Our Primitive Ancestry: The Original Brooklyn Band, They Might Be Giants

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One night in 1980, a young college dropout named John Linnell stepped out of a cab on 3rd Street in Park Slope. Linnell and his high school friend, John Flansburgh, were planning on moving to Brooklyn—Linnell to try and make it big as the keyboardist in a new wave band, The Mundanes; Flansburgh to go to college at Pratt—and Linnell, like many before him and since, had come on a kind of reconnaissance mission to check out the apartment they planned to share. Park Slope then was not what it is today.

“It was frightening,” Linnell remembered during a recent conversation. “There was a stretch of 12 identical brownstones, and of the 12, three of them were completely burnt-out shells.” The building they’d eventually move into had a hole in the roof from a fire (supposedly accidental) in the top floor apartment. “There were people selling pot on the sidewalk,” Linnell said, “but apparently the pot was just kind of a front for heroin sales that were going on in the building behind it.  And there was also one of those places that would take apart stolen cars, file off the serial numbers and stuff like that. That was also on our block.” His cab driver warned him not to get out of the car.

He did anyway, beginning a thirty-year musical odyssey. Today, Linnell is a successful musician and father, and that stretch of 3rd is a charming row of impeccable brownstones facing a restored 17th-century house used by George Washington during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn. It is available for wedding rentals for a reasonable fee.

The band Linnell and Flansburgh would eventually form, They Might Be Giants, has won two Grammys and sold in excess of four million records over the past thirty years, their discography including sixteen studio albums, thirteen compilations, seven live albums, and eighteen EPs. Their work has appeared in a dizzying array of commercials, TV shows, and films. They composed the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle, play virtually all the music that appears in The Daily Show, and have lent themselves to car commercials, a popular series of Dunkin Donuts ads (a well-paying project the band remembers fondly, which financed Flansburgh’s first-ever new car and a trip to Japan for Linnell and his family), and children’s entertainment like Higglytown Heroes, Sky High, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse through a late-2000s deal with Disney, which also led to four critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums for children.

The band is perhaps best known, however, for the music it produced between the late 1980s and early 1990s: 1986’s They Might Be Giants, 1988’s Lincoln, 1990’s Flood, and 1992’s Apollo 18. Their material tends to be upbeat and musically complex, with inscrutable lyrical references on even their most universally beloved songs. Flood’s “Birdhouse in Your Soul”—to date their highest-charting single in both the United States and the United Kingdom—features lyrics like “I’m your only friend / I’m not your only friend, but I’m a little glowing friend / But really I’m not actually your friend / But I am.” It is told from the point of view of a nightlight. The first song on their first album, “Everything Right Is Wrong Again,” is largely devoted to recounting the plot of the 1953 Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz vehicle The Long, Long Trailer.

 

Photo by Christina Von Messling

If you’re a person of a certain age, and especially if you’re of a certain (nerdy) disposition, They Might Be Giants have likely been an inescapable part of your life. I am one such person. I was born around the year the band started and heard them for the first time when they were featured on a 1991 musical episode of the cartoon show Tiny Toon Adventures, which featured the show’s characters staging music videos for various songs. While the majority were 1960s staples (“Money” and “Respect,” for example), They Might Be Giants’ songs “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” were both given videos featuring the green tween Daffy Duck stand-in Plucky Duck. I once assembled a model of a Cardassian warship (Galor-class) while listening to They Might Be Giants. This was not the work of one afternoon—I spent several weeks holed up in my bedroom with model glue and tiny bottles of beige paint, listening to 1986’s They Might Be Giants over and over. It was at once sort of a put-on (I remember consciously thinking, Putting together a model seems like a thing I ought to have done at some point) and a completely, almost painfully honest expression of who I was at the time. I think the only person who got regular updates on how it went was my mother; I pretended it was not going on when I talked to my friends. I can remember riding around my suburban home town, singing the band’s strange astrophysics for kids track “Why Does The Sun Shine?” (sample lyrics: “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas/ A gigantic nuclear furnace/ Where hydrogen is turned into helium/At a temperature of millions of degrees”).

They Might Be Giants also have the kinds of fans who like to argue about science in the song. On the YouTube page for a later version of the song, a debate rages on. Commenter Nathan Lehenbauer: “Plasma is a type of gas, a different state of matter yes, but it is still from gas. Plasma is ionized gas, now before you try to correct me on this you might want to go research exactly what plasma is and you’ll find that I essentially quoted from a source what plasma is.” Commenter Allen Bouchard: “Plasma is not ‘a type of gas.’ Yes, you can form plasma by ionizing a gas, but the resulting state is not a subset of gas. Your claim is like saying that since heating a liquid will create a gas, gas is a type of liquid.”

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Before Twitter, before the internet, TMBG fandom was a kind of shorthand for people living a hip-nerd lifestyle. Art nerds who were intrigued by science, perhaps, but equally intrigued by comics and music and all sorts of things which would likely eventually prevent them from channeling their nerdishness into something financially remunerative.

“I have a hard time imagining what we mean to people,” said Linnell. “I think that’s been something that’s been true of us for a long time, that we don’t exactly know how to tailor-make music for an audience. We started out by doing something that we thought was good, that we liked, and not being 100 percent sure what it would mean for other people. And now, you know, we have this audience, but I can only sort of infer through a glass darkly, as it were, what we mean to other people. I don’t have a very clear idea.

“We just wanted to do something that we liked, and if other people liked it, then that would be a win. If they didn’t like it, then at least we were doing something we liked. I think the worst possible outcome would be if we were doing something we didn’t like that became wildly successful.”

Photo by Christina Von Messling

The musician Jonathan Coulton, currently the in-house band for the NPR quiz show “Ask Me Another,” first heard TMBG in college, he said during a 2011 interview.

“I was just struck by how wide-ranging it was, and how free and crazy it was, in the subject matter and the arrangements, and I’d never heard anything like it before,” he said. “And as I continued to listen to more and more of their albums, I was struck again and again by how they could take a really ridiculous subject and make a song that, after four or five listens, would really start to move you. And even if you didn’t know what it was about, necessarily, you still kind of, like, got pieces of it. It meant something. And that was something I only hit like once or twice in my own songwriting, by accident, so to find this band who just did it all the time, as a matter of course, was really thrilling.”

Throughout the period where they wrote and recorded these songs, Linnell and Flansburgh were living and hanging out in the burgeoning artistic scene in Williamsburg. Linnell, tall, thin, and with a reputation for being withdrawn and sardonic (and with a disdain for drug use on the level of Pete Townshend or Frank Zappa), lived for many years above a nightclub installed in a former funeral parlor. Flansburgh, more robust and vivacious, prone to long talking jags, and who also handles the bulk of the band’s interaction with the business side of the music business, lived in Williamsburg as well. The band’s first video, for the song “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head,” features Linnell and Flansburg jumping around a deserted, pre-condo Williamsburg waterfront.

This deep connection to Williamsburg and Brooklyn more broadly is often overlooked in the band’s history, if not by the band themselves (a 1999 collection of music videos was titled Live From Brooklyn, and they’ve been regular performers at Prospect Park over the years). Like Brooklyn itself, They Might Be Giants’ current glossy success often obscure their gritty, chancy beginnings.

For much of the 80s, Flansburgh and Linnell bounced around Brooklyn—Park Slope and Fort Greene—before eventually settling in Williamsburg. Flansburgh arrived first, but they both lived there by around 1987, shortly after the release of their first album (they had begun recording together around 1982, following the dissolution of The Mundanes). They’d remain there for the bulk of the 1990s.

“I was one of the original sinners in gentrifying and destroying the beautiful town of Williamsburg,” said one of the band’s friends and collaborators, the cartoonist Tony Millionaire, speaking from his home in California. Today, Millionaire is the man behind the popular comic strip Maakies, which spawned the short-lived Adult Swim show Drinky The Crow. In the 1990s, Millionaire was a slightly-too-old-to-be-charming drunk being paid $10 a week to draw a comic strip he admits didn’t make a lot of sense for the now-defunct local magazine Waterfront Week. “I was known in Williamsburg as that guy that does that weird comic,” he said.

In those days, Williamsburg was just beginning to become a draw for hipsters and artists. Small clubs and illegal parties began to pop up: These included the aforementioned funeral-home-cum-nightclub, Quiet Life, and the Old Dutch Mustard Factory, which was exactly what it sounds like. The neighborhood was still mostly Polish immigrants and Hasidic Jews. Those few young people who migrated there mostly knew each other, hanging out and occasionally collaborating.

“I remember the first day I moved into the apartment—I looked out the window and there was a kid standing in the middle of the street,” said Millionaire. “And he was firing a pistol down the street, just bam bam bam bam, emptying the gun. And I thought, just, What the fuck? Where did I move to?

Another “original sinner” was the musician and artist Brian Dewan, who would later tour with They Might Be Giants, appear on several songs, and design the cover for 1988’s Lincoln. Dewan shared a railroad apartment with a friend on North 5th Street in the late 1980s. “And I think it was $425 a month,” said Dewan. “And I remember thinking, you know, an apartment like this really oughta be $375 a month.” (That’s $885 and $781 adjusted for inflation, according to the CPI inflation calculator—still a deal.) Later, Dewan and his girlfriend would share a different three-bedroom apartment, on Havemeyer Street, with Linnell, beginning in 1988 and lasting through the band’s increased popularity in the early 1990s.

“My girlfriend and I shared a room, and Linnell had a couple of rooms; he had a little bedroom. It was a nice place,” said Dewan. “I can remember John Flansburgh would be sort of bothered by Linnell’s disapproval of pot-smoking. And of course it was funny because they’re both coffee hounds. Linnell and my girlfriend Clea were both total coffee hounds, too, and they had this percolator going all day in the apartment. Doesn’t count as being a dope fiend, I guess.”

Linnell and Flansburgh had only recently begun collaborating when Linnell had an accident at his day job as a bike messenger, breaking his wrist. Unable to perform concerts, they began recording songs to an answering machine, advertising the service through small ads in the classifieds of The Village Voice. The machine was located in a Williamsburg house that Flansburg first lived in and later kept as a practice space.

“You’d go meet them, and the phone would constantly be ringing,” remembered Millionaire. “And then you’d hear the answering machine go off. And it would sing the song. They’d turn it down a little bit, but you could always hear the song going.”

They Might Be Giants would end up maintaining this service, eventually called Dial-A-Song, both through the machine and later through the internet, until 2006. This year, they re-launched it through a new number: 844-387-6962. “It’s deeply connected, for us, to the philosophy of They Might Be Giants,” said Linnell. “Which is to say, it’s about the relationship that we have with our audience. We kind of feel like we have made a point of having a personal connection to the fans. Really, in a way, that began with Dial-A-Song, the idea of which was that you call up a phone number, and you’re the only person calling at that moment, and you have a very direct experience with somebody else’s work.”

Photo by Christina Von Messling

Throughout the early stage of their career, They Might Be Giants served as a conduit for the work of other downtown New York artists. In a broad way, their early candy-colored sensibility of cartoons and press photos which featured them in towering fezes several feet high reflected the downtown performance art scene that nurtured them.

“We thought we were going to launch ourselves from the traditional places, like CBGBs,” said Linnell, “and we kind of began to realize that that was not as nourishing a scene for us. We started getting gigs at places in the East Village, places that were more performance spaces. There were a lot of performers there who were not even musicians, they were just doing some kind of performance art. By the mid-80s, that was where we settled, that became our home.”

What about this scene appealed to the band? “It confirmed for us that we could do what we were doing,” said Linnell. “We felt less alone because there was certainly a lot of mutual appreciation going on in the performance art scene. We kind of felt welcomed, and we roughly knew what we wanted to do, but we felt like it was being approved of. At CBGB, I think there was sort of a vibe of —I felt like we weren’t considered a real band.”

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They Might Be Giants frequently featured work from Linnell and Flansburgh’s Brooklyn friends. Dewan, for example, was famous for designing what he calls “shine-like sculptures,” stages and pulpits that look like the sliced-off front of an auditorium. He was commissioned to make one for the cover of Lincoln, for which he constructed what looks like a pair of podiums for a political debate, with giant photos of Linnell and Flansburgh’s ancestors hanging in the candidate’s place.

“Originally I was going to put their pictures on it,” Dewan remembers, “but then after a while they decided they weren’t comfortable having their own pictures on it, so then that left me in a quandary as to what I was going to do, since it was all set up with, kind of like a political broadcast, a forest of microphones pointed at somebody. So, who else would it be if not them?” The final shine, which appears on Lincoln’s cover somewhat incongruously photographed alone in a field, features photos of Linnell’s great-grandfather, Lewis Linnell, and Flansburgh’s grandfather, General Ralph Hospital.

In the 90s, Millionaire was tasked with designing a T-shirt for the band, and also ran into trouble using their image. It was supposed to feature Linnell and Flansburgh with drawings of them as children on one side, and old men on the other. “But it got nixed because John Linnell didn’t like the look of himself as an old man,” said Millionaire. “I put him in a wheelchair with a little scraggly beard and a bald head. He didn’t like it. The T-shirt never got made.” “It was a terrific drawing,” said Dewan when asked about it, laughing. “I heard that they were not amused.”

Throughout the 80s, They Might Be Giants’ popularity increased steadily, even if they weren’t making much money.

“Every new thing that happened, we felt like we were superstars,” said Linnell. “I mean, in 1986 we put out our first album and all of a sudden we were getting played on the radio in places outside of New York City.”

Flansburgh said he found this note he wrote to his girlfriend some time in the mid-80s. “We played one time at the Pyramid Club,” a legendary drag club and performance space, a rare extant venue from that period. “I think we got paid like $75, and John wrote this note saying, Great news, we got $75 for playing at the Pyramid Club and [the manager] said we can come back any time. He was really really excited that we’d gotten that kind of a paycheck. More than you need to spend for dinner for a week, as far as we were concerned.”

By the end of the 80s, this popularity was beginning to snowball. “We had kind of established ourselves as a band that was on college radio, you know.” In 1990, they signed their first major label contract. “That was kind the punctuation mark of the 80s; we signed to Elektra and we put out Flood in 1990. But up until that time, we were just one of the bunch of people who were performing in the East Village.”

Today, Linnell lives in Windsor Terrace with his wife and teenage son. “I would not have dreamed that Brooklyn would be a nice place to raise kids thirty years ago,” he said. “It certainly was not a nice place to raise kids, thirty years ago. My son rides the subway by himself into Manhattan every school day, and that just seems insane to me when I remember what it used to be like here.”

Linnell, of course, has changed, as well, though his band remains the center of his life in 2015, just as it was in 1985. This year, they’ll be playing one show a month at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, releasing two albums, embarking on a short tour, and writing and recording enough songs to put a new one on the revived Dial-A-Song each week (52, in other words). They’ve kept on, despite being dropped by that major label all the way back in 1995. That “would have been an appropriate time to break up and stop doing it and maybe try and find some other work,” said Linnell.  “I think the main thing was that we still, in the mid-90s, felt that we had an audience, we had resources, and we still really wanted to write songs. In some ways we had the same obsessive-compulsive relationship that we had when we first started, to the music. So we kept going.”

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