Rootsy or folk? Post-punk or blues futura? The answer is: Yes. THE FIERY FURNACES might be all over the map, but Margaret Wappler finds out one thing’s dead certain—no one else is gettin’ in the band.
Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004)
Listening to the Fiery Furnaces for the first time is like finding a pirate radio station while driving through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The map swears you’re 100 miles outside Murfreesboro but in the pitch-blackness, can you trust something as arbitrary as coordinates on a piece of paper to define place? What really locates you is that station at the end of the dial, with its strange accent and colloquialisms.
The Fiery Furnaces—Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, a brother-and-sister duo residing in Brooklyn—are behind the latest pirate station in rock: they’ve flipped on a switch and defined a special place between the forest and the mountains. Sixteen songs appear on their debut Gallowsbird’s Bark (Rough Trade); it’s a trunk show of delicious oddities, lovingly stitched and fringed with twirls of piano, itchy funked guitar solos, lyrics like “In the Cracker Barrel dumpster I found a bag; Red-white striped, I opened it—gag” tickled along by prickly cool rhythms. It’s blues, post-punk and a traveling vaudeville show pieced together with equal parts confidence, naivete (is it going too far to suggest that songs all about foreign lands is a tad Peter Pan?) and a kind of manic curiosity that sees the Friedbergers grabbing hold of a sound from one decade, giving it a good shake and then setting it down and running off to the next decade—or several ones previous—leaving the listener in an enjoyably vertiginous tailspin. Matt might be a little too fond of those bluesy solos that made more than a few Led Zeppelin songs deflate and I cringe each time Eleanor sings that line “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy”—though I’m not sure if it’s because I really love it or can’t stand it—but who cares? The Fiery Furnaces’ gawky moments pose problems for the listener and themselves that are actually interesting.
The first 15 minutes of my Saturday afternoon conversation with the Furnaces were spent catching up (by the way, I went to junior high and high school in Oak Park, Ill, with Eleanor) but soon enough, it turned to other things—blues, identity and the comfort of being a brother/sister band. Throughout our talk Matt, four years her senior, and Eleanor played a funny game of cat and mouse—teasing, then supporting—sometimes sounding like the squabbling siblings from Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Here are some outtakes:
According to the pithy and droll liner notes of Gallowsbird’s Bark, “Matt and Eleanor’s struggles to finally become the Fiery Furnaces in 2000 was proceeded by great violence, nothing less than Eleanor being ‘hit over the head, stabbed in the knee and smashed on the foot for coming down in the basement,’ where Matt ‘guarded the scene of his humiliation,’ i.e., prior failed recordings.”
Eleanor: Matt was very mean.
Matt: I was a horrible stupid kid.
Eleanor: He beat me up.
Matt: I would never beat you up–I would hit you.
Eleanor: He was very abusive. As soon as he got a little bit older, though, he was the most supportive, the most generous. He completely turned around. But now he’s reverted back to the old way. Just kidding—I think.
One of the rituals of the high school we attended was going to the Chicago Blues Festival every summer; you and your friends camp out, surreptitiously drink cheap beer and listen to the likes of Howling Wolf or Bo Diddley play to a crowd of tens of thousands. I asked the Friedbergers if growing up in Chicago, where tourists pile nightly into the clubs of Rush Street to hear a more commercial form of the blues than what we typically heard at the Blues Fest, affected their music.
Matt: I love Chicago ‘50s music, people like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf… but I wasn’t going to try to sing like Lightning Hopkins, or certainly not Howling Wolf. Not that Eleanor sings like that either but Eleanor, from the first moments we were trying this, Eleanor could sing over these very normal blues riffs in a way that sounded good to me. Hopefully as we go along, we can take advantage of that more in a way that doesn’t sound anything like the White Stripes. I think I like the kitchen sink approach to the Chicago blues sound. It’s very different from the revivalist garage stuff that’s been going on in the past few years.
For most of 2000 and 2001, the Fiery Furnaces played at several rock clubs around New York, not thinking of themselves as, in Matt’s words, an official band, “like, here’s our name and here’s our sticker and that kind of shit.” Towards the end of 2001, things had changed. They were a band alright—but what kind? I asked them whether they practiced constantly, trying to develop and hone their sound, during those first months when they were playing at clubs.
Matt: It’s funny you should say that because we didn’t develop a damn thing. We just went to our shows, we had some songs and we’d just show up and start playing them.
Eleanor: I thought we were going to be like a folky act.
You thought you were going to be a folky act?
Eleanor: That’s what I thought, yeah. Just the two of us, singing our songs.
Matt: I thought live we were going to be as rootsy as possible because we couldn’t be bothered with anything else. We could hardly be bothered to get anyone else to play with us. I never thought of it like trying to be folky, though. I like to say ‘rootsy.’
Eleanor: I, for a long time, thought I didn’t want to be a loud rock band. I felt really stupid trying to play rock music. I had sort of a complex about being a girl and trying to do this. All the girls who were doing this were either dressed up in some kind of ridiculous outfit or you were like this punk rock… [searches for the right word]
Eleanor: Yeah, and I didn’t want to be any of those things. I wanted to sing quiet, soulful songs.
Matt: But what I thought from playing a few shows with Eleanor is that she did seem confident and more authoritative so I thought what works well for us live is to play as a proper rock band.
Eleanor: Well, now it feels that way.
Matt: So slowly we started to play that way, as opposed to trying to sound ‘interesting’–or we’d just try to be as spontaneous as possible. Now on our record and live we play like a rock band for better or worse. It’s good because if you’re playing in rock clubs, it’s helpful to be a rock band, if only because you do a lot better. No, actually, if you’re playing in front of a bunch of people talking, not necessarily interested in you and more interested in a girl across the room, it works better to play as aggressively as possible, as a way to try to work something out that’s interesting. It’s useful sensationalism. Some of that Pete Townsend 1965 stuff is true.
So, you found yourself adjusting to whatever the audience was giving you? For instance, if they were mumbling and what not, you’d step up your playing?
Matt: For me playing in bands, I always feel… pissed off when I’m on stage. Like I look at people and I think, what are you doing here? It’s sort of a hegomonic attitude. It’s really a defense mechanism because I’m nervous. When you’re nervous you get agitated. For me, it’s more of a reaction to what I think Eleanor is good at doing, or what she has that’s different. It’s a loud rock band, and she can pull it off, yet she’s not pouring beer on herself or jumping around, and she’s not doing Debbie Harry impersonations. So that’s why I think, live, if we are any good, it’s because we’re using Eleanor.
Eleanor: (laughing) Yes, using me.
So, Eleanor, how did you ever figure out what kind of identity you wanted to have?
Eleanor: I don’t know. We played this show the other night in London for the Rough Trade 25th Anniversary celebration and it was at this club and it was this big media-type thing. It was really fun. I don’t know what happened, but at some point there on the stage it was like everything came together for me. I don’t know if Matt even noticed or anything. I don’t know what happened.
Matt: I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
Eleanor: I don’t know. I felt really good. I felt really comfortable and I was having so much fun.
Do you feel like the audience picked up on it?
Eleanor: Well, I bought this really great Japanese sash earlier in the day, maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t know how it happened but it didn’t happen overnight or anything. I think it’s the development from playing in front of audiences for a long time now.
Before the Fiery Furnaces, Matt had another band, The Suckin’ Doghounds, with a twelve-year-old cousin. They eventually petered out but the four-track recordings live on. Eleanor says their mother calls nearly every day with articles or reviews she’s spotted about the Fiery Furnaces—her parents like to find them on the computer. With kindred (in every sense of the word) cousins and supportive parents, do the Fiery Furnaces need anyone outside the clan? Their current lineup features David Muller on drums and Toshi Yano on bass. I asked the Friedbergers about the cycle of drummers the Furnaces had gone through, and whether they’d ever have a non-Friedberger become a permanent member of the band?
Eleanor: Probably not.
Matt: No. I wouldn’t want to necessarily record with one person forever.
Eleanor: The whole idea, if we are a band, is that it’s Matt and me playing together.
Matt: But David and Toshi, they do a great job and if people start to like us, it’s partially because of them. I wouldn’t want to slight their contribution.
But it sounds like it’s important to have the band basically be the two of you.
Matt: Yeah, it’s important for us to think we only have to argue with each other. It’s uncomfortable, especially before when this is something you’re doing as a hobby, you’re doing it for fun, you’re doing it because it’s something you like to do anyways, and you don’t want to have to… if you’re going to compromise with someone, you want it to be with someone you trust. Someone you think, oh, it’s fine that they got their way about this because I feel that way about that. That’s the way I feel about Eleanor. It’s easy for me to do something her way whereas if it was someone else, I might think the song they wrote was stupid. Then I’d say, ‘What the fuck am I doing bothering with this person? I’m going to go watch TV.’ But with Eleanor if I didn’t like something so much I’d just try to be supportive, so it makes it much easier to be in a band with someone [related to you] because you behave well. On the other side—
Eleanor: Yeah, I was just going to say—
Matt: On the other side of it, it’s easy to yell at the other person because you can say what’s on your mind. You don’t have any social inhibitions with this person. It’s bad because you can get in nasty fights quicker but I’m comfortable doing that with Eleanor because—
Eleanor: He can boss me around.
Matt: Yes, because I can boss her around. I’ve been bossing her around my whole life, so why stop now?