Much of my life has been driven by an unstoppable desire to see what I could get away with. When I was seventeen, and editor of my high-school literary magazine, I decided to see if I could get an interview with They Might Be Giants.
At the time, TMBG were not yet the creators of the theme songs for major TV shows, not yet the creators of great songs about science for little kids; they were a quirky duo from Boston who had only really managed to get a few songs — Ana Ng, Birdhouse In Your Soul — into any kind of rotation. Their staples were tape loops, drum machines, and an accordion. But they were my favorite band, the absolute pinnacle of musical achievement, in my view, the creators of the songs that held my romances and memories in their notes, bearing them for me so I didn’t have to carry them myself — the way songs do, for teenagers. So in that instinctive, fumbling teenage way, I was moved to drastic measures to get close to them.
I had never interviewed anyone before. Ever.
But I was a brash kid, unhindered by the kind of terror that should reasonably come with trying to approach the most important-feeling far-off people and doing something you had no practice whatsoever doing. So I wrote a letter (paper; this was 1994) to Elektra Records, TMBG’s label, asking for an interview. I told them our high-school literary magazine was international. (What? We had an alumn in Scotland, and I planned to send her a copy. International.) And to my surprise, they bought it. A press packet with a CD of John Henry, their latest album, arrived in the mail, along with tickets to an upcoming concert in the LA area. I was scheduled to interview John Linnell before the concert. That interview follows, along with some reflections.
This interview was originally published under the title “Interview With An Accordion Player” in the literary magazine Polygraph. (The original introduction has been cut out. Tooo too too embarassing.)
Linnell: So this is a paper, right?
Gillian: It’s a literary magazine, actually.
L: Right, ok.
G: We’re here with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, and we have many many questions to ask… Firstly, as can be heard from the new album (John Henry), you’ve got a different sound now. as you have more pieces in your band. Have you wanted to go this way for a while?
G: It just happened out of nowhere?
L: Well. yeah. that’s pretty accurate. We really didn’t plan it out. We kind of backed into it. For several years we were — I mean, for pretty much the whole history of the band, when it was just the duo, John (Flansburgh) and I would be nagged by people about getting a bunch of other musicians —
G: So was it the nagging, or did you finally decide it was time to do that?
L: Well, again, we really didn’t decide; we just kind of ended up with this group. It didn’t seem like a particularly auspicious moment… we were touring two years ago to support Apollo 18, the last record, and we thought we’d add an extra musician to the live show, and then we talked to this guy, Kurt Hoffman, about doing that, and then we thought maybe we’d add a percussionist as well, and once we’d gotten to that stage… it sort of seemed like a tape was superﬂuous, so we thought we’d get rid of the tape, and even then we were still just thinking about the live show, we weren’t thinking that the next album was going to be the band.
G: Cool. So is this the sound for the future of They Might Be Giants? Are you going to keep going on this track?
L: I don’t know… l think we’ve figured out this year that we can change what we do pretty drastically and it’s possible to make it still be our own thing. For the nine years that we were a duo we thought it was being specifically that… recording projects, where we over-dubbed everything ourselves and then used the background tapes as the band in the live show. So now that we’ve done something really different which was a big challenge for us I think we’re ready to continue to try new things because we dug being challenged like that.
G: So now we’ve seen where you’re going… where are you coming from? Where did you meet? Where did you start out?
L: Well. John and I went to high school together outside of Boston. We were part of a little circle of people that had certain things in common. We weren’t really doing music, though. John didn’t play any instruments.
G: You picked up the accordion later, I take it.
G: What’s happened to the accordion, anyway? Is that coming back? I noticed that it didn’t show up so much on the last album.
L: Yeah, there’s a couple of songs with the accordion… l’m still using it, but I’ve taken over the keyboard stuff from the guy who used to play keyboards in the band, who’s quit, and so instead of hiring another horn player who could double on keyboards I just decided to play those parts myself.
G: Why’d you pick up the accordion?
L: Well, at the time it seemed like a really perfect instrument for what we were doing… I guess we wanted to do a live show outdoors so we came up with —
G: You needed something loud?
L: Yeah… well, we just didn’t have any electronic keyboards you could bring to a remote place with no AC, so the accordion was kind of the thing.
G: They’re good that way…. Who were your inﬂuences? What musically inﬂuenced you… and I noticed there’s a bunch of literary references in a lot of your songs. like the phrase “finale of seem” in “Pencil Rain”; I was ﬂipping through my poetry book and found that in a Wallace Stevens poem (It’s in the Norton Anthology; everybody read it!). And then Howl on the last album… Are there any reasons why you chose those two particular writers?
L: Well, the Wallace Stevens poem is something I read as a kid and just really liked it. I don’t really know too much other Wallace Stevens poetry, but that for some reason stuck with me, so that line ended up in the song; and then the Alan Ginsberg line is one of the most famous lines in poetry, so it’s not a particularly — in a way it’s a very cheap kind of borrowing. But I’m into reading. I’d say there’s certain writers that I really liked enough to actually say that, you know, they probably affected what I do. I was really into Donald Barthelme when I was a student. I thought he was really great. I mean I think he’s still good. but I probably am not as in awe of his writing as I used to be. He’s really funny… and interesting…
G: Some questions about the lyrics. Your lyrics are awful — are awfully — ack — are often really encoded and cryptic, and I know a lot of people say when you write a song you should… what is it, show… how do they say that, Eric, I don’t know… (becoming flustered and drooling) Help!
Eric: Say words, Daphne.
L: I think I know what you mean. You should be up front, and —
G: Well, some people say you shouldn’t be up front, you shouldn’t tell a story, you should just — you know, show, not tell, is the way people say it.
L: That’s true. But I’d say that we do… I’d say that we do try not to keep anything hidden in the songs… and if there’s anything that seems elliptical or something it’s not that there’s some other part that‘s a secret. In other words, you get everything in the song. you get the whole story. and there aren’t any hidden messages.
G: To what extent, then, are your songs nonsensical?
L: They’re not. I mean, in a way I think the idea of nonsense is… kind of a misnomer, because you always make sense out of things, even if they’re not obvious. If it’s completely nonsensical I think there’s no way to distinguish a bad song from a good song, and we’re really making an effort to write good songs. So I‘d say there’s a lot of meaning in what we write, and it’s not always obvious what the song’s about: but that’s because it’s not an obvious song. It’s not that there’s something hidden.
G: Do you write a lot on your personal life? For instance, “They’ll Need a Crane (on Lincoln) could have come out till somebody’s life: it’s just your standard love song, or unrequited-love-song…
L: Well, you know, there’s an extent to which everything comes out of your personal experience, but we don’t write songs… directly about our own experiences. We really haven’t written any songs yet that are strictly autobiographical. There’s cases where it’s pretty obvious that the song is a projected idea, you know, what it would be like if one were in a situation—
G: If one were a snail, for instance.
L: I think one thing really to bear in mind about our songs, and this is I’m sure true of a lot of other people’s songs. is that when we say the word ‘‘I”, that it’s… just like a work of fiction, it’s exactly —
G: It’s a voice.
L: Yeah. It’s not us on stage saying that, because to us there’s a real distinction between somebody talking… for us, the songs are these real distinct objects that we’re making up… we’re not using them as a way to express our feelings (Editor’s note — as I type this, the late Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is playing on the radio—oh. the irony…) That’s not really what it’s about for us.
G: So when your songs are sometimes blithely morbid. like “human skull/ on the ground/ turn around”, it’s not like “Oh, I’m going to merrily go off and shoot myself,” or anything like that. Why happy songs about death? That’s something I’ve wanted to know for quite some time.
G: is it just for the sheer fun of it?
L: We’re sort of working off both ends, you know… there’s issues which are worth talking about because they’re interesting, but they’re so unpleasant they’d be indigestible if they aren’t presented in a kind of a light-hearted way. And the other thing is that when you write music that has this kind of upbeat quality… there’s this impulse that both John and l have to, like, mess it up in some way to make it more interesting.
G: You said there’s some issues worth writing about — do you usually go from issues to lyrics or does a line of lyrics hit you and you think, “Gee, I wish I could work that into a song?” — lyrics to idea or idea to lyrics?
L: That’s an interesting question. I think John and l are pretty different in the way that we get to the songs, even though our songs have a lot in common. I tend to write the music first and the lyrics have to fit in a sort of a metric shape, so there’s a way that the sound of the words is dictated by the way the melody works, for me… l think for John it’s more about… having an idea and wanting to turn it into a song. So I think… we have slightly different tendencies, as far as ideas are concerned… But we’ve both written words first and written the music first: we both try and mix it up.
G: How do you see yourselves fitting into pop culture and into America as a whole? (awkward silence)… l know it’s, like, the million dollar question, it’s a nasty question to ask —
L: Yeah. I think we don’t bother to do that. It’s unnecessary for us… It’s not really up to us; I don’t feel like I should say, “Yes, we are part of the culture.” Part of what interests us about doing this is that we are part of a greater cultural dialogue… but l don’t think we worry about what specific way we fit in, because we’re not really trying to fit in; we’re doing our thing.
G: Some bands’ songs tend to sound all the same, but yours lend to be varied, like you’ll have a polka, and then you’ll have a hard-core thrash kind of song — is that just for the sheer fun of it?
I.: We just do what we like. We’re attracted to a lot of different kinds of music, and we try and… I think we probably fail to pull off a lot of stuff, but we definitely are willing to blunder into almost anything.
G: How do you see yourselves as beyond ordinary?
(A few moments of confusion}
L: I don’t understand—
G: Why did I ask that?
E: Do you see yourselves as abnormal? Do you try to be abnormal… as far as not fitting into culture —
L: One thing I could suggest is that we’re trying to do something different, and interesting, and if it turned out that what we’re doing is identical to what was out there, there would be an impetus for us to do something else; but we’re not really into the idea of being weird… we don’t seem very weird to ourselves, you know? We spend all our time with ourselves.
L: People who are self-styled weirdos — it must get old, you know, because you can’t be that weirded out by yourself… you have to accept yourself as a possible kind of person, eventually, so it can’t really be about being weird.
G: I know you’ve toured Japan and Europe — do you see yourselves treated any differently there by audiences?
L: Absolutely, yeah. There’s a big language barrier, for one thing, in a lot of those countries; not so much in Germany or Holland, but definitely in Japan… I think in Japan in particular people really depend on the music to keep their interest. We played a show in Tokyo where we had the impression that everybody understood exactly… what we were saying because for one thing they were lip-synching along to all the songs, and for another, they seemed to be responding when we’d say stuff on stage, like we’d say something kind of funny and they’d laugh, or we’d say something pseudo-rock-guy and they’d cheer, or whatever, and then finally John instructed the crowd to raise their lists in the air and scream. “Love!” or something like that, and nobody did; or there was one person who did, and it was an American in this crowd of about six hundred people. It was like the ugly truth was unveiled.
G: I know you collect (products with) strangely phrased American things (on them) that come out of Japan. Why do you think that culture takes our culture and eats it up and spits it out as something else?
L: I dunno. It’s really peculiar. But I think that one thing that’s going on is that they’re not really that interested in the specific meaning —
G: Mostly just because it‘s American.
L: Yeah. they like it for a style reason, and not because of the meaning. And there’s a similar thing that goes on here, where you see people wearing shirts with Chinese or Russian on it, and they don‘t really give a fuck what it says.
G: Gosh. I hadn’t thought about that…. In closing… What would you recommend for tiny schoolchildren and growing bands?
L: Those are two different questions.
G: Tiny schoolchildren in growing bands.
L: OK, well: I think everybody has to make their own way, and that’s one of the difficulties in doing any kind of creative work. There’s ultimately no real guide for you. You have to figure out what your own trip is. But l think it is important to remember — this is something that John and I kind of started out with, in this band — is that we figured out, luckily for us… that we were not really good at figuring out what people wanted, that we really didn’t have the ability to second guess our audience, and so we had to decide what we liked ourselves, and not try and come up with something we thought would be successful, and I’m really glad that we got to that so early on, because it saved us a lot of grief later on. I know personally people in bands who have tried to come up with a successful formula for a rock band, and it’s a really rotten, crappy road to go down, because even if it works, which God knows how often — probably most of the time it doesn’t — you end up doing something that’s not really what you’re closest to, and so you’re this flaming success at doing something you don’t really care about. So obviously that’s not what you want to end up doing. I guess in other words it’s best to think beyond the point where (you’re making a record and making money)… to what happens afterwards. That’s my advice for these kids.
G: Thank you very much.
In my memory, the interview was painfully awkward. I nervously-casually sat up on a table, wearing my red dress with the snails on it; Linnell sat lower than me, on a folding chair. Seeing through a haze of adrenaline, I was positive I was either intimidating or boring him. In the interview below, you can see the parts where I panicked — I was new to transcribing interviews, too, so I was inclined to write down every single word I recorded, down to the ums and uhs. Having done journalism and anthropology in the years since, it’s clear how novice I was as an interviewer. I hadn’t learned to ask open-ended questions. I cut him off. There are a few questions I asked which I can’t imagine a person answering, reasonably.
In a way, the bumbling interviewing is interesting to watch. The questions, both mine and my ex-boyfriend Eric’s, are a record of suburban teenage subjectivity. I can’t get around my own preconceptions when asking about Japan or the meaning(lessness) of the lyrics, or the twee phrasing (“tiny schoolchildren and growing bands”) we were fond of in high school. It’s worth noting that I pressed on Linnell to confirm that morbid themes didn’t constitute an encouragement for fans to kill themselves — I think most teens are frustrated with adult demonization of their music, and that was what I was concerned with, there. We were, at that time, months away from the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and the Columbine shootings.
Though we managed to keep our neediness under wraps, I think our questions were all, ultimately, “Are you like us? Were you like us?” Eric and I viewed ourselves as outcasts in our school, and I think we were looking for signs pointing us towards the comfort of kindred spirits. Did we really get TMBG’s lyrics? Did Linnell read what we read, and was that ok? Were we going to be musicians, if we kept doing what we were doing?
Linnell served as a pretty good guide out of the maze of our subjectivity. When I asked the preposterous question “How do you see yourselves as beyond ordinary?”, and Eric tried to fix that damage by asking “Do you try to be abnormal… as far as not fitting into culture?” Linnell said something that I wish we could have heard with clearer ears — something that probably most high schoolers need to hear: “You have to accept yourself as a possible kind of person, eventually.”
In retrospect, the interview isn’t as embarassing as I remember. I’m kind of touched, actually, and I do think I got some good quotes about the band’s creative process.
After the interview, we were shepherded out through the basement of the venue, where John Flansburgh was eating dinner along with Frank Black, who was their opening act that night. I was profoundly disappointed we didn’t get to meet Flansburgh. As we left, I heard Linnell say “Hey, Jill!” and I turned around, thinking he meant me. But he was speaking to a redheaded woman with an accordion.
We ran into that woman later, out front of the theater. “Do you know John personally?” I asked, star-struck. I think she said she had gigged with him. We got talking about accordions and other music, and she said we should come out and see her band. “It’s called The Negro Problem,” she told us. Being trained as a liberal child, my gut reaction was “I’m not supposed to see things like that, that’s a bad word.” She noticed my reticence. “You’ll see why,” she said, with a smirk.
Around that time, a man with long, dark, curly hair passed on his way into the theater. I momentarily mistook him for a friend from Virginia, until he turned, and I realized it was Weird Al. Al apparently really likes They Might Be Giants, so he was up in one of the front rows, mobbed by the significant overlap of fans between him and TMBG.
I had brought with us an earlier issue of Polygraph where a previous editor had interviewed Weird Al, thinking of it like a token or sigil — I still couldn’t believe I was being allowed to interview TMBG, so I brought the Weird Al issue to prove that we were legit, that we had interviewed celebrities before. It turned out not to be necessary. But Eric and I took it over to ask Al to sign it, naturally.
“This is great,” Al said, leafing through the pages. “I never saw this. Could you send me a copy?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s your agent’s address?”
He wrote down what I am still pretty sure was his home address. (Weird Al is a love, and I wonder if he has any sense of self-preservation in the face of his ravening weirdo fans.)
So shortly thereafter I sent Al a copy of his issue, along with a cut-and-paste ransom-note-style letter of the sort I used to make back in high school. I asked politely if he could refer me to an accordion teacher, as they were hard to find in LA, and included my contact details.
That January, my mom called from the kitchen — “Gillie? Gillie, Weird Al is on the phone.”
And that was how I came to be a student of Dave Caballero, a genial dude profoundly reminiscent of a used-car salesman, who was teaching accordion in Atwater, CA.
They Might Be Giants continued on in a vein that involved more musicians than their original duo, including an incredible horn section. They created the theme songs for Malcolm In The Middle and The Daily Show, and have enjoyed a renaissance as darlings of the burgeoning American nerd culture.
The Negro Problem’s titular frontman, Stew, went on to create the Tony-winning musical Passing Strange, and contribute at least one song to Spongebob Squarepants. And it turns out his band’s name is totally ok. The band’s former accordionist, Jill Meschke, appears to have gone on to contribute to an album titled Mayo Grout’s Known Universe.
Weird Al keeps on keepin’ on.
Eric went on to become a professor and producer of audio engineering. I don’t know if he still identifies as abnormal.
Me, I left the suburbs for New York City in 1999, and can’t go back. I interview people for a living, but not as a journalist. I don’t interview musicians much anymore. Somehow I did have a similarly melt-through-the-floor-in-awe-and-terror experience interviewing Janelle Monae for io9 in 2010. And I recently interviewed Portia Sabin, the president of the punk label Kill Rock Stars, about the economics of the music industry. Keep an eye on my YouTube channel; that interview will be out in a few months.
Heartfelt thanks to Christine and Ryan for coming to town and spurring me to finally post this.