Children’s music, dinosaurs, and earworms:

a Conversation with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

Words: Willow Stewart
February 26, 2023

At the end of December, WBRU editorial staffer Willow Stewart hopped on a phone call with John Linnell who, alongside John Flansburgh, founded the band They Might Be Giants. In this interview, they get into John’s hopes for the duo, how they’ve navigated the music industry and an evolving style over the past thirty-five years, and their newest album BOOK.  

WS: I just want to thank you for being here, and it’s great to meet you!

JL: No problem!

WS: To start off, I would love to know more about how They Might Be Giants has maintained its core, unique, witty, and eclectic style of music over the decades, even with the band’s continued experimentation and creative expansion.

JL: Okay, I appreciate the way you phrased that. Yeah, I think that we never defined what it is that we were doing. It was more or less defined by what we were attracted to in terms of song ideas and sounds or whatever. And that’s still how we operate, we don’t know what style of music we are playing exactly, we just like certain things and try and do things that are like what we like. I think that’s really it, there isn’t much more to it.

Another thing is that the two of us still really appreciate having the other person to work with, and we have this mutually beneficial thing. And a reason that a lot of bands break up is because they get sick of each other, or they have stopped benefitting from being together, you know? And then, unfortunately, in those situations, the band is no longer salable. When people go solo, everyone’s like, I miss the original brand. And for whatever reason, we are the original brand; we’re still the franchise that we started out as.

So from a marketing perspective, that’s working for us. We are still able to claim our identity as the original guys. That sounds dumb, but that’s kind of surprisingly a good resource and a good thing to hang your head on.

WS: It’s very cool that you all don’t label yourselves, and it’s just a matter of what you all are attracted to.

JL: Yeah, I think most bands don’t label themselves. I think maybe they’re forced to say “we’re a country act,” but they don’t necessarily think of themselves as being a particular thing because you don’t when you’re doing your job. You don’t think, “We have to uphold the virtues of country music,” or whatever, you’re just doing your thing.

So we are lucky, probably partly that time and place. Like, it was considered okay to just be in a band, and then we were around long enough that we became a brand name.

WS: While on the subject of your expansive collection of work, I’m curious as to what has drawn your band to consistently reference historical time periods, figures, and events?

JL: It’s just what we like. And again, I don’t know if I can explain it, but I think that there are certain things you find interesting that have you keep going back to the well of a particular kind of idea, and it keeps seeming interesting. And maybe not a lot of people. They’re like: ‘Yeah, that’s kind of been done already,’ but I think if it’s interesting to us, then that’s enough. But of course, we try to ignore the yawns.

WS: Shifting focus, you all have also created multiple children’s music albums and I would love to know what drew the band to release the album No! in 2002 that was catered specifically to children?

JL: We were not at all trying to position ourselves as a children’s act in the first place, but we were doing a lot of things that year which was 1999, I guess. We were doing music for a TV show, and we were doing our regular thing, and we were doing a lot of commercial work.

We were doing actual commercials and theme music for other projects. We did a PBS thing and then, I don't know why, but Rounder Records said somehow they came up with this idea. They offered us, I think it was $50,000 to make a children's record, which covers the production cost for us. And so we were like, “Sure! You know whatever,” and we're in the studio all the time, so we'll just do the album. We did not think at all of it as a career move. It was just yet another goofy thing that we were doing. But it was weirdly fun! And part of it was we didn't really decide who it was for. We were not thinking of a particular age group. Unlike the later Disney stuff, there wasn't a target audience. It was just like, this is a record for kids, but obviously adults like it, too, because kids listen to the same music over and over again. That could drive the adults crazy, so we wanted to make the album not too annoying, but it was very fun and light-hearted. And I think that was the reason why it kind of took off, is because it didn’t seem like we were rubbing our hands together thinking, “We’re going to make money off these tykes.” It was more like we were just goofing around and we were having fun.

We were really taken by surprise when No! Outsold the record that we made for adults. And we thought, okay, so this is the thing we could actually do. Then the president of Disney Records got in touch, and he wanted to do a whole project, which is what turned into Here Comes the ABCs and all that.

WS: So it kind of snowballed to something bigger with that initial proposition.

JL: Exactly, yeah.

WS: Nice, so with the band’s newest album, BOOK, congratulations on the physical book’s Grammy nomination!

JL: Thank you!

WS: I would love to know where the idea for a tangible book that works hand-in-hand with the album came from?

JL: John Flansburgh was the one who came up with the concept. We worked with the guy who did our graphics a lot in the past. Flansburgh has a degree from an art school and has done a lot of graphic design professionally. So he and the designer of the book found a photographer they liked and came up with this idea for a coffee table book that would be linked to all the songs that we put out. We made a 12 by 12-inch coffee table book that could fit a vinyl LP or have a CD stuck in it. And that was it. In some ways, it was a minimalist idea of Flansburgh to just have it be called BOOK and have it be a book. He likes those kinds of simple ideas.

WS: That’s a very cool concept, and with your latest album, you all continue an eclectic and experimental style. Most of which are open for interpretation, like one of my favorites off of the album, “I Broke My Own Rule,” stood out to me upon first listen. Could you unpack the meaning of the chorus as a member of the band?

JL: You’re right that most of the songs are generally open for interpretation and I like that people are free to think about it in their own way. I would not say there is any simple explanation for any of the songs unless it is already obvious. In the case of “I Broke My Own Rule” it’s pretty upfront. It’s about that experience you have of deciding how things are supposed to go, but you realize you are not going along with your supposed value system. That's really fundamentally what the song is about.

WS: Okay, the song off of the album, “Brontosaurus” presented the perspective of a dinosaur. I am interested in knowing what inspired the band to take on this perspective in the song?

JL: A dinosaur is a metaphor for something that is ancient or extinct and there is this notion that artists or bands can be dinosaurs and that just means that they’re “old hat”. That’s part of the idea. Then there is this thing that was at all explicit, but was in my mind: the name “Brontosaurus” itself has also kind of gone extinct. They are not called Brontosauruses anymore for some reason. I think they were lumping together creatures that should have been lumped together and called them Brontosaurus. So that’s not really essential to appreciating the song, but that is part of my understanding. Even the name Brontosaurus is from the past and no one uses it anymore.

WS: Another one of my favorites off the album is “I Can’t Remember the Dream”. The vivid imagery as well as the lyrics focusing on feelings speaking of anxiety and depression resonated with me as a listener and I would love to know more about the emotional and mental state this song encapsulates.

JL: It is what it says, you know, you can take it completely literally. It’s about the strange feeling that you have, an experience you can’t remember that is somehow ideal and is a contrast from your ordinary life, but it has that sort of wistful feeling you have when you don’t know why it made you feel so good, but maybe if you could remember, you could make the changes that would allow you to feel that way when you are awake, you know?

But obviously some people have bad dreams and wake up feeling scared. There are those dreams where you have a blissful experience and it is so beautiful that you want to go back and live in that world. And if you are like me, often you can’t remember your dream. I would say I very rarely remember dreams even though there is a sense that you had a dream since you have this leftover emotional wake, but I don’t remember any of the details of the dream.

WS: Okay, very interesting. They Might Be Giants has produced a lot of albums, I am curious to know if there was any experience that was unique to this album production that was not present in the production in past work for you all?

JL: There certainly was, but it was what everyone experienced, which was the pandemic. It began after we started recording. We recorded a bunch of the earlier tracks and then had to finish recording under the extreme conditions of 2020, and it took a long time. In some of the first recordings after the pandemic hit, we were all masked and taking tests every morning in the studio to make sure none of us had it. Everyone was super nervous about getting it. I mean, now we’re no longer feeling as nervous, but we’re still trying to be vigilant about not getting it and not passing it along since we still take it seriously.

So yeah that was weird. We were doing our thing which we have been doing for decades only we were doing it under these really weird circumstances. We still know how to record, and I would say it didn’t really slow us down and once we got in the studio we were able to do what we always do. 

WS: So it was picking up with the same methods you have always used just with the impact of COVID restrictions?

JL: Yeah.

WS: With BOOK, what do you hope listeners gain?

JL: Well, we always just want to present ideas that everyone kind of gets. Also, we hope that they hear the album and hear a spark of what we hope is an original idea. And also want to do the thing that The Beatles were doing, you know make songs that play in your head.

WS: Earworms?

JL: Yeah earworms, exactly, I’m a fan of earworms. Also, we want to introduce more people to our music. We are always trying to recruit new listeners. Hopefully by recording new stuff, touring, and presenting ourselves as an ongoing project, we will get new people interested. It has been working for us for the last 35 years.

WS: Nice, and with your past 35 years of music, where do you see the band in the next ten years or if you could foresee the future, where do you see the band moving creatively?

JL: Well, I hope we are still going. I mean, we definitely are all noticeably older. We are not teenagers, so we have to be more careful about our health, you know, just like anyone in their sixties. We are trying to keep going and feel like we are able to do our best work and do a good job. That’s really the challenge, it’s not just write, record, and perform, it’s also, how do we keep the standard high? That’s challenging and it doesn’t get easier.

WS: Right, and do you see you all expanding into any new realms that haven’t been touched?

JL: Good question. I don’t know what they would be, but I hope so.

WS: And lastly, if there is anyone who hasn't dived into y’all’s music, where would you recommend they start?

JL: Boy I don’t know, we have had a couple compilations over the years, but nowadays, you can download individual songs without buying the album. It is not hard to figure out the most popular They Might Be Giants Songs on Spotify or what used to be called iTunes. You can look at the collection of our songs in order of popularity, that might be a good way to get a handle on it. That’s kind of what I do with other bands I am not familiar with.

WS: Thank you so much for your time and congrats again on y’all’s Grammy nomination. 

JL: Nice talking to you Willow, thanks a lot.






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