John and John Answer Your Questions - Fall '94

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John and John Answer Your Questions
TMBG answer your most frequently asked questions. If you have a question for John or John, send it to: Questions, TMB Productions, P.O. Box 110535, Williamsburgh Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211-0003
TMBG Info Club
Fall '94

Where did you get the idea for "Fingertips"?
L: Fingertips is partly the logical extension of the short pop song format we like. It's also inspired by those UHF TV ads for song collections in which the titles are scrolling up the screen and you get to hear about five seconds of each track.

What made you choose John Henry as the title for your new album?
F: John Henry is a legendary black railroad worker from the middle of the nineteenth century. He figures in a number of American folk songs, including one simply called "John Henry." The story describes a competition between John Henry, the strongest human, versus a new machine built to smash rocks. They compete to break through a mountain. The machine breaks down in the middle of the tunnel, while John Henry comes out the other side, only to die from exhaustion. Since this was the first album where we worked with a live band instead of a drum machine it seemed an apt title.

Who are the people on the cover of the Lincoln album, and what is their significance?
L: The bearded man on the left is my great-grandfather, Lewis T. Linnell, who was a banker in Illinois in the mid-nineteenth century. The General is Mr. Flansburg's grandfather, Ralph Hospital (his actual name).

Why are the songs out of order on the lyric sheet of the "Lincoln" CD?
F: I put it together in off moments at my old job, and I wasn't paying enough attention.

Will you ever make another B side album?
L: We have enough compiled B-side material for at least another record at this point. Once we're done promoting "John Henry" we'll try to persuade Elektra to release it.

John F., when and where did you learn to play guitar?
F: I was given a guitar by a friend when I was a senior in high school. I had a hard time just wrapping my hand around the neck for the first couple of months. Then I took the bottom three strings off and it was a lot easier. I started writing songs right away because other peoples' songs were too hard for me to play. I really got going in my first semester of college when I had a night job in a parking lot booth by myself. It was like getting paid to practice.

What is the origin of the middle section of "Rhythm Section Want Ad?"
L: The melody is from Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," which was employed by Carl Stalling in many Warner Brothers cartoons, usually as the soundtrack to machines gone berserk. We got the melody wrong, to our embarrassment.

Why isn't "Why Does The Sun Shine?" on the "John Henry" album?
F: We didn't want to put any cover versions on the record, and the "Why Does The Sun Shine?" CD5 seemed like a good way to get those songs out and widely available without putting them on the lp.

Are you ever going to make Dial-A-Song toll free?
L: We're often asked if we make any money from Dial-A-Song, but in fact it's a normal toll call to Brooklyn. We pay the moderate cost of the phone line and the modest one-time cost of the voice mail equipment (a cheap Macintosh computer and some other electronic doo-dads). If it were a toll free number it would become a serious money loser for us, and the idea has always been to keep it low maintenance, with no extra charges for us or the caller.

I went to your last concert in Denver. Who were the people in the pictures above the stage?
F: The guy with cigar is from a movie still from the thirties. The little girl is a friend of ours' child.

You contributed a remake of Phil Ochs' "One More Parade" to Rubaiyat: Elektra's 40th Anniversary. What is your obsession with this '60's folkie?
F: I have been listening to Phil Ochs since I was a kid. Folkie friends of my family had his records, and I really liked a song called "Small Circle of Friends" which is probably my least favorite now. Many of his songs are topical, and don't hold up that well, but he did write some compelling material.

What is the difference between the version of "Don't Let's Start" on the first album and "Miscellaneous T"?
L: The Misc. T version was remixed by Bill Krauss at a studio up in Vermont. To my ears the tom-tom rolls in the chorus have a little more echo on them.

What are your favorite card games?
F: We play poker on the road, and Linnell plays solitaire on his computer.
L: Klondike and Pyramid are pretty good.

What are your favorite drinks besides coffee?
L: Stewart's root beer.
F: Martinis (extra olives) when I'm feeling good--carrot juice when I'm feeling bad.

What were your favorite subjects in school?
L: Comp Lit and Music
F: History, Literature, Art

What kinds of things do you like to read? (Fiction, non-fiction? Favorite authors?)
F: I'm always depressed by how few books I get through, even though I devour magazines from Forbes to Harpers to Sassy. I am currently reading "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers, which is a good read.
L: I was bent around as a youth by the work of Donald Barthelme. I'm currently reading "Call it Sleep" by Henry Roth, recently discovered the very excellent Mark Twain.

What are your interests and hobbies other than music?
F: Exploring old NYC steak houses, junk stores, the Rat Pack, the extremely limited documentary section of the local Blockbuster Video.
L: A bunch of friends of ours like to come over and give slide shows of recent trips over potato chips and beer. Brian Dewan sometimes produces a "film srip" for these occasions, which is an obsolete educational tool.

John F., why the glasses?
F: I have bad vision, and I am phobic about touching my eyes.

I hear that some TMBG recordings are available on 8 track. Where can I get them?
F: There was a promotional 8 track for "Purple Toupee" that went out as a gag, but it was actually old Motown 8-tracks (which had purple casings) which Bar/None bought from some warehouse for pennies, with a TMBG label put over it. Since so few people actually own 8 tracks, nobody noticed it wasn't real.

What does PPFNP as in "Dept. PPFNP" stand for?
Info Club Minister of Information Melony named it after the Nick Lowe album "Pure Pop for Now People."

In the video "The Guitar" it shows some chord frames for the guitar. What were those chords?
F: They should be A, C#min7, Bmin, E which along with A, D, A, E are pretty much all the chords in that song.

Who is "that guy"?
L: "That guy" probably has a family or an estate or something and we don't want to alert them to the fact that we've been using his likeness in case they'd want to sue us.

What's going on at the end of "Hideaway Folk Family"?
F: John and I are just doing our fake backwards singing. (It was recorded forward)

I've never seen you guys play live. Are there any pits or crowd surfings at your concerts? How wild do your shows get?
L: Regrettably, there seems to be no end to the moshing and what we refer to as "pass the dude," though we feebly try to discourage those things, particularly during our quieter numbers. No one listens. I feel like a cranky old man yelling at the neighborhood kids going mental in his backyard.

What are some of your favorite music groups?
L: I like The Beatles, Ramones, Residents, The Comedian Harmonists (from Germany), The Smiths, Band of Weeds, The Pixies, The Kinks, Constance Towers (a Japanese band), The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Prince and the Revolution, Chris Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, The Raspberries, The Harmonicats, Pere Ubu, Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra, other things I can't remember...
F: My personal musical obsessions are pretty relentless and dull. As a child I grew up with a transistor radio tuned to Top 40 waiting for Beatles and British Invasion songs, with my folks playing Joan Baez and Cambridge folkies on the hi-fi. Currently, I have an on-going obsession with Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, along with R&B and soul songs from the '60s and '70s (exceptionally well compiled by Rhino). I enjoyed the Green Day album, and got our drummer Brian to pull out his Weezer tape a million times on this last tour to listen to that "Buddy Holly" song for its Brian Wilson-like vibe. Recently I've been listening to this great collection of songs by Allen Toussaint (a New Orleans R&B and pop record producer/pianist who made a few very cool records over the course of the Seventies.) I really dug the last Superchunk LP and recently got the new Guided by Voices album. In the past I have been into early Mills Bros. (their pre-band, 30's era stuff) and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

I heard somehwere that you guys used to be a Christian band. Is that true?
L: No. We've always been non-denominational.

Which album did you enjoy making the most and which did you enjoy the most when it was finished?
L: "John Henry" was really fun to make because we were in an exotic location (upstate NY during the blizzard of '94) and surrounded by lots of people we liked and admired. I think my favorite record is still "Lincoln" though I recall recording it was pretty hellish because the air conditioning in the tiny control room was not equal to the blazing Times Square heat, and we had lots of arguments. At one point stinky white smoke started pouring out of the computer, and everyone went "AAAAGH!"
F: The process of making both "Apollo 18" and "John Henry" was a pleasant experience for me. We spent about ten weeks of studio time recording "Apollo 18." The actual recording sessions for "John Henry" was just a week and a half in Bearsville and a couple of weeks in New York, but we had done song writing demos, as well as band demos, and then an intense week of rehearsal upstate. Both took about three weeks to mix. The mixing sessions are tense because that is the final process, but most of those days are spent waiting for the mixing engineer to finish his job. Making records has always been really exciting for me, but the process used to make me very tense. I think I'm finally acclimating myself to the careful pace and insane expense of working in a recording studio.

L: What kind of bari sax do you play and how old is it? Also, what kind of mouthpiece do you use?
L: I recently bought a new Yamaha YBS-52 which has a very snappy tone and plays in miraculously good tune. I brought an electronic tuner to the store to check it out because I've had so much trouble with intonation in the past. My previous horn was a King Zephyr from the 30's (formerly owned by the New York public school system) which started coming apart from all the abuse it took on the road. My mouthpiece is a Berg-Larson which came with a very cheap Bundy bari I bought at We Buy Guitars on 48th Street in 1985.

My question involves something I saw while coming back from Amherst on the bus. While crossing the Connecticut river, I saw this painted on a bridge: "I don't want the world, I just want your half." I wondered if the lyric from "Ana Ng" on this bridge was the inspiration for the line in the song, or merely an act performed out of love for TMBG. What's the word?
L: We were driving from Boulder to the airport in Denver last year when we encountered the same thing on another bridge. John and I don't condone acts of vandalism but we took it as a friendly compliment. The phrase in the song came out of a conversation we once had about money.

I am starting a band that was heavily influenced by the music of TMBG and I am wondering if you could give me any advice on what to do to make it work and establish ourselves?
F: Well, once you've figured out how to successfully hide our influence, I'd recommend that you write, perform and record as much as you can. Experience is the fastest and most exciting way to develop your music. A guitar teacher of mine once told me there wasn't a gig not worth doing in New York. Looking back I feel I have strong proof to the contrary, but the spirit of his advice is valid. Don't be too calculating about having a career. If you have fun and nothing happens professionally, you probably still had more fun than the guys with the good haircuts who just got dropped from their record deal.

I called your infamous Dial-A-Song and heard what sounded like a classroom of kids singing "Particle Man." What's the story?
L: A music teacher sent us that recording of his students performing the song. It's my favorite version.

Linnell) Before you began playing accordion, did you listen to any accordion players' music? If so, whose?
L: I was completely ignorant of the vast repertoire of accordion music when I first picked up the instrument about a year into the life of TMBG. I think I formed a few positive associations (Tex-mex, Cajun, various European varieties of music) but mainly I liked the fact that it was a keyboard instrument that didn't seem played out or ungainly. Currently I like the schooled sound of William Schimmel's playing and that of his student Anne DeMarinis (Band of Weeds).

Is "Dinner Bell" about Pavlov's dog?
L: The song does indirectly refer to Pavlov's famous experiment involving a dog's reaction to the ringing of a bell after associating the sound with food.

In what year was TMBG formed?
L: John and I did our first show as TMBG in January of 1983.

What and where was your very first public appearance? Was it a success?
F: Under a different name John and I performed in the summer of 1983 in Central Park for a FSLN rally that a friend of ours as organizing. We figured there would be a diverse audience of lefties. We felt a bit out of place when the actual audience was primarily Spanish speaking, with many people directly from Central America. We performed "Alienation's for the Rich," "Cowtown," and "Space Suit" among other songs I can't recall. Linnell played a clarinet and his Farfisa organ (which was difficult to tug into the park without a car). The crowd was very generous with us, and made us feel appreciated. We didn't perform in public for about six months.

Why did you change the "NyQuil Driver" to "AKA Driver" and omit the lyrics on the liner notes of "John Henry"?
F: It was a brief education for us in the difference between protected speech and trademark infringement. Although it was a possibility that we could have gotten away with it, or settled with the Nyquil manufacturers for a small amount of money, the path of least hassle was simply omitting the name from the package. According to our lawyer you can say pretty much anything in a song about a product, and that expression is a protected part of every American's freedom of speech. However when you title a song after a trademarked product and then start selling your recording (which is also a product) you run the risk of the trademark holder suing you for infringing on their trademark. To make matters tougher on ol' Nyquil Driver, trademark holders are compelled by the law to protect their trademark or they run the risk of their product name falling into the public domain.

Did the 19 song bits in "Fingertips" start out as being actual songs that you guys just decided not to use in their entirety, or did you write them specifically for the purpose of the song?
L: They were written as fragments to be strung together. I think the order might have gotten a little switched around but essentially the whole thing was conceived as it is.

Flansburgh: What is your favorite guitar brand?
F: After five years playing a Japanese Fender Telecaster which had its neck broken twice, I have switched to Gibsons. I find the Gibson Les Paul the most versatile stage instrument, and I can play them very, very hard and they stay in tune. Gibson Montana very kindly built a left handed L1 acoustic model for me for the "John Henry" recordings, and can be heard on "Self Called Nowhere" and "Sleeping in the Flowers."

If you could be any kind of animal, what would you be?
L: I'd be a delicious steak dinner.

Where was the "Don't Let's Start" video shot?
L: We shot the outdoor scenes at Flushing Meadows park in Queens, NY, site of the 1964 World's Fair, which both Flansburgh and I attended as children and remember fondly. Several of the pavilions are still there, including the New York State pavilion which has an enormous map of the state (badly chipped up) covering it's floor.

Have any of your songs ever been on a movie soundtrack?
L: We're still living in hope of landing that lucrative movie deal. We turned down an offer to put a song onto "Pump Up the Volume" because the trailer we were sent was so bad, but maybe it would have been worth the dough.

Are y'all "boyhood friends" or did it start as a music relationship?
L: We met in high school before either one of us thought of music as a potential career.

Who are the children in the "John Henry" photographs?
Half are friends' kids, and the other are professional model kids we cast for the shoot.

What are you saying in the background of "I Palindrome I"?
L: The background vocals are a couple of palindromes. "Man o nam," which doesn't really mean anything, and "Egad, a base tone denotes a bad age," of which you can make what you will.

Why is the EP "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" unavailable?
The CD5 is usually sold just as a vehicle for singles, so it is hard to keep them in print. We hope to compile the Elektra CD5 material soon.

Have you guys every been on Saturday Night Live or Letterman or anything like that?
F: We did the old Letterman Show three times, and Conan twice, along with the Tonight Show twice, and a recent slot on the Jon Stewart Show. We've never been on Saturday Night Live, but we have been on Good Morning America which is like Saturday Night Live only it happens in the morning.

Are there any songs you can't stand to play anymore?
L: Once in a while we pull a song out of circulation simply because it's become a grind and we're not doing it justice anymore. Usually we can revive such a song after a little vacation and it sounds fresh to us again.

The drums to some songs on "Flood" are credited to Alan Bezozi. Did he use a drum machine or a drum kit?
F: He actually did a bit of both. On the song "Hot Cha" Alan and I constructed the drum track by making samples of individual sounds of sticks or brushes on the box my Macintosh computer came in. He then triggers those sounds by playing an electronic drum pad. He played the sequence on "Lucky Ball and Chain," and helped with the programming on "Birdhouse" and "Twisting." He played live snare and percussion on "Particle Man."

What has Laura Cantrell done besides "The Guitar"? Does she have any albums?
F: Laura is making a demo of her songs right now, and sings with a trio called the Watchbirds who perform at the Mercury Lounge on a pretty regular basis. She also DJs a very cool program called the "Radio Thrift Shop" on WFMU (New York's free form radio station).