not something that the audience would likely notice, but it helps us on stage, because we can keep the volume really low and hear everything really well, and we’re much more aware of what each other are doing, and that makes for a better performance.
And it gets rid of the floor monitors, right?
Yeah, if it weren’t for the big ‘ole keyboard I’m playing, we’d have a very clean looking stage. And we do have side fills to help people at the front of the show hear everything. Not that it’s a good thing, but I imagine at some point, that going to a show will be like going to 3D movie. Everybody will have their own apparatus on with monitors for the individual.
Sort of like that Google Glass thing that they are talking about at SXSW. I’m not sure what that is, but it seems like it could be a sort of device like you are talking about.
It’s getting to the point that you won’t even need to be at the show. You can just plug in and enjoy it from somewhere else.
Actually, Beck and Chris Milk just sort of did something like that, too. But this brings me to my last question: With more than 30 years making music, and making kids music on some albums, you have fans that have literally grown up listening to you. Have you heard these types of stories?
Yeah, we have heard testimonials like that. There are a lot of people who were young and first heard us through this Tiny Toons program, which was like 20 years ago. So, those people were teenagers within 10 years of that, and now we’re at the point where the kids who heard our first kids album 10 years ago are old enough to go out to a show. So, it is very weird, where the majority of the crowd at our show now was not alive when John and I first started. I think that is unusual. Many bands have an audience that ages with them, but we seem to keep breeding new fans. At some point, we are going to be old and decrepit and playing to an audience of teenagers.