Kids, adults, sock puppets

After 25 years, They Might Be Giants plays for very different audiences, despite risk of 'cultural cooties'

March 11, 2010|By Sam Sessa | | Baltimore Sun reporter

More and more, They Might Be Giants seems to be a band with split personalities -- and split audiences.

In 2002, the lovably off-kilter band released "No!" an album intended for the whole family. Two of the three albums that followed were children's albums, the most recent being "Here Comes Science." Now, They Might Be Giants separately books children's shows and concerts for the 14-and-older set. Their performance at the Recher Theatre tonight is the latter.

At their "adult" shows, They Might Be Giants plays a mixture of wry, earnest staples such as "Particle Man" and " Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," according to singer/guitarist John Flansburgh. Even the older fans dig some of the music on "Here Comes Science," said Flansburgh, who co-fronts the group along with singer/multi-instrumentalist John Linnell. That's because They Might Be Giants makes kids' music the same way Tim Burton makes kids' movies, he said.

Question: Is there that much of a difference between writing a children's song and writing a regular They Might Be Giants song?
Answer: It's like a Venn diagram. There is an overlap between the two. Writing a good song is this irreducibly difficult thing, whoever it's for. Your strategies for songwriting vary from one thing to another. It's all exploration.

Q: Did you learn a lot when you were working on the songs on "Here Comes Science"?
A: Sure. We were nervous about getting things wrong. With this project we were on really thin ice. We actually brought in a consultant, and he spared us from some of the more embarrassing possible scenarios.

Q: How much of your tour do you devote to kids' shows vs. 14-and-up shows?
A: The kids' shows can only happen on weekends. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't do a kids show on a weekday. It just wouldn't work. Most of these kids go to sleep before we even wake up. The kids' stuff is strictly weekend activity.

Q: Do 14-year-olds really come to your 14-and-older shows?
A: Sure.

Q: As many as the 30- and 40-somethings that show up?
A: It's a pretty Dorian Gray-type experience. Whenever you hear somebody say something like, "There's a really wide age range," my first thought is, "That's a lie." But for a whole variety of reasons, it's kind of how things have turned out.

At this point we've been playing out publicly for 25 years. The people who started seeing our shows 25 years ago do not go out now. They do not leave their houses. So it behooves you as a band to find new audiences and figure out how to reach out to new audiences. We're not trying to keep up with anything. But we need to make that outreach.

Q: The first children's album came out a few years ago...
A: I don't know if making children's albums helps us find younger audiences. That might undermine our teenage audience. I salute our teenage audience for being mature enough to accept the cultural cooties that comes with a band that also works with kids' stuff. To me that's almost a liability.

Q: What I was trying to say was, it's been years since the first children's album. Theoretically, some of those kids could have grown to be teenagers by now.
A: Oh oh oh! Well, that's a fascinating idea. If it's true, it would be genius. I hadn't even thought about that. But we only started doing kids' stuff in 2000.

Q: But that's what I'm saying -- 2000 was 10 years ago.
A: Well, yeah, in about four or five years, we'll start seeing the lifers coming through.

Q: It's going to pay dividends.
A: Yes, the miracle of compound interest. That would be great. It sort of goes against every rule of popular music, though.

Q: Says who?
A: Well, if that were true, Burl Ives would be the Beatles. That's not what we're doing in Baltimore this weekend, though. We're doing our swear-filled adult show. We will have sock puppets, though.

Q: Yeah?
A: Adults love sock puppets.

Q: How long have you had sock puppets?
A: About three months ago, we started doing it in the kids' show. Since the rig was there, we tried introducing it into the adults' show. It was right around Christmas. I wanted to do the duet "Fairytale of New York" with the sock puppets as a cover, right around Christmas time, but we never got it together. A Pogues song with sock puppets sounded cool to me.

Q: Try it out next holiday season.
A: I don't want anyone to beat us to it, that's all. It's a hot idea.

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