The Fiery Furnaces are big and new and hip and fun and neat and goofy and even wacky. I couldn't help myself from going to see their wild live show as they rolled in town for the second time this year. I had seen them before, at the all out extravaganza they played with The Arcade Fire and The Unicorns, and it was nothing short of amazing. The brother-sister act of Matt and Eleanor Friedberger's sophomore album Blueberry Boat has received mixed reviews from around the board, with hip webzines like Pitchspork or PopMatters boasting it as one of the best of the year, while more conservatives like Rolling Stone and even me here at Wackiness.org weren't quite as dazzled. This is one band that's getting a lot of attention currently, and they've got so many tricks up their sleeves that no one person can quite figure them all out. Luckily I was able to catch up with Matt before the show as he was kind enough to give us some time for an interview to try and put the pieces together.
Andrew: Your live show is really awesome.
Where did you get the idea to make the show a collage of your songs as opposed to just playing?
Well, I'll tell you. We don't really like to stop between songs. What's the fun of that? What do you do? You talk or you tune up? And so we thought, oh, might as well make it formally not stop. Do it on purpose as opposed to just keep going. Then it fit also well with, you could rearrange, you know I like to play them differently than on the record, or if they're not on a record you can play them differently. So not only can you play the songs, but you can make the fast songs slow. You can play the end of the song at the beginning. And then, the chorus of one song and the verse of another song. And so you can mix up with not just the arrangements but the order of the notes. The idea is you can listen for "oh I like that song or that bit of a song" and then you can also listen for "oh I like that transition." So that's the gimmick, it makes it so the set is not about the songs or the bits of songs you play and whether "I like those two, the other one is boring, this one is good, this one I really like, I really can't stand those ones that he sings on" or something like that. It can also be like "I like the transition between that bit and the next bit." That's my favorite part of the set. You know we're not a proper punk band, but, what I like especially - The Ramones really wouldn't stop. And, I was too young, but seeing the Circle Jerks videos, they had all these transition things. They would play a couple songs in a row. And the songs on the record, they would be the two different songs with a transition, and that was the most exciting thing. You really like the one little groove, but you really like when it went into the other part. And, for our own retarded, poppy, silly way, we try to have our own version of that kind of excitement.
It definitely makes it exciting. When we previously saw your show, the people behind us who had clearly not heard of your band before, even they were blown away.
Well, that's nice man. And good - hopefully, the people who know the records, it's amusing to recognize how it's changed, and people who don't know the records, it's a rock show where there's energy to it. And for both people hopefully it's confusing in a nice way. I know I like to be confused. Rock music is so simple and it's about recognition and doing something simple and "ah I see what that means and stands for." And so, a lot of the trick to it is to do that in a different order than you might expect. Not break the rules of the genre, because that's wrong. Heh. Just to get away with following them in a different way.
And your albums, even without the live show, are confusing themselves a bit. Some of the lyrics are sometimes a bit nonsensical in a way. Where did you come up with all the lyrics and their quirkiness?
Well it depends. The only bit that is technically "nonsensical" is on Blueberry Boat is the last part of "Mason City" where it's like "How are you my nag" because that's all hobo slang strung together. It does mean something but it's totally unidiomatic. Like nobody would have talked like that. So technically that's "nonsensical." Everything else there's some excuse for it. It should appear that it doesn't make any sense. And no doubt it would appear that way. And that's fine. And sometimes it's better. I know lots of things where before you figure it out you like it better, and when you figure it out it's kind of boring. So hopefully people have that. With "Chief Inspector Blancheflower" the transitions in it are supposed to be the development. A disabled kid has a daydream about becoming a police inspector, and then he has another daydream about his brother being mad at him because he's flirting with his girlfriend. Nobody would really know that when you listen to it the way the changes go. But there is an excuse to it the way the thread goes. It's not a collage or it's not psychically coherent as opposed to semantically coherent. It's not pseudo-surrealism. We're not that pretentious. We're stupid and what we are. So, they come from whatever. Like "Chris Michaels" I wanted to have a song be a quick one, and so I thought the setting of the song should the kind of place with that classic rock culture. A place where people still listen to The Who, and The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, and The Steve Miller Band. So this story is about a girl who everyone in her work hates her, boyfriend's going to leave her, and then she daydreams about stealing a credit card and flying off to India. And then, in her daydream she's in India in the nineteenth century and some Sri Lankan prince wants to marry her but she has to leave. "Blueberry Boat" I wanted her to sing a song where she's a sea captain of a modern day ship. And "Quay Cur" is supposed to be like a soap opera compressed, but like a kiddy story treasure island with rock and roll like "Rael" by The Who. Which doesn't necessarily make any sense. It jumps from time and place. So that's why it's first. It's the least rock. It's the most boring I would say. I mean, I like it, but for other people. Because it jumps time and narrative, I have to make excuses for it.
So, do the albums reflect your personality?
Yeah, and Eleanor's too. The first one we did together, so it's very much both of our personalities. And the second one, I wrote it, so it's more my personality. But Eleanor's the singer, it's all about her. She's the person carrying the record. It's rock music and it's pop music and it's all about the singer, kind of. Like Sinatra. Well, I don't want to compare Eleanor to Sinatra, but it's still a Sinatra record even though he didn't write or arrange any of the songs. So it's still her record too, but I get to make the stuff.
On the new album, Blueberry Boat, some of the times it comes of as a bit difficult in areas where it's maybe less poppy or less immediate. Is that on purpose? Or did it just come along?
It's not on purpose like that, it's meant to be amusing in a different sort of way than something immediately gratifying, or a tune that's disposed of in the most proper way. Sometimes it's pretty obvious, the contrast. Like the first party of "Chief Inspector Blancheflower". The vocal take is terrible. The arrangement is as obtuse as possible. And then the second part is supposed to be as immediately gratifying as possible. There's nothing going on. The drum machine, piano, a little synthesizer, and a tune. So maybe it's crude. It's not obviously challenging music, the first part of "Chief Inspector Blancheflower", but it's an arrangement not meant to accentuate its catchiness. And the second part, the arrangement is not supposed to stand in the way of it being catchy. And that's because of the lyrics. The music to the first part is supposed to match or illustrate the guy in a crude way, but hopefully that's amusing. And then it changes to something very immediate and easy, because in the second part he's having a daydream about being very focused and specific. So it should be very focused and easy to get. That's the excuse. For the music having non-rock and roll functional parts, there's meant to be an excuse for it. The music is supposed to be the illustration or setting to the dialog, which is the words.
Alright, maybe not so much on the first album, but on the new one is it meant to be seen as a complete album, kind of a single statement?
As an album, just like an album is. For me, my favorite albums have a function. Like Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones. It's really a whole and it means something to me. I don't know what it means specifically. But, they wrote the songs in vision and put them together. So [Blueberry Boat's] not a whole big rock opera, it's just little rock operas. But hopefully it hangs together and has a unified feeling even though the mood changes.
So your biggest influence is the classic rock genre and albums, and the more classic artists like The Rolling Stones and The Who?
Yeah. For this record it is supposed to be like mini rock operas. Like "A Quick One, While He's Away" on the album A Quick One, While He's Away or "Rael" on The Who Sell Out. It's supposed to be like the heroes and villains outtakes. And then like Smile. I'm not saying we sound like the Beach Boys, but I'm glad the album finally came out a few months after the record. And then the second side of Abbey Road. It's supposed to be in a very specific tradition. But those are big bands. It's not really original. It's just supposed to be a footnote to those records. So hopefully it's not too offensive because it's not four minute songs. And we're not trying to act like we're doing something we think is so new. It's not new at all. It's forty years old.
But still, what you guys are doing, the music that you make is pretty commendable.
Well thanks. (Laughs) I mean, we like it. We think it's good and worthwhile compared to other records made now.
And, it still feels very original, despite the influences.
Hopefully it's inventive, in the old sense of the word. Meaning you find things and you put them together in a good way. I mean, you found them and you got them from somewhere else, but it's like inventing a speech. Using all the good techniques you're supposed to have in a speech. You didn't invent them, but you disposed of them well. Hopefully people who like those sorts of records, it works for them too. And for people who don't know those records it's sort of amusing. I mean, our record is not as good as the second side of Abbey Road or the other records we like sonically. Those records are way better.
So, a final question, and you probably get this one a lot, but how does being brother and sister affect the music or the process?
We wouldn't be a band if we weren't brother and sister. That's what we have in common, the rock music, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I'm her brother and she heard all these records when she was a kid whether she wanted to or not. Not that she didn't have her own taste, she did. And the way we agree and disagree is all based on the fact that we know each other. Not as friends, but as brother and sister. It's as simple as that. We're able to agree and disagree in a very casual way that's different from being with your friend. Dislike or like it doesn't matter, you have some sort of loyalty to the band. So when you're making decisions you can be more quickly but more constructively annoyed and feel free to be that way. And also it's easier to trust. Because you know where they're going. You can follow them further. You know, for other people it's like "Why am I in this band with this idiot?" but I put up with whenever we don't get along because she's my sister. But we don't disagree about music much at all. We're just very lucky.
- Andrew Wexler