Nerd music? Geek tunes? Odd pop? Oh, why not?
They Might Be Giants: It's OK to call us whatever
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The media -- of which this site is a dutiful member -- like pigeonholing. Doesn't matter how many books Steve Martin writes, he'll always be the "wild and crazy guy." Doesn't matter that Mike Nesmith is in his 50s and has long since established a successful career in multimedia production, he'll always be that wool-hatted guy in the Monkees.
So go ahead and find a category for the band They Might Be Giants -- nerd rock, oddball, a novelty act, whatever. Bring it on, says TMBG's John Flansburgh.
"Anybody in any band immediately feels pigeonholed (by the media)," says the bespectacled half of the veteran duo that founded the group, sitting in the lounge of an Atlanta theater. "I've grown ... comfortable with the idea of being pigeonholed."
He's joking -- sort of.
It's really impossible to find a niche for TMBG, though people have been trying for almost 20 years. After all, this is a band that will express its creative energies almost anywhere, from its Dial-A-Song service to a CD for Dave Eggers' McSweeney's magazine. This is the group that recently branched out into the world of television and film music, creating the theme song "Boss of Me" for Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle." (It's the band's first hit in more than 10 years, incidentally.)
In the meantime, the band does the things a band usually does, such as put out records and play concerts.
Yet, when you start as a duo of guitar and accordion (augmented by a drum machine) and produce zippily catchy songs with titles like "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" and "Kiss Me, Son of God," well ... someone's going to make up a category for you.
Flansburgh, who along with partner John Linnell added some musical accomplices along the way, shrugs it off.
"We do some very lighthearted songs, we do some very complicated songs, and that -- in and of itself -- is an unacceptable stance. (Tastemakers believe) you have to be a party band, or you have to be a really heavy band, but you can't be both.
"I think," he adds whimsically, "we're basically the thinking man's drinking band."
'What's not supposed to be successful'
Flansburgh and Linnell, co-conspirators in musical iconoclasm, have known each other since they were children growing up in the Boston suburb of Lincoln, Massachusetts. After moving to Brooklyn, New York, in the early '80s, the two hit upon the idea of "Dial-A-Song" -- an answering machine filled with their own melodies. The calls started flooding in ("It's free if you call from work!" went one of their early taglines) and, coupled with the support of college radio and MTV, They Might Be Giants -- the name taken from a 1971 George C. Scott movie -- started building a following. (Dial-A-Song is now on the Web at www.dialasong.com; the longtime number, 718-387-6962, still works.)
TMBG's first two records, "They Might Be Giants" (1986) and "Lincoln" (1988), sold fairly well. But the idiosyncratic group always had a somewhat idiosyncratic fan base, which may have saved it from major-label interference when TMBG signed with Elektra in 1989, says Flansburgh.
"We've been very lucky," he says. "We established our sensibility outside the star-making machine. By the time we got to major labels, they've never known exactly what to do with us, because all of our success comes out of what's not supposed to be successful."
The band, he says, "could have been Timbuk3"- an '80s group remembered for one freak hit -- but fate wasn't that fateful. "By never having that kind of good fortune, we've endured on an even keel," Flansburgh says.
That's meant sticking with the style(s) that made the band popular in the first place. TMBG's songs have rarely lacked for hook-laden chord changes or memorable melodies, but the band is fond of throwing in curveballs -- lyrical non-sequiturs, strange rhymes, or offbeat subject matter. (It's probably the only rock band to have done a song about 19th-century President James K. Polk.)
Yet some of their songs hide acid in all that sugary pop. "Which one of us is the one that we can trust/You say that I think it's you, but I don't agree with that," Flansburgh sings in "I've Got a Match," an elliptical song about a feuding couple.
It's a band that can be enjoyed on many levels, says longtime fan Dan Felsenheld of Arlington, Virginia. That includes age levels.
"One great thing about their music is that you can play it in the presence of your 2-year-old," says Felsenheld, whose daughter, Kate, happens to be just that age. "I can't play my Violent Femmes CDs at home anymore when Kate is awake."
In the middle with 'Malcolm'
It was TMBG's distinctive sound that drew "Malcolm in the Middle" creator and producer Linwood Boomer to the group.
"They have a very, very cool sensibility," he says on the phone from California. "They're hip without trying too hard. I found that really attractive in trying to give the show a hip flavor."
Boomer counts himself as a fan of longstanding, but says happenstance brought "Malcolm" and TMBG together.
"There's a sort of shirttail relationship between the production company that owns 'Malcolm' and the record company that owns TMBG," he says. "When I started working on this project, I was asked if I'd heard of They Might Be Giants. I said, 'Oh my God.' I'd been listening to them for years." The band provides musical scoring for the show as well as its theme song.
"Malcolm" isn't the band's only outside project. Flansburgh directs short films and videos, and Linnell puts out the occasional solo record. There's also Radio TMBG, a Web music service that programs both TMBG material and group favorites (available on www.emusic.com) and its own colorful Web site (www.tmbg.com). The group even plans a children's record, "No!", due out later this year.
Besides "Malcolm," Flansburgh and Linnell wrote the theme song for "The Oblongs," which recently debuted on the WB network, as well as the new opening for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." ABC even used the group for a series of "Nightline" science specials.
Given TMBG's following among the folks in Hollywood, Flansburgh and Linnell could probably shelve the albums and go in a different musical direction -- film and television scoring, perhaps?
Flansburgh thinks not. "I see us going in the direction of a rock band playing in stinky clubs for the rest of our lives," he says with a laugh.
Which is what they will be doing through May, at least, backed by the "band of Dans": guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Dan Weinkauf, and drummer Dan Hickey. Meanwhile, an as-yet-untitled album is due in the fall.
It's a busy life, particularly for a group that's never had a platinum record. Which begs the question: Why them?
Perhaps, suggests Flansburgh, it's because that pigeonhole is only big enough for one group. "To paraphrase a quote that was given to the Grateful Dead," he says, "we're not the best at what we do, but we're the only ones who do it."
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