Shepherd Express – They Might Be Giants Feature
1-800-They Might Be Giants: The iconic alternative duo revives its Dial-A-Song project
By Joshua Miller
Mar. 15, 2016
For many bands, finishing just one album is a challenging prospect in itself, so it’s no small feat that alternative rock veterans They Might Be Giants have just released three of them over the last two years. Credit the revival of their Dial-A-Song project for that recent prolificacy. The songwriting duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell started the project in the ’80s to let fans call in and listen to their music before reviving it last year with an online component. They released 52 songs in 52 weeks, enough material for three lengthy compilations, the latest of which, Phone Power, they released last week.
Flansburgh calls the second round of the experiment a resounding success.
“The nicest thing about it was that all these people in our audience had gotten to experience what we were doing in such an ongoing way,” he says. “When you’ve been in a band for a lot of years, a lot of times all you hear is stuff that happened in the past, all the formative stuff. And doing a project like Dial-A-Song this last year in 2015, it gave everybody in our audience a chance to participate in this big project and it was exciting for us to see our audience kind of animated by that effort.”
The 18 songs that make up Phone Power include what Flansburgh calls “some very nice pop songs.” While it’s certainly a challenge picking what songs to put on which albums, Flansburgh says the band is “pretty ruthless about our own material.”
“The really rocking songs tend to cast a longer shadow in terms of our audience and with us. So figuring out what should actually be on an album is not too hard,” he says. “There are some more adventurous tracks that are included as well. We have a lot of outlets. We have these compilation records to routinely collect all the nuttiest songs.”
The biggest difference between the new and old Dial-A-Song is social media, Flansburgh says. “Everything you do gets critiqued so harshly and instantly. I think we knew we wanted to keep it consistent and keep the material strong,” he says. “We never really got left off the hook by the YouTube crowd.”
While it proved to be a fruitful labor of love, Flansburgh says that it was a crazy process and jokes that it was a mistake since he “didn’t join a rock band to work hard.” But Flansburgh says the project has strengthened the resolve he and Linnell have for making music.
“We’re lucky that our ambitions for the project kind of run parallel. I think what we want for the band is kind of the same,” he says. “Even when you have people that collaborate really well, they don’t always have the same goals. We’ve been lucky that we can work together well but we also have the same values about what kind of career we really want to have.”
Looking back at their 34 years together, Flansburgh is thankful for what they’ve accomplished. They wrote theme songs for numerous TV shows, including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Malcolm in the Middle” and have won two Grammys. They’ve had plenty of interesting performances including 1992 at Milwaukee’s Modjeska Theatre, when the stage collapsed from dancing fans. “It was an insane event that stopped the show for a long time,” he recalls.
“We’ve been going so long, I sometimes forget how much things have changed,” Flansburgh says. “When we started playing they were still making cassettes. We’re just doing our own thing and we’ve been very lucky people have been open minded enough to check it out.
“Having music on television is a very interesting thing for a musician just because you just see how powerful television is as a platform,” he adds. “So many more people have heard our songs because of ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ or ‘The Daily Show,’ we’ve done a lot of themes over the years. But it’s also thankless, which is strange. People don’t know us; they’ve just heard our songs. So it’s a little schizophrenic.”
Following this tour, they plan to start another album cycle, although this one will take a year or more and take them off the road for a while. From the first downloadable album to audio and video podcasts to smart phone apps and the Dial-A-Song project, They Might Be Giants have carved out an unconventional career.
“We’re thinking about different things,” says Flansburgh. “We would love to get involved with a bigger project. We’ve done a lot of collaborations in the past and I think it would be interesting to do an animated movie. But we’ve just got to find people to work with. That’s a challenge in itself.”
They Might Be Giants play the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, March 19 at 9 p.m.