Interview: John Linnell (They Might Be Giants)

TMBG_Autumn_De_Wilde.jpgA couple years ago, I interviewed John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants about their Here Comes the 123s CD/DVD set. Now with the impending release of the follow-up to that Grammy-winning album, Here Comes Science, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Flansburgh's partner, John Linnell. In our chat we talked about his earliest musical influences, writing songs that aren't silly dance songs, and the role of science advisors...

Zooglobble: What are your childhood musical memories?
John Linnell: There were a couple specific records -- first, Songs of the Pogo, it had lyrics by Walt Kelly, who wrote the comic strip and worked with a songwriter on the record. It came out in the '50s, before I was born. It was a followup to a songbook Kelly wrote. It had some crazy, non-sensical wordplay.

Sounds like you...
Yeah... it was an important record in my childhood.

Then there was the LP of the soundtrack to Dumbo. I remember "Pink Elephants on Parade" -- it was a march with a menacing quality.

When I was 8 or 9, there was a Banana Splits record I liked. It wasn't quite as acid-touched as HR Pufnstuff, say -- it was the inferior followup. All those guys now acknowledge the influence of drugs on kids' TV...

How did you pick the topics for Here Comes Science?
We attempted to represent all the sciences. There was no way to cover all of them, but we tried to make it representative of the sciences -- earth, biology, physics, chemistry, paleotonology, applied sciences. We could make a couple more volumes and not run out of general topics. There was a whole series of Singing Science records, after all, that featured Tom Glazer.

Was it harder to write songs where you have to convey scientific truth rather than emotional truth (or a silly dance song)?
The previous recordings weren't that difficult -- there couldn't be anything simpler than alphabet. We could pour our efforts in being emotionally engaging.

There already was an alphabet song...
Yeah... but with Science, it was a lot harder to write factually accurate songs. We hired a guy from the New York Hall of Science to check what we did. We didn't need to hire anyone on the [Here Come the] ABCs and [Here Come the] 123s albums.

HereComesScience.jpgWere the videos made an even earlier component of the process as a result?
No, we pretty much applied the same process. We wrote the songs, then handed them over to the visual folks. We had to oversee the videos more. The science advisor looked at the visuals, which was somewhat grueling. Sometimes we re-storyboarded them to make the information more clear. But the creative animators could still express themselves. In fact, the visuals were even more packed -- the video for "Meet the Elements" crammed all this information into the video that wasn't even in the song.

A major theme of the album seems to be trying to convey the idea of science as much as or more so than facts...
We didn't talk much about themes when we were writing songs -- we just presented the information. But a little way through writing the songs, we realized we had some songs about science as a way of thinking, which is a topic that is both important and challenging for kids. The way I'm saying it here puts kids asleep right away. But hopefully they'll pick it up on the album. Like on "Science is Real" -- there are ways of ferreting out truth. It's the difference between science and myth. Hopefully kids are interested in that idea.

What's the next kids' album going to be?
I can answer that in two words: no idea. This album opens us up to a broad range of possibilities -- we've been unleashed from simpler topics. After ABCs, the Disney producers said that the obvious next step was the 123s. But here on out? We could certainly tackle subjects for older kids now -- history, or how society works. It'll be fun.

What else is next?
We have a book coming out called Go!, which is based on a PBS song we did. It's a nicely illustrated version. And another adult CD is still in the works...

Photo credit: Autumn DeWilde