In a strange way, one of the best things that ever happened to They Might Be Giants was not having any sort of overnight success. Because as guitarist John Flansburgh explains, he and partner John Linnell really did benefit from being able to make their mistakes onstage rather than on record.
For one thing, the band's early work sounded little like the quirky, tuneful fare that earned the band its reputation. "Our earliest demos were lame, pale imitations of the Residents," explains Flansburgh, referring to the mysterious San Francisco quartet whose brash, experimental sound is worlds away from ** the catchy, concise approach of TMBG classics like "Anna Ng" and "Birdhouse In Your Soul."
So how did the duo get from where they were to where they are? By trial and error, mostly. "We had time to figure out where our strengths lay before we started making records," says Flansburgh.
"A lot of people make records right away, and once you make a record, that defines you," he adds. "All of a sudden, there's this document of what you did. By having this long gestation period )) before our record actually came out, we had a chance to recognize personal strengths that I don't think we realized [we had] initially. I mean, there were a lot of things in our show that were more wide-open and improvisational, and though they were interesting, we weren't really that good at it. And we sort of figured that out."
What Flansburgh and Linnell excel at is songwriting, something Flansburgh jokes puts the band in "an archaic tradition. I mean, we're not even a riff band -- we're a song band, so that puts us in the '60s rather than the '70s."
Still, the duo is quite proud of its ability to match traditional songcraft to distinctly untraditional ideas. Their new album, "John Henry," includes such oddities as "Subliminal," a song about a guy who gets hit by a car and, as he flew through the windshield, noticed a subliminal message, waiting for him. It's not the deepest song ever written, but it's certainly entertaining -- and that's all Flansburgh and Linnell ask.
"For us, having the excuse for writing the insignificant song has always been kind of useful," he says. "Any good reason to write another song is OK with us."
To that end, the duo has kept its own Dial-A-Song service -- call (718) 387-6962 -- going for almost a decade.
"In a way, Dial-A-Song has been a good way to not be so precious about what we're doing," he says. "Sometimes it's good just to have another song, and know that if you write 10 songs, one of them might be great. It's basically our Hall of Shame. Or a preview of our next record. Right now, it's got a lot of odd material on it."
They Might Be Giants
When: Wednesday, March 29, 8 p.m.
Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University
Tickets: Reserved seating is $13.50 for students, $17 for non-students
Call: (410) 481-7328
To hear excerpts from They Might Be Giants' album "John Henry," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6188 after you hear the greeting.