The Fiery Furnaces: Kindred Spirits

The Fiery Furnaces: Kindred Spirits

The Fiery Furnaces: Indie rockers Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger are clearly kindred spirits of the new music community.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Live Music vs. Recordings

Widow City album cover

Frank J. Oteri: This is probably a good place to talk about your live concerts. I have to admit that I’ve never seen you live, but I’ve heard good things, and I can’t wait to see the show you’re doing next month in Socrates Park. I can’t imagine how your music is going to sound live, though, because there are so many layers and textures.

Matthew Friedberger: Well, that’s our big thing, though! We re-arrange the songs for “live.” For me, the songs are there in the recorded version, and then we play it live a certain way. I know with the album Bitter Tea, there’s the way it was recorded, and then we have this arrangement that we play live. In between the two is where it lives, for me. Don’t you think?

Eleanor Friedberger: I haven’t listened to the record for at least a year, so the live arrangement is what the songs are for me—and it’s different from what’s recorded.

MF: For that, and then for Widow City, our next record, it’s going to be changed around a lot. There isn’t necessarily some thing that we always do, except it’s usually noisy and faster, to compensate for not having ten versions of me playing overdubs.

FJO: So with Widow City are you going to be touring around with a Chamberlin or a mellotron?

MF: No, no, unfortunately. There’ll just be an organ or an electric piano playing the keyboard parts. What we normally have to do to make it more interesting, besides making it faster and louder, is make it musically more complicated. For example, “Waiting to Know You” live is much more complicated than the version on the record. It’s a very simple pop song, a high-school dance song. On the record, you can make it interesting by what you put over it, and how you mess with the sounds, and what you come up with, texture-wise. Live, you can’t do that. At least, we can’t afford to do it—we have five people, including the two of us, play live—and so you have to presumably make it more interesting in terms of the notes.

FJO: Have you ever thought about putting out a live album?

MF: Oh, yeah! We’re going to record it in a few days. Live in Eleanor’s apartment. Well, we’ll add ambient noise to make it a traditional ’70s live record. It’ll be mostly new versions of songs from Bitter Tea, and then this other long medley of other older songs.

EF: Jason Lowenstien, who plays with us, records bands, just on his computer. He’ll help us with that. For every tour we do, we have a new set of material. So from now on, we’d like to record that set, once we’ve finished the tour and mastered it. We’ll release it in some kind of format, either online, or on vinyl, or something fun.

FJO: But one of the aspects of your work that makes it so interesting to me is how album-oriented it is despite the claims that we’re living in an era where everybody is downloading single tracks. You create expansive, multi-movement works with each of your albums. Pulling one track from Rehearsing My Choir wouldn’t make any sense; you need to hear the whole record. And even on the other albums that are more song oriented, like Bitter Tea, I think you can get more out of it if you hear the whole thing. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.

MF: It’s much better on record, really. One thing I’d like to say about that is that rock music always benefits from being in 14-21 minute pieces. Album sides are perfect for rock. Not singles. That’s not really enough message to get across, usually. An album side is the perfect length for it to communicate.

FJO: It seems that the order of the songs is also important to you, which cuts against the grain of the random shuffle mentality of a lot of folks nowadays.

MF: People are hyper-aware of sequencing. In fact, that’s what they seem to focus on, because they’re sort of DJing. This is a mix tape making culture.

FJO: They want to do it themselves, though.

MF: But that’s what people comment the most on—sequencing—because they do that themselves. People feel free to comment, like they make mix tapes or play records for their friends in their living rooms, one after the other. People commented bitterly on the sequencing not being appropriate on Bitter Tea. We got a lot of complaints. But I didn’t agree.

FJO: Of course not! But since you brought it up, I have one curmudgeonly comment of my own about Bitter Tea. It’s the only album where you have remixes at the end of the record which seemed like a strange departure from all the other records that have a very clear sense of beginning, middle, and end.

MF: Well, they’re bonus tracks.

FJO: But having them there changes the whole narrative arc of the record.

MF: They’re there so you can hear other versions.

EF: I wanted those versions to be the actual versions, and Matt didn’t want that to be the case, and so the compromise was, “We’ll just put them at the end!”

FJO: So it was a way of peacekeeping.

MF: See, I don’t like to admit that. I just like to say they’re just bonus tracks, because it’s normal to have bonus tracks at the end of an album.

EF: It’s O.K. to tell the truth sometimes. [laughs]

FJO: It seems that the whole process, from conceptualization to recording to sequencing, is quite elaborate. In a way, it reminds me of Brian Wilson spending hour after hour in the studio trying to perfect SMiLE.

MF: Most of our records took much too long. Rehearsing My Choir was the most efficient. It went exactly right, exactly to plan.

EF: It was a miracle.

MF: It was difficult. But maybe because it was difficult, it made us finish in time.

EF: Matt spent one week recording the backing tracks.

MF: I remember doing the last tracks right as the studio time was up, and then our grandmother’s vocals went very smoothly.

FJO: So those were put in later.

EF: Yeah, the following week. We spent two weeks recording.

MF: It was difficult to mix it, only because the schedule was difficult. But it was mixed in San Diego by this nice guy Rafter Roberts, and that was on the weekends. That was a difficult situation, but it worked out very well, too. It was in the studio where they do commercial jingles, and that’s all they do in this studio. They make Mercedes commercials and Subway commercials: “Subway, Eat Fresh!”

EF: The guy who ran the studio wrote that. [sings] “Eat fresh!” He was doing that during the week and then Rehearsing My Choir during the weekend.

MF: And during the weekend I slept on the couch, it was terrible. But it went perfectly. It was tight. But these other records, Bitter Tea and Widow City, took too long to do. They were too expensive, and Widow City caused us some trouble. We had to spend our own money.

FJO: But, in the ultimate scheme of things, you seem to be doing phenomenally well. You’ve put out over eight hours of music in only four years. You decided to form the band in 2000, the first record came out three years later—a bit of time, admittedly, but then, seemingly right out of nowhere, you were on Rough Trade, which is one of the most respected labels in the business. That’s pretty incredible.

EF: Yeah, it was a total set-up. I mean, it was and it wasn’t. We recorded the whole album, and we thought it was done, and we gave it to someone. He worked for the new office in New York, and he liked it, gave it to his boss, and he liked it too.

MF: We were lucky, because that kind of thing can be stopped immediately—one person can like it and, for whatever reason, anywhere down the chain, it could be stopped. We were lucky to only have three people in the chain—the first person liked it, the second person liked it, the third did… so they agreed to put it out.

The main thing is we tried to make a record. That’s the only thing I’d say to other rock bands. Try to make what you think is a record, even if you have to compromise a lot because you don’t have any money to do it, as opposed to making a demo tape thinking then a record company will like you and you’ll get the funding to make a record. It’s weird for rock bands because the document is the record, not the song. The recording needs to be up to standard. If you didn’t have any time to mix it, then people complain that it’s your own fault. Nobody gives you any time. Nobody says, “Yeah, you would be a good band if you had more money.”

FJO: Perhaps there should be a program to fund recordings of emerging rock bands.

MF: Well, no! That would be terrible. If it can survive on its own, then it needs to. That’s a funny question because American bands of whatever type—however difficult or easy their music is—meet bands from New Zealand, or Canada, or Norway. The American bands are often much better than those bands, and we’re very contemptuous of that government funding. Somebody pays for your practice space and pays for your tour bus.

EF: Yeah, it’s a bad idea.

MF: Jesus Christ, that’s the great thing about rock music—ultimately, it can be more complicated than other examples of it and still pay for itself.

FJO: So, from that point on, they liked your record and put it out and then offered you a contract to do others.

EF: There were options for more records.

FJO: I think it’s amazing that you responded to those options by coming up with a second record that’s 76 minutes long. It’s got to be one of the most generous records ever!

EF: They gave us money to do the second record before the first one even came out, so there was no feedback, or audience, or anything. And they were happy, because we almost had all of the songs already written for the second record, so they thought they were getting a two-for-one kind of deal. Which they were.

MF: And they kept on getting more. I mean, Rehearsing My Choir was also for free, in terms of the options in the record contract. Rough Trade was owned by Sanctuary records, and they went under, in the U.S., and so they stopped functioning here for a while, and now they’ve been sold. But Rough Trade’s had an interesting history.

FJO: They were around at the dawn of the punk era.

MF: But for the last seven years, it has been very much a pop/rock label in Europe, so it’s very different from what I always associated with the name: idiosyncratic music. They had some success, and they were interested in the cultural side of rock, of providing material for pop culture in Britain that would hopefully be better than their competitors’ material. They weren’t so much interested in putting out idiosyncratic records in the U.S.

EF: I don’t know if that’s fair to say.

MF: It is fair to say, really. Don’t you think?

EF: They never told us what to make.

MF: Never.

EF: And they gave us very generous recording budgets.

MF: They were great to us.

FJO: But they were never able put out Bitter Tea in the U.S. So here, Bitter Tea got released on this other label, Fat Possum, which seems a very weird fit. Your record sounds like nothing else they’ve ever released.

MF: It doesn’t. Well, Fat Possum’s a great label, just like Rough Trade. Matthew Johnston, whose label it is, liked our first record. He’s a fan of the band, and I think he wanted to put out different sorts of records, and this was one without a home.

FJO: And the new one is with Thrill Jockey, which is Tortoise’s label. It’s kind of like a Chicago homecoming for you.

MF: It’s great to be on a record company from the south side of Chicago. Every rock band should want to be on a record company from south of Madison Street in Chicago. Don’t you think?

EF: Yeah.

MF: It’s really the home of rock music.

FJO: That’s a big statement.

MF: It’s kind of true.