The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Alex Reed and Philip Sandifer

The authors and their subject.
The authors and their subject.

Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

Next up: Alex Reed and Philip Sandifer. Our very first co-author duo on a 33 1/3 title, these PhDs are comrades in academic arms, teaching music at the University of Florida and NYU, and English and media studies at Western Connecticut State University respectively. They’re also longtime friends and nerds whose take on Flood positions the album at the dawn of the Age of Nerdery in which we now live. “For a few decades now, They Might Be Giants’ album Flood has been a beacon (or at least a nightlight) for people who might rather read than rock, who care more about Dali than Dokken, who are more often called clever than cool,” the authors write. “Neither the band’s hip origins in the Lower East Side scene nor Flood‘s platinum certification can cover up the record’s singular importance to geek culture, for lack of a better term.” In this way, Reed and Sandifer attest, Flood witnesses the beginnings of an important, and heretofore under-studied historical happening: the late-1980s and early-1990s emergence of a sub-culture celebrating The Nerd, and the eager, brainy audience who couldn’t help but be swept up in it all.

What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Philip Sandifer: Sheer and unbridled nostalgia. Alex texted me to ask if I wanted to co-author a book about Flood with him, and I agreed first and figured out what we’d want to say second. Thankfully my blind nostalgia for being twelve and listening to the album for the first time was backed up by it actually being a terribly brilliant and fascinating album.

Alex Reed: Part of the initial question about Flood is why it inspires unshakeable adoration and even deep emotional connection when at first glance it can seem just a shade away from being a novelty record. Why does Flood’s particular sense of weird humor resonate deeper and deeper over time with audiences instead of just wearing out?

Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
AR: We were fortunate to sit down with Johns Flansburgh and Linnell for a many-hour chat about Flood, and they were wonderfully helpful. But one of the points we make in the book is that the appeal of They Might Be Giants’ music is actually seldom biographical. It’s certainly true that the Johns have fascinating histories and that there are some important stories about the making of Flood—and our book covers all that—but part of Flood’s legacy is its sense of low-investment play, where the songs aren’t so much about birdhouse nightlights, hearing aids, triangle men, and letterboxes, but instead they use all this stuff to act out a way of relating to information and to the surrounding world. So as it turns out, writing this book has been more about understanding how the songs work than, say, tracking down exes. That said, we’re excited to have some exclusive biographical details, both from the band members themselves and from some pretty esoteric sources we managed to dig up.

PS: Yeah, one of the things that really interested me about this project in particular was the way in which They Might Be Giants just don’t lend themselves to the usual rhetoric of authenticity and empathy that dominates pop music. It’s really not music about getting you to feel like the singer who’s ostensibly baring his soul to the world. This actually makes for a more interesting relationship with biography. Because in its own way, being the sort of person who writes about sentient nightlights or, to pick an example not on Flood, James K. Polk, is kind of more revealing than anything that can possibly be said about yet another bad breakup. What it lacks in prurience it more than makes up for in giddy strangeness.

Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
PS: One of the first things we agreed on is that even though the band members have never been too keen on this label, there’s a connection between They Might Be Giants and geek culture. When Alex ventured that, I responded with about ten minutes of excited babble that eventually became the chapter on the history of that culture, and we set about coming up with some ideas for chapters that supported that. Eventually Alex came up with the “flooding” metaphor that we use throughout the book, and which you’ll have to read the book to see exactly what it means. That was absolutely brilliant, and it focused what was initially a pretty scattershot set of chapters amounting to “Here are six possible short essays you could do on Flood.”

AR: Once we had those ingredients, the whole book has sorted itself out pretty naturally as we’ve written it.  In short, the book has turned into a close look at how this music at that time in 1990 really illuminates not just a connection between the band’s way of thinking and their fans’ way of thinking, but an emerging new sensibility, particularly in America.

What do you want to explore about They Might Be Giants that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
PS: Ooh, ooh, let me jump on this one first as the person who doesn’t read much music criticism or academic writing on music, and who is thus barely qualified to answer it. For me, what’s really interesting is the nature of late 1980 and early 1990s culture. The 1980s can feel like the last decade that we’re really good at getting a drop on—it’s really easy to do something that you listen to or look at and go “OK, yeah, that’s totally 80s.” But you can’t do that with the 1990s in quite the same way, and maybe that’s just where the line is on the steady encroachment of nostalgia, but even in the 1990s the 1980s felt easily encapsulated, whereas here we are nearly a quarter century from Flood and the decade still feels oddly unfathomable. That transition seems to me to parallel the weird way in which They Might Be Giants appealed to a huge audience of, say, computer geeks, without obviously being computer geeks themselves.

AR: The other thing we do that others haven’t done much, amazingly, is take They Might Be Giants seriously. What do they tell us about individualism? History? Childhood? Technology? How did such a kid-friendly band come out of the same scene–at least initially–that produced Lydia Lunch? Why is their music great for dancing, but terrible for seduction? What’s with all those key changes in “Birdhouse In Your Soul”? I’d seen approximately zero of these topics discussed meaningfully in writing before we set out to write this book, and so we’ve tackled them.

What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
AR: First, the ones that really deal with the details of the music are particularly rewarding.  J. Niimi’s book on R.E.M.’s Murmur does this nicely, for example. In the bigger picture, though, while it’s always interesting to know how an album fits into an artist’s life and career, the audiences who listen to that album and who love it—or hate it—really have as much say in what it means as the makers. So a lot of our favorite 33 1/3 books are the ones that look at how music shapes identity, and in turn how music can tell us things about ourselves that we didn’t know how to say before. To that effect, Daphne Carr’s Pretty Hate Machine book works pretty well, and of course Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love sets the benchmark.

PS: The 33 1/3 books I tend to find most interesting are the ones that resist the obvious interpretations and directions—Let’s Talk About Love being, as Alex points out, absolutely brilliant in this regard.

“The thing we do that others haven’t done much, amazingly, is take They Might Be Giants seriously. What do they tell us about individualism? History? Childhood? Technology? Why is their music great for dancing, but terrible for seduction?”

What was your first concert?
AR: For me, believe it or not, it was They Might Be Giants, when I was thirteen. I grew up in a town of eight thousand people in New Hampshire, and nobody ever played concerts there, so when I learned that the band’s 1992 tour for Apollo 18 would take them to within a mile of my front door, I could barely contain myself. And I think that whether it’s through a live setting or not, a lot of They Might Be Giants fans discover the music when they’re young like that. There’s a particular connection between records like Flood and the way that, for a lot of freethinking people, early adolescence can be all about connecting the world’s dots in funny, unexpected ways, trying out identities, and manipulating the world.

PS: Well, if we’re discounting Raffi, They Might Be Giants at about fifteen. I’d been a fan for a few years, and managed to convince my mother to suffer through a show about an hour from where we lived. I think I was there in a homemade They Might Be Giants t-shirt and a flannel overshirt that is best forgotten. Which says an awful lot about why I was the sort of person They Might Be Giants appeals to, I suspect.

How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
AR: I’d been a physical media guy up until about 2007 when I figured that if I did it right, having a fully tagged library on my computer would give me an enthralling database with which to enjoy wasting time. So now I’ve got about four terabytes of lossless music on hard drives, set up so that in a few seconds, I can do a Boolean search for, say, female-fronted folk music in French, non-4/4 time signature, recorded in 1972. Oh look: Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes’ “Jusqu’à ce que la force de t’aimer me manque.”

PS: I’m pretty strictly MP3 at this point, and have been for ages, typically at bitrates that offend Alex’s delicate soul.

Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
PS: “A brand new record for 1990.” I think the whole book is explaining the implications of that phrase, really.

AR: “We can’t be silent ‘cause they might be giants, and what are we gonna do unless they are.” With this line, the music insists on belief in the world being full of hidden weird wonderstuff—a belief so deeply held that it cannot afford to be wrong. To me, it always sounds like a little revolution where possibility transcends reality.
Next time: Evie Nagy on Devo’s Freedom of Choice. Stay tuned.

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