The Fiery Furnaces: Another Day at the Ballet …

By • Oct 1st, 2007 • Category: Interviews

A conversation with Matt Friedberger is as unpredictable as his music. The multi-instrumentalist, who turns 35 this month, has mastered compiling hodgepodge structures and bizarre stories with traditionally gorgeous psychedelia as the primary songwriter behind weirdo/experimental/art rock brother-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces. As a result, his music is as challenging as it is endearing; as foreign as it is familiar.

And so is his speech. In preparation for the October release of Widow City on new label Thrill Jockey — the band’s sixth LP in five years, in addition to a Matt Friedberger solo album — the New York City-by-way-of-Oak-Park native talks of his contemporaries with the raw charisma of a performer content with his place in pop culture. Yet his unabashed candor never sounds confrontational, even when comparing some of his peers’ more annoying traits to his extensive record collection.

“I really don’t like it when bands mention lots of other records besides rock music if they are a rock band,” he said. “Go ahead and like whatever type of music you like but when talking about your band, reference music that sounds like you as influences. If you’re a new wave revival band, say you grew up listening to new wave music. I mean, I believe [Carlos D of Interpol] when he says he only listened to classical music because he obviously hasn’t ever heard rock music before. But most other people sound like liars when they say that.”

It’s this sort of confidence and water bug energy that kept his topic-hopping September conversation with Chicago Innerview interesting. Matt was also kind enough to kick off the interview for us after checking out our incoming call number on his cell phone…

Matt Friedberger: Wow, [you’re] calling from a 630 area code. Is that west or south of Chicago?
Chicago Innerview: West.

Matt Friedberger: I used to stop in Aurora all the time. I’d take the bus to Rock Island to go visit my dad. You know those books you see in gas stations — the ones that talk about zip codes and fortunes and stars — you could write a whole record around those kinds of little pocket-sized books. There are almost as many zip codes as area codes. Well, not really. But there are a lot.

Chicago Innerview: Is that going to be the concept of the next Fiery Furnaces album?
Matt Friedberger: Maybe. You wouldn’t get any monetary credit for helping come up with the idea. But you could get other sort of credit. That’s actually a pretty cool thought. I much prefer talking about records and things before they’re made, because after I make a record the interest is already waning. Once you make it, you can’t change it. It’s dead and you can’t help it anymore. I understand that talking about a record is part of the job, but most musicians just do interviews to have people tell them how great the record is. They do it out of their ego. But talking about something before it’s finished can help you make the idea happen.

CI: Okay, let’s not talk about Widow City. Talk about Back To Begamo, an album you said would be your next project.
MF: Well, it might be. I don’t even know. That was just a record I told Billboard was a project we had in the works. I don’t know if that will be or not. It’s about 50/50. It’s sort of like the ballet idea [an idea to base a ballet on hand signals and have The Fiery Furnaces do the music for it]. It was just something I made up on the spot in an interview. Some of my best ideas are things that I just make up, and then I feel compelled to follow through on them.

CI: So the ballet idea was a joke that’s spiraled into a wave of press, and it’s not even true?
MF: It might be true. It’s not yet. The record is more realistic of an idea than a ballet about hand signals. I just told Billboard the first thing that came to my mind. But it might be a good idea. Everyone loves sign language, or giving people the finger or other gestures. Gang symbols are kinda an obvious choice. But it’s just the idea of putting music to these everyday movements.

CI: If you chose gang signs you’d have to choose affiliations, and that could get dangerous. Are those types of boundless ideas liberating or a bit overwhelming? Trying anything you think of might be stressful, but it does result in a lot of music.
MF: It’s not too much music. It’s about one album a year. Kenny Chesney makes like an album a year and nobody cares, even though his aren’t very good. I think that guy is a disgrace. Go ahead and mention that, he’s a disgrace. But I always say ‘we play simple traditional rock music.’ There are two types of traditional rock music. The first sets out to fulfill expectations. It has a beginning, then a chorus, guitar solo, and you know when the end is coming. It’s for instant gratification. The other kind of rock music is full of small surprises. Just imagine the first time anyone heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Ringo started singing a ballad. Or when people heard the breakdown of ‘Good Vibrations.’ Or when people heard any part of ‘Baba O’Riley.’ These songs have become basic moments of rock ’n’ roll.

CI: But not in, say, 1967?
MF: As a whole, fans of guitar music have gotten quite conservative, and maybe that’s why people get annoyed with us. They want to give freedom to guys with laptops to experiment, but basic guitar bands have to stay within a certain realm. But I like the reputation we have of trying weird things and keeping people guessing.

CI: Do you write music with that in mind?
MF: No, but good rock bands break the rules. It depends on what your favorites are, but lots of long songs have uneven structures. But then again, some people want to sit around and listen to AC/DC and maybe an occasional Cars song…and some people like Tom Petty. It’s just a matter of taste and knowing how you want to structure things when you’re writing and telling a story.

CI: You’ve referenced a handful of other musicians. Are you still as big of a rock fan as you were when you were a kid?
MF: I’d say so. But I will say that I hate going to shows now. I hate standing in a bar, listening to stuff that is too loud. I tell people that when I’m walking down the street and I hear a jam band of 15 year-old kids on the street, I like that more than going to a real show. People don’t believe me, because that music isn’t very good. But I just hate the experience of going to shows…especially if I know the band. Why would I want to stand around listening to songs that sound the same as a record I can listen to on my own? Shows are bad. Nobody is really paying attention; they’re just talking to each other anyway. It’s so boring. Just so so boring.

CI: Are you worried people feel like that at your shows?
MF: Well, we don’t perform our songs like they are on the record. Plus our concerts are never that crowded. I like them being half full. It reminds me of being a kid; and when you’re a kid it makes you feel cool to like stuff that nobody else likes.

CI: How can we believe anything you say now that you claim to make things up in interviews?
MF: You’ve got to trust me.

Chicago Innerview Magazine, October 2007

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