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Q&A: John Linnell, They Might Be Giants: Rock hero, songwriter, dad

You just finished your second children's album, Here Come the 123s. It was number one on Amazon.com the other day, and Here Come the ABCs was number two. Congratulations!
Thanks.

What's your favorite song on Here Come the 123s?
They're all my children, I love them all.

What's the secret to a great kid's song? Are your kid's songs different than your regular songs?
We have the same approach to all song writing. 95 percent of what we put into kids music is the same as the adult songs. We have a few restrictions—we don't load it up with death imagery. But we basically just amuse ourselves. I think Dr. Seuss said that about his books—that he wasn't really writing with a kid audience in mind.

So what's the most important thing when writing the music?
The number one thing on the list is that we like it. That is the whole list. We know what we like, and we think of what's good for us, and we hope other people will like it too.

Do kid songs have to be happy?
No, there is tension in our kid records. Kids understand that. They like jokes, but they also like being a little scared. They like spooky.

Do you think children's music is generally weak or boring?
To me, yes. It's a weird situation for a parent. I didn't really go through this with my kid, but I think a lot of parents put up with a lot of excruciating stuff for their kids.

So what's the secret to a great kid's song?
I have a friend that makes up songs for his niece, and he just sings about whatever he's thinking, he just annoys the hell out of everyone. John and I feel that kids are just as exacting in their music standards as adults are. You can't slouch or be lazy. Music is a vivid world for kids. It's exciting and entertaining, it can be compelling and scary. When I was a kid it was something I wanted to know more about.

Yeah, when I was younger, listening to They Might Be Giants songs, I didn't always know what they were about but I liked them because they were energetic.
That brings up an important point. You can write for an audience and not insist that everyone understands everything. Kids like to hear things that don't make sense—there is something exciting about that mystery. You can't short change the kids, kids dig mystery.

What does your 9 year-old son Henry listen to?
He listens to a lot of TV theme songs to shows he likes, and he asks to hear pop music that isn't for kids. He went through a time when he was fond of an Eels song, Mr. E's Beautiful Blues, [which has profanity] and we thought it was okay, but told him not to sing it in front of his Grandma.

We just ran an article in Parenting about how to bribe kids. Do you bribe Henry?
I'm not proud to say it, but yes. Bribing is inevitable if you're short handed or exhausted. What's the most surprising thing about being a Dad? It's tricky—you want to be pals but you have a real job of guiding them with things like homework or personal hygiene. You want to maintain a pals-y level with your kid but it's a little disappointing when your kid is forcing you to discipline.

What kind of things does Henry want to do that you don't like him to do?
Well there's the basic stuff, like brushing his teeth or taking a bath or shower or going to bed, that he doesn't want to do because we are pressuring him to do it. Sometimes he gets into a sulk about life being unfair, and he drives himself crazy. Kids feel thwarted sometimes, and it's very hard to coax them. Logic is not helpful.

So what do you say when Henry is in a sulk?
You have to be patient. The kid is going to be unhappy for a little, but you have to be understanding and not try to fight them. Parenting takes lots of energy and strength, that's one of the hardest things.

What's your best parenting advice?
Well, I don't have all the answers, there isn't an answer. There isn't a snap solution for every problem, there isn't one way to deal. But I think it was Dr. Spock that said "you know more than you think you do," and I agree with that.

Win a free CD! We're giving away 25 copies of Here Come the 123s, They Might Be Giants' latest set of parent-friendly kids tunes, enhanced with bonus tracks and video footage!

 

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