Fire’s Club 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.
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:
Sharing Time Josephine Foster and the Supposed would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony—or whatever. Just so long as it’s expressive. Margaret Wappler passes on the lessons.
Josephine Foster is a 30-year-old woman but she seems like a child. That isn’t meant as an insult, or some sort of misty New Age proclamation. It’s just that her speaking voice is soft—hardly the force of nature it is while singing—and prone to drifting away mid-sentence, as if distracted by something shiny across the room. And as explanation for her drift, she offers, “I have Thai buffet in my belly” and admits to dozing off just moments before our phone conversation. Granted, these are only the telltale signs of an adult riding out a low blood-sugar crash in the mid-afternoon; they can be dismissed. But in her music, Foster easily sheds twenty-five years and expresses herself the way children do—unequivocally and without regard for solid foundations. Quite simply, she just goes for it.
“There is something to being the song, and not commenting upon it,” Foster says from Bloomington, Indiana, where she is staying with Brian Goodman, her bandmate in her newest venture, Josephine Foster and the Supposed, which also includes Rusty Peterson on drums. Being in the moment is important to Foster, as is expression—full and unhindered, sometimes clumsy. Whether with the Supposed on their debut album, All the Leaves Are Gone (Locust Music), or with her other collaborations, the charmed lullabies of The Children’s Hour and the homespun Born Heller, she explores dark, sticky cavities with no inhibitions. Foster’s voice is a rich quavering alto, that, with its rapid, Joan Baez-like vibrato, makes great leaps over the Supposed’s Age of Aquarius-inspired rock—if the Age had followed its every whim, no matter how labyrinthine, no matter how far it burrowed into the ground. Though the production is pretty clean, All the Leaves Are Gone has a dirty quality, but not sexy-dirty or some flimsy appliqué. It’s more elemental, primordial, as if these songs were recently unearthed. The instruments sound loose, almost broken; the rhythm catch as catch can. Expression trumps. The desire to sing repeatedly a lyric like, “I had a mother, my mother had a mother—no one knows her name!” is followed, giving the music the quality of a child’s inspired ravings.
Foster became interested in opera after watching singers perform in a church. “I was intrigued by the natural amplification of their voices. It just seemed like a sort of bizarre expression… a larger-than-life expression and sound.” Foster, who had studied a “mixed bag” of music, theater and performance in Colorado, her home state, went to Chicago’s Northwestern University to study opera but left after a year. “I sang at this master class for this fairly famous opera singer and I felt like all she did was talk about how I was too skinny and why did I eat only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? It was really pretty absurd… I enjoyed what I learned but I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be enough for what I wanted to express.”
She quickly met people through Chicago’s tightknit music community and started playing around, often hosting her own “house hootenannies, where everyone would come over and play music.” Attracted to archaic folk and Renaissance songs, she says she knew almost nothing about current pop music. “I wasn’t too interested because it just seemed really subdued and breathy. And pretty tame.” She did, however, have vivid memories of what she heard on the radio growing up and what her “ex-hippie-type guy” father listened to, music like Graham Nash and Jefferson Airplane. In particular, Foster feels a kinship with the latter: “I think there’s some sort of connection between what they’re doing and what we’re doing—they play slightly declamatory, expressive music that’s pretty similar to something like opera in some ways. The human voice is really being sung through.”
After several visits to Bloomington where Goodman was attending college, Foster crashed with him and his girlfriend, burnt out on Chicago and intrigued by the notion of a rock opera. But that idea soon dissolved; Foster thinks she’ll get to it eventually, maybe by collaborating with a filmmaker. Instead, Foster and Goodman, a “human jukebox who knows every rock song,” developed a different batch of Foster’s songs through improvisation and discussion. The title track, for instance, started out “very subdued,” but soon developed into something primordial and shifting, with koan-like lyrics holding down its center.
“I was so bored with [‘All the Leaves are Gone’], because it was really slow, kind of sad, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just turn it into a dance song?’” The lyrics—which Foster describes as “slightly heavy”—don’t diverge too far from the statements: “There is no end to your sorrow… and tomorrow sorrow it will come again.” But the music, which sounds disarmingly loose and flapping at first listen, soon reveals itself to be joyously warped and unhinged, a lazy, blissed-out resignation to what feels like some sun-hazed dance at the temple right before the sacrifice. Just between falling apart completely and arriving at some destination point beyond the horizon, the rickety train that is Josephine Foster and the Supposed suddenly picks up speed and blows right by you.
Part of what makes their songs seem like a primer, like some recently recovered manual—to what, it’s hard to say—is their quality of following every impulse to its expressive endpoint. Indeed, every song hemming to nothing but its own organic, half-grown-over path serves a dual purpose: “I don’t have a very good memory so in order to remember something I write I usually have to make it something that I want to hear again. I have to make it pretty addictive to myself. So there’s a memorability in the words, a boldness in the imagery.” At their heart, these songs, despite their ornamentations, are constructed to be broken down, carried on, passed around. “It used to be a song was made to be shared and hopefully sung by many others. I hope my compositions go beyond me in terms of utilitarian value. I want them to be remembered, sung, by a tuneful amateur.”