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They Might Be Giants brings grown-up tour to OKC on Friday

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They Might Be Giants (TMBG) released its independent, self-titled first album in 1986, five years after MTV debuted on U.S. cable stations.

That was a long time ago, back when the channel still aired music videos and backed genres like college rocker, alternative and indie pop, which were eventually abandoned during the rise of grunge and hip-hop. All of it would later be abandoned for reality programming, and the network even dropped “music television” from its name.

Regardless, it was a pivotal time for Brooklyn-based duo John Linnell and John Flansburgh. TMBG released its major-label debut, Flood, in early 1990. The album — and its idiosyncratic music videos — quickly earned a worldwide exposure and popularity with its eclectic, minimalistic instrumentation, nerdy lyrics and programmed drumbeats. Two singles, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” became career-defining concert staples.

“We weren’t really in synch with the whole grunge movement,” Linnell told Oklahoma Gazette in a recent interview.

When rock turned to sloth and drug culture, the pair went in the opposite direction.

“We added a full band for the John Henry project (the band’s 1994 album),” Linnell said. “We had always considered ourselves a duo.”

It didn’t help the band, but it certainly didn’t stop it. As the distortion-laden hardcore punk and heavy metal-tinged “Seattle sound” swept from the U.S. into the U.K., even overseas press soon dumped its long-standing affinity for unconventional, well-played geek rock.

“We had been very popular in the U.K., both with fans and the press,” Linnell said. “But it got to the point that fans there sort of hoped that all acts would show up in plaid shirts with scraggly hair.”

That still didn’t hinder TMBG, and its core fanbase only grew more loyal. In the era of landlines and answering machines, the band built an extensive song library with its Dial-A-Song shtick. Fans could call a Brooklyn phone number to hear music the duo played and recorded to its answering machine. By 2000, the program became a website with more than 500 songs. By 2006, it morphed into a podcast.

Its catalogue proves that TMBG is one of the most prolific bands anywhere.

Child’s play

Around 2000, Linnell and Flansburgh also started writing children’s projects.

It was a natural, if not unconventional, fit. Linnell reminisced about TMBG’s first independent release and its cartoonish cover by abstract and gaming-themed artist Rodney Alan Greenblat.

“Our first album … looked like the cover of a children’s album,” he said. “In fact, Tower Records actually filed it under children’s music in their stores.”

Flash forward almost two decades, and No!, Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s were critically acclaimed, best-selling, youth-driven albums. The latter earned TMBG a Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children.

TMBG does kid-friendly shows, but it’s careful to remind everyone that most of its tours are adult-oriented affairs. Longtime fans slam-dance and curse, and TMBG plays its roster of hits and new music, which isn’t always clean.

Its Friday show at Diamond Ballroom is a PG-13-type affair, and the band recommends attendees be age 14 or older.

Linnell said he and Flansburgh are working on another youth album and will tour for that later this year.

They Might Be Giants - PAUL SAHRE/PROVIDED
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  • They Might Be Giants

‘Feast or famine’

This is already a busy year for the band. Glean, its 17th studio album, dropped April 21, and it resurrected its dormant Dial-a-Song project, even as the pair plans the first leg of its U.S. tour.

“It’s a bit feast or famine for us,” Linnell said. “We alternate between writing and recording, and this year is definitely busier than last year.”

Dial-a-Song can be downloaded from its website or streamed on iTunes.

“The first four months of 2015 featured the songs that ended up on Glean,” Linnell said. “We are still recording one song a week so that at the end of this year, there will be 52 new songs available.”

Fans can also stream the band’s catalogue via Spotify, and Linnell remains “an agnostic” about the sometimes-controversial streaming service.

“I’m not angry like some people who want more compensation,” Linnell said. “The business has changed, and even big-shot artists are making less money, and no one makes very much anymore selling CDs or downloads.”

They Might Be Giants is doing fine, though, and Linnell said it helps that the duo doesn’t don’t care much about getting rich or about pleasing everyone all the time.

“We didn’t try to figure out what people wanted,” Linnell said. “We knew what we liked, and we avoided things we weren’t good at, so we decided to enjoy it even if we didn’t find an audience.”

Linnell said he expects the Oklahoma City audience to be an eclectic one.

“Many of our fans have nothing in common with each other except liking us,” he said.

Print headline: Fearless geeks, They Might Be Giants boasts one of the largest and most eclectic music catalogues of any band in the world, with no sign of slowing.

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