They Might Be Trailblazers

One Brooklyn duo embraced a DIY aesthetic and technology to forge a successful musical career.

Today in Tedium: For regular readers, this revelation will surprise absolutely no one: I’m a massive They Might be Giants (TMBG) fan. For new readers, “Hi, I’m David. I like to talk at length about DIY, novelty, and outsider music. Welcome to the newsletter.” Anyway, back to TMBG. Like I’ve been a fan since around 1991, when an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures showcased animated videos for two songs from their then-current album, Flood. “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” featured various Tiny Toon characters like Plucky Duck (playing particle man/person man and a private investigator respectively) and Hamton J. Pig (the ring announcer and sidekick) telling a story to each song. It was all part of an MTV-style episode, featuring Tiny Toon renditions of “Respect” and “Money,” complete with a hilarious parody version of MTV host Julie Brown (who voiced herself in the role). I wasn’t going to write about TMBG today. But a recent discussion about how a different group, The Residents, managed to take advantage of modern technology and DIY techniques for their art prompted the realization that TMBG did something similar throughout their entire career. The band has always stood on the precipice of juxtaposing music, technology, and trends in unique ways. In today’s Tedium, we’re exploring TMBG’s trailblazing career, from their early shows to their modern projects. — David @ Tedium

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23

The number of songs on the band's original 1985 demo tape. Though the songs were recorded on store-bought audio cassette tapes, they had a remarkable studio quality to them. As the band later told fans on their official Tumblr, they’d been recording for years and were basically seasoned DIY pros by the time they recorded the 1985 tape. Since they’d been laying down rhythm tracks for some time, recording demos became second nature to the group. At some point a They Might be Giants fan—who was also a writer for People magazine—provided a rave review for the album. At least four different versions of the original cassette exist, with slight differences here and there, and it even saw a special limited re-release from John Flansburgh and Marjorie Galen’s Hello Recording CD Club in 1993. The rest is DIY musical history.

They Might Be Giants

An early publicity photo of the band, with the Dial-a-song number prominently featured. (via This Might Be a Wiki)

The original two-guys-and-a-drum-machine band

We’ll kick off today’s show with a simple note: this is not a history of TMBG. It’s an exploration of how they’ve used technology over the years. TMBG’s subject matter has never been dull. Who else writes songs about palindromes, contrecoups, and cloisonne? But just as their lyrics and music are interesting, so is the way they’ve used technology over the years. Beginning with their earliest shows, John Linnell and John Flansburgh took a sparse approach to playing.

For their demo tape, early recordings, and first three albums, the band featured the duo of Flansburgh and Linnell with either a drum machine and bass synth pairing or a pre-recorded tape. Around 1988, the band began using a Mac program, Performer, to sequence their drums. As John Linnell told Benj Edwards in an excellent 2011 interview for Technologizer:

We started typing the drum programs into Performer right before we made Lincoln. Drum sequencing on the Macintosh was going to be the big change between the first and the second albums. So we learned how to use the Mac by doing sequencing with our producer, Bill Krauss, who had taught us. Then we started sequencing keyboards as well.

They used an Opcode MIDI interface with their equipment to give it the authentic TMBG sound.

Those early shows were a DIY musician's dream. With just the two Johns and "a rhythm section that seems to come from nowhere," the band captivated audiences, were signed to a major label (Elektra), and saw some success on MTV with some of their early music videos.

They Might be Giants, Lincoln, and Flood were all solid albums, showcasing the creativity and DIY aesthetic of pioneering independent artists. Many of the songs on each of these three records would not feel out of place among early Internet home recordings, bedroom music, or even some avant-garde music. They possess a unique, homemade aesthetic that gives them a timeless quality and are markedly different from what came after them.

That’s probably why they worked so well with TMBG’s other trailblazing music release mechanism: Dial-a-song.

6962

The last four digits of the original local Brooklyn phone number for TMBG’s Dial-a-Song service. Well before the days of YouTube and Spotify, TMBG utilized a unique distribution model: a telephone answering machine. For the cost of a local call to Brooklyn—or as TMBG would say, “free when you call from work”—callers would be able to hear a new song from the band. Both the old number and newer numbers are still in service, but being used a bit differently these days. When I tried calling the new Dial-a-song number, I was treated to a delightful song I've never heard before—but it was definitely not TMBG.

Just a regular phone call to Brooklyn

Dial-a-song was born out of necessity. In 1983, two events occurred simultaneously: both Flansburgh and Linnell suffered a few setbacks late in the year. The former experienced a burglary at his apartment, while the latter fell victim to a wrist injury. To keep the band going, Flansburgh came up with the idea to playback their recorded songs over an answering machine.

Dial-a-song was unique, and it exposed many people to TMBG's music early on. But it wasn't without some technical problems. Linnell called it, "a difficult medium of expression" because some sounds can't be heard well over the phone. Linnell noticed a long note resembling a beep might actually end the song instead of allowing it to be fully recorded.

In a 1988 interview for Cleveland's Alternate Beat, Flansburgh warned watchers about the call being long-distance, stating, "it's more expensive than some party line."

Linnell had a more tongue-in-cheek take on the service—which had been going for approximately five years by that point—in the interview. Flansburgh begins saying, "it seems like such an incredibly long time…"

And Linnell finished with, "...to do something so incredibly hopeless."

Of course, that didn't stop people from calling in. The service helped the band build a larger audience and test out new material they likely wouldn't play live (or as Flansburgh might say, "the songs that are too weird to play live").

Per the documentary film, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), Flansburgh advertised the service in the back of The Village Voice for $10/week as his own personal service. There wasn't anything other than a song when someone called and only one person could hear it at a time. It was a phone line, after all.

Record a Call

In the right hands, a brilliant device.

The primary machine for dial-a-song was an early answering machine called the Record-a-Call 675. The machine used leaderless, full-size cassette tapes and had a glorious array of useful features. It also operated nearly all-day, every-day, so the band went through a shockingly large number of them as dial-a-song continued.

Eventually, the original Dial-a-song ended around 2006, due to a combination of mechanical failures and difficulty maintaining vintage machines. Less than a decade later, the band decided to resurrect the idea using a 100-channel radio network, various internet distribution channels—including their official YouTube channel—and a brand new phone number.

Songs from the newer iteration of the service also made their way to official albums like Glean and I Like Fun. A second outing for the new version of Dial-a-song made the rounds in 2018, resulting in two fresh albums as well.

The 2015 version of the service apparently performed quite well with engaging audiences and serves as a testament to both Linnell and Flansburgh’s dedication to the band and aptitude for running a successful, innovative project. Not bad for the cost of a local call to Brooklyn.

eMusic

The name of the platform that released one of the first internet-only albums at the time, TMBG’s Long Tall Weekend. Per the band themselves, the album was the first internet-only release by a major artist at the time, with some “highly unusual recordings.” Long Tall Weekend contained some interesting tracks, becoming the most downloaded band on the platform in the year 1999 (alongside the likes of Phish, the Goo Goo Dolls, Bush, and a Star Trek soundtrack, no less). The album eventually ushered in another project—TMBG Unlimited—consisting of specially curated albums of various material and the occasional live shows in what can only be described as a superb fan experience. eMusic is still around, but it’s a shell of its former self these days. As for TMBG, they’ve moved on to greener music distribution pastures.

John Henry

A Hypercard stack created for John Henry, which is still online today. (via Twitter)

As the band released a new albums, they weren't afraid to integrate technology into their work

While Flood was an extremely popular record—the band still performs full shows featuring a performance of the entire album—didn't really showcase what the band could do from a technical perspective (aside from their usual DIY process, of course).

Their next album, Apollo 18, featured 21 short snippet songs in a suite called “Fingertips.” The idea was to take advantage of the CD player’s shuffle feature to randomly intersperse any of the short tunes into the listening experience. The CD liner notes even made mention of the album's sequence complementing the shuffle function. Whether anyone experienced it that way is another story altogether. The album also holds the distinction of introducing TMBG as the official band of NASA.

They'd later begin working with a band for their next album, John Henry, where they’d become a full-fledged band instead of two guys and a drum machine.

But it wasn't just a backing band that changed; John Linnell created a Hypercard Stack to promote the album. Building on another stack called “play music” from creator Fumitaka Anzai, the stack is just a quick card where listeners can hear tinny versions of songs from the album. Who wouldn’t want to hear “Subliminal” or “Snail Shell” in glorious lo-fi? How about a weird vocally fried version of “Meet James Ensor?”

Luckily, the stack’s been faithfully recreated by a programmer by the handle of Jon Uleis, so you can enjoy it today from your mobile or home device.

The follow-up album, Factory Showroom, features a hidden bonus track (“Token Back to Brooklyn”) that requires listeners to manually rewind the first track until the song starts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work on computers and some CD players. It works on mine, but the song isn’t as good as the rest of the album.

Later releases took different approaches. The band collaborated with Mike Doughty and inspired an author to write a story with Mink Car. They collaborated with the team over at Homestar Runner to create music videos for "Experimental Film" from The Spin (it wouldn't be their only collaboration, either. 2008's The Else marked more of a rock album, with an extra disc of music from the band's podcast entitled Cast Your Pod to the Wind. More recently, The Escape Team featured a comic book.

The band uses these opportunities to expand their art rather than rely on a gimmick, which is ultimately refreshing in a world where everything is competing for our attention and the gluttonous demand for constant, fresh content reigns supreme.

14

The number of songs on TMBG’s first children’s album, NO!, that were also offered in multimedia form, as Flash animations, on the accompanying CD-ROM. (There were 18 songs total.) Collaborating with the studio The Chopping Block, which created the animations for the 2002 album, the record contains strong children’s songs like “Fibber Island,” “Clap your Hands,” and the “Edison Museum” that manage to be a fun listening experience for both kids and adults. The idea was to simply pop it in your computer to watch—and occasionally interact—with the fun, whimsical world of TMBG. It even came with a fun booklet containing detailed illustrations and lyrics for each song. Now called The Chop Shop, the studio did extensive work for TMBG in the early 2000’s, including their website and the TMBG Clock Radio—another Flash-powered app that played unreleased TMBG tracks. As for No!, the album topped the Billboard Kid Audio Charts back in 2002 and led to four other successful albums targeted at children.

While their career has seen them record commercials for Dunkin’ Donuts, compose music for the movie Coraline (even if very little of it was used in the final product), write a theme song for a popular show, and more, they show no signs of slowing down.

In 2021, They Might be Giants are still going strong and continually innovating. Despite a rough year (just like everyone else) in 2020, this year will see a brand new art project and album release from the band. BOOK isn’t just a CD of brand new songs; it’s a cloth-bound hardcover art book featuring full-color photography, TMBG lyrics, and a very interesting poetry style—all done with a 2970s IBM Selectric Typewriter. Oddly enough, the album is also going to be available on cassette, like some of our favorite artists used to do.

Whether it’s a success or not remains to be seen, but I’ve already pre-ordered mine and I’m excited to see what TMBG comes up with for their next technological innovation in the future.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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