(844) 387-6962: It’s not a number scrawled on a bathroom stall, a wayward Tinder message, or some cruise company telling you you’ve won a free trip to the West Indies on the Caribbean Delight. These ten digits are the updated destination for Dial-A-Song, which They Might Be Giants are reviving for the first time in eight years, since they ditched the cassette tapes in favor of a busy signal and a busier career.
Dial-A-Song first came to be in 1983, when the newly formed alternative outfit swapped a new song into an answering machine residing in John Flansburgh’s kitchen on a daily basis. They placed an ad in the Village Voice, which coaxed curious fans into calling up to hear the latest update to the regular rotation of 30 to 40 tracks, thus offering them a direct line to soon-to-be standards and fresh-from-demo cuts. Thirty-one years ago, this hotline was ideal for those who couldn’t get to the show or pick up a They Might Be Giants record.
The advent of the internet would appear to have rendered such a notion obsolete, but there’s more to Dial-A-Song than a quick phone call and a simple gag. We spoke with Flansburgh about the return of Dial-A-Song and why exactly They Might Be Giants decided to bring back the delightfully dated stunt.
Why did you decide to bring Dial-A-Song back?
John Flansburg: I miss that back page of the Voice! Back in the glory days when escort ads were not allowed, the messages were so personal and always a bit crazy. It seemed like there was always one from the guy who met a girl at a rock concert or outside a movie theater and didn’t have the nerve to ask her for her number. It made New York City seem like a very small and slightly sweeter place.
So, to answer the question: Yes, a lot has changed, but a surprising amount is the same. The original Dial-A-Song project was a simple way to get our songs into the world, and this is too, but when we did the phone machine we had an audience so microscopic that microscopes might take issue with that description! We were figuring a lot of stuff out for the first time. It was seriously sonically limited. The stakes couldn’t be lower. It was so self-defined it really was hard to think of what we were doing in any objective terms. This year we have full-fidelity songs streaming online via YouTube — and everybody knows how the viral world works. People will actively judge the quality of our songs in very public forums, so it’s a tough room compared to the original setup, but that’s OK. It’s also already clear these songs are going to go a lot farther than maybe even our new albums or our live shows, so it’s worth the effort.
When did you start writing new songs for this, or are these Dial-A-Song additions various selections from songwriting sessions since Nanobots?
I’ve been thinking about it for a few years, but we only figured out how to structure this around September. We had a few songs in our back pockets that made the idea seem plausible — although now I think we’re both realizing how much work this is really going to take!
Is Dial-A-Song just as novel of a concept in 2015 as it was then?
The peg for our audience is really shifting from the novelty of hearing a song on the phone to hearing a new song each week. For better or worse, we live in an era that has a very different concept of “new” than when we started. New isn’t the project you made last month or this year, it’s the thing that was posted this morning. And even though we were raised on the album and aspired to make great albums, it is hard not to notice that a lot less people listen to whole albums these days! So we are just actively reassessing what format is best for our new stuff. Even though it is just beginning, it’s obvious this project suits the way people like to take things in. We’ve got a new phone line going as well as the site, and it’s cool to have the opportunity to let our current audience in on that weird phone experience. And ultimately, by giving folks a new song every week, all our songs will get heard by more people — what could be better?
Of all the things we’ve done, I am still glad we started They Might Be Giants with Dial-A-Song. For a couple of kind of uptight guys, we really got over our lesser instincts doing something that freewheeling. And it is exciting to come around to another version of it now. But since we’re talking about the history, there are some revisionist ideas floating around that I’d like to address right here in the Village Voice!
This morning I was sent an article about the relaunch, and it picked up on this thing that seems to get echoed a lot — possibly because Bob Dylan said it on his radio show a few years back, but I’m sure he got it somewhere. It’s the line “the band started the project to get the attention of record companies.” What makes me sad is not just that it’s totally wrong, but it also paves over what is essentially an optimistic impulse and shoehorns our intentions into that creepy fame culture that is everywhere now.
In many ways, Dial-A-Song was doing the exact thing record companies of that era wanted bands they worked with to avoid. Dial-A-Song left a lasting impression on many that our band was small-time — we were willing to seek out our audience, and we didn’t mind giving our music away. And though that can work, that is not widely considered an alluring public stance. There is a general vibe among professionals that you want the audience coming to you. There was nothing going on with Dial-A-Song that the labels respected, and it left a lot of business folks simply confused. But I should be clear — while Dial-A-Song was not an audition for the labels, it was also not a fuck-you to the labels. It wasn’t really commenting on the music business at all. It was not a strategy for something larger. It was just an interesting, and kind of limited, project. And then, after a half-dozen years into that project and the band, our situation changed. But to string those events together is creating some connections in history that [aren’t] really there.
When was the first time you realized Dial-A-Song made an impact, or when did your first fan interaction involving it occur? Would people request these Dial-A-Song numbers at shows?
All our poppiest songs were spotlighted on Dial-A-Song, but there was some freaky, unplayable stuff in there too, so it’s hard to say. When strangers started coming to the shows in the mid Eighties it was exciting, and totally validating, but we never knew exactly why they were there. When D-A-S callers showed up to live shows, they might have expected more experimental tape loop and sampled stuff than what we were doing live. We probably could have been braver in that department, but we were very concerned about boring people at live shows.
You’re going to be kicking off a monthly residency at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on the 24th. How will the Dial-A-Song selections factor into the set list?
The great news is there are a lot of really solid new songs, so our show is about to get updated in the best way possible. It’s an exciting time!
They might be mistaken?
While a few pages online state that the ads ran in late 1983, the earliest instances of back-page ads we could find were from March 1984. Below are the first four weeks’ worth, from the March 13, March 20, March 27, and April 3 issues.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 6, 2015