They Might Be Giants' John Linnell talks fatherhood and music for kidsGwynne Watkins
Alt rock duo They Might Be Giants, known for cerebral lyrics, catchy melodies and unexpected instrumentation, has always attracted an eclectic group of fans. In recent years, however, they’ve added a whole new demographic: very small children.
Following the surprise success of 2002’s No! , They Might Be Giants embarked on a project with Disney, creating kid-friendly CDs with accompanying music videos: the chart-topping Here Come the ABCs and the brand-new Here Come the 123s. Not that they’ve forgotten their taller, less squirmy fans: just a few months ago, TMBG released The Else, produced in part by The Dust Brothers and featuring songs like “The Shadow Government.”
Babble spoke with singer/songwriter/musician/father John Linnell, who created the band twenty-five years ago with childhood friend John Flansburgh. – Gwynne Watkins
Which of your music is your nine-year-old son most into?
He likes the things we’ve done that have been turned into cartoons, like the Tiny Toons versions of our songs, but I think he feels pretty close to all of it at this point. It’s just sort of around. I try not to rub his nose in it too much.
When he was a baby, did you sing him They Might Be Giants songs?
Not really, no, I didn’t sing him the songs, but he heard them all. He heard No! before it came out, and by the time it came out he was intimately familiar with it – which is funny. We actually recorded it before he was born, but it took that long for the record to be released.
Did you know you were going to have a kid when you started working on that?
I think that we did, but it wasn’t really on the top of my mind. John and I were working on the music for Malcolm in the Middle, and doing a bunch of other odds and ends, doing commercial music, doing music for Jon Stewart, stuff like that, so the kids’ project was just like this very impractical fun thing we thought we were doing, and the fact that it took off really was a surprise. We kind of backed into doing kids’ music.
You must have had people, though, telling you – before you made that album – that their kids were into your music.
Well, when we put out our first record, there was some confusion, because the cover was this wonderful illustration by Rodney Alan Greenblat: sort of a cartoon landscape with me and John and all these cartoon figures and stuff, and people mistakenly thought that it was a kid’s record. But then, in amongst what we were doing, there were songs that were perfectly okay to play your kids, and we have a lot of parents who naturally wanted to share the things that they liked with their own kids. You find parents who are ready to drive the car into a tree if they have to listen to Raffi one more time.
It’s interesting that some of the songs on Here Come the 123s are just like “the number 2 is great” and some of the songs are about infinity and fractions and are really kind of abstract, higher math.
My general feeling about writing songs, for kids or for anybody, is that you don’t have to assume that everybody understands everything. I think in a way it’s better if you don’t – you can just say stuff and see if people get it, and they can still like it even if they don’t get it. There are plenty of things I find really interesting that I don’t understand, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that that’s true for kids as well.
What’s it like working on children’s and adult stuff simultaneously?
With The Else, it’s probably a little bit tougher to chew in a way, because it’s the stuff that isn’t for kids. We probably made it a little less cuddly just by default. The Else is probably the most grown-up thing we’ve ever done, just by the process of taking out things that are appropriate for kids and putting them on kid records.
And you’re playing now to audiences of kids.
Little bit. We’re going to be doing some kids shows, doing something similar to what we’ve done in the past where we’d played in bookstores, with a drummer. Last night at the Beacon was a fourteen-and-over show that was definitely not for kids.
So, you get all the swearing and the nudity out of the way at those shows.
The main thing is, they’re not necessarily healthy places for kids – like, we play in clubs where the adults are drinking and smashing into each other. It’s a place you hope parents would not think to bring their children, but unfortunately, we find that they do, and they bring them all to the front and it’s just an incredibly dangerous and unhealthy place for young kids. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to say that they can’t bring their kids, just because it’s an unbelievable drag to try to control that situation. In a way, it’s hard enough just doing a kids show – there’s always a sort of worry about the volume level and the safety and the organization, and all that stuff, so that’s enough of a job when it’s expressly for kids, but it’s pretty much impossible when we’re doing a show for a mixed audience.
What are kids like, as an audience?
They’re really tough. They’re not as formal in the way they listen to stuff as adults: adults all face forward and they don’t talk when we’re playing, especially when we’re playing something quiet, and then when the song is over, they applaud. But for kids it’s completely not that, especially very young kids – you’re just a part of what’s going on in the room. They’re talking right through the whole show, they’re not applauding necessarily, they’re making a lot of noise, they’re either acting like you’re not there or like it would be appropriate for them to come up and talk to you while you’re playing. I mean, I love kids, believe me, but as far as the dynamics of a show, it’s really challenging to do that kind of a performance.
Much of the press about They Might Be Giants presents this idea of a typical fan: this McSweeney’s-reading, creative, overeducated type. Do you think that you have a “type” of kid fan?
I wouldn’t even say we have a typical adult fan; I mean, we attract a lot of people in the normal concert-going age, but we have, apparently, an unusually wide range of ages. We’re not a band that establishes your identity as a member of a particular culture. Like, we’re not telling you how to dress, really. [laughs]
How involved are you in the Brooklyn parenting culture?
I would say that, to the extent that I just am friends with parents at our son’s school, that’s pretty much it. I mean, we lived in Park Slope for a while, and I have to say it was, I think, for both my wife and I, a point where we felt like there was something slightly stifling about the culture of parenting. Karen had this impulse to go out and smoke while she was pregnant, just to piss people off. “Karen had this impulse to go out and smoke while she was pregnant, just to piss people off.” It seemed really doctrinaire, like people have this very – especially people who don’t have kids – seemed like they had this really hard-line attitude about what you were and were not supposed to do.
Yeah, I think there’s a fine line between being supportive and being oppressive.
Being a Nazi, yeah. [Laughs] But now we’ve really benefited from having lots of kids around. Henry’s got friends who live on our block; he’s got a lot of old friends from his school and his preschool and other places. That’s very important. I tend to under-appreciate the importance of a network of kid friends and potential playdates.
I’m expecting my first baby in three weeks, so I want to know: what most surprised you about having a kid?
Well, I think we were sort of prepared for all the clich’s, you know? Everybody goes on about how you’re not going to get any more sleep, and all that, so you’re kind of over-prepared for that stuff in some ways. Oh, this was a really weird thing – I had a fantasy before he was born, I was thinking that I would recognize him when I saw him, just ’cause I feel like, you see your family resemblance so much in everybody else, and you’re so used to your family members looking kinda like you. And I just imagined, you know, when I saw him he would be this utterly familiar person. And in fact, he was a completely new person, and that was a very weird experience. Now, of course, it’s gone the other way – he’s probably the most familiar person in my life.