What could guitar god Eric Clapton and the quirky college rock heroes They Might Be Giants possibly have in common? Working with Cream singer Jack Bruce.
"He's got a great tenor voice," said John Flansburgh, who along with John Linnell, make up TMBG. Legendary blues-rock singer and bass player Bruce provides backup vocals on the title track of the group's new album I Like Fun, which came out in January.
I Like Fun is the beloved band's 20th album, but it's been three decades since the Brooklyn-based TMBG released their second and seminal record Lincoln, released in 1988. Before playing a sold-out show at the TLA on Saturday, Flansburgh reflected upon the differences and similarities between the two albums and how their approach to music making has changed.
"It's kind of funny — there's no getting back your innocence," said Flansburgh. "When we were rocking people as a duo, I was very much convinced that we were as rocking as anything could rock … it was like AC/DC: 'Sure they're good, but They Might Be Giants is just as good and more original.'"
For their first four albums, TMBG performed as a two-piece band, not adding live backup musicians until 1994's John Henry. During this time, the band relied on singing and playing guitar and accordion to pre-recorded bass, drum and sound effect tracks. Bill Krauss, who produced their first two albums and toured with them as their sound engineer, remembers these tunes well.
"One of the things that made them unique was this ability to give the song what it needed," said Krauss. "Every song could have its own perfect arrangement and its own perfect set of instruments. If you wanted a huge horn section [or] 30 rhythm percussion players, and you put it on the tape and you play along with it, you've got it."
With tracks like the driving "Ana Ng" and a rollicking, stream-of-consciousness ode (possibly) to manatees called "Cowtown," the band relentlessly upended the rock genre with witty lyrics and arrangements featuring fluttering saxophones, xylophones, synth jazz bass, a drum machine, and theremin-like voices haunting the soundscape.
"Starting without a set lineup means that your band sound becomes more wide open," said Flansburgh. "That was something that's just stuck with us forever. Enjoying the freedom of being able to scale a song up or down is a very liberating way of working."
Another example of this sui generis approach is Lincoln's "Snowball in Hell." It features the unlikely combination of accordion, acoustic guitar, synthesized drums, and samples from How to Master Time Organization, a 1960's motivational tape geared to salesmen.
"I found it at a bookstore in a rack full of inspirational cassettes. I said 'Flansburgh's going to find a way to use this,' " said Krauss. "I gave it to him as a birthday present." The band weaved this gift into the perfect anti-work song that claims "if it wasn't for disappointment, I wouldn't have any appointments."
Given these uncommon brilliances, TMBG was not a sure bet for Bar-None, an independent label based in Hoboken, N.J., that first signed the band. The band attracted fans in the New York's eclectic East Village scene, but it was unclear how that would translate to broader audiences.
"In many ways the first five years of the band was just like being shot out of a cannon. When John and I started, I couldn't sing and play the guitar at the same time. The learning curve … was really high because of the [East Village's] sophisticated crowds. They were probably to this day the hippest people we ever played for," said Flansburgh. "When we made our first album, it seemed like the odds were pretty much 50/50 that we might not make another album. So making [Lincoln] was like late-breaking good news and a very exciting period."
Lincoln brought the band national attention, selling over 200,000 copies. The single "Ana Ng" peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart and prompted prominent Village Voice critic Robert Christgau to herald "a beyond-perfect tour de force about a Vietnamese woman they never got to meet." Following this triumph, the band was picked up by major label Elektra Records.
Fast-forward to 2018. Thirty years and 18 studio albums later, including theme songs for The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle and the Grammy-winning children's record Here Come the 123s, the band's approach to songwriting has evolved.
"There's always been a little bit of a laboratory quality to what we're doing. We are not too shy about sawing off the upper half of a good idea and affixing it to something else just to see if we can make it better," said Flansburgh. "There are many days where you don't feel like you're up for writing a song. You can simply work on the sonic experimentation part of it rather than trying to get a whole idea airborne."
So how did they pair their style with legendary singer Jack Bruce? In true TMBG fashion, they took old sounds and cast them in a new way.
"It's interesting and odd because this says a lot about where music and sound-making is at in 2018," said Flansburgh. "We use a sample library that was put together by Bruce. It's him singing and what's funny is he sings each note across the whole scale with a glockenspiel. It's a beautiful sound."
Though they continue to grow musically as they always have, Flansburgh is aware of how some perceive the band.
"There's this funny line of critique among the haters of They Might Be Giants. The gist of the argument is this joke band isn't funny enough and if you think about this as an idea long enough you realize that it's a classic example of a false premise," said Flansburgh. "We do incorporate humor into what we're doing and that is a very volatile and kind of fragile thing. I think succeeding at that balancing act is probably the trickiest thing we know how to do. Maybe for people who are very self-serious, it's just too weird or it's just not profound enough. But man, I watch TV. American culture is such a weird thing. I just can't take things so seriously. I'm not going to try to be something I'm not."