Where do great songs come from? A great question, to which I must ask: what's a sleestak?
Every once in a while, I become obsessive about a special tune. Case in point, I've probably listened to Tower of Power's Knock Yourself Out several thousand times. When I encounter a piece I like, I need to listen to it over and over and over to unlock its secrets. It drives my wife nuts.
Here's my latest obsession, a tune called Cloisonné:
Readers of metacool will know that I deeply admire They Might Be Giants. Not only is their cover of Tubthumping the official anthem of all of us trying to make a dent in the universe, but over and over they create some amazing pieces of music which are highly creative, playful, and original. Art. They are also a case study in group creativity, having produced a stream of consistent innovation over a period of 30 years. How many individuals — let alone groups or organization or companies — can lay claim to a track record like that?
Back to Cloisonné. In the following passage, John Flansburgh talks about the creative process that lead to tales of second-story sleestaks breathing on his dice:
The story behind the song Cloisonne is pretty discombobulated. In an experimental period of putting Join Us together we created a series of electronic beats entirely without song ideas behind them. The idea was to make the tiniest drum machine-based beats that were still exciting. I probably spent twelve hours just editing and tweaking these sounds with no particular song in mind. The lyric is kind of from a Rat Pack point of view–like the guy singing is really into his own swagger, but he's also kind of out of date and out of it. The idea of not knowing what a sleestak is does come from my real life–I am actually exactly a year too old to have watched that show. Having to have Land of the Lost explained to you is slightly undignified, but thus is the fate of those who get old.
This version of the song is essentially our live band arrangement of the song. John L. is playing a bass clarinet, and we took Stan Harrison's inspired, highly chromatic sax intro and outro and mangled it in our fashion. Our apologies to Stan!
Personally, I like the Stan Harrison version on the album more than this one, but that's because the saxophone arrangement reminds me of The Borneo Horns, whose leader is arguably the greatest saxophonist in the world, Lenny Pickett, who played that incredibly gnarly solo on Knock Yourself Out, and who collaborated with Stan Harrison to create the Borneo Horns. And yes, I've listed to my precious Boreno Horns CD thousands of times… but enough of this beeswax, let's get back to our conversation about innovation and creativity.
Perhaps the astounding fecundity of imagination presented to us by They Might Be Giants can be attributed to several of my innovation principles. To wit:
- Principle 2, Hear and see with the mind of a child: clearly They Might Be Giants are able to think differently about the kinds of things which other adults take for granted in day to day life. Othewise, how do you go from Quonset huts to law enforcement to sleestaks? Free association, creative association, and wordplay are all common behaviors in kids, but they get squeezed out of us as we jump through the hoops of scoring 90% on spelling tests, hitting 740 on the GMAT, and getting through that interview with the company we always wanted to work for. You can see see and hear the way you did as a kid, but it takes practice. Clearly the guys at TMBG are still in practice.
- Principle 11, Everyone needs time to innovate: I love the story Flansburgh tells above, because Cloisonné happened even though they weren't even trying to write a song. They were screwing around with electronic beats for the sake of screwing around with electronic beats. This is intrinsic motivation at its best, and it's the kind of time that's rarely accounted for in mainstream business. Forget 10% time or 20% time or that funky offsite, how much time do people have for seemingly unproductive, totally unaccountable time to simply play with stuff? Messing around is a surprisingly effective way to get to unique and novel outcome.
- Principle 19, Have a point of view: Yes, they have one. It's about telling interesting stories in unusual ways, and never telling the same one twice. They aren't working from script vetted by 100 layers of focus group-approved marketing criteria. This is them, and they are this stuff.
By the way, the generation of this blog post required nine spins of Cloisonné and another ten of Tubthumping.
What's a sleestak? Yeah, I had to ask, too.