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They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants CD

They Might Be Giants gets wired
By Brian Conant,
Illinois College Bureau

When the quirky cult-rock conglomerate They Might Be Giants jumped onto the Internet bandwagon last week, it was not, as it might have seemed, the calculated maneuver of a band bent on world domination.

On July 27, the band released "Long Tall Weekend," a full length recording of previously unreleased material, but the catch is that the disc will be peddled exclusively as a download at Emusic.com, a company that uses MP3 technology to distribute music utilizing the Web.

The download, which costs $8.99 includes some new studio work as well as some previously unreleased fan favorites like the quirky concert staple "She Thinks She's Edith Head" and the country-fried frolic "Counterfeit Faker."

Emusic, a leader in the ever-expanding business of downloadable music, is also home to such acts as Frank Black, Iggy Pop, Throwing Muses and Superchunk -- all of whom have also released albums via download.

Yet even after releasing a new album on the World Wide Web, John Linnell, one of the band's founding fathers, who is also one of the infamous "Johns" (the other is collaborator John Flansburgh), isn't really sure why the album was released on the Net.

"I'm not sure if we are clear what it means to us; I think we are waiting to find out," he said.

"It's an extremely new way of putting out music. Obviously the transition between vinyl (and) CDs was a pretty easy jump to make - it didn't really affect the way we made our work," he said. "This is something else, though, because the way you experience the music is going to be different, which is to say I'm not exactly sure how people are going to experience it.

"But they will either listen to music sitting beside or near their computer or they will have some little machine that they will transfer this stuff to, and then they can go jogging with that thing," added Linnell.

Weirdness is to be expected with any TMBG release. In their first 18 years as a band both Johns have used quirkiness like an instrument, giving life to hits like "Particle Man," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and perhaps their most mainstream-ready but still-offbeat single, "Birdhouse in Your Soul." Yet one of the weirder elements of the new record, or so claimed Linnell, is not the music but the artwork for the album.

"We hired an artist to do work for each song, and there is also a 'cover,' and this is all stuff you get when you download, but I'm not sure if you are seeing this stuff as it is playing or if you look at it separately. I just don't know," said Linnell, who also admitted that he has never, in fact, downloaded an MP3, not even his own. "I just haven't had the time."

The MP3 release was not, in fact the brainchild of TMBG. Emusic.com approached the Johns after they were highly recommended by their friend and fellow recording artist Frank Black.

"They have impressed us with amount of support they have given us," Linnell said, and added that the company will underwrite the band's next tour (which begins in the fall).

Being unfamiliar with the technology has never been a roadblock to TMBG. In fact the band has been something of a haphazard pioneer in the music industry. In early 1983 the band rigged a recorder to a telephone in their apartment and thus began their famous "Dial-a-Song" service.

Ever since, the band has used the recorder as a sounding board for everything from demos to finished studio tracks. Still in operation, the service even has the same number the band began with 17 years ago.

Early last year the band made the Dial-a-Song service available on the Web. "I don't know why people want to put a computer between them and the music, but for them we have created dialasong.com."

So the release, in many ways, makes sense to Linnell. "It's just another part of the crazy octopus involved in getting our music out there," he said.

Yet despite his lack of experience in the world of MP3s, Linnell remains aware of the controversy surrounding the online music format.

"From what I understand, there is some trouble in regard to how the artist will get paid. For a while now half of the free world has been getting this stuff for free," he explained. "I want to keep getting paid, but it is a hard-to-answer question. I think the majority of the people out there who are stealing it would not have bought it, anyway. But I think we are going to have a clearer idea of what's going on once we find out how many of these MP3s we are selling.

"For now we are treating it like it is a separate world we think of it as more of a new category of music."

For those without the technology (or perhaps the time) to get familiar with the MP3 format, Linnell says TMBG will not leave people in the lurch. "We will continue to release CDs as long as people have record players."

Yet it may be awhile before Linnell has a chance to check out the MP3. TMBG certainly does not plan to slow down over the summer.

Each John has been working on so many side projects it is hard for even Linnell to keep track of. Some of these projects include the band's five-segment stint on the prime time ABC series "Brave New World." They also wrote and recorded music for the show. They recently recorded the opening theme to "Malcolm in the Middle," a new Fox show.

The two also have worked with Disney, recording a song for an animated "Peter Pan" sequel now in the works. As if that weren't enough, they have been working on a new studio album, logging recording time with famed NYC production pair Joe and Phil Nicolo, and an album of children's songs.

Yet the side project at the forefront of Linnell's mind is his first solo album, "The State Songs" which is complete and will be released on Rhino Records Oct. 26.

"I've been writing these songs for more than 10 years. I was tired of thinking about subjects for songs and having that subject be the title of the song. So I just wanted to leapfrog over that and just get to writing the song. So I thought about coming up with a list of subjects beforehand, and then I came up with the idea of using the state's names as the subjects for my songs. It just takes care of everything, because there are 50 states. So I won't be looking for new ideas for a long time to come."

Yet while its plate would seem full enough, TMBG seems to have an insatiable appetite for media exposure. Few of the Johns' stunts have given them as much exposure as their recently recorded "Dr. Evil," the track that opens the new Mike Myers film "Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me."

And unlike the band's Internet outreach, a spot in the Austin Powers film was the result of more than mere luck.

The story goes that the band was approached by the music coordinator for the movie, who suggested they rewrite their single "Dr. Worm" for the movie.

"And we thought, yeah, we'll do that, but only if afterward we can commit suicide, because we'd be so ashamed of ourselves to do something so crass," Linnell said.

Instead of rewriting their tune TMBG went to the studio and recorded the swanky "John Barry homage" spy tune "Dr. Evil," which the music coordinator hated. "I think they were looking for more of a pop rock tune," he said.

Down but not out, the band managed to get a copy of the song to Myers, who loved it and wanted it to be part of the opening credits. The song came into Myers' possession too late to be a part of the original movie soundtrack, but will be a part of a follow-up soundtrack Maverick Records plans to release in the fall.


8/02/99

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