“I've got a question for you,” says John Flansburgh, one half of the quirky duo They Might Be Giants, when I call to interview him about his group's latest album, Mink Car. “Are you an analog guy or a digital?” After I stumble through an answer that I hope won't alienate him, Flansburgh elaborates: “The big question these days is, analog or digital? And you've got the entire world basically lined up on one side or the other. And in some ways, I think this record is a really good argument for both, because you could not have combined those methods of recording more completely. There are things about the record that are completely expressions of a band; there's total band continuity and performance — songs that are, in many ways, no different than people who have been making records for the last 40 years. And there are other things that are entire concoctions that basically were written on nonlinear digital music-recording stuff, and the actual tracks were created from the ground up that way.” After discussing the pros and cons of different recording methods, he answers his own question. “I was trying to figure out what side I was on, and I realized I really enjoy both ways of working pretty equally, and I don't want to deny myself either way of finishing something up.”
If you know anything about They Might Be Giants' history, then Flansburgh's answer won't surprise you. The songwriting pair (Flansburgh plays guitar and sings; his partner John Linnell plays accordion and sax and sings) have never been afraid to use new, old and sometimes highly unorthodox techniques to get their songs across. For example, in their early years as a band, they began leaving a new song each day on that most untapped of home recording media: the answering machine. “Dial-a-Song,” as it became known, achieved for the Giants their first major notoriety and continues to be popular among their fans today.
On a more practical note, the band was among the first to take up drum machines and the then-new MIDI technology in the early '80s. They have recorded a song to wax cylinder, the world's oldest recording medium, and helped pioneer music distribution on the Internet. Not to mention that, along with all the keyboards the Giants use, you find Linnell's trademark accordion, a stubbornly traditional sound amidst all the electronic ones.
The combination of analog and digital recording techniques on Mink Car also makes sense because the Giants now have a touring group called the Band of Dans. (Yes, you guessed it, they are all named Dan.) A number of the tracks on the album capture the Dans' live sound; these were mostly recorded 24-track analog at Coyote Studios, though they were manipulated later in Pro Tools. Many other tracks, however, were created using keyboards and other MIDI instruments, and recorded digitally.
One of the biggest influences on the nature of the recording was the Giants' hectic work schedule. They recorded Mink Car in at least four separate studios, working with six producers, plus the Coyote sessions, which they produced themselves. “We've been incredibly busy, doing a million different projects while recording this record at the same time,” Flansburgh says. Given that, it made sense for the group to get in studio time wherever and whenever they could.
Among the projects TMBG worked on during this period was music for the TV show Malcolm In the Middle (its theme song, “The Boss Of Me,” is one of the Giants' biggest hits), the opening song for the next Austin Powers movie and a children's album due out next year.
“One of the things about making a children's record that's different from making a regular rock record is that it's a real open invitation to experiment with extreme sounds, because a kid's notion of sound is much less defined,” Flansburgh says. “They're not particularly interested in the more obvious; you know, they're not going to find an electric guitar solo very compelling. So, it was a really great reintroduction for us into the most experimental sounds and creations that we could think of. Having worked on that project and immediately started working [on Mink Car], I think a lot of the spirit rubbed off on this record.”
Experimentation — with sounds, as well as musical genres — is definitely evident on Mink Car. It contains straight-ahead rock songs, electronica and hip hop-influenced tracks, a loungy number in the style of Burt Bacharach, and even a New Order-esque dance song. There are machine-made beats and live drums, keyboards and accordions, horn samples and scratching, a dash of Middle Eastern percussion here, and a blat from a Sauroussophone (according to their press release, that's a “19th-century substitute for the contrabassoon”).
Three of the album's tracks, including the opener “Bangs,” were produced by the British team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who worked on the Giants' hit songs “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” from their 1990 Platinum album Flood. (Langer and Winstanley have also worked with Bush, Morrissey, Dexy's Midnight Runners and others.) “Bangs” recalls the impeccably tracked and polished pop sound of “Birdhouse,” with not a note of its modulating major hooks out of place.
Flansburgh found that he had a new appreciation for the British producers this time around. “We had never been in an actual, real, multitrack studio before,” he says of the Flood sessions. “We had been in an 8-track studio run by a friend of ours that was essentially a demo place. But I didn't know anything about how to make a real record. Coming back to work with them on this record, I realized how unorthodox their method really is as producers. Like, Alan Winstanley is a world-class engineer, but they don't ever do things the same way. The thing that's nicest about them as producers is that, for people like me and John, who are primarily into songwriting, they approach production the way that we approach songwriting. That is, we let the song take us in whatever direction it seems to want to go.”
For instance, the track “I've Got a Fang” began as a live band recording. Then, according to Flansburgh, “Clive just had this crazy idea that he wanted to superimpose this rapid hi-hat across the entire song. What's weird about it is that you're mixing two different feels…We tried it, and it makes it sound completely bent. It's a much more singular track now.”
The songs with Langer and Winstanley were recorded at the Magic Shop studio in New York using a RADAR hard disk recording system, a combination of analog and digital technologies. Flansburgh, who had never used RADAR before, enjoyed the experience, especially the reliability of the track recall. “If you're doing a lot of tracks, it's very hard not to lose something. That's always been my problem with Pro Tools sessions at studios that are not project studios.” He also likes RADAR's sound. “It actually has the sonic presence of a 24-track [analog] machine without the hiss, obviously. And it sounds much less clinical than Pro Tools.”
Three of the album's tracks were produced by Adam Schlesinger of the band Fountains of Wayne. Those songs include “Yeah Yeah,” a cover of a 1964 bossa-jazz-pop hit by British singer Georgie Fame. A lot of work went into the song's drum track. “It was kind of a big collage,” Schlesinger says. “It was done having the drummer play different grooves with different sized drums, different snares, and then chopping it up into pieces. It's very cut and paste. There's wild little moments — drum fills that come from nowhere, piano glisses and things. It's sort of a patchwork. It was all done in Pro Tools.” The Giants also called in a Middle Eastern percussionist on the sessions. “That actually really helps when you're building on top of a track that has some programming in it,” Schlesinger says, “to have live percussion, just to mix it up.”
“Man, It's So Loud In Here” is perhaps the furthest out of the orbit of the other styles on the album. Recorded mostly with sounds from a Proteus 2000 module, it perfectly imitates the electronic dance music of the Reagan era, inducing in the listener a seizure of nostalgia that can only be calmed by a heavy application of black lipstick, eyeliner and hair gel. “It's funny, because it's a song about being trapped in a disco where you can't hear yourself talk, and so we decided to go for a kind of a cross between early '80s New Order-style music and a little bit of '70s dance music,” Schlesinger says. “We built it off of a drum program that we started working on at John Flansburgh's house.”
Flansburgh elaborates: “Musically, the song is probably more like a New Order song, but the drum aesthetic is straight out of that early Pet Shop Boys sound, which is pretty funny because we've been around as long as the Pet Shop Boys.” After recording a demo at Flansburgh's home studio, the Giants took the song to the smallish TMF studios and replaced most of the sounds. Interestingly, the gated guitar sound in the chorus is made by a keyboard. “That's actually a Roland preset called ‘Alternative,’” Flansburgh says with admiration.
The album's title track was also recorded at TMF. The song pays musical homage to the Bacharach swingin' '60s style, with a flugelhorn line on the chorus and period-authentic drumming by guest musician Clem Waldman. “Mink Car was done backward,” Flansburgh explains. “We recorded the piano first, and then did the drums afterward, then all the horns and vocals and everything. The very last thing we did was have Danny Weinkauf, our bass player, play the bass part. The great part about it is that the bass gets to do all that elaborate stuff in all the holes that weren't filled by anything else.”
On several other songs, the Giants collaborated with hip hop/electronica producers the Elegant Too at their home studio. “Mr Excitement” is a prime example, full of funky drum machine beats, scratching and a rap by former Soul Coughing frontman M. Doughty. The Giants built the song in an unusual way, starting out with samples of their trombonist Dan Levine, which they recorded and manipulated using Vision software. “Chris Maxwell and Phil and I immediately set about working on this track, writing it to these abstract horn blasts,” Flansburgh says. “It has essentially a kind of Peter Gunn quality. That's probably the thing that our minds went to when we heard that sound. It's a strange place to start for a song.
“A lot of it is made by machines being played by Phil and Chris,” Flansburgh notes of the sounds in the song. “They're into electronic music, but they're also really great musicians, so it's often easier for them to create electronic sounds by actually playing them. So the bass sound on it is actually from Chris' MIDI guitar that he uses as a trigger. They're experts at sampling themselves to make it sound like a very slick programming, which is an unusual kind of expertise.”
With so many producers and studios, an album can run the risk of sounding too patchwork. But there is a cohesiveness to Mink Car. It is very much anchored by Flansburgh's and Linnell's distinctive voices and melodies, and experimentation with genres is the theme that runs throughout. For a musically restless and prolific band like the Giants, the result is representative and satisfying in the way a good mix tape can be. After all, as Flansburgh asks, “Why would you want every song on a record to sound the same?”