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They Might Be Giants: A Template for Rising Indie-Rock Groups

Indie-rock mainstays They Might Be Giants released their 16th studio album, Nanobots, last year. It continues the group’s trend of short songs – often under three minutes – that pack an impressive mixture of experimentation and infectious hooks. The band’s scope of experimentalism has altered slightly throughout their 30+ year career, from early shows featuring cartoonish cut-outs and humorously conversational lyrics to more recent endeavors, like a trio of children’s albums that taught ABCs and science in the most fun way one could imagine – via catchy indie-rock! But the one thing that has remained constant is their undying love for their fans. TMBG entertain them through a variety of interactive communications and stylistically diverse releases, which appeal to a plethora of different demographics despite a generally constant sound. They Might Be Giants’ career trajectory should be essential research for any indie musician looking to make it big in a large city.

They Might Be Giants have featured a revolving cast of musicians throughout the years, but the band has always been held upright by founding members John Flansburgh and John Linnell. The two Johns met as teenagers in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and wrote songs together in high school. After graduating they parted ways and went to different colleges, but quickly reunited in 1981 to resume a songwriting partnership that showed plenty of promise in high school. Moving into the same Brooklyn apartment that year was a life-changing decision, and one that also affected the lives of many They Might Be Giants diehards, whose favorite band would be someone else entirely if not for that fateful decision. The duo then did what many musical duos in NYC do; they went around to various small venues and performed, accompanied by a drum machine and idiosyncratic lyrics that combined humorous anecdotes with pop culture. Their performances also featured comical stage props, like giant cut-outs of people’s faces – much like one sees at college basketball games when the opposing team is shooting a free throw. With their memorable turns and colorful shows, They Might Be Giants gradually became somewhat of a local sensation with a small yet growing following. Clearly, they were aware of the band’s unique talents and penchant for colorful performances.

They Might Be Giants’ live shows were enough to earn them a grand initial reputation, but the duo released material somewhat sparingly in their beginnings due to a lack of resources. It was made even more difficult in the mid ’80s when Linnell broke his wrist and burglars broke into Flansburgh’s apartment, stealing most of his equipment. At this point many indie groups would throw in the towel out of frustration, or at least go on an extended hiatus (in which it’s rare for young bands to fully recover from). But like any indie group seeking success and consequentially continuous relevancy, they must be resourceful.It’s an adjective that fully describes They Might Be Giants, as they proved with their reaction to these plights. The duo created something called “Dial-A-Song”, where one would call a number and be greeted by a recently recorded We Might Be Giants recording. Call it one of the first forms of music self-publishing — the calling fees excluded, of course. One of the service’s slogans was “Always Busy, Often Broken” due to its relatively unreliable stability. But with at least 500 songs collected throughout the life of Dial-A-Song, which even adapted to an internet version in the past decade, it showed They Might Be Giants as inarguably one of the most prolific groups since the ‘80s.

Prolific is one trait, but for it to mean anything it has to be paired with consistent quality. They Might Be Giants embodied that as well, and once they got the wheels rolling with their 1986 self-titled debut the duo never looked back. They averaged about an album every two years to start, but in the past decade they have released numerous albums in consecutive years, ranging from three children’s albums (released in 2005, 2008, and 2009) to the manic rush of recent 2013 album Nanobots. Whether it’s via their entertaining podcasts, lively music videos, or engaging children’s albums, there’s no doubting that They Might Be Giants have maintained the interest of fans, including gaining many new ones – ranging in character from BMW-driving soccer moms to grungy skateboarders. Catering to every type of listener is merely one reason for They Might Be Giants’ sustained success.

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