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.

Bandmates and Siblings

Fiery Furnaces
Photo by Amy Giunta

Frank J. Oteri: We started our conversation with trying to define rock music. One thing that hasn’t really come up yet is the whole collaborative nature of this music. Rock is about having a collective identity—a group of people whose individual identities are often somewhat anonymous making decisions and making music. These aren’t Matthew Friedberger albums; they’re Fiery Furnaces records.

Matthew Friedberger: Well that’s the tradition.

FJO: But in the making of the music, how much of it is a group effort? It was interesting to hear you say, “I like this version, and you like that version, and the compromise was to put both versions on the record.” How much of the decision-making is a group decision? How much input do you each have? What happens?

Eleanor Friedberger: I don’t know how much Matt wants to say here.

MF: What do you mean?

EF: I don’t know. I mean, um… I have to respect the songwriter, at all times.

MF: That’s what I say [laughter].

EF: But of course I don’t agree all the time, and there are some times where Matt wants to change something that he’s written and sometimes he doesn’t.

MF: Ideally, for a music collaboration, you’re going to have a strict separation of duties, so there’s no conflict. Or, if you don’t have this separation of jobs, and you disagree on something, you just don’t use that. Or you can find a third way—not necessarily a combination of the two opinions. Sometimes you have to start again. That’s how it should work, but really it doesn’t work like that, and you have to get away with as much as you can and get whatever’s most important to you.

FJO: You chose not to call your solo double record a “Fiery Furnaces” record; is that because Eleanor isn’t on it?

MF: It was written with that in mind. There weren’t songs on the record that were just random songs; they were all written to be on that record. That’s the reason it’s not a Fiery Furnaces album. I don’t think the songs could have even been played by The Fiery Furnaces. As far as how they’re different from Fiery Furnaces songs, they were for this specific record, and they don’t sound like The Fiery Furnaces. The vocals are so submerged. On Winter Women, presumably if you’d sing it live, you’d croon it as loud as possible for contrast. People didn’t necessarily like that record, but with the vocals, I wanted to have it sound like the car window was open, so there was this muffled sound to recreate that. That’s how I thought it best to do that—to mix it to have this mushy, windy sound.

FJO: You’re calling it a record, but it’s very clear in the way it’s packaged and in the things you’ve said about it in other interviews that you thought of it as two records.

MF: Yeah, it’s two records, but I was just talking about Winter Women. The other record, I don’t know how I would play it live. I guess I could rearrange it. But the Holy Ghost record was a lot of fun for me to do, I liked it a lot.

FJO: I think it’s pretty amazing.

MF: It sounds good to me. It’s based on an eight-note scale, which is: half-step, whole-step, half-step, half-step, half-step, minor third, half-step, half-step, I think. I might have said that wrong. I don’t remember. But it’s some little thing that unifies the music, some stupid device like that. And what’s good about the record objectively, I’d say, was this specific drum machine delay device—a Lexicon Prime Time II, which we didn’t ever use on a Fiery Furnaces album. It’s a very complicated modulation and delay special effects unit from the early ’80s. I don’t know what you were supposed to do with it except to make silly little special effects in one tiny little section of a pop song; it just sounds insane. They’re very powerful devices, so the rhythm on those tracks is what’s meant to be the interest: this out of control drum machine.

FJO: Are there any Eleanor projects besides The Fiery Furnaces?

EF: Not musically, no.

FJO: I know you’ve done a live set, which I wish I could have heard—just solo, singing and playing guitar, which was all Fiery Furnaces material.

EF: I’ve done it a couple times, but it’s been a long time.

FJO: Have you ever written your own songs, music and words?

EF: Oh, yeah!

FJO: Any chance we’ll be hearing some of those at some point?

EF: Well, you’ve heard some of them.

MF: “Tropical Ice-Land.”

FJO: So that’s your music, your tune.

EF: I mean, it’s, you know, four chords.

FJO: I just thought that it was Matt’s music and your words, but it’s your music and your words.

EF: Yeah, and there are a few others.

MF: “South Is Only a Home”

EF: Yeah, “South Is Only a Home”, and—

MF: It tends to be some of the simpler songs that have the most embellishment, because they’re especially overdubbed. “South” is Eleanor’s song, and then my arrangement. And the arrangement is usually particularly intrusive, because I want to intrude, to do something. [laughs]

EF: There are others on the first record, too. That song about Sweden.

FJO: “Bright Blue Tie”

MF: That’s very simple.

MF: Yeah, we should do a tour—the current band we play with are two guys who are very talented songwriters. Maybe we could do a New York tour of all four of us playing by ourselves. Michael, Jason, you, and me. I think Eleanor would be the headliner of that show.

FJO: Could there be a Fiery Furnaces song or album that wasn’t something written by either of you? Could the drummer write a song?

MF: Oh, no.

EF: Probably not. I mean, we’ve done covers that are folk songs, but that’s probably as close as you’ll get.

MF: I mean, a lot of Michael Goodman’s songs, and the way he arranges them, could be.

EF: Michael Goodman plays percussion.

MF: They’re similar, wouldn’t you say?

EF: Similar to what?

MF: To the band.

EF: No, actually, they’re not similar.

MF: Actually, they’re really not. So, no, I guess. But who knows?

FJO: Earlier you were talking about wanting to get away from regular pulsation. There seems to be more of a sense of regular pulsation on Widow City than any of your previous albums. I can’t help but think it’s because the drummer helped to shape that sound.

MF: Well, this record was supposed to be like that. Bob D’Amico is the drummer, and he’s done a very good job. This record, more than in the past, was done with Bob and me playing the keyboard, bass, and guitar. So, even though I layered all of these overdubs, the bottom performance, which has its flow, was me and Bob. In the past, there were some things like that, but usually there were live drums added afterwards. Even on our first record, which was done as a live band record, the drum part was added after! On the song “Don’t Dance Her Down,” the drums are an overdub from a live performance. So this is the first record where it’s done in the normal way to do a rock record, where you have the rhythm tracks first: bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums. And that’s what we wanted to have it sound like, to have it sound more like a ’70s record, compared to Bitter Tea, which is after 1980 in terms of keyboard sounds.

FJO: So how much of a say do the other people who play with you have?

EF: They expect to be told what to do. They have ideas of their own, sometimes, and sometimes they don’t share a lot.

MF: They just don’t say anything; that’s how they deal with it. They say it to each other.

FJO: So, in your mind, is The Fiery Furnaces just the two of you? Is it you and these other people who tour with you? What is the identity of The Fiery Furnaces?

MF: Well, it’s our records, and then it’s our live shows. The people we play with—especially the people we play with now—are very important to what we try to do.

EF: And we’re really lucky to have found the three guys we’re playing with, because we have a lot in common, and that helps a lot, to have some similarities.

FJO: The two of you are brother and sister, which creates another dynamic above and beyond the band dynamic. Does it help you communicate with each other? Does it get in the way? You have this other level of communication going on. I mean, I sense it right now, even sitting across the table from you.

EF: Really? [Laughs]. Well, we spend a lot less time trying to make up than other bands, probably. Other bands break up because they have these deep resentments towards each other, and then one day they explode. You can’t get over that kind of explosion or screaming match. But we have no problem telling each other what we’re thinking or how we feel all the time. We can be annoyed with each other all the time.

MF: It’s not any shock that you can be annoyed with your sibling. I think other people who have to work together are so afraid of being in a fight and making up, because the saving face involved with making up is so difficult. But when you’re siblings, you don’t have to make up. You can get in a fight, and you’ve already said all kinds of nasty things, and what’s the difference.

EF: And then there are all the other things that people don’t always talk about. We’ve had to share everything our whole lives, so we’re not getting into fights about money or anything like that which I’m sure inevitably happens with other bands.

FJO: So is it just the two of you in the family? Are there other siblings?

EF: No, it’s just the two of us. We’d be a much better band.

MF: Yeah, with somebody else.

FJO: You let your grandmother into your band, that’s unique.

MF: Maybe we should make an imaginary person, somebody who’s two years in between us. Someone who we could defer to for decisions, some kind of protocol for discussion, you know what I mean?

EF: The long lost sibling!