John Linnell of They Might Be Giants: A Technologizer Tech Interview

By  |  Monday, June 13, 2011 at 12:22 am

They Might Be Computer Giants

Has access to a computer-based recording system changed your songwriting habits?

I think that it has, yeah. It was really useful as an expedient. It made a lot of stuff we were going to do anyway much easier. But then it also made us…there’s a way of thinking about music when working with sequencers where you think in blocks. Because there’s a lot of cut-and-paste, and that kind of thing.

I think it has also helped us to think about other ways of working where you’re not thinking in terms of “chorus-verse-chorus.” That’s a way of thinking and it’s produced a lot of the great popular music.

A traditional pop song structure.

Yeah, traditional pop song structure. But then once you wrap your head around that idea, you can also think of other ways to work. A song could just have a beginning and an end, and it doesn’t have to follow that sort of pattern. It doesn’t necessarily need to be “chorus-verse-chorus.” It can be just a stream of ideas where one leads into the next one.

In a way, it’s not so much that computers make you think one way or the other about this. It’s that they make it easier to see what you’re doing, and then you can make those choices more consciously.

Did your musical relationship with computers change when you started working with a live band?

They Might Be Giants' first live band lineup in 1994. (Photo: Michael Halsband)

Yeah, I’d say we went through an adjustment period after getting a live band where we had to learn how to integrate the studio creative stuff with the live band. Our fourth album, John Henry, was the first that we made with a full live band. The idea of it was to rehearse the band and record the songs live as much as possible. That was a big departure for us.

From that point on, we realized the part of recording closest to us was working in the studio piecing things together in a more compositional way, not so much having a live band sound — although we really welcomed the addition. From that time until now, we’ve been integrating those two methods of working: with the live band, with the computer and the studio, and all of those contemporary techniques.

They Might Be Giants was one of the first bands to release a full album online: Long Tall Weekend in 1999. How did that idea come about?

TMBG's Long Tall Weekend (1999) was the first full-length album by a major artist released exclusively in MP3 format.

Well, we hooked up with eMusic. You know, a lot of brilliant ideas are just a driven by somebody with a checkbook. And in this case, eMusic offered us a deal, and we cooked up this idea with them. We put out an album that was just online, an MP3-only kind of thing. I don’t think we were thinking, “This is going to be the future,” or anything like that. I think it was just another interesting way to work.

And then you went on to do TMBG Unlimited through eMusic in 2001. Was that a similar situation — a guy with a check?

There are plenty of possible jobs you can get, and we try to choose the ones that seem interesting. But a lot of it is driven by opportunities. You don’t just get to decide that you’re going to do something; you have to have an organization that goes along with it — if it’s going to cost anything or involve distribution. So I think we were lucky. They came along at a good time and it was an interesting relationship.

It was fun. We put out an album, but then we also were putting out stuff that we wouldn’t try and tout as a major release. We put out a lot of demos and interesting experimental things that were not something we’d want to charge a lot of money for.

What’s funny is we got identified as this “online project” all of a sudden, and that was just one possible gig for us. I don’t think we felt, “This is now who we are,” or anything like that.

Your new album, Join Us, seems like it’s centered around a new way to reach out to fans through the Internet. Was it conceived in that way — through the Instant Fan Club and the fact that it’s called “Join Us?”

TMBG's latest album, Join Us (2011)

No, that came later. We came up with the idea after all the songs were written.

Whose idea was it to do the Instant Fan Club?

It was Flansburgh’s idea. John was thinking we needed to do something to supercharge the front row, if you know what I mean.

Has the Instant Fan Club been successful for you?

Yes. Yes it has. In the most base possible way.

Let’s step back and take a long view for a second: if you had to summarize the impact of the computer as an invention on the music industry, what would it be?

Well, I think it’s like a lot of other technologies. It’s not different in some fundamental way from the advent of the long-playing record, for example, or something like that. It’s this format that drives an aesthetic. It makes people listen to music a certain way. It does have a big effect, but it’s kind of limited to that.

“[The computer] is not different in some fundamental way from the advent of the long-playing record”

–John Linnell

I don’t know if it affects the appeal of the music. For example, the long-playing record made people start thinking in terms of albums, which was a new idea. You’d put out a collection of 12 songs and they were grouped together and people thought of them as one group related to one another.

And of course now, with MP3s being sold the way they are, that idea has been kind of demolished, because people can buy individual songs and there’s really not much compulsion to buy an entire album. There’s a little bit of an impetus because you save money buying a whole album over buying that many individual songs. But the pressure is not that great, and I think most people feel like they just want to hear certain songs.

I’d love to know the statistics, but my sense is that way more people buy individual songs than buy albums.

A lot of people just make mix CDs or playlists now and don’t want to listen to 60 minutes of one artist.

And they’ve got a point, which is that a lot of artists put out crappy album material and they have one really good single. That was true when there were only albums. There are a lot of bands that you don’t really want to listen to a whole album side of.



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4 Comments For This Post

  1. ccsuwxman Says:

    I never heard of these guys until my granddaughter started watching the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Between "The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" and "Hot Dog" I realized that this was a band with some serious talent. And not just for kids.

  2. KarlHungus Says:

    I've been listening to TMBG since their title album in '86 (I was in 9th grade!). I think my favorite is Apollo 18 though…(no, maybe Lincoln). They two Johns always have interesting things to say and new areas to explore. I hope they continue their collaboration for many years to come…

  3. @tealwren Says:

    Awesome article – Love to hear about my favorite band!

  4. Nefarious Wheel Says:

    They Might Be Giants changed my life. Ever since I got a prosthetic forehead for my real head, people have been sending their telephone calls to me. Thank you!