Best known for their bratty theme song to TV’s Malcolm in the Middle and inventive alt-pop hits such as “Don’t Let’s Start,” Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants would seem the perfect band to make children’s music. But they came to their new audience slowly after becoming the subject of a 2002 documentary film, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), and releasing a 52-track career box set the same year, Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants (Rhino/Elektra).
Since that year’s lovingly titled No! on the Rounder label, they’ve put out two more albums “for the entire family” on Walt Disney Records that have threatened to eclipse everything else they’ve done: 2005’s Here Come the ABCs and 2008’s Here Come the 123s, which soulfully anthropomorphizes numbers such as 6 and 9 (“6 knows how to stand on his head”) while explaining concepts such as “everything” and “infinity” to impossibly catchy and eclectic music. The 2008 album won a Grammy earlier this year.
Singer-songwriters John Flansburgh and John Linell exhibit the silliness of friends who met each other when they were kids themselves; they formed the band as a duo originally, with Flansburgh on guitar and Linell on accordion. Speaking over the phone from New York recently, Flansburgh says it was never his intention to educate anyone.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were five?
Well, I certainly didn’t listen to kids’ music. Like a lot of musicians who were born in 1960, I fell in love with the Beatles. With my birthday money, I bought the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night, and I pretty much memorized the record. I grew up in Boston, and you could hear New York radio WABC at night, which was the Beatles-oriented radio station. So I would often go to sleep with a little transistor radio in my bed.
It was intense. There was this whole thing about the Beatles that was very exciting, because they were kind of a gang.
Do you see a connection between what the Beatles did and Sesame Street later?
I don’t know. I didn’t grow up with Sesame Street, as much as I love the Muppets. That all started when I was a little bit too old for it. We were like the last kids to not think of Grover the same way they’d think of their first dog or something.
Did you think of the Beatles as characters?
They did seem like characters. There actually was a Beatles cartoon, and I don’t think I really had it so together that I knew they weren’t involved with that. I actually saw it recently, and the accents are appallingly bad. They’re barely even English accents, let alone Liverpudlian accents.
They didn’t do the voices for Yellow Submarine, the great children’s film, either.
Yeah, but I guess my consciousness had been raised by then. I saw that at midnight in a room full of pot smoke when I was 10 or 11. It was very strange. It made me realize that these older kids were very adult.
It was a children’s movie not necessarily being used as a children’s movie.
It was a psychedelic trip. That was a very intense time to grow up in. The cultural undertow of the ’60s was so strong, it wasn’t just a regular childhood. You were caught up in the times whether you were into it or not.
I feel like, the way kids are raised now, it’s much more of a “hothouse” experience for them. All their time is scheduled, so they’re not just riding their bikes around and getting into whatever they get into. I would imagine hardcore hip hop is in a lot of kids’ lives whether their parents are into that or not, but it might just come across as theater to them.
Did you go back to certain children’s records of your childhood when you began making it yourself?
Well, in our adult music, we’ve always had kind of a free-range use of instrumentation and often use a lot of sounds that corny children’s music will have, like bass clarinet or baritone saxophone. Even a triangle or a clarinet can be evocative of kids’ music, and it’s sort of startling to hear that in a regular pop-song context. But with the kids’ stuff, we were trying to sort of apply ourselves to it as if it’s exactly the same band as our adult stuff. We’re not worried about it being gentle enough. In fact, I think part of the success of the project is due to our very uncalculated effort to just rock when we feel like rocking.
When it comes to kids’ stuff, Dr. Seuss books or Chuck Jones’s Bugs Bunny cartoons are more persuasive to us in terms of tone than a lot of stuff in children’s music. Most children’s music, at least when I was a kid, was very commercial and anonymous. Except for maybe a Pete Seeger children’s album, children’s albums were made by these unknown people. We had this “Happy Birthday” record where you could almost tell that the people hated what they were doing.
Are there certain ways that writing songs for children frees you to explore things you wouldn’t otherwise?
Yeah, it’s very liberating in certain ways, because you can be silly. And even for a bunch of guys who are as unworried about looking cool as we are, we’re still in the adult world, and what’s nice about doing stuff for kids is that any kind of posturing just seems like a waste of time. You really just have to be your authentic self.
And kids aren’t interested in subtext or irony. We really had to readdress how we’re going to be doing what we’re doing, because it’s not based on the history of popular music. Any songwriter writing a song in 2000-and-whatever is dealing with the history of popular song, and if they’re not, they’re probably just fooling themselves. But the thing about doing kids’ stuff—it’s as if there’s a clean slate, because the audience is new to the idea of the song. So you have this very singular mission that is unlike almost any other songwriter challenge. You can kind of do anything. And that’s actually been very interesting. I think writing for kids has been a really tremendously positive challenge for us.Is there something about anthropomorphizing numbers or letters that serves some kind of psychological need?
At its best, that stuff can seem really inspired. In some ways, once you’re 15 songs into a topic, you might sort of think, “Am I just doing another list song?” Doing those ABCs was very wide open, because it’s the entire world of language, and ideas that are very linked up to songwriting. Writing Here Comes the ABCs was sort of just writing Here Comes a Song. But numbers was trickier. It wasn’t like we were doing Here Comes Practical Math—we weren’t doing stuff for fourth graders; we were doing stuff for five-year-olds, so it was slightly more limited in scope.
We’ve just done a science project [called Here Comes Science], which is third in the series, and it’s aimed at older kids because a lot of the concepts are more complex. I’m really nervous that the scientific community is going to reach out and have us arrested. We’re not educators.
In fact, when we first got into the kids thing, one of the things that really excited us was the idea of doing stuff that would just be entertaining for kids. Nobody questions adults why they’re buying The Sopranos DVDs. Your friends don’t say, “Where’s your moral compass? Who do you really want to be?” But for kids, everybody wants the stuff for kids to be extra nutritionally filling and teach them how to tie their shoes, and in a way, I think kids kind of deserve a break. They should be able to enjoy a song and just have fun.
Can you give an example of a song off Here Comes Science?
Well, the opening track is called “Science Is Real”; that is our bold salvo in the culture wars. It’s about what science’s place in our belief system should be. The strange thing is that when you’re actually writing about science, one of the things that’s important is it’s about the way we understand the real world. But there are a lot of people who don’t want science to hold its natural place in the scheme of things. We’re not looking for controversy, but you start singing about evolution, and you realize there’s going to be some push-back.
Do you think some of that might come from the fact that you have such an expanded audience on Disney?Yeah, our stuff is in Wal-Marts and Targets, and we never had our music distributed on this level in our entire career. Even when we were on the record charts as a pop band, we never got into big-box stores.
The one bit of tension is that there is an entirely new audience from these couple of successful children’s projects that’s actually pretty much unaware that we have a parallel adult career. So we’ll roll into town, and we’ll be doing a show that’s just for adults, and people will call up the venue and be like, “Why is this band doing an 18-plus show? This is my daughter’s favorite band!”
Has the opposite happened, where you play kids’ shows and adults come hoping to hear the old hits?
Thankfully, it’s all been very quarantined. They’re really very separate worlds. The thing that might end up being tricky is when we’re doing summer festivals, where we’ll have our rock fans come out, and it’s a pretty wide array of people who come out to our adult shows. When you get down to the very drunky drunkest of them, they’re pretty much like any guy at a rock show, and they might be a little bewildered by the kids.
Click here to listen to “High Five” by They Might Be Giants.