Dial A Song With They Might Be Giants

“Dial-a-Song is now online, so anybody can access those songs at any time now,” says John Flannesburg, one half of They Might Be Giants, when I ask him about the band’s legendary answering machine service. “Since we started Dial-a-Song in 1981 we’ve recorded between six and seven hundred songs. Some are good songs, some are just TV cues, some are terrible…”

But they’re songs, nonetheless. Thirty-two years of songs.

Given half the appeal of Dial-a-Song was just trying to get beyond the busy signal, one wonders what is gained and what is lost in the brave new world of MP3s. Can a music download ever have the same charm as finally getting to hear a half-baked song on a cassette at the other end of the line?

As it happens, Flannesburg is not really on speaking terms with the internet today.

“I’m old fashioned and grumpy,” he says, with an almost audible shrug amidst the hum of our international phone linkup. “I don’t want to live on a two-way street.”

He is reflecting on the aftermath of his seemingly harmless Facebook in which he referred to his band’s song about the wedding of two male musicians.

“Of course, there’s this big debate in the US about gay marriage and even the simplest comment I make seems to elicit an impossible response from people in our audience to the right of argument.” Very diplomatic, John. “I get very, very surprised at the things people say. I just want to live in a world where people love each other and I… I just get surprised.”

Flannesburg admits he is being “a total performer” when he voices his expectation that the world should agree with his views. But Web 2.0 is a world away from the band’s lower than lo-fi beginnings.

“When the two of us first started out in New York City in the early 80s, it took me five years to get from not being able to play guitar and sing at the same time to being able to play and sing at the same time,” he says. “From ‘81 to ‘85, that’s pretty much what I was doing.”

“But even still, when we played gigs, I honestly felt like I was in communion with Angus Young,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the people up the back shaking their head as if to say ‘This is not a band. Two guys with a drum machine? What is this?’

“But we were serious about what we were doing; I mean, we postponed the recording of our second record so that we could use a certain drum machine which wasn’t yet available. I can’t imagine any modern technology today worthy of postponing a record.”

Of course, drum machines weren’t the only new technology integrally connected to the creativity of the two Johns in the early days.

“Dial-a-Song goes back to when phone machines were brand new. People’s lives were not so hectic that they needed them.”

Simpler times. Even in the sleepless city.

“The only antecedent to Dial-a-Song was Dial-a-Prayer in Boston,” Flannesburg explains. “The archdiocese had started Dial-a-Prayer as a way to reach people who could not attend church, and you could call up and hear a priest reciting prayer. I heard it as a kid and it was the weirdest experience. It was very weird to hear a message without a person connected to it.

“We were playing to very small audiences, and I mean very small, like a dozen to twenty people a night, and the idea dawned on me: Why not do music with a machine for the same number of people? Play to twenty or have twenty people call us up, it was just as good to us.”

The Johns were validated as the service slowly gained in popularity because the initiative had been independent and self-produced, with no approval required from record companies or radio executives.

In short, Dial-a-Song was DIY home recording, uploading and streaming, and it was decades before the rest of the world caught up. In fact, in 1999, They Might Be Giants became the first band to release an album as MP3s. Five years later, they created one of the first artist-owned online music stores.

But today Flannesburg is ambivalent about the two-way street of online living.

“It’s funny how low social media can go,” he opines. “I do these interviews with these high profile media outlets… and then they ask me to repost the interview on my page! It’s as if I’m the tail and all of a sudden I’m being asked to wag the dog.”

There’s a song in that. Maybe even a good one.

They Might Be Giants Groovin' The Moo Sideshows

Tuesday, April 23
Melbourne – Corner Hotel

Wednesday, April 24 (Anzac Day Eve)
Sydney - Metro Theatre

Thursday, May 2
Melbourne - Corner Hotel *SOLD OUT*

Friday, May 3
Melbourne - Corner Hotel *SOLD OUT*

Tuesday, May 7
Brisbane - The Zoo

Wednesday, May 8
Brisbane - The Zoo *SOLD OUT*

Thursday, May 9
Adelaide - The Gov

Friday, May 10
Perth - Rosemount Hotel

Tuesday, May 14
Wrestpoint – Hobart

Tickets are $59+bf (Hobart - $49+bf) and are available from metropolistouring.com and the venues.

Plus all Groovin’ The Moo Festival dates.

The new album Nanobots is out now.

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