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Random Rules: John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

The shuffler: John Linnell, half of the prolific alt-rock duo They Might Be Giants. Linnell and partner John Flansburgh have been releasing quirky, catchy albums since 1986; the latest, The Else, is due in stores July 10, but was pre-released via iTunes, where it immediately hit number one on the alternative albums list.

John Linnell: Just so you know, I do want to play fair, but I looked at my iPod, and I have to say two things. One is that half of it is this enormous pile of They Might Be Giants demos and mixes and stuff. It just overwhelms the other stuff, and it's actually not all that interesting. I don't know whether this is considered cheating, but I figured out how to disable all that in shuffle. I think I did it right. We'll know soon enough. The other thing is, I really don't listen to music so much, so I have an iPod full of stuff, but it doesn't really reflect me sitting around and picking and choosing stuff. A lot of it was dumped in unceremoniously at some point. Additionally, there was a period of several months where I loaned this particular iPod to the guitarist in our band, Dan Miller, because his broke, and I had another one, so I just let him use it and put his stuff on it. So here goes.


Sufjan Stevens, "Jacksonville"

JL: From his Illinoise album. I have that record on here, but I don't know it intimately well. I like all his stuff that I've heard. It's sort of interesting, this idea of music that reflects some regional focus, you know? Because I made a record about states. It was one of my solo records. You know, he's got a whole record called Illinoise. And I guess he has another one, what is it? Wisconsin?


The A.V. Club: Michigan. In theory, he's going to do all the states.

JL: I was going to do all the states, but I gave up. But I salute Sufjan in his efforts. This, by the way, is a great song. I like this. I like his arrangements.


Beck, "Dead Melodies"

JL: From Mutations. Not produced by The Dust Brothers, I think. I have to check that. I feel like I'm turning this around back toward me, which is a little narcissistic, but we just finished working with The Dust Brothers for our new record, so we felt like we caught sort of a vibe of the world of Beck.


Glenn Gould, "Partita No. 6 In E Minor"

JL: I kind of figured there would be a lot of Glenn Gould, because there's so many tracks on each one of his collections of Bach, and there's a bunch of them on here.


AVC: Are you a classical-music fan?

JL: I'm just a Glenn Gould fan. I'm sort of out of it as far as most of that stuff is concerned. I don't know too much about different artists. I like Bach a lot, and I like Glenn Gould playing Bach. So that's what I have, mostly. He has a very idiosyncratic way of playing. He plays almost robotically, but it has a kind of intensity that some people like a lot, and some people are really turned off by. He's extremely controlled, and he's going for the sort of super-expressive style of playing. He has this very controlled intensity, and he's unbelievably technically gifted. I like him a lot. He also plays pieces that a lot of people would consider the wrong tempo. He just plays fast and loose with the traditional things. He's dead now, but I can speak of him in the present tense. There might be more Glenn Gould in store, just warning you.


Hot Hot Heat, "Get In Or Get Out"

JL: Their sound got sort of described like The Cure meets XTC, but they're from this decade. I don't know, I just like it. I don't know whether it's considered horribly derivative, but as an old man, I find it kind of like the way my dad was into those swing-era records that were recreations of music from the '40s. "It sounds like the old days! It sounds like the '80s! I love the '80s!"


Elvis Costello, "Shabby Doll"

JL: From the album Imperial Bedroom. This really is from the '80s. I was very much into this record when I was a youngster.


AVC: Do you tend to go out and re-acquire music you were into when you were much younger?

JL: Mostly not—I try not to wallow too much in the past, because I find it unbearable. I think some people can handle listening to old music without feeling weird, without it dredging up all these complicated memories of unpacked and unprocessed parts of their lives. I unfortunately can't do that. But I love Elvis Costello.


Cartoon Network track, "Bloo Vs. Coco"

JL: This is a track which I don't know is on any records, but I downloaded it for my son. It's this little minute-long battle between two characters on this show on Cartoon Network. One of them looks like this little blue Pac-Man when he's being chased, and the other is this mangled-looking bird. The bird doesn't talk, it just makes a sound. My son was really, really obsessed with this particular thing.


Living Language, "In-Flight Japanese"

JL: This is where it gets really embarrassing. This is from a language-instruction tape.


AVC: Why is that embarrassing?

JL: I don't know.

AVC: You're trying to better yourself. It's all good.

JL: So this is me trying to learn Japanese. This guy is counting.

AVC: How are your lessons going?

JL: I can say about four phrases in Japanese, the most useful ones. I've spent a bunch of time over there, been on vacation as well.


Glenn Gould, "Prelude No. 2 In C Minor"

JL: Glenn Gould again. This is from The Well-Tempered Clavier. This is an interesting track, because it was featured in The Triplets Of Belleville. So this is Glenn Gould playing that track that was actually played a bunch in that movie. It's completely minimal, there's no melody, it sounds like Philip Glass. Just repeating hypnotic patterns. See, Bach did everything before anyone else.


AVC: Do you actually sit down and listen to classical music, or is it more background music for you?

JL: No, you can't have it in the background. You have to actually focus on it. Particularly the fugues are just too complicated to just be playing in the background. It would drive me crazy.


Fats Waller, "You're Not The Only Oyster In The Stew"

JL: Oh, this is nice. A recording probably from the '30s. I don't know the name of the album, it might be a 78 that my friend Kurt Hopkins digitized. What a perfect closer. I wish I could send you these tracks, because they're worth listening to in person. I guess that's not really the point of this piece. You should put out a CD. The Random Rules Of So-And-So Collection.


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