[ there's no place like home ]
by Eric J. Iannelli

Often the more one knows about a topic, the harder it is to choose the most compelling and important aspect. Think of that fateful history exam, the one where you knew the essay topic backwards and forwards. The problem wasn't ignorance of the material; it was in knowing too much. And so it suffered from information overload. "Unfocused," wrote your instructor in red ink, right next to the "D minus."

So how does a writer like me lead into an article on They Might Be Giants? The band's progressive outlook in terms of online music and digital formats? 18 tireless years of music wholly unsusceptible to trend and mainstream influences? A cult-ish following whose mean age never seems to change? Or just the basic newsworthy items; that is, two new albums, the full-length Mink Car and the Holidayland EP? Fact is, all these are part and parcel of what makes TMBG what it is. The apparent simplicity of the band is its greatest deception.

Ultimately one is left employing They Might Be Giants as a metaphor for itself. Case in point: Making sense of the band is the same Sisyphean task as making sense of its music, in which any topic is fair game: history, science and art ("Why Does the Sun Shine?," "Mammal," "James K. Polk," "Meet James Ensor"); futuristic dystopias ("Robot Parade," "Cage & Aquarium"); homespun philosophy ("Older," "Particle Man," "Hope That I Get Old Before I Die"); and the blatantly absurd ("Dr. Worm," "Cyclops Rock," "Dirt Bike"). The musical styles used to carry these strange lyrics is equally as varied. In other words, the world of John Linnell and John Flansburgh is a sort of coherent lawlessness. Anything goes. To attempt to neatly summarize almost two decades of borderline anarchy is an exercise in futility.

[ they might be giants - john linnell and john flansburg ]

This exact realisation had not really taken shape before I found myself in a small anteroom of the Foundry, the student-run venue on the Sheffield University campus, on the second night of TMBG's latest UK tour in support of Mink Car.

"Are you going to transcribe this?" asks Linnell, offering to take my microcassette recorder. The rest of TMBG and the opener, Kevin Tihista's Red Terror, is still running through soundcheck. "I'll just be the microphone guy." Holding it chin-high, he continues his monologue about British food and touring, all of which has the ring of a stand-up comedy act. "Then I figured out that Indian food was the haute cuisine of the UK, and that's what I've subsisted on exclusively for quite awhile. It's gotten a lot better. And the coffee has really improved: It's like tea in America -- it makes British people gag." Ba-dum-pum. Thanks, folks, you've been a lovely audience.

The most revealing biographical tidbit in this delivery is not Linnell's preferred diet, but that TMBG has been touring overseas since 1987, shortly after the release of the first self-titled album.

"There was little period where we were getting going in the States," says Linnell, settling into a more serious tone. "We'd never even been to California when that record came out. We started trying to cover all these territories in the US. So we did our first little press tour in September of 1987, about a year and a half after the first album. It seemed like things were going to go well [in the UK], so we started coming over here a lot. This is the only place we've actually had a chart hit. That was in 1990 with 'Birdhouse in Your Soul'." Why is the US so slow to appreciate a native band? "It's a much bigger market," he says, "more conservative."

As it does stateside, today TMBG's reputation rests not so much in their earlier material, but in more recent surprise hits like "Boss of Me" and "Older" from the TV show Malcolm In the Middle. (Witness the company TMBG currently keeps. On the soundtrack album, they share space with bands like Hanson, Travis and the Dust Brothers.) It has led to a sort of anonymous fame, viz. my girlfriend's 16-year-old brother humming the show's theme song repetitively though he had no idea who actually performed it. This is more impersonal and widespread recognition than Linnell is accustomed to, and it has thrown him for a loop.

[ mink car ]
[ give a listen! ] "Cyclops Rock" MP3

"I'm so unclear about what draws people into the band now," he explains. "I think there's an older sibling word of mouth thing," which would indicate that the audience that grew up with watershed albums like Lincoln and Flood has not disappeared entirely.

"Every band probably thinks this, but we're sort of a special case in that we have this sort of semi-cult following. There are certain bands that kids get into because it helps them have a sense of identity and they connect with other kids that way. We don't really work like that. We're more of an individual thing. Certain people feel like they have this personal relationship to us. It's very strange for us, because we don't know these kids at all and they feel like they know us. And we find that out when we meet them. They have this familiarity; they feel like we're their friends, their older brothers, their parents." Therefore, if Linnell's theory proves true, TMBG's early audience may still be listening to maintain that unique connection.

But the divide between traditional TMBG listeners (the disaffected, quirky adolescent; the die-hard indie fan) and the newer ones (the party-centric college crowd; the disinterested listener like my girlfriend's younger brother) exists. This is apparent by the mixed reception of Mink Car, because it featured some of the same songs as the previously released digital albums available on EMusic. Although Linnell insists that "the versions on Mink Car are completely different," the counter argument is that the more enthusiastic TMBG followers had already downloaded and outplayed songs like "Older," "Working Undercover for the Man" and "(She Thinks She's) Edith Head."

"I think some people were bothered that Mink Car wasn't all completely brand-new material. But," he demurs, "for a large part of our audience, it would've been like throwing away a lot of good songs."

[ john and john and an accordian ]

TMBG made minor history in 1999 as the first band to release an exclusive online album, Long Tall Weekend. It was followed one year later by the EP Working Undercover for the Man. According to Linnell, "They did well for digital records, but albums online are still completely dwarfed by CD sales." The drawbacks were as obvious then as they are now. Devotees will scan the web for music and liner notes and deal with the frustratingly sluggish 56K modem speeds. The rest will simply wait for a conventional CD to appear at the local record store. And this is the point where the audience rift is most apparent.

The online deal was brokered with EMusic in 1997, when web-based music "was just a fledgling industry," Linnell recalls. "There was a lot of excitement and not much to show for it. Now it's the opposite. It's going to continue developing, but people are no longer excited about it."

Discomfort is a prerequisite for real progress. Perhaps the band was more receptive new ideas. At the time they were experiencing similar growing pains to those of digital music.

Says Linnell: "We went through this slightly awkward period after the previous studio album, Factory Showroom, where we were looking for a major label deal. It sort of seemed like one was imminent, but the years were flitting by and we were still writing new material and imagining things that we could do and cooking up other gigs, like work in TV and movies." For these reasons online digital distribution seemed like the most appropriate and expedient vehicle for the band's music. However, TMBG's lack of a clear sense of direction precipitated an upheaval of sorts; and it was soon reflected in its following. Old fans milled about on the web in search of new material; newer fans walked around humming the television theme songs.

[ working undercover for the man ]
[ give a listen! ] "I Am A Human
Head" MP3

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