An Interview with John Linnell (They Might Be Giants)

Here’s a conversation that I had with John Linnell, singer, accordionist and keyboardist for the band They Might Be Giants. We spoke for almost an hour over the phone, but due to an extremely tight word limit, I was unable to fit everything into my written account. John couldn’t have been a nicer person, and as a huge fan of his band, speaking to him has been a highlight of my short career. Alas, I’m not sure how impressed I am with what I’ve written here. One day I hope to write up the full conversation. But until then, this will have to do.

Founded by John Linnell and John Flansburgh in early 1980s New York, They Might Be Giants have had a long and successful career. They initially performed as a duo for many years before recruiting a full band in the ‘90s. Their humorous, unconventional melodic songs have earned them a devoted fan base, attracting admiration from the likes of Bob Dylan, Frank Black and Elvis Costello.

Most people know them best for the song Birdhouse in your Soul, but the Giants also provided the opening themes to The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, for which they won a Grammy award. In recent years, they’ve received both commercial and critical success with a series of children’s albums.

I’m fortunate to speak with one of the band’s founding members, John Linnell – the songwriter and singer of many of their best-known songs, including Birdhouse in your Soul and Ana Ng.

I call John two days before thanksgiving at his home in Brooklyn, New York. The previous week, the band’s trailer caught on fire, destroying much of their gear. Nevertheless, John seems in good spirits. “Fortunately, nobody was hurt,” he says, “but we’re going to have to wrangle a lot of gear for the upcoming few shows.”

The band’s next couple of shows see them playing one of their most popular albums, 1988’s Lincoln, in its entirety. We’ve never played Lincoln before,” he tells me, “so this is pretty exciting for us. We’re learning all this material, some of which we’ve never played, or haven’t played in 20 years. It’s really fun to learn old songs; they feel fresh. I’m enjoying that process a lot. 

I’m keen talk about the band’s relationship with the UK, once described by John Flansburgh as a mirror opposite of what it is in the United States. While the Giants might not be as well known in the UK as other alt-rock pioneers, Linnell describes playing London shows as “almost like a homecoming”.

We don’t come all that often, so it’s kind of a big deal for us. We have a lot of friends in London, and my wife, who’s from Dundee, spent ten years there,” he says. “Last time, we played Koko and Latitude festival, which was completely different. It seems like it rains torrentially at every festival in Britain, yet people were perfectly content to stand out in the middle of the rain with their wellies.”

Knowing that the Johns are both big coffee drinkers (widely referenced in the band’s 2003 documentary film Gigantic), I’m interested to learn how John’s feels British coffee has faired over the years. 

The ‘80s were terrible times for we coffee drinkers,” he laughs. “I think there’s a similar problem going the other way; tea in the United States has historically been undrinkable for British people. I married a British woman, so I get to hear about how bad the tea is.” 

Speaking of all things British, I’m intrigued to hear more about their history with Elvis Costello, who came close to producing the band’s fourth album Apollo 18.

We’re long time Elvis Costello fans,” he says enthusiastically. “He had a huge impact on us when we were youngsters. He came to our early shows in London and we did a bunch of shows in New York with The Attractions, in the early ‘90s.”

Finally, I talk to John about the band’s two recent releases: their fifteenth studio album Join Us, and rarities album Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, which includes songs initially recorded for Join Us. “Some of those tracks, we felt, were good quality, but didn’t fit in with Join Us for one reason or another. We recorded something like 30 songs for that album. Others were just tracks of interest to fans, for example, the Pixies cover Havalina.”

All of The Might Be Giant’s albums, including Join Us and Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, can be purchased directly from their website (available on CD, vinyl and as a download). If you’d like a crash course in the band’s near thirty year career, be sure to listen to my personal They Might Be Giants “best of” Spotify playlist.

Spotify: They Might Be Giants – Jack Sharp

Originally published in the Roundhouse’s Redtop magazine.

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