“Short songs are a kind of discipline”: an interview with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

Image: Emma Hope Allwood

Image: Emma Hope Allwood

They Might Be Giants are arguably one of the most well-respected and successful bands ever to emerge from alternative rock. Their quirky yet sincere songwriting is one-of-a-kind, and it’s this that has earned them such widespread critical acclaim. TMBG’s latest album, Nanobots, showed us that the band is far from running out of steam. On the contrary, songs such as “You’re On Fire”, “Lost My Mind” and “Circular Karate Chop” retain the same wide-eyed childlike curiosity and charm as their celebrated 1990 platinum record, Flood. Earlier this month, we caught up with John Linnell from the band to talk about science, Disney and the music industry.

I understand you’re playing a show in London later this month. Do you have a particular history with the city?
When we first came in 1986, the sheer amount of stuff going on was amazing and still is now. London is one of our favourite places on the planet.

What can we expect to hear from your set? Some more stage theatrics, I hope!
Yes, absolutely – we will be bringing the puppets for starters. We have lots of different arrangements, including a melodica, bass clarinet, and my accordion. It’s a very active show; it involves a lot of running around for us. Part of the entertainment is watching the old guys run from one edge of the stage to the other.

Your first ever show was over 30 years ago – how different does it feel to play now compared to then? What were those early shows like?
We were just a duo back then. I remember we had a tape deck for the backing track and at one point we had a whole bunch of metronomes that we played along with. Now we have a full 5-piece band. Weirdly, we’re still playing a lot of the same material now as we were then. We have sixteen albums to our name, and yet we’re still playing stuff from the first two.

Your new album Nanobots has been a great success – how do you usually approach the song writing for an album like that?
The main thing about Nanobots was that we didn’t really have a thematic approach to it. We don’t generally plan in advance what the flavour of an album is going to be – we take stock of all the material that we’ve cooked up, pick the best bits, weed out the songs that sound too similar and try to get the album to convey exactly where we’re at. I guess the exception would be our children’s albums – for that, Disney asked us to write some educational music, but I must stress that that was only the cover story. Children don’t need They Might Be Giants to learn the alphabet; they’re going to learn it anyway. The music is really just meant to be fun.

Nanobots is littered with short “nano-songs” under a minute long. What draws you to this format?
I initially wrote a song that was around 20 seconds – it was a fun experience and I thought, “well, we could do with more of those…” I think short songs are a kind of discipline, you have to get your idea completely straight in a short space of time, and there’s a very liberating aspect to it because if it doesn’t work, it’s not such a big deal.

John Flansburgh (left) and John Linnell of They might Be Giants Photo: Shervin Lainez

John Flansburgh (left) and John Linnell of They might Be Giants
Photo: Shervin Lainez

Your songs appear to have a big focus on science & technology. Not only have you devoted a whole album (Here Comes Science) to it, you’ve also partially dedicated Nanobots to Nicola Tesla, and you recently launched your own iPhone app! Do you consciously express your love for science?
The app is just a way of delivering music, appropriating new technology to do what we did before with dial-a-song. When we put the science record out, we felt a strong sense of being pro-science. Not to say that we’re educators or experts, but there’s a lot of people in the States who think that science is incompatible with certain other belief systems, so we were kind of showing that we identify as part of the science-team in that regard.

Technology is particularly interesting with regards to music at the moment. Do you think that the Internet is causing the decline of the music industry?
Well, with music, everything changes on a technological level, but on another level everything stays the same. These days, it’s not enough to simply put your cultural product out into the world, as easy as that is with the internet. You still require some level of promotional machinery to get noticed. I say that not because I like the promotional institutions, but I think they are kind of necessary. There’s a notion that it is somehow democratised by the technology, and it’s true that the mechanics of the industry has changed, but unfortunately we are all still reliant on the money.

Catch They Might Be Giants at Shepherds Bush Empire on November 19th.
/ INTERVIEWED BY GEORGE MCVICAR / QUEEN MARY / MUSIC EDITOR

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