Two bands will be playing the Ezra Jack Keats Family Concert in Prospect Park on the afternoon of July 11, two bands that have the same name and the same members. Kids will be hoping to hear this band play “Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?” or “Rolling O” while parents will be crossing their fingers for classics like “Ana Ng” or “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” The parents might get a few crumbs, but the kids will win this round.
They Might Be Giants have something of a split personality these days. That TMBG makes music that kids like is really no surprise to anyone who has heard their music from before they started doing music that was explicitly for children. Like Jonathan Richman or Jad Fair, they make the kind of faux-naïve, smart pop-rock peppered with absurdity and artsy pranksterism that parents have for some time now been able to play with the kids in the room. After all terms like “nerd-rock ” have been summoned to describe the sound, often not even just to describe songs that are overtly if jokingly educational like “James K. Polk,” “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas),” or, of course, their version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople). That a band would make stuff like this for adults is only testament to how easy it always should have been for the band to make adult music for kids.
Of course for the same reason, critics have long dismissed the act as a good-natured goof, and therefore a dangerous misapplication of real musical talent to pure gimmickry and quirkiness. Ignoring that kind of snobbery about the purpose of songwriting has given the band a devoted core following, and has positioned the band well to market itself in the new, niche-driven, direct-from-manufacturer-to-listener, Internet era of popular music.
In 2002, when the two Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell), the founders and figureheads, and the rest of the band decided to put out an album of kid-oriented songs, it was a bit of a lark, a one-off, a confection to add to the Whitman’s sampler of the band’s output. (Mr. Linnell had done the thing where you cover each of the 50 states when Sufjan Stevens was barely a gleam in the hipster eye.)
“We approached it like a Holiday album,” Mr. Flansburgh said in an interview with The Observer. “That time was kind of a transitional moment for us. We were working on a couple of television shows doing incidental music, and that outside experience had loosened us up a bit.”
Those television shows, “The Daily Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” would be hits. At the same time, the band was suddenly getting the star treatment with a retrospective in the form of a box set released by Rhino, and a documentary titled “Gigantic” in which the band were the stars.
“Doing something entirely outside our regular album output without being fully misunderstood suddenly seemed like an option available to us,” he said. “We never dreamed the kids’ stuff would get the kind of popular response it got.”
Since then they’ve released two more kids albums, one of which netted them a Grammy this year. In just the past year they composed music for the movie “Coraline,” toured behind their latest adult record, “The Else,” recorded podcasts, blogged, and on and on.
TMBG started as just the two Johns: a guitar, an accordion, and a tape recorder (for loops and drum machine tracks) cruising the downtown New York experimental café scene in the early ‘80s. Word of mouth (and talent, of course) got them a wider following, and after their 1986 debut, MTV took notice and helped to catapult them into homes across the country. They became mainstays of the influential Sunday night college and alternative music show “120 Minutes,” got a major label deal, and did a brisk touring business, particularly when they fleshed out their sound with a full live band.
Meanwhile their adorable Dial-a-Song service, advertised at first cryptically in the Village Voice classifieds, allowed listeners to call in and hear songs, song fragments, and other ephemera on a special answering machine, a charming way to connect directly with fans, perhaps especially charming, in retrospect, for its multilayered obsolescence from today’s point of view. Dial-a-Song was a sort of analog version of a Web site (on a souped-up answering machine), and listeners got a totally intimate experience with the band from a remote vantage.
By the 90s, with alternative culture seeping into the mainstream and the trends moving to louder, messier, longer-haired and bearing significantly less irreverence for the professional “standards” of contemporary pop, the band’s fortune was changing. Dropped from Elektra, they decided to take a stab at this whole Web thing and, in 1999, partnered with eMusic for the first Internet-only album release.
“From the moment I heard about the Web I was trying to figure out how we could get audio going there,” Mr. Flansburgh told The Observer. “But it wasn’t until MP3s that it really worked.”
“Long Tall Weekend” ended up becoming the most downloaded-for-pay album to that date. The band went on to beef up its Web presence with a blog, podcasts, and plenty of other goodies, while Dial-A-Song got a home online before being essentially merged with the podcast. Not all bands are as freakishly prolific as TMBG, but in giving away so much free music and information, the band was making its way into the future (a future far sunnier than that of Elektra, which was gobbled up by Warner Music Group in 2004 and summarily merged with Atlantic Records and killed; it’s currently being revived).
The band soon realized the value of giving some stuff away and charging for other stuff.
“It’s one big package deal,” Mr. Flansburgh explained. “From the beginning with Dial-A-Song, we found giving stuff away was a good way to set the tone around where we are at as a band, and it is a good creative challenge for us. We could easily be very precious about everything, so building in the free stuff keeps us loose.”
Along with the Web presence, the band began to diversify into a dizzying array of commercial projects, writing and recording jingles and ditties for Dunkin Donuts, Chrysler, and Coca-Cola. And then came the children.
Among the key reasons for the success of “No!” (Rounder) and its successors, “Here Come the ABCs” and “Here Come the 123s” (both on the Disney label) is that TMBG’s kids songs are just TMBG songs pruned of bad words and darker thoughts; there’s less funny-sad and way more just-fun.
Children aren’t buying a whole lot of records without their parents, and these days, most parents of young children remember TMBG not, like Raffi, from their youth, but from their adolescence. Pretty neat. Dan Zanes, whose former band the Del Fuegos was also a hit in the ‘80s college-rock era, has proven the same rule.
The Web presence, the commercial jingles, and the kids stuff are the reason TMBG (and Zanes) didn’t go the way of, say, the Violent Femmes, and the reason they can continue to make albums the way they want when they want.
None of these projects on its own makes a mint. After pointing out that the Prospect Park show suggests a $3 donation, Mr. Flansburgh is frank about the kids’ concert experience.
“We haven’t been able to do that many kids shows because for the most part they didn’t make economic sense,” he said. “We feel compelled to put on the same quality production whether it’s for adults or families, and while that’s good for the show, it’s tough on our budget. We already run the risk of losing money even at regular concert prices, so unfortunately we often can’t swing playing kids shows for the more family-friendly ticket prices cash-strapped families tend to require.”
Plus kids are not good audience for a Dead-style touring schedule, what with those amazingly short attention spans.
TMBG’s diversified efforts have actually allowed them to produce less commercial, more purely creative work too, from their “adult” albums to the CD they made in conjunction with McSweeney’s magazine to their most recent kids’ project, “Bed, Bed, Bed,” a cute book and accompanying 4-song CD co-created with cute artist Marcel Dzama. Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches sings the title song—cutely, of course. Then again, just around the corner comes the band’s CD/DVD “Here Comes Science,” their third Disney album. Because freedom ain’t free. It can be fun though.
[They Might Be Giants play as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn festival this Saturday, July 11, 4:00 P.M. at the Prospect Park Bandshell, with readings of Ezra Jack Keats Stories by Claudia Marshall of WFUV.]