The music of They Might Be Giants attracts a long list of adjectives – all of which are inadequate if used independently of the others.
But one statement is undeniable.
There’s no one else that sounds like them.
Emerging from New York in the early ’80s, the band is the pop-rock brainchild of its founders John Flansburgh and John Linnell.
Now fronting a five-piece group, the pair began life on stage as a duo, employing multiple instruments and pre-recorded backing tracks.
They Might Be Giants’ lyrics – which are equal parts intellectual, absurd and morbid – added to an aural concoction that gained a strong word-of-mouth following.
Their spreading cult status soon incorporated Australia.
“It seems like Australian audiences really get us,” Flansburgh says, ahead of the band’s Oz return for Groovin The Moo.
“And we’re not the easiest band to get.
“Because there’s kind of a combo-platter of rock and good humour.
“The odd combinations in our music are taken at face value by Australians.
“I feel like you have a direct connection to us.”
They Might Be Giants have fond memories of their previous visits to our shores.
“It seemed like in the ’90s we were in Australia on a regular circuit, but we haven’t been back there since 2001,” Flansburgh recalls.
“I remember our first night in Australia, at the end of the set, the crowd in the front row started pounding the stage so loudly that it was coming up through the microphones.
“It was this fantastic, Dystopian hell-world of rock – it was just great.”
Flansburgh and Linnell have been prolific throughout the last three decades and are often called upon to write music for television and movies.
One of their most famous pieces is Boss Of Me, a song they composed as the theme to the American sitcom Malcolm In The Middle.
Always experimental, Flansburgh suggests that the tone of the band’s music has been a challenge to define.
“In many ways it is deadpan and it is simple – but it’s not novelty music,” the songwriter says.
“It’s not about gags – if the goal was to be funny then it should be a lot funnier.
“It’s very natural for us and there’s lots of ways of getting the balance right.
“From the very beginning, when we first started making recordings, we wondered what we were doing to hold up to repeated listening – that’s what music is all about.
“One of the reasons why humour is such a recessive trade in music is that it’s so volatile – it can obliterate what’s good about a song pretty quickly.
“[Our music] is complicated and sophisticated – and it’s not for everybody.
“I’m proud of how we’ve figured it out and there’s elements of what we’re doing that we can be proud of making work.”
Despite a number of big hits in the alternative music scene with Birdhouse In Your Soul and Istanbul (Not Constantinople), it was the little-known song Doctor Worm that became the band’s Australian breakthrough.
The song came in at number 13 on 1998’s Triple J Hottest 100 countdown.
“That is amazing to me,” Flansburgh says.
“It’s a popular song among our hardcore fans, but it’s not a song that broke through for us anywhere besides Australia.
“It’s like in Spinal Tap when they say ‘Sex Farm is a big hit in Japan!’
“The song’s hit status is unique to Australia – but I hope we return and have many other fluke hits.”
Including their self-titled debut album in 1986, the group have released 16 studio records and numerous other EPs, live recordings and over a dozen compilations.
The band are spoiled for choice when choosing a setlist from their extensive catalogue.
“We’ve got a really big repertoire and go out of our way to keep [shows] interesting and challenging for ourselves,” Flansburgh explains.
“I think too many bands have pre-conceived notions of how to construct a perfect show.
“I don’t think you can create a perfect set, you can just be ever-evolving towards a great show.
“There are times when I’m putting together the set and I will actually get out our full discography and try to figure out the most interesting choices from every album.
“I’ll make a point of pulling a song off every album we’ve done and try to incorporate it into the show.
“It’s amazing how often that works, even though it might be a different set of songs.
“Plus there are some songs that we’d be jerks not to play – we’re going to play Birdhouse In Your Soul.
“There’s not a lot of big advantages for being in a band for 30 years but one of them is that there’s no issues with repertoire.”
In 2005, They Might Be Giants started making music specifically for children with the release of their 11th record Here Come The ABCs.
Stylistically it wasn’t a stretch for the group, whose idiosyncratic lyrics and upbeat delivery already appealed to people of all ages.
“We had to leave out all the ‘death stuff’,” Flansburgh says.
“But in some ways it wasn’t that different [to write kids music].
“We’ve always been interested in melody and extreme arrangements and those things work in the kids songs.
“We were really trying to import the most interesting stuff about what we do into the kids stuff.
“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t watered down or that it was a lesser version of what we do.
“Kids respond to the energy.
“I don’t know where this tradition of making quiet music for kids came from – most of the kids I know are pretty rowdy.”
Australian audiences might even hear one of their children’s songs on stage.
“There’s a song called Meet The Elements – it’s a complicated song,” Flansburgh says.
“Speaking as an adult, I feel like I learn a little more every time I play it.
“It’s packed with solid information.”
Besides crafting music for different generations, They Might Be Giants have remained at the forefront of technology in the release of their material.
They famously created the Dial-A-Song phone service which became hugely popular in New York in the ’80s.
Fans could phone a number and hear one of the band’s compositions.
The service now exists online.
In 1999 They Might Be Giants were the first major label band to release a digital-only record, called Long Tall Weekend.
They went one step further in 2004 when they launched one of the first artist-owned online music stores in which all their albums could be purchased as mp3s.
They’ve actively recorded podcasts.
But Flansburgh fears that the expanding technology bubble has been popped by pirated music.
“As someone who has dedicated my life to the popular song, I wonder what music of the future is really going to be all about,” Flansburgh says.
“The song as a form has evolved so much over the last 100 years.
“I’m sure it will move on but we’re in a very transitional time.
“Being a musician is a ridiculous thing to embark on - the idea that somehow you could have a professional career that would last a lifetime seems a pretty big assumption.
“I would love it for things like [online fundraising website] Kickstarter and those kinds of set-ups to remain viable, but there’s part of me that’s a little sceptical.
“It’s a weird time – there’s a whole generation of people who have never paid for a recording at all and it’s hard to imagine what would compel them to do it.
“It’s not like they don’t have good feelings towards the artists that they appreciate.
“But I don’t think they’re expecting that they would have to pay.
“It’s not really part of the music culture anymore.”
The band’s new record is called Nanobots – its title is a reference to the technology of minuscule robots.
“[The title] reflects this unusual quality to the record, in that there are 25 songs in 45 minutes,” Flansburgh explains.
“There are all these miniatures –because [a dozen songs are] punctuated or interrupted by these unknowable short blasts of sound, it makes the whole album sequence a collage.
“I think that makes for a more interesting listening experience.”
They Might Be Giants will be busy in 2013 and will play more than 100 shows by Christmas.
“We’re going to Europe and Australia, and basically every primary, secondary and tertiary market in the States,” Flansburgh says.
“So by the end of the year we will know exactly how popular we are in Delaware.”
They Might Be Giants play Groovin The Moo at Maitland Showgrounds on Saturday, April 27.
Nanobots is out now.