In ‘Bed’ With They Might Be Giants

Eclectic rockers turn to kids’ music

LA Family/2004

In mid-October, before it was even released by publisher Simon and Schuster, They Might Be Giants’ bedtime children’s book and CD duo “Bed, Bed, Bed” was a top-seller on amazon.com. On the heels of the quirky rock band’s success with its first children’s album “No” last year, “Bed, Bed, Bed” represents yet another curious stop for a creative team that’s never been content to rest on past success.

“The Two Johns”—John Linnell and John Flansburgh—have been on the fringes of the pop music scene for more than 20 years, scoring intermittent hits and occasionally hitting the mainstream with things like the theme song to “Malcolm In the Middle.” Mostly, though, the band enjoys a quieter, cult-like following among music lovers who like their offbeat songs about everything from mammals and thermometers to James K. Polk and metal detectors.

When “No” came out last year, it raised my eyebrow only in the sense that, as a longtime fan of the band myself, I knew from exposing two of my sons to TMBG that their songs are already quite kid-friendly. Although some of the lyrics on their “grownup” albums can be dark or disturbing, they’re generally accompanied by upbeat music, and the references are obtuse enough that they go right over the kids’ heads. It’s not uncommon for musicians to create music for children after they become parents, but in a phone conversation with John Linnell recently, he said it wasn’t the case.

“It sounds like a lie, but it really was coincidental in our case,” Linnell, father of a 5-year-old, told me. “We had the deal to do (the ‘No’ album) a long time ago, but it was in the can for several years. We put out another album in the meantime.”

In that space of time, Linnell did become a dad, and his son Henry grew to be a fan of “No” long before it was released.

“And I wasn’t trying to shove it down his throat,” Linnell said. “But it was cool because he got interested in the band, and he also knows the people in it. He likes talking about the songs, and he can figure out who’s singing.”

Making A Good Kid’s Album

There’s no shortage of music aimed at children available these days, but Linnell and Flansburgh thought they could make something worthwhile using their formula for their regular albums.

“It’s not that we have any special insight into kids, but we thought we could make a record intended for children but applying the same standards we do for our other albums,” Linnell said. “It would be entertaining and fun, and not teaching kids something, like how to behave. We wanted to make our thing a pure entertainment.”

“No,” as it turned out, did very well, topping the Billboard chart for kid’s albums and exposing the band to a wider — and younger — audience. At the end of the record are a few songs supposedly geared toward bedtime, although Linnell confesses it was something of a gag, since the music is still rather rambunctious. But it led to another idea.

“We though maybe we’d do some songs that are gentler, more soporific, more bedtime-flavored,” Linnell said.

So the band recorded four songs (which, to be honest, still don’t sound all that soporific) and teamed with artist Marcel Dzama, who created some unique drawings for a book to accompany the music. Dzama, better known for darker, disturbing imagery, nonetheless turned in some truly original work for “Bed, Bed, Bed,” harkening back to earlier children’s book art.

“He’s got a very nice, old-fashioned approach,” Linnell said. “It’s also very personal — his own style that’s suggestive and mysterious.”

Linnell admitted he wasn’t sure how practical it will be to try to read the book with a child while listening to the album at the same time.

“Kids always want to turn the pages themselves, point stuff out,” he said. “That takes time. But you don’t necessarily have to do them at the same time.”

What Kids Like

As a parent who’s naturally intrigued by his son and an accomplished musician and songwriter, Linnell is fascinated by what Henry likes in music, as well as what’s popular.

“It’s hard for me to second-guess kids,” he said. “I could never have predicted the success of artists like Raffi.”

Much of what children like to listen to, Linnell said, is independent not only of what their parents like, but from what they, as children, are supposed to like. He remembers Henry as a toddler dancing merrily to some music from a Saab commercial on television. As he’s gotten older, though, he’s more selective.

“As kids start to identify themselves, they’re more restrictive about what they’re supposed to like,” Linnell said. “He’s put off now by baby things, or things that aren’t boy stuff. It’s kind of a shame.”

Linnell says he and his wife haven’t gone out of their way to expose their son to a lot of mainstream kids’ music, especially the kind of Elmo and Barney stuff that parents joke about enduring solely for the kids.

“We’ve actually shielded him from things along those lines out of pure selfishness,” Linnell said. “I feel a little bit bad about it, but things like Barney completely turned him off, so we managed to leapfrog over it.”

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