I admit that on the night of December 30th 2012, I was beginning to feel the dizzying preliminary effects of influenza (A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like, perhaps, or A/Victoria/361/2011 (H3N2)-like), and therefore was prone to have religious-like out-of-body thoughts, as well as shaking and sweats, and I admit that the friend who accompanied me went slightly crazy that night, too, because of the guy with the gigantic head who was sitting in front of us and who made it impossible to see the They Might Be Giants gig at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
But, whatever was the cause, by the time the band got to the last song that night I was in some kind of Tigris-Euphrates prophetic condition, which was the perfectly receptive condition for one of the band’s more recent compositions, namely “The Mesopotamians,” from The Else (2007). Something happened in me, therefore, something not unlike when Hunter Thompson had the radio (playing “White Rabbit”) thrown into the tub with him in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. The most partisan fans of They Might Be Giants know well “The Mesopotamians” (official video here), because they know every song, but you may not, and you should (a fine live version here). A risky last song for a show, to be sure, but so good, so fully stuffed with reserves of melody and enthusiasm and transcendent capability, and also a great layer of, let’s say, metafictional energy, rock and roll about rock and roll, that I found myself understanding, if deliriously, the end-of-the-year nonsense, the notion that you might want to begin a new year feeling as though there were something glorious about human consciousness. (I spent the next day running a fever of 101, but that’s another story).
They Might Be Giants had that quality, the glorious-about-human-life quality on December 30th, and they especially had it, that night, not when they were playing the old hits, as good as those songs are, but when they were playing new songs (“The Mesopotamians,” as well as the songs from their new album Nanobots), like this relatively new song about what it means to have been in a band so long (thirty years, give or take), that you feel like you are old as the oldest literary superheroes of Western civilization, so long in this band that the ups and downs of it are innumerable (“We’ve been driving around,/From one end of this town to the other and back,/But no one’s ever seen us,/And no one’s ever heard our band”).
Most riveting about the performance, moreover, beside the nearly operatic way that the voices interlock on the chorus at the end, was the performance of John Linnell, the writer of this particular song and its lead vocalist. Linnell is a very interesting presence in a live context. His presence suggests a good-looking and highly unpredictable camp director who is about to juggle flaming bowling pins. He has a tendency to hunch over his keyboard, he wanders around some when he isn’t central to the action, he smiles only when there’s a good reason to smile, and he keeps some of his energy in reserve, because, after all, he has spent more time touring than some of the people reading this piece have been alive. There’s something really punk about him, about the Giants generally, for all the reputation they have for entertainment, and humor, and canny hipness. Linnell almost dares you to think more of the moment than the moment deserves, and then he lies in wait to puncture your certainties. He’s just another guy, he seems to say (that is, he exudes a right sense of where he stands in the business of cultre), and these are just some more songs, which is not to say that everything, every preconception, every sacred cow, is not well worth a moment when it gets gored.
But to say this, to say that there’s something punk, something admirably skeptical about some of what They Might Be Giants do (remember “Your Racist Friend,” from Flood), is to miss the role that the music itself plays in these songs. I will say that this was what drew me to the band, almost immediately when I first heard “Don’t Let’s Start,” back in 1986. Melodies like this are not often written in popular music, in part because they are incredibly difficult to compose. Linnell, while looking slightly impatient with the whole party time atmosphere of a gig, is fully engaged finally when he is singing the melodies, and something in him seems completely altered, and suddenly he’s like some Buddha-manifestation, or, in a way, an warrior angel of melody, or maybe I’m saying this just because I had influenza.
I first saw Linnell play when he was in the Mundanes, a why-didn’t-they-make-it punk band in Providence in the early eighties, a band in which Linnell was not being used to the best of his ability at all. He didn’t write, he didn’t sing. Then, with “Don’t Let’s Start,” which is, after all the start of something of surpassing interest, the start of They Might Be Giants, he found the secret key to what to do with life, and the something-that-you-might-do-with-life is this: write soaring melodies. I loved this band fervently over the course of thirty years, yes, and I loved them sometimes without recourse to entertainment, but, rather, perceived in them a somewhat hidden reservoir of hard-earned sentiment and adult commentary, and sometimes liked them in ways they didn’t want to be liked (I resisted the band, the rhythm section, when it first happened, even though I liked a lot of players in that first band), and then somewhere around the turn of the millennium, I became acquainted with John Linnell himself, through friends, and have known him pretty well since.
This interview with John (just Linnell, no Flansburgh, not yet anyway) tries, in a way, to suggest the John Linnell I know personally, who doesn’t, as you might suppose, have the same characteristics as the John Linnell flaming-bowling-pins public figure. This John Linnell is markedly polymathic, is a supremely devoted husband and dad, is gentle, patient, wry, loyal to his friends, never behaves like a celebrity. This John Linnell may even feel, on occasion, that that other John Linnell is a burden. I invited Linnell, in early January, to talk by e-mail for a little while, in part because the band is in the process of releasing a new studio album (for adults), which already has two songs I really love on it (“Call You Mom” and “Insect Hospital”), though I have listened to it only a few times, but also because I wanted to talk because of the influenza-and-“Mesopotamians” experience of 12/31, in which I seemed to be floating up above the club and capable, however briefly, of seeing my alien self cavorting with other species. Linnell and I talked for a couple of weeks by e-mail, almost always between 5:00 and 7:00 A.M.
The Rumpus: I would guess that a lot of longtime Giants fans would not know that you are a serious backyard astronomer. I’ve always wanted to ask what got you interested in this. And what have been some of the recent developments on that front? What have you seen up there?
John Linnell: Right away I’m having this kneejerk reaction to the idea of serious backyard astronomy. It really is an inherently pointless and unserious activity, which I’m sure is partly why I’m interested in it. There’s something a little autistic about looking up at the sky at night to make sure everything is right where the guidebook says it is. It does give me a dim sense of the unfathomable distances separating us from everything out there, which I take with me as I’m in bed falling asleep. This could an expression of the uptight and futile desire to make a mental diagram of the universe, or maybe the exact opposite, which is the desire to blow my own mind to smithereens.
As I write this the two largest members of the asteroid belt* are at opposition, which means they are as bright in the sky as they ever get. Vesta was visited by a space probe last year for the first time, so now we know exactly what it looks like up close. It’s a misshapen lump of rock the size of Arizona embossed with a distinctive snowman logo made of craters. Ceres (which is so huge it’s been reclassified as a dwarf planet) will be robotically probed in two years and is probably a spherical ball of ice. I’m hoping they find the black monolith there. They have both been slowly moving across the constellation Taurus, right next to Jupiter which looks pretty cool in the telescope, unlike the asteroids which are tiny points of light.
*Ceres and Vesta are among the objects checked off on the “How Many Planets?” song from Here Comes Science.
Rumpus: I have a lot of questions by way of reply to the above, but I will try to be mindful of an obligation to deal at least glancingly with the music, and you have brought up Here Comes Science, which I happen to love a great deal, my most immoderate love being for a song entitled “Meet the Elements.” My sense of things is that it is not the case that you learn the facts of the elements in order to disgorge them in this song, but rather that the song proceeds from a kind of surfeiting of information that has already naturally taken place. That is, you are so curious that eventually you have to write a song about the asteroid belt or in which you describe how table of the elements works, or in which you talk about experimental film, etc. True or untrue?
Linnell: True in many cases, I think. Here Comes Science and the rest of the “Here Comes…” series were albums with specific themes. The content was therefore mostly preordained but we gave ourselves some flexibility. Flansburgh really wanted to write a song about the electric car even though this was moving into the realm of applied science, which our advisors were politely suggesting we avoid. But he was compelled to write a brilliant song about it anyway. I would say that I probably leapt at the opportunity to write “Meet the Elements” (thank you for the compliment!) out of an impulse to talk about complexity emerging from simple materials, however I did do the bulk of the necessary research after I got started. I didn’t really know what rocks were made of until I had to look it up.
Outside of our themed albums the incubation process you describe is undoubtedly more the rule. I say undoubtedly even though maybe I haven’t really thought this through. Don’t the really good song ideas just appear out of thin air? For some reason I’m always repelled by the idea of encountering some compelling or troubling idea and rubbing my hands together while rushing home to sculpt it into music. My dad used to irritate me to no end by reacting to anything interesting by saying I should write a song about it. So, yeah, as you suggest it seems to require a necessarily mysterious gestation that will be poisoned by manhandling, meddling or, indeed, a plan.
Now, I’m also aware that this could be total bullshit. When you listen to artists talk about their own work there often seems to be a weird disconnect between what they think they are doing and what is actually good about the work. I must therefore grudgingly admit that I have some lucky rabbit foot kinds of work habits that I feel are indispensable but that I may be kidding myself, and that no one else would mind or even notice if I applied some deliberate idea-crunching formula for coming up with songs instead of waiting around for inspiration to strike. Did you ever hear Rivers Cuomo talk about his writing process? Again this might be him shining all of us on, but according to him he studies hit records and methodically synthesizes everything he hears, words and music, in order to produce his pop confections. Is this true? Does it even matter as long as we like the result?
Rumpus: Two things: 1) What I principally love about Here Comes Science, besides the fact (as on all your “kids” material) that the musical register makes no compromises for the alleged age of audience at all, is that to me it is a decidedly political album. The mere fact of talking about science as though it were “real,” as on, e.g., “Science Is Real,” is to say a certain something in 2009, in the polarized electorate of the post-9/11 America. It is to say that you cannot shrink from a position on the politicization of science. One must take a position. Incredibly brave on an album allegedly “for kids.” Electric car, yes! Evolution, yes! Table of the elements, yes! It’s an incredibly political album, as I see it, while never being self-congratulatory about it, or humorless. But even so, part of what’s so spectacular on “Meet the Elements,” as I see it, is the line: “You and I are complicated, but we’re made of elements.” This is an album of songs for children, though it is also political album, and yet here, however briefly, is classic love song moment, when the conceit of the song gives way to a rather deep and almost shocking truth about people in the struggle of getting along with one another, recognizing their complexity and difference. It was many times listening to “Meet the Elements” that I would get a tear in my eye every time upon encountering that line. 2) As to your question above (“Does it even matter as long as we like the result?”), which I suspect is somewhat facetious, it does indeed matter, for the simple reason that it is the lot of people who appreciate a certain artist to be interested in how the artist talks about what he does. Ergo: Rivers Cuomo would be Exhibit A in the category marked: Don’t Believe Anything He Says. But we still enjoy hearing him say that he studies hit records. I don’t believe him, but I like that he wants me to believe him. I haven’t asked a real question yet, so here’s a question finally. You mentioned, above, in the limpid and admirable line about the night sky above, the issue of sleep, and I can’t help but note that there is both a song on No! about going to sleep, and a song on The Else about falling asleep, problems obtaining thereto, and I can’t help but wonder if your interest in this moment, the hypnagogic moment, is reportorial, or personal, and, if personal, is it somehow related to what you are referring to as the “mysterious gestation.”
Linnell: I had to look up “hypnagogic,” but I’m very pleased to learn that there is such a word. I have nothing to offer, however, regarding the relationship between song ideas and that weird illogical state we pass through before sleep. When Henry was little I routinely read to him in bed at night, and very often he would wake me up by complaining loudly that I was no longer reading from the book, and that what I was saying didn’t make any sense, but sadly I could never remember whatever zombie gibberish I’d said to him. I have had a couple of happy occasions where I woke up with fully formed music and lyrics jangling around in my head but those are rare.
Thinking about the germ of an idea reminds me that one very typical starting point is a simple phrase, kind of like the title of a country and western song, that becomes the scaffolding for the rest of the lyrics. In this situation everything seems to follow logically from what is usually the chorus, unless one perversely tries to steer the song in a contrary direction to make it more interesting. But whichever way the stream winds we are still unable to locate the headwaters. The delightful short story “How I Write My Songs” by Donald Barthelme jumps to mind. Do you know that one? The narrator is trying to explain his creative process in simple, downhome language and quotes his own words, which are mostly banal blues lyrics with a few distinctly odd choices, and it being a Barthelme story you get the sense that while the narrator is describing mundane details of his life coincident with whatever song he wrote that day he’s skating over an unexplainable process with confident obliviousness.
I must credit Mr. Flansburgh for impolitely pushing the political agenda in “Science is Real,” which song (according to him) was partly inspired by the Louvin Brothers song “Satan is Real” (check out the cool album cover). We got some hate mail and a few hate comments online for that but it allowed us to talk openly about the supposed controversy of Evolution and the philosophy behind testable hypotheses. It got me interested in Karl Popper and the concept of falsifiability. I mostly don’t like it when entertainers rattle on about their politics, especially when they’re parroting familiar slogans that make your brain glaze over, but I appreciate being reminded of fundamental issues like teaching kids to think rather having them memorize facts.
Rumpus: Can we talk about Karl Popper a little bit? Or let’s put it another way: one thing I have always found excellent about your whole approach to life is the voracious reading part of it. And when you say that John’s song got you interested in Karl Popper, I can imagine—knowing you a bit—that that means you actually checked out a book or two from the library or bought some from Amazon and/or poked around in the subject for a while. Were you always reading in this way? Or did it appear, at some point, as a by-product of, e.g., relentless touring? I remember you telling me, at one point, that you read a lot of Proust on tour.
By the way, I know that Barthelme story well, though as I recall it is from Forty Stories, which I always felt represented not only a decline in productivity from Sixty Stories, but a mild decline in extra-base hits (as opposed to infield hits). However, I once wrote an essay about depictions of the popular song in contemporary fiction (using Pynchon, Grace Paley, and Donald Barthelme), and wrote at some length about that very story. It’s a good one (a triple, maybe). The interesting thing to me about Barthelme is that he is almost always an artist of metaphor: so when he is writing wittily about songwriting, we also know he’s talking about his stories–although maybe he is also parodying Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Barthelme, you know, always began his work day by “free writing,” which means he never knew exactly what he was doing, which, I suppose, is another way of saying “But whichever way the stream winds we are still unable to locate the headwaters.” (Which is a remarkable sentence.) In one interview I imagine I remember well, Barthelme said something like: it took him a long time writing, each day, to encounter the first sentence.
Linnell: There’s another Barthelme interview quote that sticks in my head. I’m probably getting this a little bit wrong but he said something about how he could only write a whole novel if the words “gathered unto themselves sufficient flesh.” Which is another way of describing writing as a kind of passive act, without apologies. I get the feeling that John Flansburgh for one would strongly disagree with this approach, and I sincerely don’t know which side I’m on although I’ve been in the cult of Barthelme since I was a young fellow. You’ve told me in the past about your issues with a certain other writer whose work gives you the unpleasant sense that he knows exactly how the book is going to end before he begins writing it. It’s an enlightening criticism and it makes me reconsider many of my cherished affinities, but I’m scared that I won’t be able to listen to certain music the same way anymore. Moreover, the aforementioned writer (whose work I had been defending) has publicly declared his preference for the Rolling Stones over the Beatles, which to me calls his entire worldview into question.
I now have to disclose the shameful fact that I have never read a single word of Karl Popper. His name keeps Popping up when the subject of the scientific method is under discussion, and I was interested to learn that he is associated with the idea of disprovable (as opposed to provable) hypotheses. Nothing can be unassailably proved, which is to say rendered a positive fact, it seems, but there are things you can demonstrate to be false, and this I guess is the basis for knowing anything definite. This is all secondhand information and I’m not articulating his concept very well but it appeals to me. I would have thought one of the ancients had come up with the idea, but Popper is of recent vintage.
Rumpus: What about reading and touring? Is it a thing to do while touring? Or is your always-reading-something-voraciously quality leftover from Amherst, etc.?
Linnell: I have an unusually hard time reading when I’m in a noisy place or if there’s people or video screens distracting me. I’m deeply jealous of people who can sit in a crowded place and pay laser sharp attention to a book. I did eventually make my way through the Proust over the course of several years of tours. It took that long partly because of my difficulty concentrating when there are distractions but I also found that I couldn’t really get what was going on in a single reading. As you know his sentences can run on for pages and his many digressions are sometimes punishingly abstruse. I wound up going very slowly, rereading some parts and also listening to a recording of Neville Jason who translated all the voices of the French social classes into English ones. His version of Baron Charlus was especially hilarious.
Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction. I like the history writer John Julius Norwich who seems to borrow his style from the great Steven Runciman. Both of them employ this phrase often: “by now emperor so-and-so was seriously alarmed.” Once I counted up the number of times Norwich said “seriously alarmed” in one of his volumes about Byzantium. It was, like, five. Colin McEvedy writes the text for the Penguin historical atlases that are laying around the house. He writes concise, erudite, and thoughtful prose and once in a while he checks to see if you’re still paying attention with lines like “In 1498 Charles VIII hit his big stupid head on a lintel in Fontainebleau and died, to be succeeded by Louis XII, who had a small head and a claim to Milan as well as Naples.”
Mainly when we’re on the road I’m struggling to keep healthy and together for the show. I don’t sleep very well when the bus is moving and we had some epic drives last year. While everyone else was asleep I spent many of the overnight drives watching The Wire. The rest of the band had already seen all five seasons so I could talk about each episode the next day with the other guys. We also had a 14 hour drive, mostly during the day, to a music festival and during that one I taught myself to solve the Rubik’s cube. Which for some nerdological members of our audience would be kind of “on the nose,” but at least I waited until I was in my fifties.
Rumpus: I feel despair over your factification in middle age, but I guess this is not unknown with the male of the species. I myself read a two non-fiction books last week. In part because The Golden Ass, which I have been reading recently (Rudin translation), is demanding enough to require breaks. Okay, so how does your photography fit into this unusual array of avocational habits? You like analogue photography exclusively, right? And what do you do with your photographs? I assume you have no interest in publishing, say, a book of photographs of Patti Smith, but are rather more private about this part of your life.
(P.S. Finally very close to fully healthy here, finally!)
Linnell: So glad to hear you’re feeling better. After I wrote you the mealy mouthed “something’s going around” email there was a news story about how this has been one of the worst flu seasons on record. Did you get a flu shot? I didn’t, but I should have. So, if I may ask, what were the two non-fiction books you read? I get the feeling that you are the voracious one here, Rick. I want to read The Golden Ass as well. One of our old soundmen was carrying around the Robert Graves translation and heartily sang its praises. In my imaginary library it is shelved near Ovid’s Metamorphoses which is in reality on a table in the bathroom upstairs. I think Karen is reading the Ovid in connection with your Dante group (somehow) but I sometimes pick it up and marvel at its kaleidoscopic words.
You probably know that I have a darkroom in the basement, which is where I get high on the fumes of something called Blix, a combination of bleach and fixer. I take pictures, I develop them and I scan the negatives and mess around with the images in Photoshop. As you correctly assume I don’t really want to make them public, partly because they would wither and crumble under scrutiny, but also it would make me self-conscious about doing it and I very much enjoy the luxury of this particular privacy. I do like to show off my collection of oddball old-timey cameras to anyone who comes over, but I can detect something in my friends’ polite smiles that tells me nobody else finds them as compelling as I do. The magnificent Univex Mercury with its one-of-a-kind rotating shutter!
Rumpus: The two non-fiction books I read were Elaine Pagels’s book Revelation, which is about the last book in the New Testament, and (according to my own view of the subject) how that total crock of shit managed to get pride of placement in the process of canonization thereby insuring that two thousand years’ worth of paranoid schizophrenics would have something to talk about. And the other book, which I haven’t finished yet, is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing, which is about intertextuality and process poetry, and so on, on which subject I am at present teaching a class. I can, meanwhile, wholly recommend the new translation of The Golden Ass, which is published by Yale U. Press. The translation is very readable and very contemporary. The original, so far as I can tell, is hilarious, and impulsive, and unlike anything else on earth. Even Ovid seems, in truth, a bit tame by comparison.
All right, we have covered a lot of non-musical stuff, but I would like to ask a little something about melody. The singular part of what you do, it seems to me, is the melody part of what you do. I can’t really even fathom how beautiful your melodies are sometimes, and they seem, at least to me, often independent of the particulars of accompaniment. I imagine, somehow, that they are like J. S. Bach, in that they wander free of conventional chordal structure, which is more often the stuff of the pop song. I often hear a bit of Brandenburg concerto in these melodies, like they were written in stone four hundred years ago. And for me, it’s most interesting when the words are completely out of phase with the beauty of the melody, like on “Dead,” which is frankly contrapuntal when John F. sings the second line alongside you. Do you sing these melodies first? Or hear them first? Or do you have to have a keyboard at hand? Is it again the case that there is no accounting for them?
Linnell: At some point I should ask you about your own writing process, as long as we are entertaining the concept of the artist as passive conduit for some exterior feed. I don’t think either of us completely buys this notion, or maybe it’s an example of begging the question (in the original, useful sense which expresses the idea that the premise itself force feeds you the answer). Where or what is this radio station from which one receives inspiration? I’m probably more of a soul deadening materialist than you, and if I had to come up with the prosaic explanation it would come down to a complicated system of stimulus and response with lots of beeping and blinking lights going on in the brain. But this would be me begging the question in the contemporary sense of “begging for a question” during the awkward silence that follows my dull, reductionist version of the mystery of creation.
You’re right, I am motivated by an urgent love for pitches going up and down in bewitching patterns that seem to be telling us important things inexpressible in words. What the hell. In Patrick Süskind’s Perfume he proposes a universe where the basis for beauty is in how everything smells, rather than how things look and sound. You are not really responding to the seemingly attractive curve in a girl’s neck or the sound of rustling leaves, but their barely noticeable scent which informs all your aesthetic responses. I kind of think something analogous is happening in songs. Richard Rodgers is secretly controlling our emotions using Oscar Hammerstein as a stalking horse. In this way you can get people to go along with verbal ideas that might otherwise leave them cold.
Bach himself makes a great case that atheists like myself should shut up and stop trying to spoil everyone’s fun. I have no explanation for how a mere human could produce such unspeakably great music. There are loads of deluded weirdos out there who believe all kinds of magical nonsense (some of them are friends of mine) and if any of them asked me to contradict myself and prove there is a god I would point to the Well Tempered Clavier. Which maybe brings us back to the Book of Revelations. I’m prepared to believe that people require mystery, however insane, that it’s a kind of painkiller.
Rumpus: I have often made the argument that prose is a kind of music, that the principles are really the same, especially in paragraph construction: rhythm, melody, occasions of silence, and so on. And I think my meager experiments in music are really opportunities to give myself license to listen more closely. And listening closely, it turns out, makes you a more interesting stylist. (The lie of much American contemporary prose is that there can be a kind of prose that is “transparent,” a kind of non-prose that automatically results in “content” not “form.” But my argument is that even an unadorned style is still a style, and that if you are going to have a style you should have a fully informed style, and, dare I say, a “beautiful” style.) In this regard, therefore, I think of what I do as not dissimilar to what you do. And when I am working well I sometimes believe I am intercessory. Not, perhaps, intercessory with respect to the divine, but intercessory with respect to language itself, and the music of language. The language happens through me. I like being its medium.
In your case, I almost always experience the event of melody as joyful. Indeed, there are not that many downtempo Linnell compositions. Is it your experience that the beauty of melody has to happen in an uptempo context? Does the uptempo quality of many of the compositions then make room for more complex lyrical sentiment? I have been especially delighted, since the advent of Giants “kids” albums, that the lyrics on the “adult” albums have become even more complex. You guys rightly described Join Us (2011) as being lyrically complex and I would go even further and say that it is genuinely dark and even sad occasionally, but that the sadness of Giants songs, the saddest of them, are usually mismatched (purposefully) with soaring melodies, or, in some of Flansburgh’s songs, with witty and virtuosic genre exploration. (By the way, some of my very favorite recent Giants stuff has been on Join Us, and the very amazing Venue Songs (2005), each of which, in some ways, is like the earliest iterations of the band, which is to say against the prevailing notions of limitless studio intervention.) And by the way did the title Join Us come from that really creepy track on My Life In the Bush of Ghosts where the sampled voice keeps saying “Join Us?”
Linnell: I am in full agreement with you about the unavoidable music of words themselves. I hadn’t really gotten wind of the current predilection for “transparent” prose but it sounds perverse, like some chic new restaurant that champions the total absence of flavor (it wouldn’t surprise me if there were such a restaurant). In general I support the struggle against the tyranny of form, or what Martin Amis calls the war against cliché, though it is an ultimately futile and unwinnable war. In the end you take the battlefield and become the enemy.
I do try to escape my joyful melody ghetto now and then and spend the day in other neighborhoods. Marty Beller’s favorite song from Venue Songs is “Santa Cruz (The Catalyst)” which suggests an entire arrondissement we have yet to explore. For some reason Venue Songs grew into a kind of travelogue of pastiche, which was partly the result of the extreme constraint of writing, learning and recording each song in the space of a few hours. It was like we were dashing through the prop room and grabbing whatever materials were nearest. We were also unavoidably constrained from any studio intervention on the location recordings, so we leaned heavily on the mercurial talents of our band.
In the case of Join Us I infer that Flansburgh had been understandably weary of producing the whole album package himself as he usually does, with me standing passively by, arms folded, scowling unhelpfully at his suggestions for album titles. He prodded me to come up with a list of names and Join Us was somewhere in there. As with many things that we do on a deadline there may not have been much forethought and I’m not ruling out an unconscious borrowing. I do remember driving across California years ago with Mr. Charles Thompson and hearing him utter the phrase in response to the sudden apparition of a wind farm that stretched across the horizon. The windmills, we had observed, looked like a vast terrifying hallucination of identical robotic cult members. Shades of Don Quixote.
Rumpus: Having just seen the band play, I can attest to their great versatility, and this is, I think, a sheepish admission, because I was among those irritating Giants fans who balked at the first couple of albums with a “band,” because I was so used to the limitations of the two Johns and attendant devices—those limitations which were not quite limitations. But now I think the band is remarkable, turns on a dime, can play anything, and so on. Ergo: all bands should have such “mercurial” talents. I am about to let you off the hook, meanwhile, but I do want to ask a couple of questions about “The Mesopotamians,” which is the ostensible subject of this piece, because I was so moved by it at the December 30 show in Williamsburg. Can you go through the genesis of it? Do you remember?
Linnell: This example reveals something about incentives and inspiration. We had a deal for a couple of children’s books which were going to be illustrated song lyrics with a companion CD glued to the inside back cover, and John and I were tossing ideas back and forth for the theme of the final book. Mine was about a rock group with the names of ancient near-eastern kings. Now that I think of it it’s a little like Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, which is about a mythical baseball league with players named things like Gil Gamesh. Jesus, I just realized that I stole the whole idea from Philip Roth. I hope you don’t think less of the song now. Anyway there was originally going to be the Monkees-like theme song and then individual songs for each character, and the arrangements were going to reflect the instrumentation of the band. I had an autoharp sitting on my workbench at the time so one of the members was going to play that. I think Gilgamesh was supposed to be female and she had a song about wanting (as did her namesake) to live forever, but I grew disenchanted with the idea of drawing so directly from the original myths.
Here is the original demo [yes, you can listen here, -ed.] which has an entirely different verse form and the conspicuous autoharp accompaniment. I think I was trying to cop the Lovin’ Spoonful more than the Monkees. You can tell that the lyrics are less focused and the whole thing is a bit sleepier. Also faster for some reason.
The book concept never came together and about two years later I rewrote the verses and added the “I thought you were dead” bridge. I think the biggest improvement with the final version was getting the harmonies voiced better and in tune. I don’t have a pretty falsetto but the studio is very forgiving.
We are particularly beholden to David Cowles for his animated video. He recognized that the song needed to sprout hair and smell more like B.O. These are the first two drawings he sent us after he heard the album version. The Ed “Big Daddy” Roth guy immediately won us over:
Rumpus: Wow! That is excellent, that drawing, just great, but I am even more interested in the demo, which is very remarkable for a demo. That’s you kinda doing everything on there, right? Kinda astounding. I like the Philip Roth gloss, meanwhile, and for me it only increases the excellence of the song, as far as I’m concerned. By the way, as long as we’re being honest, I think, as I have told you before, I have stolen variants of the Giants line “If it wasn’t for disappointment, I wouldn’t have any appointments” multiple times in my body of work.
Okay, I’m going to jettison my theory that “The Mesopotamians” is an updated version of “Hi, We’re the Replacements,” from the era of the first album and I guess there is no intended calling-to-mind of the most underrated of B-52s albums of the same name (does no one but me think “Nip It in the Bud” is a masterpiece?), but I was especially delighted to hear “The Mesopotamians” at the show in Williamsburg show because it reveals the gems among the later period of Giants, which are sometimes overlooked in the nostalgic fervor about Flood. And: it was an incredibly delighted and delighting performance in an important moment in the set (last song before encores). You guys seemed sort of like The Mesopotamians at that moment. May I ask: did you know you had a unalloyed gem in this case, upon completion? Or do you sometimes (like, e.g., Bob Dylan) think the good ones are flawed and vice versa? And, since we are ostensibly here on the subject of the new album, was there a concept for the new album?
Linnell: I’m interested (thought not surprised) that Bob Dylan disagrees with received opinion on the good and bad songs in his catalog. It reminds me of that nagging feeling you get that people like something you did for the wrong reasons. Mostly, however, other people like the same songs we do, and boringly I usually know which ones are the front runners by the time the demo is finished. Sometimes a song doesn’t announce its pretensions until our band has had their way with it, and once in a while a song reveals its true lack of promise after we have polished the turd into a gleaming luster.
I too imagine that while performing the song we are temporarily costumed as the fictitious band The Mesopotamians, who are somehow so old that they seem to have emerged alongside western culture itself, but to me the other face of the coin is that they embody the loserdom that all bands secretly harbor. The vainglory and dumpiness of getting up on stage. Inevitably all the spinning plates will sooner or later come crashing to the floor and everyone will go back to their crappy lives. Even the Monkees had that kind of triumphant loser attitude. As did the the Replacements in our faux theme for them. I like any song that includes a band roll call in the lyrics, which we’ve done a couple of ways. My heart leaped the first time I heard NRBQ open with “Here Comes Terry, Here Comes Tom.” The Velvet Underground made up an amusing theme song for themselves when they briefly reunited in the ’90s.
I remember the B-52s song but unlike most of their excellent work it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I’m listening to it now and it seems germane to our conversation that Fred Schneider says he needs to read a book before he says anything. He says it right there in the song!
The new album—title: Nanobots—is bereft of any overarching concept, which is generally the case with the albums we didn’t record for kids. I guess we’re relying on the songs to suggest their own relationship with one another, because that seems to happen with everybody’s albums and because we’re struggling enough as it is with coming up with material without trying to connect it all up. I made a list of other artists’ sixteenth albums to see how Nanobots stacks up and while it may or may not be our Some Girls it perhaps compares favorably with Cher’s Prisoner.
Listen to the original demo of “The Mesopotamians” below:
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.