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Decades before there was such a thing as “going viral,” quirky, pioneering college rockers They Might Be Giants were paving the way for the current generation of YouTubers, Vine stars, and Internet pranksters. And they did it totally analog-style.
Starting in mid-’80s, John Linnell and John Flansburgh began recording their songs on an answering machine, advertising the phone number in New York papers as “Dial-a-Song.” Thirty years, hundreds of hilarious recordings, and an entire digital revolution later, Dial-a-Song is back with a new phone number (844-387-6962, if you’re old-school), and its website, which launched in 2000 and went dark in 2008, is back as well. TMBG started posting online songs and accompanying videos in December last year, and Dialasong.com now features streams of “Got Getting Up So Down,” “I Wasn’t Listening,” “No Cops,” ‘Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2,” “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel,” “Let Me Tell You About My Operation,” “Hate the Villanelle,” and “Answer,” among other favorites.
"[Dial-a-Song] is such a creative challenge," Flansburgh admits. "To say it’s a marketing campaign is missing the point. But that said, it gives us a momentum that I don’t think we would have had otherwise. We’re a month and a half into it now, and people are really noticing what’s going on. That’s exciting for us. And we’re playing the songs live and they’re getting a huge response. It’s an interesting way of fitting into the world."
The question Flansburgh and Linnell sometimes ask themselves is, are they providing audiences with a temporary distraction, or are they fomenting some sort of creative breakthrough? Flansburgh says it’s both: “So much of our culture right now is people at work looking for a good reason to stop working. They’re just trying to find a break. So they’re grazing on viral video. And I feel like this Dial-a-Song project fits in with that. [But] it’s sort of in the same way as doing videos for MTV gave us access to a bigger audience in the late ’80s.”
In some ways, They Might Be Giants are more relevant in 2015 than ever, even as they celebrate the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough album for Elektra Records, Flood. Moreover, they remain witty, self-deprecating, and forward-thinking. Throughout 2015, they’ll continue to post a new Dial-a-Song tune and video every week, but the prolific duo — who’ve also written for television, creating the incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — will also release three new studio records and their fifth, yet-untitled album of children’s music.
To celebrate the Flood anniversary, They Might Be Giants and Yahoo Music are premiering a free download of the full album, recorded live Down Under. For the next 24 hours, fans can get it right here, at the top of this page, after which Flood Live in Australia will be available for free on the band’s official website. In true TMBG fashion, the album was recorded during the band’s 24th anniversary and, at the time, Flansburgh and Linnell were just looking for some extra material to play in concert.
"I would be lying if I said this was something was carefully planned," Flansburgh admits. "Nothing we do is really that well thought-out. We’re just really good at tumbling down the road. Last year, we toured Australia for the first time in a long time. It was a miniature Pixies experience, when all of a sudden we found out we were much more popular in our absence from the Australian scene than we thought we were. All our shows sold out instantly and they added all these additional shows. And because they were adding shows, we wanted to do something different for the second show. So we played Flood in its entirety in a few different cities across Australia. We recorded the shows, and now we’re basically making those tracks available for free.”
As glib as Flansburgh is about the album’s inception, the idea to present fans with a free live recreation of Flood didn’t come out of nowhere. Last June, TMBG posted a free download of a 2013 live recording of their self-titled 1986 full-length; the move was wildly successful, and it gave the duo another vehicle to reach their audience.
"We kind of figure this one will be really well-received as well," Flansburgh says. "Flood was the landmark album for our public profile, and for a lot of people it’s the only thing they know by us. So for us, playing the whole album in concert is a little bit of a Trojan horse. The singles function as a calling card. People like ‘Istanbul’ and ‘Birdhouse.’ But the whole album really is a gateway experience to They Might Be Giants. We’re not simply pop musicians with singles you might like. We actually spend a lot of time doing something that’s more singular to us. And the nice thing about Flood is that it actually has a lot of examples of that kind of stuff. When people get turned on to it, it’s a way to go deeper than those pop singles. So maybe this will serve as an introduction or re-introduction to what we do.”
As aware as Flansburgh is of the promotional potential of Flood Live in Australia, at the moment he’s much more consumed with the Dial-a-Song quagmire. Flansburgh says TMBG have already written enough Dial-a-Song material to last until August of this year. That said, he’s not completely happy with everything they’ve recorded: “I think we’re going to go back into the studio a little early to punch the material up a little bit and get some more hits in there.”
For those who can’t wait for songs to post on Dialasong.com, a new track premieres every Monday on Slate’s Gist podcast with Mike Pesca. Fans can download the podcast or order the songs on iTunes or through Dial-a-Song Direct, which offers a variety of high-quality downloads. By year’s end, TMBG will release all 52 new songs on three different volumes, the first of which will be called Glean; by then, the band will have played many of the songs live. While Flansburgh is well aware that putting songs out in advance of releasing them on an album could hurt sales, he feels that the excitement exceeds the damage.
"To be honest, we probably are self-cannibalizing, but it somehow feels more pleasant to self-cannibalize that to be cannibalized," he says, referring to the way fans file-share albums on the Internet. He chuckles, then sighs. "Listen, we’re lost," he says in a tone that makes it hard to figure out if he’s joking around or genuinely baffled. "It’s a very misguided project. I’m grateful we’re not broke, but we don’t have huge expectations about capturing enormous amounts of dough. That’s for sure."