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

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

Few musical acts have the power to excite tech enthusiasts like They Might Be Giants. The band’s attention to detail, appreciation for humor, and perennial refusal to follow the status quo strongly resonate with nerd-folk (think: engineers, programmers) who rely on minutiae and unconventional thinking to do their jobs.

Their unique approach has earned the band two Grammy awards (and three nominations) in the last 10 years for work with Malcolm in the Middle and a string of well-received children’s albums. Of course, with 15 studio albums under their belt, they aren’t exclusively an act for kids. While perhaps best known in the adult world for the 1990 album Flood, it’s impossible to choose a single TMBG record that represents such a large and diverse body of work.

At the core of TMBG is a 29-year partnership between two good friends: John Linnell, 52, and John Flansburgh, 51, who function like two halves of the same brain. Flansburgh delivers culturally-reflective philosophical works in broad strokes, while Linnell often sings through the character of an insecure, paranoid introvert that explores subjects in elaborate detail.

TMBG are known for their eager adoption of technology in creating and marketing their music. The group first relied on an electronic drum machine before adopting a full live band, then adopted computer sequencing in production work. In the mid-1990s, TMBG quickly set up a strong presence on the nascent Web, and they crowned that era by releasing the first full-length MP3-only album in 1999. To this day, they continue their high-tech track record by embracing online distribution, email newsletters, and podcasting as a way to reach out to fans in the post-label era.

As a student of computer and video game history, I often interview people who helped to make the information technology industry what it is today. But I think it’s also important from a historical perspective to explore the impact of technology on the rest of the world. That’s why I asked John Linnell to recall his earliest experiences with such machines and to reflect on how computers have impacted his profession.

In early May of this year, Linnell and I spoke at length over the phone about these subjects while also touching on his fruitful partnership with Flansburgh and how it has ensured the continued success of their band.

High School Hacker, Early Mac User

Benj Edwards: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you first use a computer?

John Linnell: I knew somebody in the early 80s that had a Radio Shack TRS-80. The entire computer was housed in the keyboard, and you plugged the thing into the back of the [monitor]. It was extremely low-res.

Linnell experimented with music software on the TRS-80 Model I (1977), seen here. (Photo: Steven Stengel)

People had written these programs in BASIC where you could type in musical notes, and the program would play this incredibly low-res version of the melody that you typed in. I had a friend that was into tech stuff who had one of those and he let me play with it.

That’s neat that you used music software for the TRS-80.

Yeah, I wish I could tell you more about it. He explained to me that you could type in these really simple numerical symbols for the notes — a stream of note values and time values, separated by spaces or commas. Then you’d play it back, and if it was wrong, you could go in and fix it. But my memory is you probably had to retype the whole thing if you did it wrong. There wasn’t this system of inserting the cursor somewhere. You had to start from the beginning.

Have you ever done any computer programming?

John Linnell, 1977

In high school we had a computer lab — this was in the early 70s. Some friends and I eventually worked our way up to just going in there and goofing around. We learned enough BASIC programming to do these really simple things like write a text game with multiple choices, and you’d weave your way through a story. It was really simple stuff like that.

Was that in Massachusetts?

That’s right. Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass.

They had a mainframe computer with terminals on it?

Yeah, I can’t remember what it was called, but I can describe it. It looked like a refrigerator and it had two spools of probably half-inch magnetic tape on the front, and when you called up your program, it looked like a big tape recorder. The reels would spin around and find the thing that you were looking for and feed it into your terminal.

Linnell used a teletype similar to this ASR-33 to write his first programs.

There were three typewriter terminals in the room, each with a roll of paper that spooled out of it. When you called up the program, it typed out the whole thing. And on one side of the keyboard, there was paper tape that would punch out. You could save your program for yourself by punching it out onto this paper tape — little ASCII holes were punched into the tape, one row per character.

It would take about five minutes to spool out the whole thing, then you’d tear it off, roll it up, put a rubber band around it, and stick it in your pocket.

If you went back to that time and told yourself, “In thirty years, we’re going to be distributing all of our music through this device,” what would you think?

“We’d joke about how you’d eventually carry your record collection in your pocket.”

–John Linnell

Well, I think everybody was aware that the technology was advancing all of the time. So I don’t think it would have seemed that preposterous, actually. At the time, we talked about how everything was getting miniaturized, and we used to joke about how you’d — we didn’t really know what it was going to be — but we’d joke about how you’d eventually carry your record collection in your pocket. Just because everything seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.

When did you buy your first computer?

John Linnell’s first PC, the Macintosh Plus (1986). (Photo: Robert Holmgren)

Around the time we were making our second album, Lincoln, I bought a used Mac Plus. It probably had about one meg of memory. I had that little TV set-shaped thing on my desk for a number of years. We used that and some really simple keyboards for sequencing.

I should talk about the first thing that Flansburgh and I did when we got involved in using computers in our music. Our producer, Bill Krauss, had the first generation of Macintosh, the 1984 Mac. He was very on top of all that stuff, and in a way, he kind of forced us. He was like, “You guys gotta learn this. This is going to be essential, especially for sequencing drums,” which is what we had been doing using drum machines. He was like, “You should put all your drums on the computer and you’ll have a much easier time doing it.” That was the sell that Bill was giving us.

He had the very first edition of a program called Performer, which at that time was just a MIDI program. That was probably 1988, because we started typing the drum programs into Performer right before we made Lincoln. Drum sequencing on the Macintosh was going to be the big change between the first and the second albums.

So we learned how to use the Mac by doing sequencing with our producer, Bill Krauss, who had taught us. Then we started sequencing keyboards as well. We were slowly getting our feet wet.

And you had some kind of MIDI box that interfaced between the Macintosh and your other equipment?

Yeah, we had one made by Opcode: a little silver box the size of a pack of cigarettes. You plugged that into the computer on one end and into the keyboard on the other end.

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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!