For the past 27 years, the duo behind the band "They Might Be Giants" has written songs about an unusually wide range of topics, from unrequited love to President James K. Polk and Belgian painter James Ensor. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
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John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been "They Might Be Giants" for more than half their lives. They are two time Grammy Award winners, with 14 albums and a couple of books for kids to their names.
Recently, they were playing a benefit show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg -- Flansburgh's old neighborhood -- where they shot their first music video in the mid 1980's down the block from a slaughterhouse.
John Flansburgh: On Mondays, they would cut, slit the cows' throats hang them upside down and bleed them. On Tuesdays, they would take the skin off them. And on Wednesdays, they would boil them.
Budd Mishkin: So you had that at one end of the block, but you chose to do the video at the other end? How could you have missed that video opportunity?
John Flansburgh: If we'd shot it at the slaughterhouse, we would've had to get permission. That would've been too hard.
The 'Giants' have fashioned a career unlike most groups -- long, eclectic and uninterrupted for almost 30 years. Their albums have been bought by millions of adults. And there's music for kids too, both entertaining and educational.
They won a grammy for writing the theme music for the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle."
They've composed for serious news programs, and not so serious ones like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
"The person who was producing it kept saying 'Well, no that's not quite network, that's sort of more like local news.' And we realized, it has to be like really garish and super-bombastic and ridiculous," recalls Linnell.
Their latest project is their fourth children's album "Here Comes Science." Which is why they preceded the Williamsburg gig with a performance on Sirius Radio's "Kids Place Live." For this album, they added that rare rock 'n roll component known as a science consultant.
"It seemed like a really good idea to protect ourselves by having somebody who's a titled science professional to vet everything," says Linnell.
They have what they call a split career -- music the kids love as well as the parents.
They're inventive, successful musicians with influences ranging from new wave to male singing quartets. But what is perhaps most intriguing is the relationship between the two.
Linnell is 50 years old, Flansburgh 49, and they've known each other since they were kids.
"I think it's very easy for us to speak for the other one and feel like we're on solid ground, ya know, which makes for very easy negotiations," says Flansburgh.
"He's right! I gotta hand it to him. Keep going, keep talking, Flansy," jokes Linnell.
A surface profile of the two might reduce them to Flansburgh the extrovert, and Linnell the introverted artiste. But it doesn't take long before you realize that Flansburgh is a serious observer of the band and the music business, and Linnell has a few thousand one liners.
Defying categorization is old hat for "They Might Be Giants." They've been praised for being independent and not giving in to producers or record companies, but it's praise they treat warily.
"People tend to make a lot bigger deal about integrity than they have a right to," says Flansburgh. "We have integrity, but I don't want to be thought of as an integrity act. You know, there's no percentage in that. There's no big upside to that."
"They Might Be Giants" have some passionate fans -- some a little too passionate.
"We did have somebody who very specifically thought we were sending her messages in our lyrics. And at that point, once we'd found out about that we thought about leaving messages like 'Leave us alone,'" recalls Linnell.
Both Linnell and Flansburgh have been in Brooklyn for almost 30 years. But they first met growing up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a nice place, but a place with limitations.
"You can't liberate yourself from what people already know. It's like, 'You can't be a guy in a rock band! I've known you since you were five!'" says Flansburgh.
They sensed early on that New York would be different.
"If you're into experimental wig design, or fringe-y rock stuff, New York is a place where you can find a community where you don't feel like a weirdo," says Flansburgh.
They both eventually found themselves living with high school friends in Park Slope. Linnell had already left college to join a band. When he considered teaming up with Flansburgh, it may have been the first time in history when staying in a rock band seemed like a safer career choice.
"I recall my relatives were disappointed that I was quitting the one professional rock band to start the nonworking, experimental, ya know, homebound rock band with Flansburgh. They were like, 'Are you sure that's a good idea?'" says Linnell.
Flansburgh came to the city to study art and his musical aspirations were modest.
"When we first started this band, I couldn't really sing and play at the same time," recalls Flansburgh.
They eventually had to stop rehearsing and play a gig. A friend from high school had a rather unusual idea.
"She immediately thought, 'Well, there's this coalition that's all celebrating the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, and they need a band,'" says Linnell. "We have not played a lot of Sandinista rallies since then."
It wasn't until they started making their third album that they quit their day jobs. Their videos played on MTV, and they were unlike any other. But Flansburgh says no one in the neighborhood noticed because no one in the neighborhood had MTV.
"The only guy who recognized me in the borough of Brooklyn for like the first couple of years after our videos came out was the FedEx guy," says Flansburgh.
They created Dial-a-Song, an answering machine that fans could call in order to hear their latest recording.
"It was just really nice to come into the world as a band with a completely different set of expectations. People are just like, 'Are you guys really a band, or is this just an art project? What is this with the phone?'" recalls Flansburgh.
Only a few years after filming their first video on an industrial pier near a slaughterhouse, the 'Giants' made it to the symbol of show business establishment -- the old Tonight Show.
Their third album "Flood" went platinum. But "They Might Be Giants" eventually found themselves at odds with the record company and struck out on their own.
They found their independence "liberating and lucrative."
"The phone really started ringing off the hook, and we realized, these are the things, these are phone calls that we weren't getting before," says Flansburgh.
There have been more albums, a series of CDs for kids and theme songs for television shows, from "The Daily Show" to "The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse."
Both men are married and Linnell has a young son. Their fans now range from kindergarten age to middle age. But there's still a special connection to teens and young adults -- perhaps because their song subjects are so eclectic. Or maybe it's the angst and wit in their lyrics.
What's beautiful is two lifelong friends, continuing to grow and laugh together, taking their admirers along for the ride, New Yorkers still with a touch of small town New England.
"You tend to bring those places with you. So in a way, coming to New York, you have the best of both worlds, because you draw something from the fact that you're from some other place," Linnell says.
"It's sort of like a brother thing without the problem of the brother thing," says Flansburgh.