The Fiery Furnaces: Friedberger talks songcraft

By • Oct 25th, 2007 • Category: Interviews

furnacesMatt Friedberger doesn’t hear anything unconventional in his music. But neither did Paul McCartney when The Beatles were recording, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

As the primary songwriter for the New York-based sibling duo, The Fiery Furnaces, the 35-year-old has kept busy. While his frontwoman sister, Eleanor, has found her relationship to Franz Ferdinand singer Alex Kopranos pushed to the front pages of hipster Web sites, the elder Friedberger has been left to churn out experimental pop tunes at a frantic pace. From the group’s thematic debut, “Gallowsbird’s Bark,” to 2005’s “Rehearsing My Choir,” which enlisted their then-83-year-old grandmother on lead vocals, The Fiery Furnaces have set a standard for the unexpected.

This month’s “Widow City” is the band’s sixth album in five years – in addition to a Matt Friedberger solo CD – and a near-non-stop schedule has kept the Oak Park natives crisscrossing the country’s festivals and clubs. With a new record and a new label – Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records – the pair is full swing into a tour that will bring the artsy brother-sister combo to Chicago’s Logan Square Auditorium on Halloween.

Northwest Herald: Does it bother you when people say Fiery Furnaces’ music is “all over the place”?
Matt Friedberger: Not really. I mean, I don’t think that it is bizarre or weird. I think we just write basic guitar songs. When critics say that we’re haphazard, or whatever, that implies that it’s not calculated. Or when I hear people say they don’t know what to expect with our music, it gives off the impression that really anything goes. Now, maybe the songs are a bit more psychedelic or longer than what most people are used to. But really, if a song has, like, six or seven verses, maybe only one of those stanzas will be off-kilter, maybe only one thing will come out of nowhere; the rest adheres to the rules of the of the song.

NWH: You give your songs rules?
MF: Not in the sense that when I sit down and write I say “this is going to have this many verses” or “I want to stick to these principles.” But just naturally when a song comes together things start to develop and tendencies within that song take shape, which determine what you can and can’t do with it.

NWH: But your reputation is that of not abiding by the conventions of traditional songwriting – backward guitars, strange samples, unconventional structures, stop-on-a-dime changes, etc. Do you really think your music is basic?
Not basic like it is predictable. Sure, a lot of the stuff I include in my music people might think is odd. But, to me, it’s just natural to play around with our tracks. Why have a song be only three minutes long, when you can say so much more if it’s like 10 [minutes] and have several parts to it? There’s been a disappearance of the multiple-part rock song like they used to have back in the ’70s. You know, those big songs that seem to go on forever and take lots of twists and tell stories and sound like they could be cut up into two or three smaller songs, but for whatever reason the artist chose to make it one big song.

NWH: So are your long songs an homage?
Not at all. It was just a comparison.

NWH: What on Earth did your sister say no to that made you go record a solo record?
MF: Uh, well, nothing. I mean, I know what you’re saying. We do so many things in our music; you want to know what I wanted to try that she vetoed? Really, there was nothing. It’s not like I said, “yes,” she said, “no,” and then I said, “fine I’ll just record it on my own.” She doesn’t like everything I write, and I guess I don’t like everything she sings, either. But we work well together. She lets me do my thing, and when I show up with a new song or she shows up with new words, or whatever, it has just always worked.

NWH: Why did you record a solo album then? It’s not like there’s been any break in the Fiery Furnaces schedule for you to get bored.
I needed money. And making music is the way I make money. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t record an album just to make a few extra bucks. But I have bills to pay; I need to eat. [Eleanor] was off doing something, so we couldn’t make a record together. I had some music I wanted to record, and it was just right do to it alone instead of waiting around and pushing it back for the next band release. The songs would have been forgotten about and disappeared. If I didn’t do a solo record, that music would have never been released.

NWH: Will there be another, or did you get it out of your system?
MF: Maybe. I’m always working on stuff. What avenue it gets released through can always change. We’ll see.

Northwest Herald, Oct. 25, 2007

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