John Linnell and the Statesmen

Autumn 1999 to Spring 2000


John Linnell – vocals, keyboards, accordion
Dan Miller – guitar, keyboards, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass, vocals

Joined on Conan show by:
Jay Sherman-Godfrey – guitar

Joined at Bowery Ballroom show by:
Wurlitzer 103 Band Organ (Bob Stuhmer, operator)

1. Back Story

This story starts out in late 1989. I took Nancy Howell on our first date, to see the Maudlins. I loved the band, and my friend and fellow former Oswalds member Stephen Lewis had just started playing lap steel with them, so it seemed like a good date idea. The show was at a little secret club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called the Quiet Life, located on the ground floor of a former funeral home. It was run by WFMU DJ Nick Hill and musician and artist Brian Dewan.

The opener was John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (the keyboard-playing half of what was then a duo), doing a set of his State Songs; he’d been engaged for many years in a project to write a song for every one of the fifty states.

You can see the Quiet Life in the They Might Be Giants video for “The Guitar” (featuring Laura Cantrell on vocals).

A still from the video for TMBG’s “The Guitar,” shot at the Quiet Life, in a former funeral home. The terrazzo floor was very cold. The door at left led to a garage that had a drain in the floor from when they used to do embalming there.

That first date went well, and over the next years, a few things happened:

Nancy and I got married (in a ceremony presided over by Nick Hill). The Quiet Life closed (it didn’t last long), and Nancy and I moved into the ground floor space. Our housemates were Nick and his wife, Alex, and Brian Dewan and John Linnell. When Nancy and I had our children, the former Quiet Life—basically one large room—now housed our bed, two cribs, and my printing press. The freaky taxidermy forms you can see in the photo up there were still on the walls, painted in glow-in-the-dark paint.

2. Recording

Almost 10 years (!) after that first date (we had moved out of Brooklyn to Manhattan), Linnell called me to see if I could play bass on a few songs for a solo record he was making of his State Songs. Mark Donato was tapped to play drums on the recordings, which comprised 4 of the 16 songs on the album. We were both a little confused as to why Linnell wanted us, since he’d really only heard us as a rhythm section in Flat Old World, a rather non-rock, non-pop project. I was intimidated because even though we were pals, Linnell had played with some pretty serious bassists: Graham Maby, Tony Maimone, Danny Weinkaupf. But the recordings went well, and the record came out on Rounder.

State Songs CD cover

I’m not uploading any songs from the actual record here, just live recordings; it’s for sale at the usual places and is well worth your money. It can also be sampled in its entirety via Spotify or Grooveshark. I love this record; it’s so weird, so varied, and yet so cohesive. Linnell’s songwriting is even cleverer when you get inside it as a player: musical themes suddenly fit under one another halfway through a song, narratives unfold elliptically. It’s really fun as a bassist, too. “Oregon” has a bass line that climbs chromatically (and slowly) through all 12 tones. “Idaho” has a big fat pedal tone; certainly on a per-note basis, it’s the most I’ve ever been paid for a recording.

One of the songs I played on, “Montana,” was selected to be the single, which Rounder decided to put on a very cool green vinyl 45, diecut into the shape of the United States.

Montana 45

Originally a different song (“West Virginia” or “South Carolina”) was supposed to be the single, but it was too long. Apparently any song longer than 3:30 would have run into Lake Erie around Sandusky, Ohio.

3. Touring

Linnell asked me and Mark Donato to back him up for a series of shows to promote the record. Joining us was the lead guitarist from TMBG, Dan Miller. The shows were billed as John Linnell and the Statesmen.

In addition to playing most of the songs from the record, we threw in a few covers that qualified as state songs (so that we’d have enough songs for a full set). We played Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” (which entailed singing backing vocals of “Mush! Mush!”over and over again), Neil Young’s “Ohio” (as an instrumental in 5/4, somehow), Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” the “Tennessee Waltz” (not in waltz time; maybe we never played this out?), and “Maryland, My Maryland” (the actual state song of Maryland, perfomed solo by Linnell; this song has the dubious distinction of calling Lincoln a “despot” and a “tyrant.” Sample lyric: “She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb / Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum! / She breathes! She burns! She’ll come! She’ll come! / Maryland! My Maryland!”).
“California Uber Alles” by John Linnell and the Statesmen
Live, I’m not sure where.

“Oregon” by John Linnell and the Statesmen – Live on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, 11/23/99
(actually just a duet of me and Linnell)

“Iowa” by John Linnell and the Statesmen – Live on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, 11/23/99
Mark Donato’s harmonica! Woo!

(If you’re on an iPhone, iPad, or other non-Flash device, go here to hear music.)

These shows were tremendous fun. Thanks to Linnell’s TMBG apparatus being in pretty full gear, we had the rare advantage (for a relatively smalltime act) of travelling in decent style, of having a really capable tour manager, and nice crowds everywhere we played. Also Dan, Mark D, and John were great travel companions.

The tour, as far as I can reconstruct it (largely due to TMBG’s very enthusiastic fans and their obsessive record-keeping at various fan websites):

Nov. 14, 1999 the Turning Point in Piermont, NY.

Nov. 20, 1999 Storyopolis (in-store performance) in Los Angeles. Linnell solo with a little of me. There’s a video of this on YouTube, really horrible quality visually. For fanatics only.

Nov. 21, 1999 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA.

Nov. 22, 1999 at the Troubador in Los Angeles. Backstage, I met Frank Black/Black Francis/Charles Thompson! That was sort of like meeting, oh, Picasso. Also at this show: Eric Karten (from GHE) and Heidi Swedberg (who will show up later on this blog); it turns out she and Linnell are distant cousins.

Nov. 23, 1999 at Slim’s in San Francisco.

Dec. 5 and 6 at Schuba’s in Chicago.

Dec. 11 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, with the Band Organ. The band organ takes some explaining. Linnell had used a band organ on the record on, I think, 4 songs. It’s a large organ like you’d find in a carousel. In addition to reeds, it also has percussion. All the music is played automatically, as the organ follows a score transcribed onto a punched paper tape. Linnell had found a guy (Bob Stuhmer) with one of these who would hand-punch his scores. The result was really weird and great. The organ was very wobbly in terms of pitch and rhythm. For our first hometown show, we got Mr. Stuhmer to bring his band organ to New York and we played with it, which was difficult but really thrilling.

January 7, 2000 – Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Also thrilling! We played “Montana.” Jay Sherman-Godfrey augmented our lineup on guitar (as he had done on the recording). Linnell got “couch time” which I guess is a big thing if you’re on a late-night show.

February 4, 2000 – The Avalon, Boston. Opening for They Might Be Giants.

February 5, 2000 – Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence RI. Opening for They Might Be Giants.

February 23, 2000 – Black Cat, Washington DC.

February 26, 2000 – Khyber Pass, Philadelphia.

April 13, 2000 – Bowery Ballroom, New York City. Opening for They Might Be Giants.

We also did live radio shows on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” and NPR’s World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. At KCRW I got to meet Harry Shearer!

Click the thumbnails to see the photos larger and as a slideshow.



Post mortem

John and Dan have continued to do all kinds of great stuff with They Might Be Giants, who remain one of my favorite bands. Mark Donato pops up frequently on this blog. Jay Sherman-Godfrey has played on and produced a lot of great music, including records by Laura Cantrell and Chris Erikson (about whom more later).

I thought I was just going on a date that night in 1989. If someone had said to me then: “This girl you’re taking out? You’re going to marry her. That guy over there? He’s going to perform the ceremony. You’re going to have twins and raise them in this very room. The guy playing accordion? You’re going to be his housemate and then about 10 years from now you’ll help make a record of these same songs he’s playing, and you’ll tour the country playing them…” Well . . . let’s just say nobody did.

7 Comments on “John Linnell and the Statesmen”

  1. Rob Meador says:

    I must say the Maudlins were a bit scandalized at your date that night. We all thought Nancy and Doug were still together! Quiet Life was a great place for the Maudlins to play, and I remember I was thrilled that John “opened” for us that night. I also remember dropping by when you lived there– it was the first time I saw Edith and Lukas. And now they’re off to college– sheesh!

  2. Tom A says:

    This is so fun. It’s such a brilliant way to frame the story of your life. Thanks for sharing not just the many tales of such diverse projects but all the fun junk that confirms and decorates! Go, Crazy Baldhead, go!

  3. JYS says:

    Did I ever tell about the guy I dated because I out-nerded him on TMBG knowledge.
    HIM: The best TMBG CD wasn’t a TMBG cd but a CD by John Linnell’s side band called the Statesmen. And you probably never even heard of them.
    ME: Ohhhh them. Yeah, I know them. I know the bass player. He’s a friend of mine. I WIN.

    PS we didn’t have much in common except for this, so it ended pretty quickly.

  4. Alec says:

    I was there for the Conan O’Brien show! As I was working in the building at the time, I got to hang out with you backstage, and gave you and Mark my super-special backstage tour of 30 Rock, in which we ran into your pal Jodi Applegate, who was extremely down to earth and nice and quite stunning. I was in nervous awe of John L, who is much less talkative (at least initially) than John F.

    But my main (embarrassed) memory was walking towards the band room at one point, where Andy Richter – Conan’s co-host – was at the doorway, chatting with John. As I realized who it was, I excitedly shouted out quite loudly “ANDY!!”, as if I were greeting a long-lost friend. But I had never actually *met* Andy before, but had somehow convinced myself in that moment that I actually KNEW him. Andy turned towards me smiling, ready to greet whomever it was yelling at him in that “my dear old pal I haven’t seen you in ages” tone of voice, only to see me, looking sheepish as I walked toward him, realizing my faux pas. Yep, that’s what I remember.

    • Alec says:

      Well, other than your stunning bass playing that night, of course.

      • Mark Lerner says:

        That’s a splendid cringe-inducing moment, and just the sort of thing this blog celebrates.

        But yeah, getting to hang out that day with you and Jodi and tour the 30 Rock facilities with your combined access and knowledge was a highlight. Took my mind off nervousness, too.

        I remember the makeup folks bringing out the special bald-guy head powder so my shining pate wouldn’t burn out the white balance sensors in the video cameras or blind viewers across America.

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