The Fiery Furnaces Are Also Fiery Conversationalists, Too

by Seth Colter Walls

The Fiery Furnaces have a resume full of quirks—singing about an internet cafes in Damascus, the odd verse written in Inuit—that makes them sound like a band dreamed up by an absurdist novelist. After their breakout indie hit Blueberry Boat, the band, led by brother and sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, recorded an album sung principally by their gravelly-voiced grandmother. Yet their newest disc, I'm Going Away, is a pivot back to less-fussed-with melodic bliss. That doesn't mean they're an easy interview, though. They played two songs for NEWSWEEK and spoke with Seth Colter Walls about bowling teams (for some reason), their TV ambitions, and classical music. Excerpts:

In the studio upstairs you said something about making two "cover" versions of this new record, each individually. What's that about?

Matthew: It was Eleanor's idea.

Eleanor: But Matt would like to talk about it.

Matthew: No, no.

Eleanor: I'm just kidding. yeah, it was something I wanted to do. Often, with the songs Matt has written, I've asked him to give me the chords so I can at least be able to play a version, practicing at home by myself. But some songs are too hard for me to play, cause I'm not a very good guitar player. So for the other songs I just started trying to play them anyway, and I would just started making new versions of them that way. This [cover version project] kind of came out of doing that.

Have you already recorded your solo version of the new record?

Eleanor: I've done some demos. But we're going to do it this summer.

Matthew: We also had a thing where we invited our fans, our thousands of fans, to review our record before they heard it. To talk about what it should sound like. And that got good response. So it seemed like people were writing their own tribute version of the record -- and, like, it made sense for us to make our own alternate versions of our record to go with our fans.

Eleanor: But at first, I also thought it would be funny to make a cool little record: Eleanor Freidberger Sings the Songs of the Fiery Furnaces. [Laughs]

The new record is obviously less messed-with, conceptually, than a couple of your previous records. Was that a conscious decision at some point, when you were writing?

Matthew: You mean, how it sounds?

Yes.

Matthew: I think it sounds like a bowling team.

Eleanor: Not a team...

Matthew: No, I think a bowling team.

Eleanor: It's more like a record you hear at the jukebox at the bowling alley.

Matthew: I think you could hear any of our records at ...

Eleanor: No. I don't think you could hear Rehearsing My Choir at a bowling alley.

Matthew: Sure you could. Grandma's often down at the bowling alley.

[Eleanor laughs]

Matthew [with a mock academic tone, and an incredibly straight face]: You know, I disagree. People are tired of bowling alley. They want long stories sometimes. After a hard time of bowling and sausage eating. You know? So this record to me it sounds like a bowling team ... and a bridge club.

Eleanor: That sounds really elderly.

Matthew: It doesn't sound like a bunch of 13 year olds.

Eleanor: What was the question? [laughs]

About the sound of the new record.

Matthew: It sounds like us! It sounds like me and Eleanor and the other guys.

So does it sound different to you than Widow City?

Matthew: That sounds like us too, but different.

Eleanor: I don't even remember what it sounds like.

But, just to be clear, this is the debut of ...

Matthew: The bowling team band? Softball team? Definitely 16 inch softball, not 12 inch softball. That's a Chicago thing. I don't know if people know about that. Maybe Eleanor would like to explain.

Eleanor: I'm sure you know what 16 inch softball is.

Matthew: No gloves.

I'm not a big softball aficionado.

Matthew: Neither are we!

You know, I think I sort of have to admit defeat at this point in the interview.

Matthew: You know, I have one more thing to say about it. Some people say: oh, our records, in the past, they're convoluted. It makes it harder for people to get to the tune. And this record we're making it easier, going easier on people in their busy lives. And no, it's not true. In this record we're making the audience do more work. We're giving them a simple version. Then they have to imagine how it should be elaborated in a convoluted way. They have to fit into the nooks and crannies of their personal difficulties. Which I'm sure they'll do. We'll do more of the work next time.

Eleanor (shaking her head laughing): We'll do more of the work?

Do you think your fans have become lazy?

Matthew: Yeah, lazy!

Flabby?

Matthew: Not flabby. They're in very good shape. [both laugh]

Eleanor: The answer to your question was "yes," we planned it that way.

For the songs to be more simple?

Matthew: The new songs are very casual. That's the way we wanted them to sound. maybe the song would be better if there were strings.

Who wrote the lyrics this time?

Matthew: On this record, Eleanor wrote most of the lyrics.

In concert recently, you had some stage banter about Eleanor's ex-boyfriends. Is this a breakup record?

Eleanor: No. [laughs]

Matthew: You mean about people breaking up?

Yes.

Eleanor: Sure.

"No" and "sure"?

Eleanor: Someone sent me a tape of a song and broke up with me once when I was 15.

His original song?

Eleanor: No, it was a Cure song.

Matthew: Good riddance!

Eleanor: And with the lyrics all written out.

Have you ever broken up with someone by sending them a song of yours?

Eleanor: No

Matthew: "Folk You," it's called.

Do you think of what you do as "pop," or as being chiefly experimental?

Matthew: One thing that struck me when I was pretty young was this article in MaximumRockn'Roll by Ben Weasel about Sonic Youth, just attacking them. The guy was totally contradictory: he thought of punk rock as a revival of this immediate and populist entertainment like 50s rock was. And then he talked about what he thought was all this elitist, experimental nonsense. He tried to say intellectually that pop was where it's at. And that now your complicated downtown New York music is betraying the Warholizing of the 60s where the pop stuff is the interesting thing. But I don't know. We like a lot of things that are not popular but we also like the Beatles, Beach Boys, The Who and Bob Dylan.

Is there anything that's popular now that you enjoy?

Matthew: I like Bob Dylan's new record.

Eleanor: What is popular these days?

Matthew: Yeah, that's a hard category.

How about Lady Gaga?

Eleanor: I just heard Lady Gaga in a pizza parlor today and I said to Matt, "this is her!"

Matthew: It's interesting. Is it performance art? And if it is performance art, why isn't it more interesting? But people say, ooh it's playing with conventions. And it is. I don't know if we've done a good job paying attention to the performance aspect of rock n' roll. We'd like to have an opera in the form of a sitcom about the band.

[Eleanor laughs]

Have you had any takers?

Eleanor: We haven't approached anyone. Would you like to do that for us?

Approach people on your behalf?

Eleanor: Or you could write it. I think you're the first person we've talked to about it.

Matthew: We understand if it's just on the internet.

HBO's done well with Flight of the Conchords.

Matthew: The thing about that and the Jonas Brothers show is that they have unmotivated music. We would be playing in performances. We wouldn't just be in a cab and start singing. It wouldn't all be sung. But that's where we want to have the brother-sister dynamic.

Eleanor: But we're kind of old now. It's not cute anymore. [laughs]

Matthew: It's different. It's more serious. It'll be about taking care of an elderly parent or something.

Eleanor: It's going to be for adult audiences.

TV-MA, huh?

Eleanor: What's TV-MA?

Matthew: That's the rating. I think our audience is ... well, we do badly from 14-59. Before and after is good. Age zero to 14 and the 60s to infinity: that's our better audience.

But what about twentysomethings like me?

Matthew: Your keen perception allows you to take in that of the youngster and the oldster.

Thanks.

[Eleanor laughs.]

Matt, you want to write long-form orchestral stuff, right?

Matthew: I want to write operas.

Have you talked to Peter Gelb at the Met? Before the economic collapse, at least, they were really into talking to pop people people like Rufus Wainwright.

Matthew: Well, I'll write one right quick for him.

There's a cool new John Adams recording of his "Doctor Atomic Symphony" that came out the same day as your new album.

Matthew: Oh, that's cool. I like "Nixon in China" a lot. I haven't really heard "Doctor Atomic." I bought the other one, the Indian thing.

"A Flowering Tree"?

Matthew: I was kind of disappointed, to be honest.

Too Mozartean?

Matthew: Not Mozartean enough. It wasn't crazy harmonic movement like the Mozart thing and the vocal writing wasn't so exciting.

I like the "Flores, Flores" chorus.

Matthew: Yeah, the Spanish stuff, that was kind of interesting.

Eleanor: I'm starting to feel like the third wheel on a bad date.

Your Cure tape is in the mail.

[Eleanor laughs]

Did you have anything you wanted to say?

Eleanor: No. I don't really feel confident talking about classical music.

Matthew: And yet, the most prominently displayed poster in her office is of a Benjamin Britten record.

Eleanor: That's true. The last opera I saw was a Benjamin Britten opera. Last year. What was it?

"Peter Grimes"?

Eleanor: Yeah, "Peter Grimes." Which I loved, actually. I thought I was gonna fall asleep, but it was beautiful. Matt must have a favorite composer, though.

Matthew: As a kid, I got really into Shostakovich.

Eleanor: When we first got a CD player, I was 12, and all of our CDs were Shostakovich.

Matthew: It appealed to me as a rock fan. It's tonal, and the music is about following the line. Then when I was a little older I got embarrassed by that, when I got into other 20th century music. But now I'm happy with it again. Um, you're a much more distinguished gentleman than most rock journalists. Don't you think, Eleanor?
[Eleanor shrugs.]