Interview: They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell
We chat to one half of the Brooklyn-based alt-rock band about their latest project ‘Book’ and his idiosyncratic writing process
John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the duo behind alt-rock band They Might Be Giants, have been making music together since 1982. Though the height of their fame came with 1990’s Flood, boosted by the success of unstoppable earworm Birdhouse In Your Soul, they’ve continued to write and record songs that captivate and … in equal measure. Always aware of the value of an unforgettable melody and equally memorable lyrics, their albums for children, including 2009’s Here Comes Science, should be a staple in every young family’s record collection/essential playlist.
With their Dial-A-Song service (an answering machine that people could ring up to hear their songs) perhaps the most famous example, They Might Be Giants have always had a unique way of presenting their music. Latest project Book is no exception. Not just a collection of 15 new songs, it’s also a 144-page art book created in collaboration with Brooklyn street photographer Brian Karlsson and celebrated graphic designer Paul Sahre.
We recently caught up with John Linnell in his writing room to learn a bit more about this collaboration of music and design and discuss his enduring partnership with John Flansburgh…
Where did the idea for Book originally came from?
“Unfortunately, I’m representing John Flansburgh’s original motivation here because his concept was to come up with a book that connected songs to photographs. We worked with this graphic designer who is very interested in typography and his contribution was to do these beautiful typographic arrangements of our song lyrics. Using the legendary IBM Selectric typewriter. This was actually coming from John Flansburgh, I’m really just responsible for some of the songwriting and the rest of it is his.”
In terms of the way your partnership works, when one of you has a grand idea like that, will there be discussions about it, will you automatically agree and get excited by the idea or do you have to be dragged along at all?
“I think in terms of the packaging of everything that we’ve been doing, I tend to rely on John Flansburgh to come up with the concepts. He’s worked as a graphic designer and he’s very, very interested in all that stuff and is more culturally au courant than I am. Which is to say, I’m not very culturally au courant. At this point, we’re a couple of old men so a lot of the things that we like probably harken back to the concerns of our generation. But he’s interested in a lot of contemporary stuff and I’m a little more out of it.”
Does the concept change the way you go about the songwriting, or are you working on songs They Might Be Giant songs for any format you may choose to release?
“I think it’s actually the latter. We tend to just write a lot of songs and then see how how the collection is shaping up. We’ve done all kinds of collaborating, we tend to write songs individually but we send materials back and forth. Then eventually, I’d say on average we probably have a collection of 30 or so songs where we go, ‘Alright, let’s pick the ones from this that are going to make a coherent album.’ We try and pick the best material, we maybe edit out things that sound redundant, but that’s pretty much the process. In this case, we started with that and then John and his graphic designer Paul Sahre assembled this book out of those songs.”
You say you write individually, does that mean you do that Lennon and McCartney thing of co-crediting everything, no matter who wrote it?
“Yeah, in that sense, yes we do. I’m very curious about Lennon and McCartney because they obviously made a decision to be a songwriting team and yet it’s pretty clear that most of their work is one guy or the other. I guess there are a few cases early on where one guy wrote the middle eight. John and I have never really done that particular thing. I’ve handed a song off to him on a few occasions, or he’s given me some lyrics on a few occasions. I mean, we’ve found other ways to collaborate.
“Actually, on this album, there’s at least one track where he asked me to just write a bunch of baselines. So I sent him MIDI files of a number of baselines and he picked one and wrote a song on top of that. I think what we’ve discovered is that the more you mix it up, the more variety you wind up with, you know, you come up with different techniques.”
What song was that?
“I Lost Thursday. My bassline but John wrote the whole song on top of that, so I think of it as a Flansburgh song.”
In the same way that the trained Beatles ear can hear who wrote which song, do you think that’s the same for They Might Be Giants?
“The usual tell is that whoever is singing it is the songwriter. That’s almost always the way it works. And then occasionally we’ve flipped it around. There have been a couple of cases where I wasn’t happy with the lyrics. For example, we had a song called Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head. I just didn’t like any of the verses so I scrapped all of those off the demo that I’d made and John made up his own lyrics, and he sang the entire song. He retained the chorus which I had written.”
You mentioned how you send each other files, do you get to critique each other’s lyric writing or is it more make minor tweaks?
“Often we are there to stand as editors for one another, we’ll say, ‘Well this idea isn’t clear,’ or, ‘I feel like you could say this in a better way.’ We try and not tread on each other’s toes too much but at least a few times per album we’ve said to one another, ‘What about this, instead?’ without getting too much in each other’s grill.”
And is that like when you hand in homework and you already know what the feedback is most likely to be?
“Absolutely, we know each other well enough now that we kind of know like, ‘Oh yeah, this one may not fly.’ That is a frequent feeling that I have. Also, because that’s our working relationship, it makes each of us sit up straighter when we are giving each other demos. I feel like there’s no point in writing a half-assed lyric because I can already imagine what John’s going to say.”
Are you constantly working together or do you go your separate way between albums and tours and then come back together?
“We’re in a really different situation now with the COVID pandemic because we normally would put out a thing and then immediately go on tour. We actually finished this project a while ago but we’re having to hold on to it so that it’ll be closer to when we’re able to tour. The tour has been delayed twice already, all the dates have been shunted up at least a year at this point. We’re supposedly going on the road in March of next year.
“Yeah, typically we finish the album and immediately hit the road. I suppose the cycle is, we write and record and then we do whatever advanced press we’re going to do and then the tour is scheduled pretty much for as soon as the thing is released. Everything’s all messed up now because of the pandemic.”
Does that mean the songs on this album might already have different meaning to you, even before they’ve been released, because they were recorded a while ago?
“I mean it doesn’t seem like that huge a gap in terms of how immediate the songs are. We’ve been doing this for so long, that we have a backlog of stuff that goes really far back. This stuff seems very contemporary to me by comparison. Even though some of the songs were written two years ago they seem like now, because of how long we’ve been doing this, I suppose.”
You mentioned trying to keep things fresh and interesting but do you have a set way of starting a song?
“I do, unfortunately. It would be great if we could come up with a new way of writing a song, each time out of the box, because I really do like this sense that you’re always inventing something completely new. That’s an exciting part of doing any creative work. But yes, I have to admit that I do have certain tendencies and, in my case, I usually come up with a melody over some chords, that’s pretty much my standard approach. I have a big collection of those ideas that I can go back to and go through and then occasionally you hear a melody and you think, ‘Oh I could sing this phrase over that,’ and the phrase often encapsulates the idea of the song. The way that a song title often gives you a sense of what the whole song is about. Once in a blue moon, we’ll have a song title that has a really tangential relationship to the lyrics but typically it’s like the country and western thing where the title is the song. So that’s, for me, a normal way to start a song.”
Will those lyrics already be in your head or in your phone or written down somewhere?
“I’ll usually sit right here and listen to the melodies that I’ve come up with over and over again and just try and come up with lyrics that fit the melody. It’s maybe not the most efficient way to write lyrics but I’m so used to doing it that way that it’s my typical process. I know a lot of songwriters will write sort of a poem and then come up with a melody to go with it but, I don’t know if I’ve actually ever done that.”
That method obviously works for you. We’re guessing you’re not sitting there torturing yourself to come up with line after line?
“You’d be surprised. It’s never easy and it doesn’t get easier as we go along. My favourite thing is having done it. I don’t always enjoy working but I like having done the work and looking at what I’ve achieved.
Do you surround yourself with inspiration, not necessarily a rhyming dictionary or thesaurus, but things around you that can turn to for help and motivation?
“No, I just try and come up with it off the top of my head. We’ve obviously talked about this topic in the past, where you get your ideas. It’s been suggested that you could write a song after reading the morning newspaper and pick something out of the stuff that you read that seemed interesting. For some reason, I think John and I have always been kind of allergic to that. Maybe it just seems like it’s too obvious and what you’d come up with would be too on the nose.
“I think we cherish the mystery of songwriting ideas and we don’t want it to seem too formulaic. For whatever reason, I just don’t like the idea of hearing a news story or an anecdote and then trying to come up with a song based around that. I feel like there’s something a little bit uninteresting, a little boring. about that way of working. I like the idea that you could get surprised by your own ideas. Part of the pleasure of songwriting is feeling like something unexpected is happening. “
Can you only do that when you’re in your room in a writing session or can those ideas come at any moment?
“That has happened. I’ve had ideas where I’ve been away from home but that’s actually not the usual. I know this is something that writers have said, not just songwriters, but people who do writing, generally, is that it’s a very fruitless pursuit to sit around and wait for inspiration. That actually doing the work means applying yourself and grinding through it. It’s rarely a process where stuff just appears. It’s very lucky and nice when that does happen, but if you sit around and wait for ideas to pop up you don’t get enough done, it’s too slow and it’s inefficient. You actually have to, and it’s hard to even in a way describe what this is, but you have to sit down and apply yourself. And again, I don’t know what that means exactly, but it is work. You have to sit and do the work and that’s the part that’s a little bit disappointing in a way.”
Have there been times over the last 35 or so years where you’ve lost the desire to do the work and haven’t wanted to write songs?
“Sure, I think there have been those occasions. But it turns out that we still have this compulsion to write songs. Before there was any reason to do this professionally I think we both felt this weird compulsion to come up with ideas and there’s some pleasure that goes along with showing it to somebody. ‘Look what I did,’ you know? It’s not clear, I suppose in an evolutionary sense, why an animal would want to make something up, like why do you want to tell a story, for example. But we do, as a species we like stories. Maybe this is sort of a version of that.”
Returning to the new album, are there songs on Book that you’re particularly proud of from a songwriting perspective?
“Well they’re all different really, they all come out differently. Some of them have a slightly more stream-of-consciousness quality that I like and some of them are more like a narrative or a short story, like the first track Synopsis For Late Comers… it’s pretty clear the person speaking is trying to mitigate and talk about some catastrophe and give the report. It’s obviously got some dark humour to it. Then, I suppose I Broke My Own Rule is a kind of an internal dialogue. It’s something that’s happening where you’re trying to explain to yourself what’s going on and there’s a psychological quality. It’s about critiquing yourself or trying to.
“I Can’t Remember The Dream Is Very Straightforward, it’s just lamenting that probably not uncommon thing where you wake up and you don’t remember something but you still have the feeling of the dream that you’ve had. You don’t remember any of the details so there’s this mysterious quality of emotional memory that doesn’t have any concrete component. It’s kind of a pop song and I suppose, partly, we’re always combining these elements where the lyrics and the music are two separate things that have some interesting kind of collision or concordance or contradiction; they go together or they don’t go together or they’re ironically juxtaposed. I’d say this, if we have anything that’s a shtick it’s that we write lyrics that are complicated or dark and then the melody is sort of poppy and happy. That seems to deliver this interesting combination of elements.”
Did that come about naturally?
“I suppose it just happened naturally and we’ve done it ever since. Again, as I keep saying, we try not to write the same song over and over again. From our perspective, it seems like it’s still this fruitful thing. Maybe someone from the outside would say we’re just re-treading this shtick over and over but it still seems interesting to us and that’s really the most important thing. If we were bored it wouldn’t matter if other people liked it because we’d feel like we were failing.
“I think the artist doesn’t always know why people like it. Looking at other people’s work, I think, often the way they describe is not at all the way I think about it. They’re not necessarily the best source for explaining what they’re doing.”
Does that mean you see your songs as belonging to the listener as much as to you?
“They clearly do. I would say, in my own mind, I retain custody. But other people might have a completely different feeling that I’m not a good parent and I don’t understand my own creations. I’d be interested in what John thinks about that because I know that controversy in our band is like is there an objective truth about the work or is it up for grabs? Our drummer has often said that there are good and bad songs and they’re objectively good and bad and we’ve tossed that idea around back and forth. So there’s definitely differences of opinion. I think probably John and I are on the same page.”
Why do you think your partnership with John has endured and been so fruitful?
“I don’t have anything to compare it to. I know that other bands break up and I kind of have a sense of why. There’s a variety of reasons but often the collaboration stops seeming interesting or they are just personally sick of each other, there’s a lot of bands like that.
“There’s also a weird phenomenon where a band is hugely successful out of the box and then everything probably seems like a disappointment after that. How can they keep going when they’re not having that experience of being incredibly beloved anymore? We obviously can survive not being everybody’s top favourite band because we haven’t really had that level of success for about 30 years now. We’re still making a living and we still go out and play. There’s a lot of people who come in and are really excited to see us and so that’s very gratifying. If we were doing it to be on the cover of the NME we would have given up long ago.
“We mostly like the process, that cycle where you come up with an idea. It’s an amazing thing where you have an idea and then it usually morphs, in the process of making the demo and then bringing it to the other musicians. Then it’s this amazing thing that is beyond what you would have even conceived of originally. Then you send it out into the world and you go out and play. So there’s a lot of things to enjoy about it. It’s often hard work but it’s a really good job.”
Our last question… Do you have a songwriting tip that you could pass on to our readers?
“I guess I’ve described some of the process to you and I would say, unfortunately, I think I have an idiosyncratic way of working. I think John probably does as well. I suppose the advice would be, you have to find whatever that is, and it might not be the way I do it. A lot of people write lyrics first and that’s probably a more sensible approach. I guess I would say, try and mix up your method. I think that’s probably a universally good idea.”