Artist Profile
They Might Be Giants
Boston/New York

it’s a stunning testament to the persevering strength of geeks everywhere that They Might Be Giants are still around after 20 years of recording and touring. After flirting briefly with the MTV spotlight, the band spiraled not down, like so many other 80s relics that clashed with the heft of grunge, but sideways – a path that led them to even greater (but shockingly atypical) success.

The core members of the band, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, met in high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts, but didn’t form the band until moving to New York in 1981. The two performed original material with accordion, guitar, and drum machine, and gained a considerably following in the post-punk/art-rock/new-wave scene.

Their first album, released in 1986, made an impact on the then-vital college radio scene, and brought their quirky drum-machine-accordion-guitar-pop to the masses. Following in the same vein was Lincoln, an album beloved by their cult following for its surreal lyrics, bizarre imagery, and hidden twists (Morse code, anyone?). TMBG peaked in popularity in 1990 with Flood. The album was essentially a glossier version of Lincoln, but this gloss grabbed the attention of MTV viewers, radio listeners, and even the writers of Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs, who created an animated video for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” arguably the band’s biggest “hit.” Flood went gold, and the band continued touring and recording to hold on to success, but the music scene had shifted quickly from post-new-wave eclecticism to angst soaked grunge, and TMBG got lost in the shuffle.

For the Apollo 18 tour they recruited a live drummer and bassist for the first time (members of the rhythm section would cycle constantly in the following years). After touring with a full band, TMBG recorded John Henry, their first with the expanded lineup. Sporting a more rock-n-roll sound, some saw the album as an attempt to break in to commercial radio, but the band called it a natural progression. By this time, TMBG had amassed a considerable following of rabid (and vocal) fans. The rise of the internet gave them a forum, and (presumably) gave the band much needed insight to the fans’ desires.

Perhaps due to John Henry’s poor showing on the charts, or perhaps due to fan feedback (or perhaps due to a desire to relive their wasted youth) or perhaps just cause it felt right, 1996’s Factory Showroom was a return to the goofy old days – an album that, while recorded with the full band, retains all the hyperactive energy and giddy eclecticism of their first two albums.

The album also marked an odd milestone for the band, as the following five years would bring no new material, but many projects, including a live album, an internet-only release, and steady work as the award-winning soundtrackers for Fox’s Malcolm In The Middle.

After being dropped from Elektra after Factory Showroom, the group scrambled for a label, but eventually returned to Bar/None for their duo of 2002 releases. Mink Car followed in the vein of their last proper studio album, but was largely ignored by the press (or, in some cases, panned). No! came several months later, to a bit of actual acclaim – the album is the spiritual heir to their early work, containing the most unabashedly goofy material they’ve created in 15 years, and showcasing some of their strongest songwriting yet (which shines through, despite the “children’s album” ruse.)

Unfortunately, their new material (and new unconventional popularity) still fails to equal the brilliance of their first few records. That said, they’re still an entertaining live act, and every new record is a pleasant diversion.

Quick Facts:

Current members: John Flansburgh (vocals, guitar) and John Linnell (vocals, keyboards)

Location: New York

Style: Pop, Rock, New Wave, Indie

Labels Appeared On: Bar/None, Elektra, and Self-Released

Major Releases:

They Might Be Giants (1986)
Lincoln (1989)
Flood (1990)
John Henry (1994)
Factory Showroom (1996)
Mink Car (2001)
No! (2002)

Starting Point: Flood (1990)

Essential: Lincoln (1989)

By: Evan Chakroff
Published on: 2003-09-01
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