In the beginning (well, in the ’80s), long before “indie rock” or “alternative” became mainstream genres, earnest young bands like R.E.M. and the Minutemen prowled the underground with serious messages and music to match. Fortunately, They Might Be Giants arrived to introduce some experimental levity to the era, building a legacy of whimsy that’s still echoed in bands such as the Flaming Lips and Weezer.
Singer/multi-instrumentalist John Linnell and singer/rhythm guitarist John Flansburgh formed TMBG nearly 30 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., writing catchy, oddball songs and toting along even stranger stage props, including accordions, giant fezes and enormous papier-mâché heads.
“We had no idea where this was headed,” says Linnell, from his basement workshop in Brooklyn. “When we started this, I don’t think we even knew who it was for — we just thought it was for us. We just made records that we would want to buy. That turned out to be a very good move, because I think if we’d been calculating, we would have wound up not doing it for so long.”
The band has had some unlikely hits over the years. Their cover of the 1950s joke-tune “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (from their second record, 1990’s “Flood”) takes exactly one bar to become lodged in your head all day. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (also from “Flood”) remains one of the best kooky love songs of all time. And they finally won their first Grammy, for 2002’s “Boss of Me,” the theme song for the TV series “Malcolm in the Middle.”
But TMBG are perhaps more notorious for their ambitious songwriting projects. In the early ’80s, the group launched Dial-a-Song, a project in which they distributed new material over an answering machine, publishing the phone number in publications including the Village Voice. While touring for their 2004 album “The Spine,” they wrote a new song for each venue they played and recorded it during soundcheck, ultimately releasing the concept album “Venue Songs.”
Today, TMBG is bringing its music to a new crop of fans, releasing the well-received “Join Us” last July. They’re also winning some much younger ones with a slate of nuanced children’s albums, including 2005’s “Here Come the ABCs” and 2009’s “Here Comes Science.”
With the band’s original fans now having children of their own, TMBG is a nice bridge between generations. “We’re the poster band for picking up younger audience members,” says Linnell. “Not just because of the kids’ music, but because for some reason we continue to attract teenagers and college-age people. We end up with a really broad range of ages in our crowd. It’s been very lucky for us. I think we would have a much smaller audience if we were just trying to hold onto our original crowd.”
That’s the secret to the band’s longevity: Their music appeals to the kid in every adult and the adult in every kid.
5 Essential TMBG Songs
“Ana Ng” (“Lincoln,” 1988)
This tune’s infectious “Everything sticks like a broken record” refrain is immediately recognizable, but the song’s meaning — is it a love song to someone they’ve never met? — remains a bit of a puzzle.
“Birdhouse in Your Soul” (“Flood,” 1990)
This was the group’s biggest radio hit, and one of its most serious songs, hinting at big ideas about humanity and the nature of God.
“The Statue Got Me High” (“Apollo 18,” 1992)
No one has written a more colorful song about being zapped by laser beams from an animated statue: “My coat contained a furnace where there used to be a guy.”
“Bed Bed Bed” (“No!,” 2002)
This ode to footy pajamas and night-lights was made into a 2003 children’s book with Marcel Dzama illustrations.
“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” (“Join Us,” 2011)
This dark-yet-catchy album standout imagines the world through the eyes of a bitter man shaking his fist at everyone, even astronauts. S.D.