The notion of being a geek has changed drastically since They Might Be Giants started out way back in 1982: Where geekhood once entailed social isolation and tastes too esoteric to accommodate broad social interaction, it's now worn like a badge of honor, embraced by diehards and dabblers alike. During They Might Be Giants' commercial rise in the late 1980s, finding fans of the band meant doing some winnowing. Today, they're everywhere, thanks in large part to a string of wonderful children's records and the high-profile themes to TV shows like The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle. As nerd culture and popular culture have become virtually indistinguishable, TMBG is nobody's secret; for proof, ask just about any kid.
Naturally, the two Johns at the core of TMBG — John Flansburgh and John Linnell, natch — don't have to strain too hard as they toggle back and forth between music for kids and music for adults. But it's been a while since they turned their attention toward the latter constituency, so a new grownup-centric TMBG album (and nationwide tour) is a bona fide event these days. Join Us came out earlier this week, and the band's travels to spread the word thankfully brought it through NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters for an All Things Considered interview (airing today) and Tiny Desk Concert in the NPR Music offices.
A glance into the crowd assembled for the Tiny Desk show — recorded just this past Monday — revealed just how far-reaching They Might Be Giants' appeal has become. Given that the band's career is about to wrap up its third decade, that shouldn't come as a huge surprise, nor should the presence of excited teenagers and moppets in the audience. But the freshness of the material is still pretty remarkable, as two brand-new songs ("Can't Keep Johnny Down" and "Cloisonné") reside comfortably next to a classic chestnut ("Fingertips," a suite of 21 tiny tunes from 1992's Apollo 18).
If being a geek isn't as hard as it used to be, Flansburgh and Linnell deserve some of the thanks. Given the breathless excitement they generated in this building, their fans aren't shy about giving it to them these days.
- "Can't Keep Johnny Down"
Michael Katzif, Bob Boilen (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Emily Bogle/NPR