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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 the other day, and Here Come the ABCs was number two. Congratulations!

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.