As they await their Celtic Connections debut, kindergarten veterans They Might Be Giants admit they’re still wary of scaring the little ones
JOHN Linnell, the singing/accordian-playing half of Brooklyn pop duo They Might Be Giants, is married to an expat Scot. But ahead of his band’s debut appearance at Celtic Connections he is pondering what, other than his spousal links, that connection might be.
Could it be his wife’s love of Scottish fiddle music? Or the “very flattering” fact that Glasgow North MP Patrick Grady quoted They Might Be Giants’ lyrics last year in parliament?
“I’m not extremely outspoken about politics, but I’m very optimistic about where Scotland has been heading,” says Linnell, before concluding that there is room under Celtic Connections’ very wide umbrella for a veteran American indie band with a quick wit and an infernally catchy, idiosyncratic sound.
They Might Be Giants, comprising Linnell and fellow singer/guitarist John Flansburgh, remain best known for their bouncy, boisterous hits Birdhouse In Your Soul and Malcolm In The Middle theme Boss Of Me, but can boast an extensive catalogue encompassing film, TV and advert soundtrack work as well as multiple albums for all ages.
The pair are set to perform two concerts at their debut festival fling. There is nothing especially unusual in that – many Celtic Connections regulars seem to pop up daily in different incarnations – but They Might Be Giants’ matinee performance is a family show at which they will perform music for the (very) young people of today.
The children’s concert is already a popular component of the Cambridge Folk Festival, with which Celtic Connections has a close relationship, and is often as entertaining for what goes on in the uninhibited audience as for what is being played on stage. They Might Be Giants have been performing such concerts for more than a decade now and Linnell is well aware of the demands of dealing with a truly spontaneous audience.
“I recall one show where John Flansburgh said something in alarm about an unattended child who was reaching up for a top-heavy speaker and unfortunately the kid burst into tears and the parent was nowhere to be found,” says Linnell. “We’re not used to making the audience cry.There’s something very natural and easy for us about doing a show for grown-ups because there’s a set of rituals connected to it that every adult understands and that we take for granted – you know, applauding, facing the stage, being respectful. Kids are not aware of these conventions so that makes it challenging sometimes but also rewarding.”
They Might Be Giants’ complementary careers as children’s entertainers began in 2002 when they were approached by independent label Rounder Records to put out an album “for the entire family”. Linnell was new to parenthood at the time and alert to the demands of making music that could be played repeatedly by his offspring while preserving his own sanity.
“We took a page from Dr Seuss, because as I understand it he was just trying to please himself,” says Linnell. “He had no idea what anybody else, including children, were actually interested in, but he knew what he liked and that turned out to be a very successful formula for his incredibly wonderful children’s books which adults like as well. I wouldn’t say we’re up to that quality but I admire his motivation.”
What started out as “an amusing sidebar” actually sold more than their main album release of the time. Walt Disney Records came calling and the duo were given an unusually free rein to produce the “supposedly educational” Sesame Street-like CDs and DVDs Here Come The ABCs, Here Come The 123s and Here Comes Science. “We secretly felt that they were entertainment disguised as education,” says Linnell. “We can reveal now that kids are entitled to entertainment as much as adults.”
TMBG’s album Why? is their latest kids’ collection, featuring a brace of bite-sized, two-minute gems such as I Made A Mess (“it’s a catastrophe from ceiling to floor”), Definition Of Good (eg, “ping-pong balls as eyes”, “president in a wig”) and the jolly, dystopian Then The Kids Took Over, packed with all the humour, imagination, eccentricity, infectious melody and gleeful anarchy which you will also find in their albums for adults, with perhaps just a few more lyrics about animals than they might otherwise have penned, but also references to Captain Beefheart who, for the benefit of any children who may be reading, is not a cartoon character.
“It’s possible to think you’re writing a kids’ song and have it turn into an adult song and vice versa,” says Linnell of the crossover elements in their music. “We really try to do our best work whoever we are writing for and not downgrade it in any way so we feel like it could all be one audience, it just happens that we divide it into these two categories.”
Their work with children and animal lyrics is just one successful strand in a ceaselessly inventive career which began in Brooklyn in the early 80s when the two Johns moved into the same apartment block, resumed their high school songwriting partnership, played their first gig at a Sandinista rally in Central Park and introduced the concept of Dial-a-Song, allowing fans, interested parties or anyone skiving at their job to listen to a demo’d version of a song for the cost of a New York phone call – jokingly advertised as “free when you call from work”. The duo would then polish up the tracks which got the best response.
“It was a great way to reach out to people who were shut in, because you didn’t have to go to the record store,” says Linnell. “It was a very simple, direct thing to pick up a phone and listen to a song at that time. It no longer seems like this fringe thing that people receive music over a wire into their home – now that’s how people listen to music, they download it.”
It’s not the only time that TMBG have found themselves ahead of the technological curve. Over the years, the duo have acquired a reputation as online innovators, releasing one of the first MP3-only albums in the late 90s, arriving early to the podcast party and selling their wares directly to fans through their own online merchandise store.
“We’re still licking our wounds from high school, where we were considered geeks,” says Linnell, “so we are maybe protesting a little too hard against it, but we’re not the most technical people on the planet. We are songwriters and experimenters, we like messing around. We wanted to try different ways of making music and having music heard, so that was really the focus, not so much the technology behind it.”
Last year, they revived Dial-a-Song in a more hi-spec form, releasing a finished new song every week online which, for those looking for that retro buzz, was also available to hear at the end of a phone line. Some of these were released as Glean, a grown-ups’ collection, in mid-2015, some made it on to Why?, and others are set to feature on forthcoming album Phone Power, to be released anon. Following that flurry of recording activity, the Johns will tour through the spring, after which Linnell predicts, “We’ll be exhausted and laying on our backs on the floor with a wet washcloth over our foreheads.”
• They Might Be Giants play two shows at ABC, Glasgow on 31 January as part of Celtic Connections, www.celticconnections.com