[INTERVIEW] John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

By design – or, at the very least, by the nature of the beast itself – They Might Be Giants were never meant to last as long as they have. They have outlasted a thousand bands that were cooler, more accessible and with bigger hit singles – not only that, they’ve managed to outperform and sell out rooms bigger than them, too. Over 35 years into their career, and the Johns – Linnell (with the accordion) and Flansburgh (with the guitar) – are just as in demand now as they were in their late-80s/early-90s heyday. They’ve got the material to back it up, too. Just last year, the band put out three albums – I Like Fun, My Murdered Remains and The Escape Team. That would have been impressive enough, but factor in these were their 19th, 20th and 21st albums respectively and it’s all the more surreal.

“I don’t know why or how we did it, but it happened,” laughs Linnell. “We have a tonne of new material this time around on tour, so we’re actively promoting it. We would love for people to check out some of it if they’re planning on coming to see us – or maybe even all of it, if you somehow have the patience for that.” Having said that, Linnell and co. aren’t going to be Clockwork Orange-ing anyone with a full hour of new tracks when they arrive in Australia this week for their third Australian visit in six years. They may be prolific – and, indeed, they might be giants – but they’re not stupid.

“I know there are people would hate nothing more than to have us only play that stuff. I know when I go to see bands I love, I definitely want to hear the songs I know and love from their early records. I completely empathise with that mind-set. Part of why these shows are so great is we’re able to try and please everyone – we can play for the people who have been dragged along by their friends, but we can also play the songs for the people in the front row who want to hear the stuff they’ve never seen us play before.”

The current tour the band are on sees them creatively pit two decades of their career against one another in an exhaustive double set – be that the 80s vs. the 2010s, or the 90s vs. the 2000s, or whatever combination of the four they go with on any given night. By setting these boundaries to work within, the band can delve into the archives and pick both the obscurities and the fan favourites. “We have this great advantage nowadays, with online resources that can tell us what we played when we were last in a particular city,” says Linnell.

“Some songs are ones we have to play when we visit certain countries. For Australia, it’s ‘Doctor Worm.’ When we found out it was given a lot of airplay by triple j, and we saw the reaction that it got, we knew we always had to play it every time we came back. Aside from that, we have this luxury of having an extensive back catalogue that we can pick and choose from. We try and dig as deep as we can, as well as covering the most surface-value songs we have. It may seem like a strange thing to say, but we genuinely do want people to like us!”

A lot of the band’s more recent material has not been created with a specific album in mind, but rather for the elaborate and extensive project known as Dial-A-Song. Originally conceived in 1983, it began by literally placing new songs on an answering machine that would play when you dialled the number. “It started out as this proving ground for every demo that we ever made,” says Linnell.

“If it survived that process, then it might make it onto an album and possibly get performed live. I don’t know if we’ve ever really shifted focus to saying that we’re writing specifically with Dial-A-Song in mind, though. I think it’s always been sort of more general – John and I write songs for the band overall, and more often than not that process begins with putting it on Dial-A-Song.” It’s gone through a series of iterations, and in 2018 it’s a lot more elaborate than its humble beginnings. “There’s a number you can still dial, there’s an online version and there’s also the avenue to have the songs downloaded directly,” explains Linnell.

“We also had a period where we were putting out one new song a week through Dial-A-Song, and we had a radio network running. We got stations to promote it by all playing the song of the week simultaneously at the same time.”

Needless to say, the band have a lot to play and a lot to bring over to Australia. It feels somewhat surreal to have the band as semi-regular visits, given that when the band toured as a part of Groovin’ The Moo in 2013 it was their first Australian tour in 12 years. “In the sweep of history, it honestly seemed like we were only away for a brief spell,” says Linnell.

“We came there a bunch throughout the 90s, right from when we released Flood all the way through the decade. We were definitely busy in that period we weren’t there – so much so, I don’t think we even realised it had been that long when we finally got around to coming back. The one key thing we noticed between visits was that Melbourne had gone from being a very humble town to being this massive metropolis – it just exploded, and we had no idea.”

Interview – David James Young

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