When Seven Days chatted with They Might Be Giants’ cofounder John Linnell in early February, it was prior to the release of the band’s latest and 16th album, Nanobots. It was also prior to the ensuing press junket in which journalists from outlets large and small would all ask basically a variation on the same question: “What’s the story with the new record?”
Not having had time to formulate a real answer — and not having had to give that answer ad nauseam — Linnell’s response was remarkably candid: “Um … I don’t know.”
As it turns out, Nanobots is classic TMBG, loaded with the signature hooks and cleverly eccentric wordplay that fans have come to adore over the band’s 31-year career.
In advance of TMBG’s performance at the Higher Ground Ballroom this Thursday, here is that interview with Linnell, in which he dishes on the new record (sort of), technology, the perils of making kids’ albums and the indestructibility of Yamaha instruments.
SEVEN DAYS: What’s the story with Nanobots?
JOHN LINNELL: There are things about the record that … um, I don’t know. You know, I should really come up with a specific answer to your question, because I’m going to be asked it over and over again: “What is so special about album number 16?” Unfortunately, I’m in the worst position to answer that. I’m very much inside the project. So from my perspective, we’ve just done our best one more time.
I think the biggest challenge is just topping the last record that we did. So what’s different? Well, there are a number of songs that are under 20 seconds. It’s not something completely unheard of in our work. We’ve done short songs in the past. But there are probably more of them than we’ve ever done before. So yeah … what else? I’ll have to ask John Flansburgh what he says, because I still don’t have a really satisfying answer.
SD: Um … there is a lot of bass clarinet?
JL: There is! Thank you. Actually, you know what there is? I’m giving you a scoop.
It’s actually not bass clarinet. It’s contra-alto clarinet, which is even lower than the bass clarinet. I bought one right before we began recording. So naturally, I wanted to use it on every single song. I didn’t, but it is on a lot of them. Unfortunately, I can’t play that and sing at the same time. So for the tour, I’ll be bringing out the bass clarinet, which is more roadworthy. It actually survived a fire we had at the end of the last tour.
JL: Yeah. I should do testimonials for the Yamaha corporation. What happened was our trailer caught on fire on the last day of the tour and the driver did not notice there was smoke pouring out of the back. We lost a ton of gear and all of our merch. But somehow the bass clarinet survived … It’s impervious to destruction.
SD: You typically go into the studio with an overabundance of material. How do you decide what makes the album, and what do you do with the songs that end up on the cutting-room floor?
JL: We don’t throw anything away that’s valuable. We do have a lot of songs left over, and they will be appearing in one form or another. Sometimes songs just hang around for an album cycle and get put on the next record. Aside from that, it’s hard to make a statement about how we choose. I will say that, for this record, we had one or two songs that sounded similar. So we would tend to not want to put them together.
SD: Having written so many songs, I imagine it might be easy to repeat yourself after a while.
JL: Lyrically, that is a real hazard. There are some bands that have certain topics that they like. We tend to pick out certain nouns that we like. I think John says in one of the songs, “We are running out of nouns.” But we haven’t yet. And I don’t know if that’s really a serious concern. We can write a few songs with the same noun, but that doesn’t mean they are the same song.
SD: And there are only so many chords to choose from.
JL: There are a very finite number of chords.
SD: Do you find a different type of satisfaction when you finish a kids’ album versus an “adult” album?
JL: I think we feel a bit more responsibility to say something to people who aren’t already immersed in culture. There is a thing about adults, which is, they tend to think like rock critics. When they listen to a record, they compare it to everything else they’ve ever heard and read it on that basis. But young kids don’t, they’re more openminded. But they’re also being introduced to all sorts of things for the first time. So in that regard, it’s very different. So it’s exciting for us to do some kind of psychedelic music and know that a particular kid listening to it might very well have never heard what we’re doing before.
SD: What have you learned doing kids’ records?
JL: Kids can be brutally critical in their own way. One thing is that they don’t particularly worry about the formality of the performance. It wouldn’t make a little kid nervous if the band stopped playing and nobody applauded. They are comfortable with that. Whereas adults will applaud because it’s too weird not to … And that can be very nerve-racking.
SD: You have a new iPhone app that is the evolutionary cousin of your old Dial-a-Song phone line. The internet and new technologies can obviously be used for good, but also for evil. How do you navigate which is which?
JL: We don’t want to do something that is gratuitous in any format. Just because there is this new technology and new market that’s opened up doesn’t mean you automatically create your own version of it. It can come off as crass and can actually be crass. The thing that the iPhone app has turned into is pretty satisfying, seeming like it deserves to exist.
We were always receptive to the idea of making stuff more accessible. And Dial-a-Song was a great early application. We thought it was cool in an intuitive way to call up a phone and listen to a song. But it turned out to be a great way for people to experience us in a different channel, from home. Before the internet existed, that was an unusual way to experience something, circumventing the record store or the night club and just calling the band up and hearing a song. In a way, that’s now the normal way in which everybody gets their culture.
They Might be Giants play the Higher Ground Ballroom this Thursday, February 28, 8 p.m. $23/25. 14+. Vandaveer open.
The print version of this article was headlined "Nanobots and Nouns".