A little over a quarter-century ago — almost eight years into their eclectic career — quirky alternative pop band They Might Be Giants landed a major-label deal with Elektra Records and released their breakthrough third album, Flood. The disc included the radio hits “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and almost immediately the New York group was transformed from local heroes to mainstream pop stars
“We became quite aware we suddenly had a widespread audience for what we were doing,” vocalist and guitarist John Flansburgh tells Yahoo Music. “Up until then it felt much more like we were leading a cult than cracking some enigmatic rock performer code. With Flood, everything felt different and it was a very intense time professionally and creatively, because we were on a roll and we really didn’t want to blow it.”
To celebrate that sliver of history, They Might Be Giants offered fans a free download of Flood recorded live in Australia.
Glean will be the first of three albums culled from the Dial-a-Song weekly tunes the band started posting on their website in December 2014. In addition, before the end of the year They Might Be Giants will release their fifth yet-untitled album of children’s music and videos.
“It will be the first one we’ve done in a while that doesn’t have an educational theme, so it will be a nice return to the world of psychedelic kids’ music,” Flansburgh says. “The very first kids’ album we did was called No, so I’ve been thinking we would call this album Yes. But we might get in trouble with a progressive English rock band that could launch a cease-and-desist order against us.”
They Might Be Giants draw a clear distinction between their adult rock and their kids’ tunes. And right now, Flansburgh and his bandmate John Linnell are focusing on writing more offbeat rock and pop songs like “Underwater Woman,” “Madame, I Challenge You to a Duel,” and “All the Lazy Boyfriends.”
There’s no question that the weekly Dial-a-Song campaign — a digital revamp of the highly amusing analog phone service they launched in 2000 and shut down in 2008 — has piqued the curiosity of fans enough to keep them logging onto the TMBG site at least every seven days. The question Flansburgh and Linnell sometimes ask themselves is, are they providing audiences with a temporary distraction, or are they resurrecting a viable way to market themselves?
“So much of our culture right now is people at work looking for a good reason to stop working,” Flansburgh says. “They just want to take a break, so they’re grazing on viral videos. I feel like this Dial-a-Song project fits in with that, but hopefully it’s a little more meaningful than that and will have some longevity. And who knows? Maybe some people young people will even discover who we are from this.”
Self-promotion aside, They Might Be Giants are best known for writing a wide variety of songs for albums and playing them live, whether they’ve been at rock shows for moms and dads or children’s concerts for moms, dads, and (sometimes) their kids. Not everyone knows Flansburgh and Linnell have also written incidental music for television programs including Malcolm in the Middle and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“It makes me realize how bad we are at blowing our own horns,” Flansburgh says. “More people found out that we did The Daily Show music the week the show was ending than knew that we were doing it while it was happening. [Husker Du and Sugar frontman] Bob Mould wrote the theme for the show and we did all the incidental music.”
Penning catchy little TV ditties might not seem like a big deal for established hitmakers, but Flansburgh says working on incidental music was actually more stressful than writing a song a week for the Internet. “Making incidental music is a very tough gig,” he says. “When we were in the thick of doing The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, I actually pulled many all-nighters, which is something I hadn’t done since college. There’s something about being on the darker side of 30 and pulling all-nighters that doesn’t feel right. My sympathies for long-haul truck drivers. You just don’t bounce back the same as when you were younger.”
With studio time booked and live shows scheduled, Flansburgh and Linnell have a full plate for the rest of the year. But there’s one thing they would gladly add to their workload. They’d love to write the score for a major animated motion picture.
“Pixar, call us! We’re ready. We’re in tune. We’re practiced. We’re focused,” concludes Flansburgh. “We do a lot of animated work and work in that realm, and I think our music is uniquely suited for that kind of treatment. I’m just wondering why the phone doesn’t ring.”