In 1983, long before they blossomed into a beloved institution, the nascent career of indie-pop nonconformists They Might Be Giants was briefly derailed by twin misfortunes: John Linnell broke his wrist in a bicycle accident, and John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn apartment was burglarized — the thieves stole much of the equipment Flansburgh and Linnell used to play live. Forced to take a break from public performances after only their third show, the Johns kept up their creative energies by recording songs on cassette tapes and releasing them through Flansburgh’s answering machine. They placed an ad with Flansburgh’s phone number in the Village Voice, inviting diehard fans and curious Voice readers to call up for a direct line to soon-to-be standards and fresh demo cuts. They called the service Dial-a-Song.
Dial-a-Song may have been born out of necessity, but, Flansburgh says, it helped make They Might Be Giants what it is.
“Dial-a-Song was a great learning experience for us on a couple of different levels, besides just having an excuse to write a new song,” Flansburgh says. “It also really taught us how important it was to quickly communicate an idea. The cruelness of the format was that when a phone call came in, we could hear if somebody hung up. So if the song had some spacey introduction that didn’t hold people’s interest, you’d just hear them hang up. And it was like, ‘Ugh, lost ’em!’ It really trained us to keep it lively.”
For three and a half decades now, They Might Be Giants have kept it lively. They regaled the alternative underground in the ’80s as an offbeat guitar-and-accordion duo, finding cult success on a major label in the ’90s and later weaving their way into the pop-culture fabric via pop soundtracks and children’s music. Part of that liveliness comes from the band’s hyperkinetic melodicism, drawn from a vast storehouse of influences: jittery New Wave pop and punk’s anarchist spirit, largely, classic rock, hip-hop, Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, advertising jingles, and novelty records. There are so many influences at play that, now, there seems to be no influences but the band itself.
The band’s indelible sense of fun, too, comes from the Johns’ smart-aleck, herky-jerk sense of humor. Their voluminous catalog is filled with wry, clever songs flush with oblique references (often to postwar Americana) and subliminal punchlines. The Johns’ bravely upbeat humor is tinged with darkness, but it’s far too colorful to be called black and is fueled by a palpable sense of the absurd.
“I think the humor in what we’re doing is a very natural reflection of who we are as people,” Flansburgh says. “In some ways we’re kind of snobby and in some ways we’re kind of pretentious, but we want to write original songs and we’re not too worried about looking self-serious all the time. What was interesting about what we were doing [early on] was not necessarily mainstream. It wasn’t like the world was waiting for us. It was just a little more complicated, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the essence of what we were doing. And ultimately that’s been part of how we’ve been able to survive.”
Some of They Might Be Giants’ biggest successes in the 2010s have roots in the Johns’ early days: 2015’s Glean and 2016’s Phone Power, for instance, were compiled from songs the revitalized Dial-a-Song served up in 2014 and 2015. I Like Fun, the Giants’ 20th and newest record, recalls and rivals They Might Be Giants’ classic early ’90s period in its creativity and enthusiasm. Like 1994’s John Henry, I Like Fun puts the spotlight on the band’s formidable live lineup: drummer Marty Beller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and guitarist Dan Miller. It was recorded at Reservoir Studios in New York City; the studio occupies the space that once held the legendary Skyline Studios, where They Might Be Giants recorded their platinum-selling 1990 album Flood, which features fan favorites “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
“Flood was the first album where we had any kind of time to do what we were doing,” Flansburgh says. “Flood was the first one that actually felt sort of joyful. We were able to kind of relax and take our time and make sure it was the way we wanted it to be. So coming back to a place like Reservoir was very easy. It was just like, ‘Oh, great, we’re back in the good spot.'”
Outwardly, I Like Fun is very, well, fun. Like everything else in the band’s world, the songs are reliably and brilliantly off-kilter and marked by clever melodies, imaginative wit, and cunning wordplay. But what the Johns are singing about isn’t so mirthful. I Like Fun treads largely in dread, death, and disappointment. Opening track “Let’s Get This Over With” wallows in the malaise and anxiety of the current sociopolitical climate, Linnell hoping against hope for a “final punctuation mark” to end the “spelling mistakes and groping in the dark” before shrugging the titular line in the chorus. “All Time What” is a perky number, shot through with huge guitar chords and peppy horns, about a decidedly un-upbeat sentiment: being gutted by the sudden dissolution of a relationship. “I’m all torn up because my buttercup up and gone and left me,” Linnell deadpans, later conceding with a sigh that “things fall apart.” The punchy “Last Wave” is thick with existential despair: “We die alone, we die afraid,” the Johns blithely harmonize in the chorus before reminding us that “the grave is the loneliest place.”
“The album could have been called Where Has All the Fun Gone?, but it might have alienated people,” Flansburgh laughs. “The song ‘I Like Fun,’ it’s certainly not the only song on the album that does, but it certainly speaks to the spirit of the album, which is that there are a lot of things that get in the way of enjoying life. And that’s kind of a recurring topic.”
Indeed, They Might Be Giants’ catalog has long been shot through with this sort of gentle pessimism. Even their most perfectly realized pop songs have looked at the world through darkened glasses. Consider “Don’t Let’s Start,” the band’s first real hit in 1987 and still one of their finest moments. Amid stuttering drum machines and bracing funk chords, there’s a moment of ironic philosophic austerity: “No one in the world ever gets what they want,” Linnell sings, “and that is beautiful.” The younger incarnation of the band may have tempered it with a spikier and more surreal approach, but I Like Fun reconfirms They Might Be Giants’ central conceit: to illuminate the sadness of existence and then provide a measure of levity through imagination and irreverence. To that end, Flansburgh argues that I Like Fun is hardly a downer. It’s simply a clear-eyed — if idiosyncratic — look, he says, about where we are.
“Current events played a very real part in where we’re at, in terms of songwriting,” Flansburgh says. “People tend to be very optimistic about the future, despite a fair amount of evidence that things could be quite catastrophic.”
“I know people often look to our music to cheer them up,” he continues. “I understand that this is probably the last thing they want to hear from us.”
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