Myke Weiskopf Interviews Bill Krauss
MYKE WEISKOPF INTERVIEWS BILL KRAUSS about TMBG, 1982-1985
Reprinted from OBSCURE Magazine No. 5, "They Might Be Giants".
All rights reserved. c. 1994 Myke Weiskopf & Bill Krauss.
Weiskopf: The year is 1982, and They Might Be Giants are El Groupo de Rock And Roll at this point. Were you at this show?
Krauss: I was not. In the summer of '82, John and John started working together and playing songs; I guess that was their first show out. I was living up in Vermont at the time, working with a band up there, and I would come down every two weeks. They would play me tapes of their new songs and I would play them stuff that I was working on up in Vermont, and by the end of the summer, when I was going to move back, we said, "Let's do something together".
W: How had you met them initially?
K: I met John Flansburgh at Antioch. When I was in Antioch, I was in a band called Functionaires with Dan Spock, who was a high school buddy of Flansburgh's and Linnell's, and we wanted to make a demo. Flansburgh had a four-track machine, and we got him to record our first demo. Actually, my first work with Flansburgh was the exact opposite of what it ended up being, because he was recording me.
W: What kind of stuff did they have at this time?
K: They were working with a quarter-track tape recorder. It was the same type of show that it remained for many years, being on tape, but in the beginning, Flansburgh was running the tape machine from the stage. Actually, in the very early shows, he would edit the whole show at home beforehand. They would start the show and let the tape run until it was over, so they just ran one song after the other, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. It took me quite a while to convince them that it would be better for me to control the tape from the soundboard. It was difficult.
W: From what I've read, in this period of time, they were just coming to New York. The performance art thing was in a certain gear, and the post-punk thing was just dying down. They missed the boat for both, basically...
K: I guess. My feeling about it is that by '82, punk was long-gone. New wave was already over by 1982... and we all know how great that was. The club scene in New York is a very cyclical thing. Things come up, new clubs up, they get some notoriety, they attract a crowd, and then they fade for whatever reason. People are fickle, the Building Department demands to see permits, all sorts of things. They started in what I would say be an interim period, so it's not so much that they missed it, but they started when things were on the slow side-- which, ultimately, I think, worked to their advantage, because what it meant was, when the East Village scene started to happen, they were ready. We got shows at clubs like The Pyramid and 8BC, and Darinka. When we started working at the Pyramid, six months afterwards, they stopped booking bands, but they kept booking us because we had been in at the early stage. It was really like catching the crest of a wave. The only reason that that was possible was because we had been working for a while, and stuff was ready to go when the clubs opened up. We did a lot of shows like Amateur Night at CBGB's, where we would come home with two dollars apiece at the end of the night. If, after paying for the cabs to move the equipment, there was any money left over, the evening was an unqualified success in the beginning.
W: How many shows did the Giants play per month at this time?
K: We worked as much as we could, and it gradually built up. In the early days, it was nowhere near a living. We all had one kind or another freelance jobs-- Flansburgh was doing graphics and paste-up work, and Linnell was doing darkroom work, and I was doing word processing-- and, eventually, the more shows we started to do, the less money we were making, because the shows weren't actually making us much money at all, and we would have to take time off from our regular jobs to do them. So, it was very paradoxical. When we started, if we got a show a month, we were happy in '82 and '83, and as things progressed we were doing more and more. Then we started doing things like the series at Darinka, or the series at the Pyramid, where we did every Saturday in May, I think in '85...
W: Now, I've heard some legendary stuff about these series, so I just wanna run a few of these by me. This is kind of what always fascinates me about early Giants shows. They seemed, from what I've heard, very thematic. I've heard '46 folk singers destroying 'Mr. Tambourine Man', I've heard 'Pal Joey revivals'... I'm really curious about the 'Pal Joey' revivals, because that's the most curious thing I've heard. It wasn't a performance art/conceptual thing...
K: No. Flansburgh has a Sinatra thing. He's really into Sinatra. I remember when the Kitty Kelly book came out about Sinatra, he read it right away. He's just got this thing about 'what it means to be Sinatra'. He's very interested in the phenomenon. So, 'Pal Joey' was part of that. He really liked 'Pal Joey,' and he decided he wanted to do some of the songs from 'Pal Joey' one night. I don't remember how many of them he did. He did 'There's A Small Hotel', and 'Lady is A Tramp', and I don't even remember, 'cause I'm not a big 'Pal Joey' fan. In the very beginning, and for a long time, and until rather recently, what started out as a necessity, which was working with the tape, we always tried to turn that to our advantage and do things with the tape that a band couldn't do, basically. If you have a band, and you've got a keyboard player, and a guitar player, and a drummer, you pretty much have to use a certain format. When you're not tied to that, and you're doing stuff on tape, if we wanted to have 38 percussionists on one song, we could have that one song. When you reach the stage of the Rolling Stones or Madonna and you want to travel with 40 musicians, and you can afford to pay them, fine. But there's really no way to do that when you're starting out, of course. So, because of that mindset, we were always looking for stuff that would be fun or interesting to do and not just have it be 'we're just going to do a bunch of songs'. It was very emphatically not about being a rock show, and in a lot of ways, it was about making fun of rock shows, which is why the fact that they're a rock band now is kind of interesting. You know the early stuff-- a lot of it is about transcending genre and bending genre. It's about taking the essence of what a certain type of song means, and playing with that. That was also true of the shows, as well as the songs. I don't know if you heard any of the taped introductions for the shows....
W: I heard the "kittens" one...
K: Yeah... "a new kind of fur"? [chuckles of recognition from interviewer] Before I called you, I pulled out some old tapes to remind myself of the stuff that had happened, and there was one that was a countdown to the show...
W: They're doing that now.
K: Oh, they're doing that again? I wonder if it's the same one. It's quite possible that they pulled out the same one. It's Flansburgh doing this countdown-- "Ten! Your ten eyes are blah, blah.... Nine! You wiggle your nine fingers expectantly... Meanwhile, Linnell was breaking in with random non sequitur bulletins from out in the field: "They Might Be Giants have just crash-landed their glass-bottom car in the vicinity of this hall." It goes down to "Introducing the One band that can overcome the Zero in their bank account", and then you think, 'okay, it's over, it's the countdown to zero', and it continues: "I don't mean to be the Negative One, but you'd be Negative Too, if not for the fabulous show you're about to see." That's what made it fun. The three of us.. I didn't write the songs, but I did have stuff to say about how the shows were put together, how the intros were put together...
W: Well, sure. When you work with someone like you and they did, there's a rapport there that's omnipresent.
K: Yeah. It's why we worked together as long as we did and, when I stopped working with them, we had to stop cold. We really were full partners. This isn't about pushing what I did with them, it's about the fact that I know what I'm talking about. So I'll say "we" a lot, because that's what it was.
W: I think it's true, though, that I have a greater appreciation for everything that came before, which is why I'm so bent on talking to you and talking to John about what happened before, because I think that's infinitely more fascinating than 'Hey, they've got the bassist for Pere Ubu now'. It just doesn't seem fun to me anymore; it used to have that element of sheer glee. Listen to the demo version of 'Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes'! He sounds just giddy singing that song on the demo tape!
K: I was listening to some of that today-- I haven't listened to some of those songs in some time, I gotta tell you, because most of them are written in my spine at this point because I've heard them so many times. I was listening to that, and comparing that to the version on the first album. And there were demo versions of those songs from before that-- from before the [23-song] demo tape that you're talking about. The version of "Youth Culture" on the pink album was the fourth time that song was recorded! That's unusual; most of the ones on that record were the third time they were recorded. Actually, if you consider Dial A Song, it could be one more version. Usually there would be a Dial A Song version, and then some other ones.
[A little unpublishable stuff; resume at live show conversation.]
K: [The slam pits] are something I'm really glad that I missed. One of the reasons that I had to stop touring was that I hate crowds. And the more successful the band got, the more crowded things were, the more annoying it was.
W: I get a sense that Lincoln was the first album that They Might Be Giants were really established as a rock band. It seems to me that the songs on the first album were taken from this stockpile of those shows-- those really fun, loose, thematic shows-- whereas, with a song like "Ana Ng"-- it had a different feel altogether. It was really the first "single" that they had written.
K: Actually, I gotta tell you, most of the songs on 'Lincoln' are from that same stock. My feeling is that 'Flood' was that record, because 'Flood' was the first record where most of the songs were written _for_ it. You know about the sophomore slump. They didn't jump it; they could have put ['Lincoln'] out, if we had had the time and the money, just about the time of the first album. By that reckoning, 'Flood' really is their second album. What it means is that it's not stuff from the trunks. The songs you've had your whole life to write generally goes on your first album, and then the stuff you've had to write since the first album goes on your second album, which is why people's second albums aren't as good. They don't have as much time to write them.
W: What did their early stuff sound like in 1982?
K: They sounded really cheesy. What can I say? It was based on the technology that was available at the time. I don't even know what kind of drum machine we had at that point in 1982. It was not good, though. We were working on four-track; the earliest stuff was being done at Flansburgh's apartment, so we didn't have reverb, it didn't have any effects. It basically had a drum track, a keyboard track, a guitar track, and the vocal track. They would bounce them, so they would do three vocal tracks down to one. Major hiss. I don't know what exists from that era any more; the earliest stuff I have my hands on is from '85, maybe '84. The very earliest stuff was done on four-track mixed to quarter-track. There was a period around when Flansburgh's quarter-track machine got stolen, when we went to cassette for a while. We were doing a lot of shows on cassette, which actually had some advantages. What we would do was put two or three songs on a cassette, and I would just have a box of cassettes. [That way] if they wanted to change the set order in the middle of the show, they could. We did a bunch of shows at Darinka off of cassette. My memories are a lot more of live shows from '82 to '85, because we weren't doing that much recording. The recording was mostly for the live shows, doing rhythm tracks for Darinka, 8BC, the Pyramid, CBGB's, places like that. Most of my life was revolving around trying not to have it suck, because that's a live soundman's job anyway. For the Giants, it was particularly hard because the monitors are so critical when you work off of tape. If you can't hear the tape, it's a nightmare. Most clubs are set up for rock bands; the only thing they put through monitors is the vocals. We were trying to run everything through the monitors so that they could follow along and be on key, stuff like that. What they sounded like, in terms of what the attitude was like-- It was very fun.
W: What does the sample say at the beginning of 'Rabid Child'?
K: "Lord, please don't take me away."
W: Where did the material for 'Snowball in Hell' come from?
K: It's a dub off of something I gave Flansburgh for his birthday in 1985. I bought it at a bookstore in my hometown in New Jersey, and it's from a tape from some kind of series on how to manage your time effectively. I saw it on a rack with a bunch of tapes on how to make the most money in your life, how to relax.. It was just a bunch of 'how-to' cassette tapes. I was just flipping through them, and Flansburgh's birthday was coming up; I came across 'How To Manage Your Time Effectively', and I thought, 'Flansburgh will find a way to use this.' And so I gave it to him for his birthday. And we ended up putting it in 'Snowball'.
W: So, basically, from '82 to '84 was light gigging.
K: Yeah, we were trying really hard; some of the most fun stuff came out then. Did you ever hear about 'Art in Context'? Flansburgh and I, in a spirit of just having fun, created an eight-page magazine called 'Art in Context', which we did mostly on my early Macintosh in '85. Flansburgh did paste-up and stuff, and we created a really pretentious art magazine. We did it all under pseudonyms, although my name and address is in it as something to find. All of the names were made up. There's 'Klaus Novek Osterhog'-- we figured it was German expatriates in New York, so the editors were 'Luftholm R. Auftika' and 'Klaus Novek Osterhog'. The publisher was 'Ingrid Renfield'. They had two foreign bureaus-- one in Berlin and one in Los Angeles-- that was foreign to New York-- and the two interns were the sort of WASP preppies, 'Hutchinson Connelly IV' and 'Francis Beef'. We reviewed all these East Village musicians and performers and artists. Frieda was this friend of Flansburgh's; it was this lady named Barbie Lipp who had created this performance art thing. She was the queen of disco, and she wore this long flowing dress up to the top of her head, and on top of her head she had a make-up Barbie head. It looked like this seven-foot-tall Barbie. She did all of her stuff on tape, and would dance around on stage to Barbie. We reviewed the Jicketts, Chet Grant, Nick Zed-- who's this downtown, nasty old filmmaker, Arto Lindsay, Joshua [Fried]... So we had pictures and did reviews of them. They each had about half a page. We took excerpts from real art magazines, like 'Art in Context', 'Art in America', and 'Performance', took them out of context, and inserted the names of the people we did reviews of. Here's the performance of They Might Be Giants; this is by someone named Franz Heidler:
- It is now undeniable fact that the doppelganger has always existed in art, much to the
dismay of the sycophants of cult gentrification. Its recent re-emergence breaks the
reflection's surface with double-headed aplomb. The guys of the performance duo
They Might Be Giants, thus reversing the virtual and the real, the figure and the ground.
Their technological matrix acts as camouflage. The raw image of mirth concealed
therein forges the foundational figure to define the form: Cryogenic art.
- It is now undeniable fact that the doppelganger has always existed in art, much to the
That's just half of it. What we did was we took the structure of these things, and the only things we changed were the names and the adjectives. We mailed out about 300 of these things. All the stuff that isn't reviews are ads for They Might Be Giants. Nothing was done just for preservation; everything was done to have a use. We did a lot of demo recording so we could send demos out to get shows. The other reason we put demos together was to try and get a record deal. No one showed any interest at all for a really long time; I really have nothing but praise and thanks for Glenn and Tom at Bar/None. This is around '85, when the Giants weren't big stars but were definitely on the scene in New York. Their shows were getting picks in the Village Voice; people knew we were around. There would be some lower-level assistant of an A&R guy who would fall in love with the band and try and convince the boss to sign us. They would play him a tape, and the people would go, 'there's no category for these people; How do we market them?' We heard that a lot. When we were trying to get shows out of town was, 'Why don't you do any covers? Just do something that people know!' By insisting on doing exactly what they wanted to do was the only way to go, but it takes longer. By insisting on being true to yourself when what you are doing is not easily categorized, you have to cut your own path through the forest, basically. I remember the first time I saw a band described as 'They Might Be Giants-like', that was a real accomplishment. It meant that they had carved out a new type of music that hadn't existed before. That was really important.
W: How did they start working with the Ordinaires?
K: We met the Ordinaires at 8BC, which was run by a couple of guys named Dennis and Cornelius. It was the greatest club in the world for about two years. They had something like 3000 performances in two years. It was running non-stop. They had plays in the afternoon and performance art at dinner time, and bands at night. It was just a wonderful time. It may have been the first time we played there. People liked to book TMBG with the Ordinaires because there were nine people in the Ordinaires. Logistically, it was really easy, because to have another full band when you had the Ordinaires on stage meant moving a whole lot of equipment. We did some shows at the Pyramid for them and the Village Gate. In the very earliest shows, the Ordinaires had been around a bit longer and had more of a following, so we opened for them. Later, they opened for us. When we started doing Village Gate shows, we brought them along because they're friends. When it was time to do recording, bringing them in to do 'Kiss Me Son Of God' seemed like a natural idea.
W: Gee... I think that just about covers it.
K: Are you sure? Got any questions about specific songs?
W: Well, mostly what I've heard is early demos of stuff that's been released. The only thing I have that was never released was 'Living Doll'...
K: I don't remember that one.
W: Lemme play it for you.... [Myke plays 'Living Doll' to Bill, who can be heard making noises of recognition in the background.] Anyway, my main point tonight was to get a clearer understanding of what the earlier days were like.
K: Well, I feel like we've been all over the map tonight. Do you have a clearer understanding of what it was like? It was just very much about doing what we thought would be the coolest, and only the coolest in terms of us, not other people. It had to be what would be the most fun and what we wanted to hear. And that's really what it always was about. Because nobody was paying any attention, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted. The dynamic for me was that it never could have happened without the two of them together. Linnell was a great songwriter, and I think even Flansburgh would say that Linnell surpasses most people in the world in terms of sheer creative output; the ideas just pour out of him. Flansburgh-- not to slight him-- has to work much harder at it.
W: Well, he's a hack, basically.
K: Yeah, he's an inspired hack. But he has the drive that made them what they are. With Linnell, he would still be making demos in his bedroom if he had worked by himself, because Linnell hates schmoozing, and Flansburgh is a master of it. So it was a rare thing for them to be able to come together. [Pause.] And I still think 'Lincoln' is their best record.