John Linnell of They Might Be Giants: A Technologizer Tech Interview
Few musical acts have the power to excite tech enthusiasts like They Might Be Giants. The band's attention to detail, appreciation for humor, and perennial refusal to follow the status quo strongly resonate with nerd-folk (think: engineers, programmers) who rely on minutiae and unconventional thinking to do their jobs.
Their unique approach has earned the band two Grammy awards (and three nominations) in the last 10 years for work with Malcolm in the Middle and a string of well-received children's albums. Of course, with 15 studio albums under their belt, they aren't exclusively an act for kids. While perhaps best known in the adult world for the 1990 album Flood, it's impossible to choose a single TMBG record that represents such a large and diverse body of work.
At the core of TMBG is a 29-year partnership between two good friends: John Linnell, 52, and John Flansburgh, 51, who function like two halves of the same brain. Flansburgh delivers culturally-reflective philosophical works in broad strokes, while Linnell often sings through the character of an insecure, paranoid introvert that explores subjects in elaborate detail.
TMBG are known for their eager adoption of technology in creating and marketing their music. The group first relied on an electronic drum machine before adopting a full live band, then adopted computer sequencing in production work. In the mid-1990s, TMBG quickly set up a strong presence on the nascent Web, and they crowned that era by releasing the first full-length MP3-only album in 1999. To this day, they continue their high-tech track record by embracing online distribution, email newsletters, and podcasting as a way to reach out to fans in the post-label era.
As a student of computer and video game history, I often interview people who helped to make the information technology industry what it is today. But I think it's also important from a historical perspective to explore the impact of technology on the rest of the world. That's why I asked John Linnell to recall his earliest experiences with such machines and to reflect on how computers have impacted his profession.
In early May of this year, Linnell and I spoke at length over the phone about these subjects while also touching on his fruitful partnership with Flansburgh and how it has ensured the continued success of their band.
High School Hacker, Early Mac User
John Linnell: I knew somebody in the early 80s that had a Radio Shack TRS-80. The entire computer was housed in the keyboard, and you plugged the thing into the back of the [monitor]. It was extremely low-res.
People had written these programs in BASIC where you could type in musical notes, and the program would play this incredibly low-res version of the melody that you typed in. I had a friend that was into tech stuff who had one of those and he let me play with it.
That's neat that you used music software for the TRS-80.
Yeah, I wish I could tell you more about it. He explained to me that you could type in these really simple numerical symbols for the notes - a stream of note values and time values, separated by spaces or commas. Then you'd play it back, and if it was wrong, you could go in and fix it. But my memory is you probably had to retype the whole thing if you did it wrong. There wasn't this system of inserting the cursor somewhere. You had to start from the beginning.
Have you ever done any computer programming?
In high school we had a computer lab - this was in the early 70s. Some friends and I eventually worked our way up to just going in there and goofing around. We learned enough BASIC programming to do these really simple things like write a text game with multiple choices, and you'd weave your way through a story. It was really simple stuff like that.
Was that in Massachusetts?
That's right. Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass.
They had a mainframe computer with terminals on it?
Yeah, I can't remember what it was called, but I can describe it. It looked like a refrigerator and it had two spools of probably half-inch magnetic tape on the front, and when you called up your program, it looked like a big tape recorder. The reels would spin around and find the thing that you were looking for and feed it into your terminal.
There were three typewriter terminals in the room, each with a roll of paper that spooled out of it. When you called up the program, it typed out the whole thing. And on one side of the keyboard, there was paper tape that would punch out. You could save your program for yourself by punching it out onto this paper tape - little ASCII holes were punched into the tape, one row per character.
It would take about five minutes to spool out the whole thing, then you'd tear it off, roll it up, put a rubber band around it, and stick it in your pocket.
If you went back to that time and told yourself, "In thirty years, we're going to be distributing all of our music through this device," what would you think?
Well, I think everybody was aware that the technology was advancing all of the time. So I don't think it would have seemed that preposterous, actually. At the time, we talked about how everything was getting miniaturized, and we used to joke about how you'd - we didn't really know what it was going to be - but we'd joke about how you'd eventually carry your record collection in your pocket. Just because everything seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.
When did you buy your first computer?
Around the time we were making our second album, Lincoln , I bought a used Mac Plus. It probably had about one meg of memory. I had that little TV set-shaped thing on my desk for a number of years. We used that and some really simple keyboards for sequencing.
I should talk about the first thing that Flansburgh and I did when we got involved in using computers in our music. Our producer, Bill Krauss, had the first generation of Macintosh, the1984 Mac. He was very on top of all that stuff, and in a way, he kind of forced us. He was like, "You guys gotta learn this. This is going to be essential, especially for sequencing drums," which is what we had been doing using drum machines. He was like, "You should put all your drums on the computer and you'll have a much easier time doing it." That was the sell that Bill was giving us.
He had the very first edition of a program called Performer, which at that time was just a MIDI program. That was probably 1988, because we started typing the drum programs into Performer right before we made Lincoln. Drum sequencing on the Macintosh was going to be the big change between the first and the second albums.
So we learned how to use the Mac by doing sequencing with our producer, Bill Krauss, who had taught us. Then we started sequencing keyboards as well. We were slowly getting our feet wet.
And you had some kind of MIDI box that interfaced between the Macintosh and your other equipment?
Yeah, we had one made by Opcode: a little silver box the size of a pack of cigarettes. You plugged that into the computer on one end and into the keyboard on the other end.
Next: Linnell Goes Online
Linnell Goes Online
When did you first use the Internet?
Pretty soon after I got that Mac, I got a CompuServe account. There was no Web yet. The Web didn't exist, but the Internet was up and running, so you had these posts like CompuServe. I started to get into email with people I knew. It was such a non-universal thing at that time that it actually wasn't all that useful. It was nice to write letters to these particular people that I knew who also had email accounts, but it just wasn't all that useful at the time. This was probably about 1990.
The other thing was that, with my modem, I could call up our band's management agency in New Jersey to send calendar schedules. The guy who worked there also had a computer, and we'd - I can't even remember how we did this, but you'd have their computer pick up the phone when you called them. Your modem would call their modem, basically. Sort of like you're faxing them and then you could transfer files. And of course it took an hour to transfer a tiny file.
That was another thing that seemed like, "Well, this is kind of useful, maybe." You could send a photograph to somebody over the phone.
Did you ever call any BBSes? Bulletin board systems?
Yeah, sure. I remember messing around with that stuff. It was kind of a time waster. I don't think it was a big part of my life at that time. Most of the people on them were tech people who wanted to communicate about tech stuff.
Not music people.
Not so much, yeah.
When did you first use the Web?
Well, that was a little later in the 90s. I think my wife was the pioneer in my household. She got a laptop and one of the early browsers and she was saying, "You know, now you can get encyclopedic information really easily." And she explained to me how the browser worked. As I recall, it was her who was touting this new thing, and I was saying, "I like my old, bound encyclopedia." She'd say, "I know, but this is faster."
What computer were you using at that point?
She had one of the early Mac laptops that was this dark gray color - a PowerBook. And it had the little phone jack on the side.
What did you think about the Web when you first saw it?
It wasn't that big a deal to me at that time. It didn't assume the importance that it has since then. I felt like, "This seems like this a sort of faddish thing." Actually, before Netscape, there was a browser called Mosaic or something like that. Does that ring a bell? Do you remember Mosaic?
Yeah, I used that too. It was the first major graphical browser.
That's right. And originally the Web seemed to be all text, right?
Yeah, it was.
Right. So, I was aware of that and I knew it was a thing people were excited about. The whole thing of getting your computer to hook up to the Web was a little bit complicated. You had to configure your computer, and it was a real pain in the ass.
It definitely was. Your Mac Plus got you started on the Mac platform. Have you continued with a Mac throughout the years?
What's funny is that I just bought Performer 7. Twenty-five years down the road, and I'm using the same computer and the same software. That's the crazy part. It went from being a MIDI sequencer to being a digital recorder. I never bothered to jump to another program. I've tried using Logic and some other things, but I've stuck with Performer because it's easier for me.
You never use a Windows PC?
No, I've never done that. I don't think Flansburgh ever did. We've both been on Performer this whole time. That's the funny thing.
Do you keep up with technology or science news these days?
Well, I'm always interested in that stuff, but like a lot of people, there's a point where I step off and it starts to seem very fetishy and dull.
We don't update our software as much as they want you to. I'll have some gear that works, so I'll just keep using it until it falls apart. We feel like there's a pressure to constantly upgrade everything, and I'm a little bit of a puritan about that stuff. I feel like I don't want to be pushed around and forced to...and the other thing is that often, the upgrades are so tiny and incremental that it feels like a lot more trouble than it's worth.
Sometimes upgrades break the software or make it worse.
Yeah, exactly. You don't want to get the point-zero version because it's not even working properly yet. So I go back and forth between wanting to check out the new thing or not.
I told you I just upgraded to Digital Performer version 7. Well, the previous version I had was 5. I worked with 5 for - I don't know - years, actually, because it was fine. It did everything I needed. And then finally I got curious, and I had already gone through two different versions.
Are there any advantages to 7 over 5?
[Laughs] I haven't quite found out yet. We did all the work on the new record on version 5, so I waited until we were done with all of the recording to upgrade because I knew it was going to slow me down. So, I haven't had a chance to put it through its paces, but it doesn't seem dramatically different. It's pretty familiar looking.
Do you and Flansburgh do most of your work in your home studios these days?
We do a lot of the pre-production stuff. We do the writing at home and make demos. We've had the same musicians working with us for more than ten years now, so we have a pretty regular routine with them where we send them the demos before the recording session so they have a chance to listen to everything.
John Linnell, Asteroids Champion
What was the first video game you ever played?
I was a very talented young Asteroids player. When I was 19, I could play with just one quarter, which gives you some picture of how useful I was, you know, as a person. What a directed and productive member of society I was.
Well, it's fine. Nineteen is OK to be like that.
I guess so. As far as my son is concerned, I think that is the cutoff.
"Don't be good at Asteroids beyond 19."
Exactly. I have a funny feeling he's going to be really good at stuff like that even into his twenties and possibly beyond.
Did you play any home video games? Own any game consoles?
I never got into that stuff, nah. On the early Mac I told you about, I had a copy of Tetris. There was a period in my household where everybody was addicted to Tetris for a little while, but we managed to get over it. Nothing has ever come along to take its place. I also played Tetris in the bar where my first band used to play.
Did you play any other games on the Mac back then?
Not really. I'm not much of a gamer. I can't bring myself to spend hours - the amount of time you have to invest in it. It just doesn't appeal to me now the way it did when I was younger.
There may be a direct relationship between someone's success in their field to how much they don't like playing video games.
[Hearty laugh] Well, I don't know. I've got to say, working with the Homestar Runnerguys...they're about 15 years younger than me, and they seem like really intelligent, productive people who are still obsessed with video games. That made me more sympathetic to that use of your time, because they're really funny, interesting guys, and they obviously are still deeply into video games.
Have you considered writing music for video games? It's a big industry right now.
I'm not against it. My sense is that it's a pretty interesting world. But we've never really locked into it. We met with the guys who developed The Sims and did a version of "Take Out the Trash" using their language. We wrote some incidental music as well for the game. I'm not sure where that wound up getting used.
We probably haven't pursued video game music as hard as we could. I do feel there's good and bad game music. I can tell that. There's stuff that's really interesting, and then there's a lot of crap, so I appreciate the idea of wanting to raise the standard.
Next: Songwriting and Computers
They Might Be Computer Giants
Has access to a computer-based recording system changed your songwriting habits?
I think that it has, yeah. It was really useful as an expedient. It made a lot of stuff we were going to do anyway much easier. But then it also made us...there's a way of thinking about music when working with sequencers where you think in blocks. Because there's a lot of cut-and-paste, and that kind of thing.
I think it has also helped us to think about other ways of working where you're not thinking in terms of "chorus-verse-chorus." That's a way of thinking and it's produced a lot of the great popular music.
A traditional pop song structure.
Yeah, traditional pop song structure. But then once you wrap your head around that idea, you can also think of other ways to work. A song could just have a beginning and an end, and it doesn't have to follow that sort of pattern. It doesn't necessarily need to be "chorus-verse-chorus." It can be just a stream of ideas where one leads into the next one.
In a way, it's not so much that computers make you think one way or the other about this. It's that they make it easier to see what you're doing, and then you can make those choices more consciously.
Did your musical relationship with computers change when you started working with a live band?
Yeah, I'd say we went through an adjustment period after getting a live band where we had to learn how to integrate the studio creative stuff with the live band. Our fourth album,John Henry , was the first that we made with a full live band. The idea of it was to rehearse the band and record the songs live as much as possible. That was a big departure for us.
From that point on, we realized the part of recording closest to us was working in the studio piecing things together in a more compositional way, not so much having a live band sound - although we really welcomed the addition. From that time until now, we've been integrating those two methods of working: with the live band, with the computer and the studio, and all of those contemporary techniques.
They Might Be Giants was one of the first bands to release a full album online: Long Tall Weekend in 1999. How did that idea come about?
Well, we hooked up with eMusic. You know, a lot of brilliant ideas are just a driven by somebody with a checkbook. And in this case, eMusic offered us a deal, and we cooked up this idea with them. We put out an album that was just online, an MP3-only kind of thing. I don't think we were thinking, "This is going to be the future," or anything like that. I think it was just another interesting way to work.
And then you went on to doTMBG Unlimited through eMusic in 2001. Was that a similar situation - a guy with a check?
There are plenty of possible jobs you can get, and we try to choose the ones that seem interesting. But a lot of it is driven by opportunities. You don't just get to decide that you're going to do something; you have to have an organization that goes along with it - if it's going to cost anything or involve distribution. So I think we were lucky. They came along at a good time and it was an interesting relationship.
It was fun. We put out an album, but then we also were putting out stuff that we wouldn't try and tout as a major release. We put out a lot of demos and interesting experimental things that were not something we'd want to charge a lot of money for.
What's funny is we got identified as this "online project" all of a sudden, and that was just one possible gig for us. I don't think we felt, "This is now who we are," or anything like that.
Your new album, Join Us , seems like it's centered around a new way to reach out to fans through the Internet. Was it conceived in that way - through the Instant Fan Club and the fact that it's called "Join Us?"
No, that came later. We came up with the idea after all the songs were written.
Whose idea was it to do the Instant Fan Club?
It was Flansburgh's idea. John was thinking we needed to do something to supercharge the front row, if you know what I mean.
Has the Instant Fan Club been successful for you?
Yes. Yes it has. In the most base possible way.
Let's step back and take a long view for a second: if you had to summarize the impact of the computer as an invention on the music industry, what would it be?
Well, I think it's like a lot of other technologies. It's not different in some fundamental way from the advent of the long-playing record, for example, or something like that. It's this format that drives an aesthetic. It makes people listen to music a certain way. It does have a big effect, but it's kind of limited to that.
I don't know if it affects the appeal of the music. For example, the long-playing record made people start thinking in terms of albums, which was a new idea. You'd put out a collection of 12 songs and they were grouped together and people thought of them as one group related to one another.
And of course now, with MP3s being sold the way they are, that idea has been kind of demolished, because people can buy individual songs and there's really not much compulsion to buy an entire album. There's a little bit of an impetus because you save money buying a whole album over buying that many individual songs. But the pressure is not that great, and I think most people feel like they just want to hear certain songs.
I'd love to know the statistics, but my sense is that way more people buy individual songs than buy albums.
A lot of people just make mix CDs or playlists now and don't want to listen to 60 minutes of one artist.
And they've got a point, which is that a lot of artists put out crappy album material and they have one really good single. That was true when there were only albums. There are a lot of bands that you don't really want to listen to a whole album side of.
Next: Misconceptions About the Band
An Open-Ended, Non-Specific Band
What's the biggest misconception people have about They Might Be GiantsI don't know. [laughs] I get the feeling there are misconceptions, but I think the farther away you get, the more wrong people's image is of what you're doing.
We've seen people describe the band who obviously are not that interested in it. Some people think we're trying to do some deliberately goofy thing. I think it's divided between people who think we're not serious enough and people who think that we take ourselves too seriously.
Any misconceptions about you, personally? Among your fans, you have a reputation as being shy compared to Flansburgh.
I think that's probably right. Yeah. I'm definitely not as outgoing as Flansburgh. They're right, those people.
Since you've written so many songs with morbid subject matter, I think it's fair to ask: what's the worst way you've ever been injured?
[laughs] Yikes, worst injury. Well, I've had some major medical catastrophes. I had a horrible blood infection, but that wasn't really an injury. I guess you could describe it as that.
I was thinking along the lines of: Have you ever almost sliced off your thumb?
Hmm. Flans has almost sliced off his...I think he actually did slice off the end of his finger. He worked as a layout artist for magazines, and at that time, back in the late 80s, they used X-Acto blades to cut up the articles and paste them together. As I recall, he actually did slice a huge chunk of his finger off at one time.
I haven't sliced my finger off. Now that you mention it, I feel kind of lucky. I haven't had any really gruesome injuries in a long time.
Do you think Flansburgh has grown as a songwriter over the years?
Yes, I do and I think you'll be pleasantly - have you got a copy of the new single?
I have the four advance tracks, yes.
I think something happened recently where he's doing more really interesting lyric writing. He's stretching out in a very good way. "Cloisonné," I think, is a great song. That's on the advance thing.
And his stuff on The Else seemed a lot more mature - more intellectual or deeper.
Yeah, I think that's true. I think he's come up with a way of writing lyrics that's much deeper, as you said.
Do you feel like you've grown over the years as a songwriter?
I've gotten more clear about what I like. Every time out of the box is a struggle. It doesn't get easier. It's really hard to write good songs, and the more you do it, the more you're trying to compete with yourself.
What did your solo effort with State Songs (1999) teach you about the nature of your partnership with Flansburgh?
It taught me that Flansburgh does a lot of the work. [laughs] He does a lot of leg work, and it made me appreciate him in a new way. I had to do all this logistical work that I found to be a complete and utter pain in the ass. There are these carousel organs: there's one in Washington, and there's another one in somebody's house in Long Island. I decided I wanted to record these carousel organs for the State Songs album, and it was so much more work and so much more expensive than I had originally thought.
It was actually kind of funny, because at the end of it, I was saying to Flansburgh, "I could have hired a big band for the amount of trouble this was," and I could see when I said that, a little light bulb went off over his head. He immediately starting thinking of ways we could get larger ensemble horn groups. We actually did wind up doing a semi-big band show after that.
And when Flansburgh did his work with Mono Puff, did you see any hole where you were supposed to fit in?
Well, he did have a very individual thing that he was doing. I actually don't know what his thought process was, but I think he wanted to do stuff that had more of a dance quality to it. More funky kind of stuff. I don't know if that was specifically a situation where I was holding him back from doing that kind of thing. I think it was more like that was the flavor of the project he was trying to do.
He was working with other people, so maybe they brought that flavor when they worked together.
I think that's right. I think those guys influenced him. But I think he was making the choice - he was picking the people based on the idea that his solo project would be more that kind of a thing.
Do you ever feel caged by the "They Might Be Giants" sound? Maybe Flansburgh wanted to escape that briefly. Alienating the fan base might be a concern.
This sounds a little bit easy to say this, but I think the freedom that we give ourselves in They Might Be Giants - I can't really imagine having or wanting more freedom. We really allow ourselves to do such a range of things in the band, and the fact that it's this brand allows us to do stuff that would be hard without the power of the brand name behind it. The benefits are really overwhelming, and I don't feel like I'm being held back.
So there's not a constant urge to do solo stuff on your part.
I could see doing another thing, but it's not on the top of my list. I really still very much enjoy this project. I very much appreciate the advantage of working with John Flansburgh. As I said, he's a really hard worker. He's like a workaholic. So there's a huge benefit for me in working with him: he takes a huge amount of the work off my shoulders.
What's your greatest musical triumph?
I don't know if I can come up with the single greatest musical triumph. I think that the conception of the band - the philosophy of the band is the thing that's enabled us to keep going all this time. We deliberately decided that this was not something specific; we wanted it to be open ended. And in some ways, I think that's probably the main inspiration for what we do now. We set out to have a philosophy that [the band] wasn't supposed to be anything in particular, and I think that's the key to the whole thing.
They Might Be Giants' new album, Join Us, hits stores July 19th.