MAGNET Classics: They Might Be Giants’ “Flood”

TMBG

The making of They Might Be Giants’ Flood
By A.D. Amorosi

It would be easy to think of They Might Be Giants’ third album, Flood, as its absolute best. The 1990 release from the Johns—Linnell and Flansburgh—was their first on a major label, their first to be produced by name outside producers in a studio with all its incumbent frippery and, ultimately, the duo’s first and only album to go platinum.

“I can hardly describe how utterly in shock we were at how it took off,” says Linnell during a brief break from mixing one new TMBG album (the adult Glean, due this month) and recording another (a children’s album, due this autumn). “Maybe I still am.”

Beyond studios and sales, Flood has come to define the iconography of They Might Be Giants, as well as the tenor of the time. Seriously, who the hell knew or cared about Brooklyn before these guys broke out? What band in 1990 offered such a wide berth for the liberal use of accordions and Casios in the years immediately preceding grunge’s grouchy guitars? Or truly bothered with wit and childlike—not childish—humor? Or used the fez as a symbol of achievement? Or emphasized the arcane literary use of the unreliable narrator in its lyrics? Or could be kitsch without losing its cool? Or shifted from polkas to tangos to country music to surf rock to polka again, all while maintaining post-punk heft and contagious melodicism? Or gave breath to the historical notion of “Istanbul” not so much being “Constantinople” any longer?

From the ’60s talk-show chorale of “Theme From Flood” to the existentialist lullaby finale of “Road Movie To Berlin,” with references to Frankie Laine’s “Rawhide” (“Minimum Wage”), serious questions of bigotry (“Your Racist Friend”) and absurdist screeds (“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”) in between, Flood is a bona fide odd-pop classic.

Beyond their klatch of children’s records ( Here Come The ABCs, Here Come The 123s, Here Comes Science) and “Boss Of Me,” the theme to Malcolm In The Middle (Bryan Cranston’s series before Breaking Bad), it is Flood that Linnell and Flansburgh are best known for.

“I get that,” Linnell says of Flood’s epic luster and its capacity to define his work with his longtime boyhood pal. “Flood absolutely has all the elements of where we started and where we wound up.”

It’s not as if TMBG wasn’t the captain of tiny industry before 1990 and Flood. Named after a George C. Scott movie, the duo had been around since 1983 and moved from its role as house band at Darinka on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a touring act within several years of being founded. This included gigs where guitarist Flansburgh and accordionist/saxophonist Linnell were accompanied solely by a drum machine and an Otari eight-track reel-to-reel tape player. Soon, TMBG created real hype—as well as a deeply personal connection to its growing fan base—with the duo’s home-cassette answering-machine-based Dial-A-Song project.

“I don’t think we used Dial-A-Song as any sort-of entrée to getting a record deal,” says Linnell, when quizzed about the possibility. “The thing kept breaking down. No, we used it to connect with the people who liked us. It really only ever advertised itself.”

Still, TMBG got a deal with the independent Bar/None label through Restless, and released two spare, quirky albums between 1986 and 1988—They Might Be Giants and Lincoln—each of which won its own levels of acclaim. The former yielded “Don’t Let’s Start” (whose video became an MTV smash in 1987), whereas Lincoln’s jittery “Ana Ng” topped modern-rock charts.

“I don’t think we were so much getting restless as we were feeling we could use help getting out there,” says Linnell of considering major labels in 1989. “We didn’t want to give up anything to gain something.”

“I couldn’t say we had a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish going forward from that point,” says Flansburgh.

Though major labels seemed like the enemy to anyone well-versed (or -vexed) in indie polemic, they were in fact a place where money and access came freely. And at that time, Elektra—part of the WEA industrial complex—looked like a good place to be. It had a rich history as one of offbeat American folk music’s avatars in the ’60s, with albums by Tom Paxton, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs. By the ’80s, Elektra had successfully marketed oddball new-wave acts such as the snarky Housemartins and Björk’s pre-solo ensemble the Sugarcubes, as well as post-punk heroes like the Pixies and the Cure.

“The move from Bar/None to Elektra would be best described as graduating high school and going to college,” says Flansburgh. “Both have their own set of challenges, and both can be a blast, but if you think you can go back, it really won’t be the same. I guess I felt like we had somehow smuggled our slightly fragile brand of expression onto a larger stage, but we didn’t want to have it fucked with. We went to WEA for distribution, not a style makeover.”

Lyrically, Flood maintains the same freeform absurdity of its previous recordings while heightening Linnell’s feel for the unreliable narrator motif. “I think that’s just my thing,” he says dryly.

The only real change was the duo’s “Your Racist Friend” and its socially aware take on bigotry. Linnell doesn’t see that song or Flood as a gateway to lyrical change. “We had discussions about what kind of songs we wanted to write, but were probably a little ginger about spelling them out,” he says “We kept it all very undefined, which is how it’s been all the way through.”

Linnell and Flansburgh seem to agree on pretty much everything, now and then. When it came to the demos they were building at the time before recording what would be Flood, both agreed that—beyond Elektra’s marketing sensibility and distribution reach—what They Might Be Giants needed was a bigger sound, ears other than their own, the money to get all that, and a real studio to do it all in.

“Real studios were very rarified situations then,” says Flansburgh. “Although I feel like the first two albums are good and a direct product of John and my recording production values, I wanted to get beyond the limitations of project studio productions.”

“If we wanted a trombonist, we didn’t want to worry about scrounging to get that,” says Linnell. “We agreed that for our first label outing, yes, we could use a hand, to polish things up a bit. We liked the idea of having someone objective.”

Though Linnell and Flansburgh both spoke to producer Geoff Emerick—who had worked with George Martin on several Beatles albums, as well as going it alone with Paul McCartney, Split Enz and Nellie McKay—the pair quickly focused on the duo of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. “They were fascinating guys,” Linnell says of the British pair, least of all because they had produced massive hit singles and albums for Madness, the Teardrop Explodes, Aztec Camera and Dexys Midnight Runners. Langer specifically had bonus cred, not only because he had co-written Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding” with Elvis Costello (another of the pair’s production charges), but because of a cultish pop thing from Linnell’s youth.

“I saw Clive play as part of Deaf School when I was in college in Massachusetts,” he says. “I was a huge fan of that band. Sure, after John and I met them, that was still a big deal, but I’d have to say that—to a certain extent—they won on personality. I kept having this feeling that they would get us.”

You can’t ignore the fact that TMBG was a friendly, humorous, curious duo that knew and worked with each other forever, just as Langer and Winstanley had at that point. “They did seem to mirror us a bit,” says Linnell.

“Langer and Winstanley were not much older than us, yet were so experienced in the ways of the studio, and so giving of their expertise,” says Flansburgh, who mentions that the production duo respected TMBG’s drum machines and unorthodox approaches. “They had incredible levels of patience. Having worked with producers who you might call ‘hit makers,’ the thing they all seem to have in common is they don’t mind spending days recording vocal tracks. I wish I had that temperament.”

Twenty-six years after working with TMBG at NYC’s Skyline Studios, Langer recalls having mostly similar feelings about the duo. “I’ve worked with Alan for over 30 years, and we’re dear friends, but I don’t think that we are bud-buds like the two Johns,” he says from his London studio, where he’s finishing a solo project with Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay. “The Giant chaps seemed very close. Then again, we were two couples thrown together, so that’s an interesting scenario right there.”

Langer and Winstanley were working with Morrissey in England—recording Bona Drag—when they first received demos for four TMBG songs. The former still sounds astounded by the musicality and professionalism of Linnell and Flansburgh; so much so that, at the time, Langer wasn’t certain they could improve upon what TMBG recorded in skeletal form. “It was really good, that,” he says.

Linnell, Flansburgh and Langer all agree, though, that together the foursome greatly and noticeably boosted what the twosome initiated. Linnell mentions that one of Langer/Winstanley’s primary embellishments was bringing in a live drummer. “Langer and Winstanley definitely gave us a sense of what we could be doing with acoustic instruments and rhythm, drums in particular,” says Linnell, pointing out that “We Want A Rock,” the swinging “Twisting” and the messy beat of “Birdhouse In Your Soul” were tracks that he and Flansburgh imagined would sound better with “more natural, realistic” rhythms.

Alan Bezozi has worked with Regina Spektor and Elle King, and is a one-time drummer for Freedy Johnston. After befriending Flansburgh in 1989, his job became that of pumping up the live drums and rhythm programming on Flood. “They had concise and clever songwriting,” he says. “I thought the drums could perhaps be a bit more ‘drummerly.’” Rather than become a TMBG member, Bezozi (like guitarist Arto Lindsay, violinist Mark Feldman and a small brass section) became Flood’s studio rats. “Years after that album came out, Flansburgh admitted they used me as a motivator,” says Bezozi. “The Johns would be together and say, ‘Bezozi’s coming Wednesday, we’re paying him, we better have something ready for him to work on.’”

Each track was approached like a little movie, with Flansburgh and Bezozi filling “Particle Man” with brushes and making the rhythms of “Hot Cha” entirely of kitchen objects. “The Casio FZ-1 sampler was all the rage at the time,” says Bezozi. “So, for no particular reason, we decided to sample everything in the kitchen—that little grill at the bottom of the refrigerator, the whole nine yards. Literally the kitchen sink.”

“‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ was all additive,” Flansburgh says about utilizing the Casio’s “fancy sampler,” famous for its use on Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” and De La Soul’s albums. “We sampled blowing over a soda bottle, which can be clearly heard as the three-note chord on ‘even old New York,’ and did a lot of other home-brewed experiments on that track.” Langer and Winstanley then took those sounds, cut-and-pasted several sections, and created the instrumental intro of “Istanbul” with a horn and violin section in the middle. “At its core, that track is really fully Casio-powered,” says Flansburgh.

Neither TMBG nor its new producers wanted to hear things that were more normal. “That is not why they wanted to work with us or us with Langer and Winstanley,” says Linnell. ”They wanted John and I to be ourselves—just more so.”

Sonically, the central track to Flood, the one that contains all that was TMBG before all that would come after, was “Birdhouse In Your Soul.” When the Johns brought that herky-jerky tune to the producers, they altered its demo to include what Linnell says was an off-the-beat robotic rhythm.

“Clive and Alan heard that,” says Linnell, “and they said we ruined it.”

“We were working in a new area with them and their computers,” says Langer. “They came in with one beat, and we gave them another: an extra da-boom-da boom in between their boom and kick. I wanted one of the Johns—the guitar John—to play heavy guitar notes behind it. Weaarahwah! It’s the sort of thing I’d been doing with Madness. Oddly, ‘Birdhouse’ sounded like a Madness record, especially when it went into that avant-garde brass. But the Johns had this stuff anyway, naturally.”

“‘Birdhouse’ got the best out of everyone,” says Flansburgh. “Clive and John hashed out an expanded arrangement that had cool transitions. It had the producers’ exciting trick of using acoustic instruments and the bold playing of session players, and also blended in our version of sampling and sequencing, so a lot of the power of our approach stayed in the mix. At Winstanley’s insistence, it was the very first time I played through a Marshall amplifier, which I didn’t understand the function of until then. He really used that distorted slab of midrange guitar breaking out of the Marshall to move the track to a different, more pop place. Even though it’s simply doubling a bass line, it pulled the sonics of it together in the most exciting way. Man, those things are loud.”

After Flood’s release, its promotion included a joke about it being better than other albums, as it had more songs at 19 tracks. Along with Elektra’s push behind “Birdhouse In Your Soul” as first single (which found the duo performing the song on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show with a full brassy big-band arrangement courtesy of glitzy orchestra leader Doc Severinsen), TMBG filmed “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man” as part of Warner’s kid-venture Tiny Toon Adventures. Before you think we’ve unlocked TMBG’s infatuation with making moves toward children’s music, think again.

“Oh, I can point to something even earlier,” says Linnell. “We were invited to go on Nick Rocks, this Nickelodeon show in the ’80s, and introduce videos.” The Nickelodeon showcase was one of that network’s early experiments in crossover programming between kids and adult audiences, yet one that opened Linnell and Flansburgh’s eyes to child-like and child-filled musical possibilities.

“It took us another dozen years to commit to the idea, but we suddenly became very receptive to it then,” says Linnell. He speaks seriously about never lowering your standards for kids, how you must play over and above the norm, as to do otherwise would be insulting to that zealous, youthful audience. “Funny thing was, when our first album came out in 1986 with that pink cartoon cover by Rodney Alan Greenblat, Tower Records put it in their kids section. They didn’t know. Still, Flans and I were aghast. Little did we know.”

Twenty-five years after its release, both Linnell and Flansburgh find total joy in discussing and playing their third LP. “Look, Flood was our most fun album, probably because we felt so free and ready to do something interesting and grow,” says Linnell.

One of the most interesting aspects of that record’s success, looking back, is how much of an impact it had on the radio of Great Britain and Australia. “First off, we weren’t expecting Flood to have the effect it did, period,” says Linnell. “1990 was a year of a lot of exiting developments for us. We were catapulted into this middle range. We had been approved of. That’s weird, but it meant something. The best part, though, was how the British took to it. As a kid, I watched so many acts take off in the U.K. first, before America, so it was doubly amazing that we charted big there.”

Langer proudly states that Flood tracks such as “Birdhouse In Your Soul” are still played regularly on BBC Radio. “It comes on at least weekly,” he says. “It’s a classic of BBC 1 in particular. It comes on in pubs, and people start singing it.”

As for Australia, TMBG’s 2014 concerts there were so warmly receptive—especially when it came to Flood songs—the duo released a free, online-only, live version of the full 1990 album stitched together from several different Down Under shows this February; all in anticipation of its full Flood show at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg in March.

Flansburgh and Linnell are still learning and evolving when it comes to their union. Though each has recorded albums in the past outside of TMBG—Linnell did the aptly titled State Songs, Flansburgh recorded as Mono Puff—the twosome has eschewed solo work within the last decade to concentrate solely on being the best and most consistently experimental Giants they can be. Most of this stems from how—and what—they put into and got out of Flood.

“My sense of Flans and I is not that we’re better friends necessarily than we are totally able to rely on our collaboration,” says Linnell. “We support each other’s ideas and expect that the other will come up with something new and non-repetitive that we bring into TMBG. As for not doing solo work—we built this franchise. We have a job. It’s company loyalty; weird to say as such, but true. A lot of this comes from Flood. There’s something brash and confident in that album. Then, like now, we are in command of the material. When we hear Flood or play it live, you can sense that it is the work of younger people, and that no matter how we evolved artistically, that it wasn’t always by conscious choice, and that all comes from Flood. It still feels fresh and it still feels familiar. It’s a genuine pleasure.”

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