When They Might Be Giants started performing in and around their New York home base shortly after forming in 1982, the guys didn't have much of a stage show. Accompanied by a drum machine and a tape player, they took a few primitive props with them as they played small clubs. The band's live show has evolved over the years and the guys now tour with a full band. But they've kept the kitsch and charm intact even as they've graduated to bigger rooms.
"We try to keep it as entertaining as possible," says singer-multi-instrumentalist John Linnell. "There are things that are planned out that are our version of pyrotechnics. We have a puppet show. We consider that a show stopper. Other bands wouldn't consider that to be an exciting part of the show, but we've found from our experience that adult audiences really respond to puppets. Those things are planned out, but there's a range of things that happen spontaneously. When the show has ground to a halt, we will talk and the conversation will wander off in some direction that is interesting to us, though maybe not compelling to everyone else. It does make each show unique."
When it comes to describing the group's musical approach, "unique" is certainly the best adjective to use. In the early days, the duo recorded songs into its answering machine, dubbing the resulting demo "Dial-A-Song." They encouraged fans to call in and record their own tunes by leaving messages. Some 500 fans phoned in.
That quirky sensibility is also symbolized in "Don't Let Start," their first single, which quickly caught on with college radio; the band's career took off from there. In 1990, MTV put the videos for "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" into heavy rotation, making the nerdy duo into a household name. Those songs continue to be staples in the band's set and Linnell says he and bandmate John Flansburgh haven't tired of playing their most recognizable songs, either.
"There's a thing in the theater when people do a show over and over that by the 50th performance, they're so familiar with the material that they can do stuff with it that's subtle and interesting," he says. "I feel that way about 'Birdhouse' and the ones we play over and over again. There's a subtlety to performing that you get to do when you're very familiar with the material. You could chop our heads off and we'd be able to still play 'Birdhouse' if there's some brain stem left in the neck."
On its new album, Nanobots, the band initially embraces the same indie pop sound for which it is known. Songs like "You're on Fire" and the title track feature nasally vocals and frenetic melodies. Mid-way through the disc, things get weird. "Destroy the Past" is a 16-second snippet and "Tick" clocks in at only 12 seconds. Not that the group is any stranger to short songs.
"I guess we had some kind of breakdown in the middle of the album," laughs Linnell. "Every time we've made a record, we consistently did this thing where we try to keep the songs from sounding similar to one another and we try to keep things surprising. That's something we're interested in all along. I'm not clear whether people listen to albums all the way through any more and think of it as a sequence. I did while growing up. There was side one and a side two and you had a real sense of the flow. People listen to songs much more individually. We think of an album as an arc with a beginning, a middle and an end."
While some fans might be caught off guard by the album's quirkiness, the payoff comes at the disc's end with the shuffling, woozy jazz of "The Darlings of Lumberland" and the snappy "Icky." At least a handful of the new songs will make it into the current tour's set list.
"We've learned eight of the new songs so far," says Linnell. "We may add some more onto that. That's a good portion for us. When we're touring to support a new album, we do a lot of the old stuff as well. There's some stuff that people expect us to play, the old standby songs. There's also a certain amount of deep catalogue stuff that people enjoy hearing us do."
The band is now 30 years old and Linnell admits he's surprised at its longevity.
"I don't think we had any idea what to expect," he says. "We just took it as it came. We didn't really have a concept of the kind of thing we were doing or where were supposed to end up. There were lots of examples of successful musical acts that seemed like a fait accompli. You think the Beatles were supposed to be famous because they just are. If you consider that they were from this depressed backwater of Britain, which at that time was not producing big famous music acts, that was completely weird. We didn't know that there was such a thing as college radio when we started out. We thought it would have been enough for us just to make recordings and get people to hear them. We made stuff that we thought people would want to consume. That was our only guideline."