An Interview With John Linnell - Interviews - Soundblab

An Interview With John Linnell

by paul_guyet Rating: Release Date:

They Might Be Giants’ 17th album, Glean, is out now. Often, you guys have paired cheerful music with bummer lyrics, but, with the song 'End of the Rope', there’s so much desperation and rawness both lyrically and musically, can you address that?

I think, in general, we follow a song where it seems to be taking us when we’re writing, and there’s not really a master plan about how much of a conflict there’ll be between the music and the lyrics. It’s a very intuitive process.

For me, I usually write music first, and then try and imagine what would be an interesting lyric. I would say often I’m trying to come up with a lyric that isn’t the most obvious thing suggested by the mood of the music, often the two are kind of in contrast to one another.

'End of the Rope' is a little closer to a pastiche, a slow ballad that’s a desperate cri du coeur. I love the Perry Mason theme, I particularly love the piano…There’s certain things I’m always trying to rip off and I suppose that’s one of them.

Well, this has all been a ruse, I represent the lawyers for Perry Mason’s estate, you’ve been served.

Yes! Guilty, guilty! My brother, Robin Thicke, and I are hanging our heads…

…Sharing a cell… Speaking of sharing cells… Who’s in music jail? Why are they there? What have they done?

That’s Flansburgh’s song… The song is not about punishment, so much as to my sense, and John really should speak for himself about it…

The expression 'music jail' is something that’s been floating around, I think John wanted to develop the idea. It’s not jail in the sense of 'you’ve committed a crime', it’s more like purgatory, it’s like a state you find yourself in, you’re suspended in music jail, not for any good reason.

Going off of that, the whole 'people asking you annoying questions about the meaning of your music', do you guys ever do that with each other?

We do discuss things, usually a little ways into the process, not right off the bat. For example, with 'Underwater Woman', it seemed like this potentially objectifying song, like it could be read the wrong way, like If you have a lyric about a woman that’s not putting women in the best light, objectifying them or making the woman a caricature, and what I wanted to do was to write a song about loneliness and the character happened to be a woman. I was trying to be sensitive! (laughs).

This is something I discussed with Flansburgh… There was a line that was originally “Underwater girl/ underwater lady”, and he said “If you change ‘girl’ to ‘woman’, that’s already a step in the right direction”.

I think the isolation comes through very clearly.

It’s supposed to be sad. And the best thing about it is the video that Mark Marek produced for us. I always feel like the videos so often save the day, for me, with regards to what the song is trying to get across. The video that he made has a very literal interpretation of the lyrics, and it’s such a nice treatment of it, everybody was just amazed.

Going back to the new album, Glean is comprised of, give or take, the first batch of tracks from the newly resurrected Dial-a-Song service. Which is one track per week, every week for the year; 52 brand new recordings. This decision is lunacy, how did that come about?

Well, we realized that we could pull it off last year at some point. We spent most of 2014 writing and we did the math and thought that we could, at the very least, do a shitty job of putting out 52 songs, and if we just start from there we could improve the quality, incrementally, just by working harder. A lot of Glean was written and recorded last year, simultaneously with the next project, the children's album, so, by the beginning of 2015, we’d had enough material to get through about two thirds of the year, at least, and maybe even the whole year, but we want to try and improve the quality, so we’ve continued coming up with new songs and we’re going to be recording again in June, so we’ll have a chance to get some more top shelf material in there before the whole thing is over.

So there’s no real panic that’s going to kick in…

Oh, there’s panic. (laughs) We could coast, at this point, but we’d like to make it as good as possible.

One of the tracks up on Dial-a-Song recently is called 'Thinking Machine'. Is that from the upcoming kids’ album?

My proposal was that that was a kids song and I think Flans was wondering if it was really appropriate. We’ve got a lot of kids songs, but we haven’t picked the ones that are going to go on the record yet. What do you think? Is 'Thinking Machine' an appropriate song for kids?

If you’re going with the Disney prescription, that the songs need to be a little educational, maybe not, but if the album is more like No!, then absolutely. I still think 'Violin' is utterly terrifying…

Oh yeah, that’s a traumatic song. 

But the kids don’t understand that, they just think it’s funny.

My strong inclination is to make No! part two. That’s where I’ve been operating from and I think John probably feels the same way. We’re definitely not making a Disney record. I think that when it comes down to it, we’ll be choosing the songs based, partly, on how well they compliment each other.

If 'Thinking Machine' is the vibe of the new kids album, that’s fantastic. A follow up to No! would be great.

All right, good. We have your vote of confidence.

You’re on tour in the US now through May, any UK tour plans?

We have every intention of going to Britain in the fall, but we haven’t firmed up the dates yet. The way it’s looking, we’re probably going to be hitting at least London and maybe some other shows in October and November.

One final question: All these years later, what would you say to

, the woman who left the, now iconic, rambling message on your original Dial-a-Song phone machine?

I don’t know… She’s so self motivated… The great thing about Gloria is that she wasn’t doing that for any other reason than curiosity. I don’t have any special message for Gloria, but I love Gloria. I think she’s, in a way, the ultimate explorer that we want.

We want that impulse to continue; for people to discover us who have no reason to, not because their friends are telling them they should listen to us, or for any other reason but pure curiosity. That’s the best thing about the Gloria phone call.

For people to just stumble upon it…

Yeah, and say “What the hell is this?” and not be put off.


Glean is available now through Amazon, iTunes and the band’s website. For brand new They Might Be Giants music every week, head over to the official Dial-a-Song page.

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