They Might Be Onto Something

The quickest way to get familiar with They Might Be Giants is to dial 718-387-6962. More often than not, the caller will get a busy signal. But patience and perseverance are rewarded with a new free song every day, as it has been since the early 1980s. Of course, the quirky pop duo puts out CDs too--their eighth studio album, "The Spine," was released this week and is a return to rock after a couple of well-received children's projects. But it's their novel embrace of technology as much as their eccentric, witty ditties that endears them to their cult fan base.

Dial-A-Song is clever--quaint, even--but this being 2004, TMBG has a solid Web presence too. The team that sang 1990's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and the theme for Fox TV's "Malcolm in the Middle," gives MP3s away on their site, where they're also selling the new album for a dollar a song (less than in retail stores) as well as a companion EP that is available only online. And, speaking of Web sites, the twosome has teamed up with the quirky Flash animation site Homestar Runner to create a video for the single "Experimental Film." TMBG also recently recorded their take on the 1840 William Henry Harrison presidential campaign song "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" for the compilation "Future Soundtrack for America." John Flansburgh, the talkative half of TMBG, spearheaded the compilation to raise money for the political advocacy group MoveOn.org. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about his very busy band. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Hi.

John Flansburgh: Hang on; I have to turn off this [hard rock crooner] Scott Weiland Court TV story. It's tragic. He got arrested for being himself, I believe.

Oh, sad. But at least you have a new album out.

We certainly do. In some ways, it's exactly the thing that we do. But because we've had this tremendous success with all this kids' stuff in the past couple of years, I think people were wondering if we'd become Raffi. The answer is "No, we've not become Raffi." For people who follow the band closely, it's not a surprise that it's such a rowdy sounding record, because our live shows have always been a little bit rowdier, a little bit harsher, a lot more rocking.

What's interesting though is that you have a huge Web presence.

Since the whole MP3 revolution began, we've really found it's an incredibly powerful vehicle for finding our audience. We don't have very much media access, unlike a lot of bands that get pushed at you. We're sort of a band that you have to find yourself. In the late '90s, we hooked up with eMusic, a very early MP3 company, and we did a couple of really great projects with them that basically created our current audience. When we do shows, it's just like a regular concert crowd. I feel that we're very lucky that we have an energetic young crowd.

That's rare for a band that's been around for 20 years.

Yeah, I would be scared to play for people as old as me. I'm always happy to see my fellow new-wavers in the crowd. But it's really important to keep on reaching out to new audiences. That's the thing people in veteran bands don't realize: they've created their own trap by not challenging themselves on every level. We just found that giving music away through MP3s--we have a big free music service at TMBG.com where you sign up to the mailing list and we send out free MP3s every couple of weeks--has just been a fantastic way to keep people involved in our creative output.

You're selling this new album online at a dollar per song, too, right?

This is the whole new wrinkle: we have the digital rights to our album. We have our children's album available along with a rarities disc. "The Spine" is up online along with an extended EP. For $12 you get an album and a half of stuff--definitely less than retail. It suggests the whole way people get music is going to be redefined. By doing something like the EP, "The Spine Surfs Alone" EP, is really interesting because it's a really unreasonable EP--it might as well be called "Our Halloween Record." It's all these ugly, over-the-top creepy songs. I have no idea how a proper rock critic would respond to it--I would imagine they'd hate it because it's really unimportant and in some ways kind of silly. It's exciting to have an outlet that's so appropriate.

Is this the way you see things going in the future--artists securing digital rights?

It was a strange negotiation. Extracting them was not as simple as it sounds, and most people don't go to the effort of holding on to that stuff. I feel like in some ways we're just a couple of beats ahead of the general curve. It remains to be seen how great it will be. I wouldn't be surprised if paying for recorded music becomes an obsolete idea in general.

How would you eat, then?

That's my problem. Being a musician is an unreasonable idea anyway. The life expectancy of a professional career in music is five or 10 years. That would be a long run. It's not something you do because you're being sensible. We've been curiously blessed with an audience that was interested in what we're doing in a pretty sincere way. It's hard to say why we endure. I think the sad thing is that we're going to see a lot more actors making records and the whole thing is going to seem like a bad superprovincial version of rock. Popular music as its own self-contained world--like the world our older brothers and sisters enjoyed while looking at the liner notes of whatever mid-'70s record--is really fading out. People just don't get exposed to music in an organic way anymore. Ask the average person what songs are in the top 10--nobody knows what's in the top 10. You could make a pretty persuasive argument that the future of selling music is over.

Record companies are certainly scared.

They should be scared. They're hemorrhaging dough.

Speaking of the Web, you've recently teamed up with the guys at HomestarRunner.com, which I'm a huge fan of.

Well, we are, too. We live in a split world--people who know about Homestar and people who don't. We actually had lunch with those guys a month and a half ago when we started working on this video for "Experimental Film" together. They said that they had actually seen in some blog a picture of me wearing a Homsar T shirt, and, of course, Homsar is one of the more obscure [characters] in the thing--although the whole site is willfully obscure. The site is enigma at its finest. Now we have this "Experimental Film" video out. It's a video directed by [the Homestar character] Strong Sad. It really references a lot of the classic art-school touchstones of experimental film.

Is this going to air on MTV or is this just for Web?

This is just for Web. Frankly, and I'm reluctant to say this in a public forum, but I'm not sure MTV is cool enough to play it. [Laughs.] MTV needs to climb out of their teeny-bop ghetto, dust themselves off and get back to the business of new wave.

You've also gotten political recently with this MoveOn.org CD you organized. What's the story there?

I am not a representative of MoveOn.org. It is MoveOn's project, like their TV ads. As a nonrepresentative of MoveOn.org, I personally have to say that I want to see this administration out. The more people know about what's going on in the world, the more we can affect that change.

How does this CD achieve that?

Instigating this MoveOn project, I was really shocked at how unified the world of popular music was. Basically everyone we asked to contribute said "Yes" and the roster of acts is jaw-dropping. On this is CD are new, unreleased recordings by David Byrne, Death Cab for Cutie, Blink 182, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jimmy Eat World, Bright Eyes, REM, Sleater-Kinney, Fountains of Wayne, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips. We have a song from one of Elliott Smith's last recording sessions that Elliott Smith's estate, his parents, contributed.

You recorded "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" for it. Are you a big William Henry Harrison fan?

Well, I was doing a radio show for WNYC this spring and one of the ideas I had was to examine the history of the campaign song, because it's such a strange one. "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" is the "Rock Around the Clock" of campaign songs. It was the first one that really was a hit. And it was a huge nationwide hit. It's just a great song--it's really bitchy and mean-spirited in a way that's kind of exciting. The refrain of the song is [sings] "Van is a used-up man," which is [Martin] Van Buren, his rival. Our version of it is in a minor key, so it's a little more ominous than the original.

You found the sheet music and everything?

Oh, yeah, it gets a lot of play as far as these things go. The strange thing is that the whole campaign song idea has lost so much steam. Basically it went from these really creative adaptations of popular drinking songs into original songs. All through the 1930s, '40s and '50s there were these Tin Pan Alley songs written for presidential candidates. It's Clinton going with Fleetwood Mac that really kind of ruined it because there's these amorphous non-candidate-specific designated songs.

And there's such a stigma against being negative now that a "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" would probably backfire today.

Yeah, it actually speaks directly to the nature of the candidate. One thing about that debate between Harrison and Van Buren was that there was a notion that Harrison was a drinker. There were personal attacks. The candidates actually left to campaign across the country, so this song was a way to spin the attack that he was a drinker. It was sort of like "Hey, so he drinks? Big deal! I drink. You drink. Everybody drinks. Shouldn't the president? He's not running to be a bishop, he's a regular guy."

How far we've come.

[Laughs.] Exactly.