Time Out for the ABCs


Below Linnell and Flansburgh answer questions from Time Out New York.

Your new CD has 22 songs about the alphabet. Were there originally 26 songs?

Flansburgh: After we settled on the whole ABC DVD idea, we thought about different ways of approaching it. We considered a set of super-short songs about each letter, but only for about a moment. It just seemed a tad predictable at least for the parents.

Do you think it's actually going to teach any kids their ABCs? Aren't kids going to learn their alphabets eventually anyway?
Linnell: Studies have shown that young kids are only allowed to be entertained if someone thinks it’s also improving them. But no, they won’t learn the alphabet without our DVD.

You clearly have a thing for "E"--"E Eats Everything" has a great hook—but some letters were given short shrift. Any letters that proved particularly challenging?

F: We tried to be fair, but there were some letters that weren’t cooperative. B never returned our phone calls, but we did get a chance to celebrate diversity. Q and U get a song about their unique relationship.

After you wrote, say, the first five or six alphabet songs, was it difficult to find the will to go on? How did you stay motivated?
L: We kept expanding the definition of the project as we went. Many of the songs name-check a letter but are really about something else.

Do you care if kids get literate quicker?
F: Literacy is a good thing, at any velocity. There weren’t any educational consultants on this project, so it's not exactly mental jet-fuel.

Just about every band that does a kid CD these days is promoted with "at last, kids' music that parents can listen to!" Do you listen to any of it? Anyone around now who you think passes the test?
L: I haven’t heard these CDs you speak of. My son and I sometimes listen to the Greasy Kids Stuff show on WFMU, much of which is not too annoying for adults.

Do you think kids need music created specifically for them?

F: That’s a good question. Except for obscenity or overt sexual stuff it’s hard to know what would be wrong with that, but maybe that’s your answer.

Why couldn't they listen to their parents' TMBG? Or then again, why couldn't their parents listen to their kids' TMBG? What's with the segregation?

L: One of the reasons we got into kids' music is that parents had been playing our "adult" records for their kids, much of which they seemed to think was appropriate. However there’s a raft of topics that we get into that I think are either over the kids' heads (divorce, alienation), uninteresting (midlife worries, obscure historical figures), or totally inappropriate (substance abuse, violent death, Edith Head).

A lot of bands do a semi-unplugged folksy thing when they create for kids, but not you -- have you any regard for children's eardrums?

F: I suspect kids like the energy of all kinds of music, and it’s only some parent’s projection of what is "nice" for kids that makes it such a gentle genre. Danny our bass player’s son responds very positively to the Ramones. Not softening our sound probably plays in to why kids respond to our stuff, but, you know, the listener really determines the volume, so that’s kind of up to the kid. Somewhere Barney is probably being played at 130 db.

Brooklyn's turning into a kids'-music mecca, with Dan Zanes and several lesser-known bands performing regularly for kids. You're Brooklyn based, but you never play locally for kids. How come?

F: We’ve put on some kind of big family event in NYC every year for a few years now. They are actually hard to organize, and we’re insanely busy.

How is it performing for an audience of kids and parents?

L: It’s unbelievably hard. Kids aren’t as concerned with the formal parts of the show that adults unquestioningly observe: applauding after songs, laughing at jokes. Nor do they hold their lighters up during the power ballads.

Have you had any responses from your first-wave adult fans -- now parents?

F: It’s generally positive. The only down side is that some people can’t understand that we are actually doing two different things. Parents drag kids to an adult show in a club at midnight- and we’re definitely not down with that. Crowd surfing and piggyback rides are both fun, but they should never happen at the same time.

Sounds like working on your first 2 kids' CDs offered you a kind of artistic clean slate -- has that been true with The ABCs?

L: The artistic slate is covered in a beautiful mosaic of our whole history, from which we can’t escape, but this project is like nothing we’ve done before.

This new CD skews younger than your previous two and has several cuts that are sweeter and less weird. Was this the Disney mandate?

F: No at all. There’s psychedelic stuff on there - like "Pictures of Pandas Painting" –that’s not exactly Raffi material. We make stuff on our own and outside voices are not really part of our process.

Any hesitations about going Disney?

F: We have hesitations about everything, but we were pretty up front about our need for real artistic autonomy, and they understood that from our very first meeting. We are lucky in that our sensibility is well established - no one is trying to mold TMBG into being the next Hilary Duff. Whatever the rep of a company, working with a label is really about working with individuals, and we have a remarkably jolly relationship with the Disney Sound crew.

Who made the video segments of the DVD and did you work with the artists? Were you thinking video when you wrote and recorded the songs?

F: For the animations, we worked with artists we knew before or artists we found through friends. We really just found people with sensibilities we liked, got a quick storyboard out of them and then let them do their thing. It’s a great time for personal creativity right now in that world - there are a lot of people doing Flash and After Effects right from their homes. It’s not as slick as old school stuff but it can be really charming. The puppets were all made for the project by Robin Goldwasser and operated by her, Chris Anderson or us. The really weak puppetry is 100% me.

Who's the biggest influence on how you see kids and childhood, and the type of work you produce for children?

L: I’ve always admired Dr. Seuss’ stated attitude, which is that he wrote to please himself, rather than second-guess his audience.

What's your favorite letter?

F: As a former graphic designer I gotta say I like R.
L: I like the T in the New York Times logo.

So, is numbers next?

F: It’s been suggested, but I think we’re going to go for punctuation and dingbats.