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Members include John Flansburgh (born c. 1960 in Lincoln, MA; son of an architect and a Boston tour organizer), guitar, vocals, drum programming; John Linnell (born c. 1959 in Lincoln, MA; son of a psychiatrist and an artist; married Karen Brown; children: one), vocals, keyboards, accordion. Addresses: Record company--Zoe/Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Office--TMBG Information, P.O. Box 110553, Williamsburg Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211. Website--They Might Be Giants Official Website: http://www.tmbg.com.

Even in the alternative rock world, which typically allows for more diversity and eccentricity than in mainstream music, They Might Be Giants seem an unlikely success story with their penchant for absurd, surrealistic lyrics sung over bright melodies played on accordion, guitar, boom box, and a variety of sampled instruments. Yet only a few years after their first independent release, this New York pop duo became a major force on the alternative scene.

Their knack for deadpan silliness wrapped in a catchy musical package won over college audiences, and their wildly inventive videos caught the attention of MTV viewers. They Might Be Giants continued to record and perform even after their popularity waned, but they have enjoyed a long career and the group has been acknowledged as the forerunners of "nerd rock" bands including groups such as Barenaked Ladies, Harvey Danger, and Weezer. Despite their longevity, They Might Be Giants have never achieved the popularity of even these bands, instead enjoying "obscure success," as Michael Azerrad observed in The New Yorker.

The two musician-songwriters who make up They Might Be Giants, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, first met in elementary school in Lincoln, Massachusetts. They became good friends in high school, writing and performing some songs together with Linnell playing saxophone and keyboards and Flansburgh responsible for running the reel-to-reel tape deck, but they only began playing seriously years later. Linnell, singer, accordionist, and keyboardist for the Giants, studied music for a year after high school, but elected to leave his studies to play keyboards for a Rhode Island rock band called The Mundanes. Flansburgh attended several colleges before dropping out of the university scene entirely; he taught himself to play guitar while working in a parking lot booth.

In 1981, the two Johns moved into the same Brooklyn, New York, apartment building on the same day, marking the beginning of their musical partnership. For one of their first public performances--a Sandinista rally in Central Park--they were "El Grupo de Rock & Roll." They gravitated to the performance art circuit, performing at venues on the same bill with Ann Magnuson and Steve Buscemi.

Rather than form a traditional rock band, however, the two started using a drum machine and tape recorder to round out its songs. "At first we taped because we couldn't afford a live drummer," Linnell told Steve Dougherty of People. Flansburgh finished the thought: "Now we do it because we can use strange rhythms and not worry about the drummer's head exploding."

Unorthodox Marketing Methods

Taking their name from a little-known movie starring George C. Scott, They Might Be Giants were playing regularly in East Village clubs. They also attempted to gain attention for their music through some unusual marketing. Their first release in 1985 on was a flexi-disk. In addition to selling it via mail order and giving it out at shows, Linell and Flansburgh were also known to staple the floppy plastic discs to trees in Tompkins Square Park.

These were lean years and the duo was also busking to make ends meet. "[W]e had no money," Flansburgh told Rebecca Louie of the New York Daily News in 2003. "I mean, we couldn't even buy Happy Boy margarine, hot dogs or noodles, so we went to the Brooklyn Promenade with an accordion and a guitar and played our stuff, some Ramones, and this one song, `Maybe I Know," by Ellie Greenwich. A relative (of Greenwich's) just happened to be on the boardwalk and gave us 20 bucks. We were like, `Yes! We're outta here! We're going to [eat]!'"

They devised an ingenious new way to share recorded material with a large audience: They put new songs on a telephone answering machine, changing the tapes regularly and leaving space at the end for listeners' comments. Thus "Dial-a-Song" was born. By 1988, the Giants' phone-machine song repertoire featured more than three hundred tunes. The gimmick worked well, and the band was soon receiving more than one hundred calls a day.

Linnell and Flansburgh decided to put out their own record, and released They Might Be Giants in 1987 on the small New Jersey label Bar/None, which was founded by Hoboken record store owner Tom Prendergast and his partner Glenn Morrow. The album contained 20 songs, and the Giants filmed two inexpensive videos for the songs "Don't Let's Start" and "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head." MTV representatives saw the videos and decided that, in executive Rick Krim's words, "the Giants were the ultimate MTV band. They're very visual and very entertaining." By early 1988 the video for "Don't Let's Start," which features Linnell and Flansburgh with a variety of bizarre props, was playing regularly on the music video channel. As a result the record, which had been selling 1,000 copies a month, began selling 50,000 copies a month.

Courted by Record Companies

Suddenly record companies expressed interest in the band. That same year, two They Might Be Giants EPs were released, Don't Let's Start and (She Was a) Hotel Detective. Both recordings mixed songs from the first album with unreleased material. High Fidelity called the EPs "chock full o' fun."

By mid-1988 They Might Be Giants finished their second album, Lincoln. Bar/None joined Enigma Records, and the album sold even better than the Giants' debut. The first video, "Ana Ng," became one of the most popular alternative clips on MTV when it appeared. Though the second clip, "They'll Need a Crane," was less successful, the record sold impressively, even knocking the popular group U2 out of first place on the college radio singles chart. Lincoln earned the band some very positive reviews: Michael Small, reviewing the album in People, referred to the Giants as "probably the most inventive rock and roll duo on earth. Lincoln ... includes more of the weird, catchy and wonderful music that has earned this band an ever-expanding cult following." Steve Simels of Stereo Review called the album "a clever, quirky, often brilliantly arranged and produced piece of postmodern art." Shortly after releasing Lincoln, the band put out another Bar/None EP, They'll Need a Crane. In January of 1989, They Might Be Giants signed a record deal with Elektra.

Their first major-label album, Flood, released in 1990, garnered mixed reviews. Small praised its "torrent of catchy tunes and surprising lyrics in a range of styles, including reggae, country, swing, folk rock and even Monty Python-style parodies of show tunes and TV jingles." New York's Elizabeth Wurtzel was similarly disappointed: "The Giants have failed to make an album that will matter to more than the select few who are in on the joke. Linnell and Flansburgh seem to be afraid that if they make another album with emotional depth [like Lincoln], instead of being clever spinmeisters with attitude, they might become the cranky, bloated rock stars that their music implicitly mocks."

Even so, the Giants once again made waves on MTV with their videos for the album's first two singles, "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and a dance-oriented version of the fifties song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." Produced by the band, with the exception of four tracks produced by studio veterans Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, and featuring a variety of guest musicians, the album had a more polished feel than the duo's earlier records. Even so, the distinctive TMBG songwriting style shone through on tunes like "Particle Man" and "We Want a Rock," which features the refrain "Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads."

The British pop music magazine Q voted They Might Be Giants the Best New Act of 1990. The award, based on a poll of the magazine's readers, reflected the band's popularity in the United Kingdom, where Flood's excellent sales earned the Giants a British Silver Record. Late in 1990 the band embarked on an extended tour that included performances in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Following the tour, Flansburgh and Linnell set about writing songs for their next project, which would be 1992's Apollo 18, which seemed to barely register with critics.

Their next effort in 1994 was also barely noticed by the mainstream. Guitar Player reviewer Joe Gore found John Henry "jumps genres as feverishly as any of the group's past albums; if the duo had better voices and a worse sense of humor, they'd be awash in Beatles comparisons." Then there was the whole geek rock thing. "People think they are nerds or geeky because their music is cerebral and very intelligent," Sue Drew, who signed the Giants to Elektra, told Louie. "There's a real sense of irony, and even darkness that a lot of mainstream programmers don't get."

Dial 718-387-6962

Dial-a-Song was still going strong in 1994, prompting Flansburgh to "go on record" with Billboard to say "it's OK to call. The number is 718-387-6962, and callers will hear a different They Might Be Giants song every day." Elektra Records, dropped the group in 1997. The group's last recording for the label was 1996's Factory Showroom. Several compilations and a notable live project, Severe Tire Damage, followed. Undeterred, They Might Be Giants became the first group to release an entire album online in MP3 format. Long Tall Weekend was released online by They Might Be Records in 1999.

To augment Dial-a-Song as much as to take advantage of the Internet as a distribution medium, They Might Be Giants began releasing five new digital songs on monthly via a subscription on Emusic. They also were the mainstay of TMBG Radio, an Internet radio station at the wiredplanet.com website. "We have to think about promoting ourselves in a grass-roots way all the time," Flansburgh explained to Billboard in a 1999 interview about the band's unique marketing strategies. "But at the same time, people like us because we're not obviously packaged by someone else." They continued to work, and worked prolifically.

According to figures provided in a 2002 article in The New Yorker, the band grosses "between one and two million dollars a year, a sum that would barely cover Mariah Carey's manicure budget, but which, even after expenses, provides Flansburgh and Linnell with a tidy income and that most elusive of commodities--artistic freedom."

After writing "Boss of Me" for the popular Fox television series Malcolm in the Middle--to which the group regularly contributed other music--They Might Be Giants was called upon to compose themes and score material for a wide variety of other film and television projects. This included contributions to the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and television programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, ABC's Nightline, and Resident Life. Flansburgh told the Knight Ridder newswire, that because "The `Malcolm' theme has been a real smash ... a lot of people who never heard of the band are taking notice. ... It's really interesting."

Flansburgh and Linnell achieved their first-ever Grammy nomination for the composition "Boss of Me." They ultimately won the 2001 Grammy award for Best Song Written for a Movie, TV or Other Visual Media. This, Flansburgh told Malcolm Mayhew of Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, had them in disbelief even a week later. "We live in a world that is far, far away from Grammy land," he said. "I am in my eighth day of reveling. I am basking too heavily. It's really something that I wish would happen more often. ... "We don't feel like we're in a competition, but in the world of popular music, if you dare exist outside of that circle of what's popular, you're somehow reacting against it."

On the heels of their Grammy win, the duo continued to promote Mink Car, but were also busy creating the children's album No!," which was released in 2002. It put the band on the charts again. Azzerad noted that it "was an artistic breakthrough, taking the band back to the vocal-intensive, sound-driven approach of its early years, a reversion that had an appealing influence on last fall's 'Mink Car.'" But the sales of that album suffered because of a double whammy: it was released on September 11, 2001, and Restless Records reorganized soon after.

They Might Be Giants became the subject of a documentary film by A.J. Schnack that began making the film festival circuit in 2002. Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns met with mixed reviews. And not unlike reviews of their music, critics were polarized. John Skrtic, writing in Library Journal, stated that "the film helps the uninitiated understand the complexities of the band." He added, "the film is short on dirt--perhaps there is none."

By contrast Owen Gleiberman, film critic for Entertainment Weekly called it "an unintentionally funny fanzine-flavored documentary. ... If you thought that the party-down metalheads in The Decline of Western Civilization II were full of themselves, just wait until you enter the echo chamber of whimsical egomania that is alt-rock attitude. ... [T]o watch Gigantic is to think these two were the boho messiahs of the post-punk age." He added that the duo seemed to be solely "giants in their own minds." Daniel Eagan of Film Journal International found the documentary to be "too uncritical to convert many viewers to the They Might Be Giants cause."

2002 was also the year that Dial-a-Song marked its 20th year of operation. Rhino issued a compilation called Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants to mark the 2002 milestone.

They continued to explore children's music with another project. In 2004, the group published a picture-book and disc of four songs-- "Impossible," "Idlewild," "Happy Doesn't Have to Have an Ending," and "Bed, Bed, Bed," which Publishers Weekly called "a fine tucking-in tune-cum-read-aloud," called Bed, Bed, Bed.

The band plans to keep making and promoting their own music outside the spheres of influence of popular critics or the industry. Flansburgh quipped, in an interview in The New Yorker that lowering their expectations has proven "very useful in having an enduring career in rock. ...Is this a good enough life for us? I think the answer is pretty clear: yeah. ... There are a lot of harder things to do in the world."

by Simon Glickman and Linda Dailey Paulson

They Might Be Giants's Career

Group began collaborating, 1981; began playing under current name, 1984; recorded first independent album, 1987; signed with Elektra Records, 1989; released first major-label album, Flood, and toured Pacific region, 1990; Elektra Records dropped group after release of Factory Showroom, 1997; continued to record and issued the live album Severe Tire Damage; became first group to release an entire album online in MP3 format, 1999; wrote "Boss of Me" for the popular Fox television series Malcolm in the Middle, 2001; children's album No! released and subject of documentary, 2002; Bed, Bed, Bed, a book and CD for children published, 2004.

They Might Be Giants's Awards

Q magazine readers' poll, Best New Act, 1990; Grammy Award, Best Song Written For A Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media for "Boss of Me," 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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