Wednesday, October 14, 2009

They Might Be Giants Talk About Their Happiest Album

Posted By on Wed, Oct 14, 2009 at 10:00 AM

They Might Be Giants plays the Beachland Ballroom on Thursday. To celebrate the album’s 20th birthday, they’re performing the classic Flood in its entirety, bouncing through ecstatic jams like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Particle Man,” in addition to other favorites.

The Giants were just a duo when John Flansburgh and John Linnell recorded the disc in fall 1989. But a host of players fleshed out the album into the sterling production, which sounds just as fresh today. For this tour, the group is touring as an six-piece band. To recreate the horn and sampler bits, they’re bringing along Akron native Ralph Carney — a consummate showman, an acclaimed sideman to folks like Tom Waits and uncle of Black Keys drummer Pat Carney.

TMBG also had some impressive help behind the boards for four of Flood's 19 tracks. The Johns spent two-thirds of their recording budget to record “Birdhouse,” “Your Racist Friend,” “We Want a Rock” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Before they set out on the tour, Flansburgh and Linnell recalled working with two producers who helped them straddle the worlds of college rock, folk, country and new wave.

Flood’s four key songs were produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, an in-demand team whose credits included Madness’ One Step Beyond ..., Dexys Midnight Runners' Too-Rye-Ay, Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Punch the Clock and the David Bowie-Mick Jagger cover of “Dancin’ in the Street.” (They would later work on Morrissey’s Kill Uncle and Bush’s Sixteen Stone.)

Langer and Winstanley were ace songsmiths. More important to the Johns, though, was Langer’s stint as the guitarist in Deaf School, a ’70s Liverpool art band. “That,” says Flansburgh, “was the credit that probably made him seem like a kindred spirit.”

Langer and Winstanley, says Flansburgh, “were super-nice guys. They were hired to be the hitmakers. Clive has the best line that any producer could have in his back pocket: He didn’t think we needed a producer.”

“My sense is that that’s not what he was really thinking,” says Linnell. “But he was saying the nicest thing he could say to us at the time.”

The four Langer-Winstanley songs took money and time. Each tune went through a week of pre-production, followed by painstaking recording. Those songs were also the source of the sessions’ most creative friction. Winstanley liked the duo’s synth bass, but the producers weren’t keen on many other electronics, like the group's pet Casio FZ-1 sampler.

“It’s funny,” recalls Flansburgh. “They had a whole set of technical skills in analog recording, and they were very fussy about getting everything just so. And there was definitely a point where they just stopped really being interested in the technology we were working with. Sometimes it felt like we were, in the old sense of the word, punks: ‘Yeah, you and your boxes. Knock yourself out!’” —D.X. Ferris

They Might Be Giants. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 15, at the Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124, Tickets: $22 advance, $25 day of show.

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