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Running Down 'The Spine'

They Might Be Giants--and what are we gonna do unless they are?

By Adam Cotton

'We definitely are kind of hooked on melody, and enjoy the power of a focused, short song," says John Flansburgh.

Flansburgh and longtime band mate John Linnell are known by the world at large as They Might Be Giants, and are also collectively referred to as "the two Johns."

Together, they've produced hundreds of such "focused, short" songs.

TMBG, who play the Catalyst Sunday, Aug. 15, are masters of creating unforgettable, fleeting worlds in songs that rarely exceed the three-minute mark, and they're only getting better at it. Their new album, The Spine, includes an upbeat, two-minute ballad called "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" that despite the title's implications is really fun to listen to--who'd have thought someone would write an enjoyable song about some guy wanting to kick your ass?

Of course, TMBG have always drawn from a notoriously unusual pool of subject material.

"When we started, we really avoided topics of romantic love, and once you kind of cross that off the list, there's just everything else in the world left for you," says Flansburgh by phone, from a short getaway in New York's Catskill Mountains.

He's in an upbeat mood.

"There's no limit on what we consider appropriate for song subjects, there's nothing that we avoid," he says. Indeed, their contagious 1990 single "Birdhouse in Your Soul" is written from the humble point of view of a night light.

With caffeinated danceable ballads sung about sad things and bustling with angular beats and witty words, it comes as no surprise that both Johns share a strong held affection for a good cup of coffee.

"Coffee is really part of our ritual," says Flansburgh. "It's the thing that makes us feel like we're doing our thing. For all the years when we first started the band, our rehearsal process was very consistent, which was: we would get back from whatever we were doing during the day, and we would make a pot of coffee at like 6:45 at night and then we would rehearse furiously for an hour."

The consistency paid off. "We were always very well rehearsed," he says, "and we always had a lot of new material."

TMBG has an extremely devoted, sometimes fanatical fan base that ranges from obsessive middle-schooler bookworms to Office Space video game freaks to college professors and far beyond. Flansburgh once remarked that the band was indeed a "freak magnet," but nevertheless, he says, "I feel like we've always really gone over with audiences, you know, like people really like our show."

He says that because of the enthusiasm and devotion of their audience, who regularly demand two encores per show, it's made it much easier to go on as a band. With a sardonic smirk in his voice he adds, "For a couple of elitist, cynical art snobs, I think we run a pretty populist show."

They Might Be Giants are constantly reinventing themselves--a few years back they became the first band to release an entire album exclusively online, and have recently teamed up with the ridiculously funny flash animation team at Homestarrunner.com to make the first ever online video for the song "Experimental Film."

"On a creative level, I think we're very ambitious," says Flansburgh.

"We're still really striving to do the best stuff that we can do, and I think in some ways we're actually hungry to achieve better stuff."

The Spine is certainly one of their strongest works to date.

"I feel like we have actually found a way to work with live instruments and a way to work with electronic instruments that gives us the kind of records that are as extreme as we want them to be but also have the sonic impact we want them to have," says Flansburgh.

At the forefront of the many concerts and compilations for political change (the nice euphemism for "We're sick of Bush's bullshit"), Flansburgh--in conjunction with Moveon.org, Music For America and Seattle-based Barsuk Records--has put together an epic compilation called Future Soundtrack of America, due to hit stores next week. The CD includes songs by TMBG, REM, the Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, Blink 182, Black Eyed Peas, the late Elliot Smith and many others.

They Might Be Giants perform at the Catalyst on Sunday, Aug. 15. Corn Mo opens at 8:30pm. Tickets are $20 advance, $22 at the door; 831.423.1336.

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From the August 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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