Happy They Might Be Giants Week! We’re celebrating the release of the 88th volume in the 33 1/3 series: They Might Be Giants’ Flood. Co-authors S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer here, with the first entry in a week-long residency.
As we gear up for the release of the Flood book, we wanted to share a few nuggets from our chat with the Johns Flansburgh and Linnell of They Might Be Giants. We saved the most intriguing details for the book, but here is a window into the band’s experience playing and recording music before and during the Flood era.
On playing Lower East Side venues like the Darinka in the early and mid eighties:
John Flansburgh: The Darinka really wasn’t a musical place because they couldn’t have things that were that loud. But the fact that we were working with tape for our early shows meant that our volume could be controlled in a way that a band with drums wouldn’t have been. They didn’t really have a PA and there were times when we played there where the audience could talk over us. But that made it a communal experience. Darinka’s was this kind of extreme hothouse; it was a very little room and everyone in the room was really really excited that we were playing.
We weren’t auditioning trying to prove to a bunch of old guys that we were acceptable. We were actually playing for our peers. There are no existing photographs or films of our early shows physic but the physicality and sweatiness of our early shows would probably surprise if not appall people. I mean, there was a lot of jumping up and down and screaming. There was a lot of kind of expulsive craziness to it. The scene was very screamy, but the people were also cerebral.
On signing to Elektra and recording Flood with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley:
John Flansburgh: We weren’t even quite finished promoting [sophomore album] Lincoln when we got to the studio to start recording Flood. We could have probably promoted Lincoln for another year but the truth is we were already really tired from touring. And I think we were looking forward to just being home and not being so completely uncomfortable.
You can’t even look back on our touring in the eighties fondly and go, “Oh, that really was fun,” because it really wasn’t fun. There was never a contingency made to make sure that we would get somewhere in good shape. Our itinerary would be to drive 14 hours to do a live television show. We got to go to England, but then immediately we’d have publicity to do on arrival, and we literally would be falling asleep sitting in the interview chair. People would assume we were heroin addicts from our complete lack of consciousness.
So the beginning of the Flood experience was extremely exciting. We were graduating from the hustle of the DIY thing and working with pleasant, smart people who had their own plan and their own cultural access on our behalf. We felt like we landed in the right exact scene for us. It was the opposite experience that most bands have with record companies where they get some weird idea shoved down their throat and they’re resistant to the whole thing the whole time. Our experience instead was that the producers we hired, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, were already hit-makers, so they had incredible amounts of juice with Elektra. Basically, the people at Elektra were like, “Whatever you want!” Clive and Alan had been producers of the year the year before; they’d sold more records in 1988 than anyone else.
“We were used to playing for really small audiences who had very specific tastes, and now all of a sudden the entire general teen population of Los Angeles is really interested in one of our songs.”
John Linnell: We felt like they weren’t just a generic hit producer team, though. They were doing stuff that we specifically really liked. They had just done Madness, and Clive had been in Deaf School. They were extremely simpatico. They really wanted to know what it was we wanted to do. They knew we wanted to hang on to what we were doing, they didn’t want to make us over but they also had an incredible amount of practical knowledge about how to make powerful sounding recordings, and that was something that we just had not had a lot of experience with. We knew how to be us but we didn’t know how to make things sound big but not bogus.
The other thing that was nice about the relationship that particular summer was that they were in New York and they were not ultra-familiar with New York. By that time I think John and I felt like we could sort of be their New York liaisons. We would take breaks during the day and go wander around. We went to the Empire State Building. We did completely goofy touristy stuff. It really felt like a nice friendly relationship—it wasn’t just strictly business.
On how their fans changed over time:
John Linnell: There was absolutely a change in the fans in the late eighties. We had a local following in New York, and then we suddenly had an MTV following when we started touring and when “Don’t Let’s Start” got on the air, and that expanded quickly. And then by 1990 or so—and this probably doesn’t sound good to say, but—we were less and less like our audience. We still love them, but that was part of the evolution. We were playing to more and more people. When we traveled to California and other places, we felt like these people were other. They were of a distinctly different culture.
John Flansburgh: That was a culture that was informed by having a very powerful alternative radio station. We were used to playing for really small audiences who had very specific tastes, and now all of a sudden the entire general teen population of Los Angeles is really interested in one of our songs. So now we’re getting the Seventeen magazine experience that the Bay City Rollers had. One thing that was curious was that when we started, we were slightly younger than the audiences we were playing for at the Pyramid Club and 8BC in New York. We were 23, 24, 25, and the whole nightclub scene was very late night, very druggy, and very committed-ly Bohemian, living alternative lifestyles. The audience seemed much more sophisticated than us. They’d had sexual experiences that we had not even thought about. They’d had drug experiences that we’d never dare have. They were much cooler people than we were. But then of course as the MTV thing went on and on, the audiences got incredibly young.
And finally, of course: On the font used for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie:
John Flansburgh: That doesn’t look like an 1860s type at all. That looks like an 1890s type.
Tune in for more TMBG week tomorrow, and buy the book on Amazon or your local retailer.