For nearly 40 years, John Flansburgh and John Linnell have recorded their surreal, humorous, and imminently catchy rock tunes as They Might Be Giants (TMBG).
After initially meeting in high school and making up songs, the duo reconnected in Brooklyn in 1982, releasing gobs of records, recording free music you could only hear on their answering machine under the “Dial-a-Song” service, and winning over kids on Tiny Toon Adventures (and, yes, this was my entry point for the band—“Particle Man” for life). They’ve even gone platinum, won a couple of Grammys, and made some music for a SpongeBob SquarePants musical. Hell, they’re probably ripe for a viral TikTok revival because if the Mountain Goats can do it, so can the John’s.
Now, TMBG has released their latest project. Their latest album BOOK comes in the form of an imposing beautiful cloth-bound hardcover art book that features stunning and haunting images from street photographer Brian Karlsson and the band’s lyrics typed by none other than designer Paul Sahre. Released last Friday, the 144-page behemoth makes quite the coffee table impression, and the concrete poetry lyrics were painstakingly created by Sahre on a 70s IBM Selectric typewriter purchased on eBay.
Paul Sahre has been the band’s official designer-at-large since 2012 and has helped craft much of their visual output. Armed with ten typeballs for switching up the typography on the Selectric, Sahre punched in the lyrics on templated sheets of 12 x 12 paper. And, yes, that’s the same size as a vinyl album cover (which, incidentally, is a format you can purchase the new album in as well as CD, cassette, and 8-track).
We recently spoke with TMBG’s John Flansburgh about the origins of BOOK and the working relationship they’ve formed with Sahre.
(Also, our own Steven Heller spoke with Paul Sahre a few weeks back about the creation of BOOK, and you can read that here.)
It seems like the scale of this thing alone was pretty significant! What was the idea behind BOOK? What were you guys trying to accomplish?
The impetus behind the project came out of conversations with designer Paul Sahre. We’ve collaborated on numerous projects with him for a while now.
We had talked about a career retrospective book, but exactly how to organize that seemed pretty treacherous and potentially messy in a scrapbook way. Once we moved to a more focused photography and lyric structure, focusing on a new release and an individual photographer were simple decisions that came pretty easily. Paul has designed a lot of different kinds of book projects, and it was clear that giving this material an art book/folio treatment was the right tone. I don’t think the book comes across as stuffy at all, but framing Paul’s kinda’ nutso illustrations of the lyrics and Brian’s photographs in a formal, unified package was definitely intentional. The premium presentation just makes the unorthodox qualities of the book bolder.
How did you guys find Brian Karlsson?
Paul has taught design in New York City, and I guess he knows folks in the fine art photography world from there. We surveyed a bunch of recommended photographers. There is a lot of lively work out there, and we considered maybe including a few photographers. But, again, there was an issue of messiness or a kind of sprawl we wanted to avoid. The fact that Brian did street photography and the scope of his work was so wide, connected with the freewheeling nature of the song lyrics.
What was the design process behind the book, and how involved were you and (the other) John?
John and I had some back-and-forths about things throughout, and I worked very closely with Paul as the gory details emerged. Brian was very generous in providing a large portfolio of current work to cull the book from. I don’t know what his final selections numbered, but it might have ended up being over 400 images, so there were a lot of options. We had most of the songs for the album written, so syncing up themes in the lyrics with Brian’s images was the challenge.
I quizzed Brian about finding images of his to work in tandem with the most noun-driven lyrics simply because some layouts might seem like non-sequiturs if we didn’t acknowledge the song’s subject directly in the photo alongside it.
In another life, a long time ago, I actually worked doing paste-up at Conde Nast and toiled many days working with photo libraries, so this was a familiar process. To jump-start the process, I made a long list of song-to-photo pairings and included some alternates. Paul came in to edit those selections, and he had his list of favorites that included a bunch of strong shots I’d overlooked. Then there were preliminary layouts where we had to figure out how big the book really needed to be, what photos could work as double-page spreads, how to deal with cropping photos, and all that tricky stuff.
There were also conversations about the individual privacy of the subjects of the photographs, which is a topic that probably wouldn’t come up in a gallery setting and maybe not even in a book of photography from another era. We solicited some approvals, and, in a few cases, photos that seemed to invite litigation got shuffled out of the mix. I wouldn’t say the book is diminished because of those considerations, but it does make me think about my Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, and Diane Arbus books differently.
You guys have worked with Paul for several years now, but how did you first connect with him? What is it about his work that keeps your working relationship thriving?
I saw a bunch of his illustration work in the New York Times and made a cold call, which is pretty typical for me. I didn’t know his reputation or the scope of what he did until we actually started working together, and that was all a welcome surprise.
Along with his amazing design skills, Paul is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known. Almost any idea would benefit from the level of commitment and sheer hours Paul is willing to pour into his projects. When he was in the middle of the typing marathon creating the lyric pages for BOOK, the ink in the IBM Selectric’s ink cartridge ran dry, and he had to break for some interval of days while he located replacement cartridges. That typifies his process—Paul always goes all in.
You can purchase They Might Be Giants’ BOOK by going here.