If life shines upon you, it will thrust you into the presence of people that spark this realization: holy Bananas in Pajamas, some people are as weird as me. Belonging, like the warmth of a crackling fire in the winter time, is a comforting feeling. The more niched that weirdness, the greater the belonging.
Any fans of enduring alternative rock band They Might Be Giants know this to be true. For more than 30 years, the TMBG duo of Johns Flansburgh and Linnell have produced a near-biblical quantity of songs, with subject matter that is all sorts of odd, upbeat and clever. Over the years, this canon has attracted thousands of fans vibing to the same communal weirdness.
Earlier this month, I spoke with frontman John Linnell about They Might Be Giants and its upcoming concert at the Rialto Theatre.
They Might Be Giants has been a band for nearly twice as long as many students here at the UA have been alive. With the ephemeral nature of creativity, a run lasting multiple decades is an achievement few can claim.
When asked if anything about the creative process managed to stay unchanged throughout the years, Linnell reflected on the origins of They Might Be Giants.
“I’d say at the beginning for both John Flansburgh and myself, we were really interested in doing it for its own sake,” Linnell said. “We didn’t have some master plan of how we were going to have careers. ... I think we really liked doing and I don’t know if you can force yourself to feel that way.”
Score one for the idea that the secret ingredient to all good things is love. Despite such a prolific career, Linnell does not possess an inflated ego, but instead counts his blessings for having made it so far following his passions.
“In my case, it seemed very lucky that I had those things and I could imagine being a homeless man right now if I didn’t have those things,” Linnell said. “It’s not very inspiring.”
Inspiring or not, anyone remotely familiar with alternative rock will have heard the earworm hits of TMBG, particularly “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul.” These tracks check off the boxes of the TMBG sound: esoterically odd, clever in form and function and possessive of an upbeat catchiness that lives rent-free in most listeners’ brains.
However, not every great TMBG song acts as a soundtrack to high fives.
“In some way, humor itself is a way often of dealing with very dark stuff,” Linnell said. “That’s something that we seized on at some point: having the music and the sentiment and the lyrics at odds with one another. It just often feels right.”
TMBG songs such as “Hopeless Bleak Despair” and “Why Must I Be Sad?” encapsulate such a mentality.
On the whole, the work of TMBG gives off a glow of fun and lightheartedness, which was likely a factor in being approached to write a song for the upcoming Spongebob musical. The duo composed a song about Squidward Tentacles that will likely make its debut when the musical premieres this summer.
They Might Be Giants kicked off its tour in support of the recently released album, Phone Power, earlier this month. Songs from last year’s iteration of the Dial-a-Song project, in which listeners could dial a phone number to hear the latest song release, compose Phone Power.
One of the lesser-known reasons Linnell enjoys touring is for the opportunities it presents for his hobby of taking pictures with old film cameras.
“I do a lot of film photography,” Linnell said. “There’s a lot of different ways to do it and that’s fun because we travel around... Cheap, old film cameras are readily available. They’re fun. You can buy the chemistry and the material to develop film and do all that stuff for very cheap.”
While TMBG creates music for general consumption, these hobby photographs stay out of the public eye.
As for what concertgoers may expect from the Phone Power Tour, the answer is a little bit of everything. New music from Phone Power will no doubt make an appearance, in addition to the big hits for the back row fans and deep cuts to please hardcore fans. A little of each makes for a balanced show and should please all fans.
“I hope so,” Linnell said. “The alternative is to make everyone disappointed.”
They Might Be Giants has successfully avoided that disappointment for more than 30 years and that streak has no end in sight. After all, it’s tough to disappoint those who find the oddity of They Might Be Giants running in their veins.
For those with blood type TBMG or just a curiosity for quality music, check out They Might Be Giants on the Phone Power Tour.
They Might Be Giants will play Tuesday at the Rialto Theatre at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $27 and are available via the Rialto box office or online at rialtotheatre.com
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