How Many Bands Are the Fiery Furnaces?
By Kurt Gottschalk
Siblings Matthew and Eleanor have been indie and critics' darlings for a good decade now. Under the name Fiery Furnaces, they have perpetrated some of the oddest pop concoctions to get near the mainstream in years, gilding them with such enormously catchy gems as "Even in the Rain," "Benton Harbor Blues" and "Single Again." The two now live on different continents and have spent much of 2011 as solo artists, which for a traditional rock band would raise suspicions of a breakup. The Fiery Furnaces, however, aren't a traditional rock band. Still, the latest round of creativity could lead one to wonder about the state of the band. It at least provide an excuses for asking questions of them. Questions such as: Can the band work as a long-distance relationship? Or: What, for such a band, does "work" mean? Is there anything that this bifurcated furnace can reveal about the duo's working process? And what is it that stokes the Friedberger's fire?
Or, more to the point, how many bands are the Fiery Furnaces?
On May 4 at Rockwood Music Hall, a newish club on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the Friedbergers appeared as the core of the band: just the two with no rhythm section, and just a piano, no guitars, kicking off a 13-date duo tour of the U.S. The small, dark room – red walls, colored lights and a baby grand piano – would be a perfect setting for a grown-up music show, an intimate HBO evening with Elton John or Rod Stewart. Well, maybe not Elton John. Sixty people fill the place. And with a 20-minute opener and a 10-minute set break it seemed to be paced for television as well.
They began with a new (or unrecorded, or at least unrecognizable) song followed by a tight tongue-twister of "Smelling Cigarettes" from the 2005 album EP. It was something of a crowd-pleaser set, even if it's hard to say what the Fiery Furnaces crowd wants. After "The Garfield El" (from Rehearsing My Choir, their other 2005 release), Eleanor announced that "El" stands for "Eleanor" and not the elevated train in their native Chicago. Matthew introduced "Evergreen" saying, "This one's dedicated to Eleanor," to which she responded, "This song's so me, it's true. You can't get more me than this." Eleanor may be a hot property (she dated the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand and was named the city's "Most Beautiful Garage Rocker" by New York magazine), but she seems sincere in her sad and lonely delivery. She sang the winsome lyrics ("I was spreading my sheets / took dinner all alone / every night of the week / awaiting by the phone / I would dab off my tears / with my favorite pine cone") against Matthew playing Bob Seger's "Still the Same." The two songs mashed well, making for another pit stop in the incessant reinventing of their catalog. But it also comes off as a bit of a joke. A private, sibling joke. The kind of thing that's funny just because they've both known it, and each other, for so long.
So maybe it was closer to VH1's Storytellers. But the songs challenged the scene too much for TV, the piano too blocky (repeating three notes of a melody line in fake echo brought a laugh from the faithful), the lyrics too dark, too lost in the world. Another pair, perhaps, could play the scene, acting the parts of the siblings Friedberger, giving them just the nudge closer to normalcy they would need. They ended the set with a quick return to their "derocmacy" project, in which audience members get to select the set list or even submit lyrics to be set to music on the spot.
"Last song, what's the vote?" Eleanor said to the small but enthusiastic crowd. "What's the vote? 'Chris Michaels'? No way, you've heard that 100 times. 'Restorative Beer'? Did someone say 'Restorative Beer'?"
"No way," Matthew butted in. (Does big brother have a veto? Perhaps the derocmacy isn't what it once seemed.)
"C'mon!" Eleanor cajoled.
"No, we'll do that one tomorrow night. We're gonna sing one together. This one's about an old lady."
He leads into "Whistle Rhapsody" from 2006's Bitter Tea. And whether or not this one's about Eleanor, it's easy to hear the sad heroine of the song as being the same protagonist as in "Evergreen."Our lady aloneIt's as if Eleanor, or this Eleanor doppelganger, had traveled in time. Or perhaps we listeners did, seeing a character at different points in her life – something common in most forms of narrative other than the pop song. Of course, nothing's saying it is the same character, but it's a feeling that often arises when listening to the Furnaces. The Friedbergers share a love for fragmented storylines and for the slightly anachronistic, for words that have fallen out of favor and for a time when world travel was a little more exotic. They often seem, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut, unstuck in time. "He's ignoring me like it's 2001," Eleanor sings in "My Mistakes," the first song on the album she released in July. "Why keep time traveling if it doesn't get any better on me?"
with her scarf over her head
and her pricey purse over her shoulder strap
wonders up at the heavens
and for yesterday yearns
the days of old.
Asked about time travel, Eleanor said (in the teenager voice she sometimes slips into during conversation) "That's a weird question." But she gave the subject quick consideration.
"Back to the Future was kind of a big childhood movie for me," she said. "I think a lot about the past. I do replay things in my head. I mean, doesn't everybody do that? It's just storytelling."
She was speaking from a hotel room in Seattle a couple of weeks after Merge released Last Summer during a solo promotional tour, doing radio spots and in-store appearances in anticipation of a full-band tour in the fall. She was, in other words, in the midst of doing the things pop stars do.
"It's all very new to me," she said. "I've never been on tour alone. This is the first time I've done this by myself. Just me and a guitar. This whole year has been trying new things and putting myself into awkward situations."
While Eleanor has been out touring and promoting, brother Matthew has taken a very different – and considerably less market-friendly – approach to pop life. By July, he had released the first three of a series of eight solo albums, each issued on vinyl and available by subscription. He had also recently relocated to Europe and has been doing nothing by way of live appearances to promote the albums.
"It's like making records that are already out of print," he said, speaking from Paris in July. "It's a small number of copies and they've already sold out. When you were a kid, it was a big thing to find a record that wasn't in print."
The Solosseries of LPs is being released by Thrill Jockey. The label – also Fiery Furnaces most recent home – has seemed more than ready to back this and other of Matthew's less commercially viable ideas. And for his part, Friedberger doesn't see playing the PR game as being altogether beneficial.
"The thing I'm doing is like it doesn't exist," he said. "It isn't in stores and I'm not doing shows and there aren't reviews. The next thing Eleanor and I do probably won't have to exist like that either. We won't have to get the reviews and appear on the TV shows. I don't think it will be called for. The old slot that the band was in, we weren't doing well in that slot anymore. People weren't satisfied with the band anymore. It's not necessarily a bad thing if we don't make records like we did in the past."
Once Matthew gets started, the ideas can move like wildfire. As can the self-editing. In the middle of a thought, or the middle of a dozen or so thoughts, he can stop for a quick overhead view. "Is that interesting?" he said mid-monologue. "Oh, probably not. But maybe to someone.
"It's not necessarily bad if (with) the next record we don't have to worry about what kind of promotion can we do and what kind of magazines can we do photo shoots for two months in advance," he continued. "The band in some ways has been super conventional. We've done every stupid thing someone asked us to do, we've been nice to everyone, and I think that that maybe hasn't helped the band at all. People want you to misbehave, and they'd rather have you perform the misbehavior than do a record they didn't expect."
Last Summer, on the other hand, is absolutely the record people expect, or at least what most of them likely want. The most hardened FF fan lamenting that the band no longer does the 10-minute mini-operas of their earlier records still surely melts at the simple-yet-fresh melodies of their poppier pop. Even Matthew owned up to as much: "People can go 'Oh, thank God, what I like about the band is here and what I hate isn't here,'" he said with a laugh of his sister's solo debut.
Eleanor introduced her new songs to her adopted Brooklyn in June at the Northside Festival, an increasingly prominent love-in for the borough's thriving rock scene. The songs were spot-on even if the band (drummer Michael Goodman, also a regular member of FF touring bands, and MGMT bassist Matt Asti) sounded a bit hesitant. Eleanor was her usual self-effacing self as well, introducing the catchy-yet-vulnerable "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight" simply as "another song in C." Dressed down in jeans and a buttoned blouse and playing a sunburst Strat, she was still ever the stylish rock star, even if with a bit of throwback – like Fleetwood Mac, maybe, but more Lindsey than Stevie.
"This is my new persona," she said, laughing, from the stage. "Super Cazh. Casual. What's a name that goes with "casual?" Casual Callie? Casual Kelly? No..."
A month later, she played New York again, this time during the 4 Knots Festival at South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan (Critic's darling? The Northside fest is sponsored by L Magazine and 4 Knots by the Village Voice). This time out she played a tighter set with a four piece band adding crackerjack guitarist John Eatherly from Be Your Own Pet. She had ratcheted up the showwomanship as well, dressed in a red blouse and black-and-white striped pants and playing a vintage green Univox hollowbody guitar. They opened with "I Won't Fall Apart On You Tonight" and played most of the new album before – as at Europa during the Northside fest – closing with "Tropical Ice-land," the only Fiery Furnaces song in the set.
A little crossover is to be expected, but the Friedbergers agreed that the songs from their solo sets are separate from the Fiery Furnaces book.
"I don't think we'd play them," Eleanor said when asked if she saw Fiery Furnaces playing Last Summer songs. "I think that's be weird. I mean, maybe, if we're still doing this when we're 50."
Likewise, Matthew said that the dozens of new songs he's writing are unlikely to find their way into a Fiery Furnaces set.
"Why would you want to do that?" he asked. "Why wouldn't you just make up a new song? A lot of the point of having the band and playing songs differently is the pleasure of getting to do something new."
That passion for the craft, for writing, arranging and rearranging songs, puts Matthew Friedberger squarely in a fine tradition, a lineage including Cole Porter and Paul McCartney or, should we choose play it closer to the vest, Elton John and Bob Seger. And that passion is the only thing that could make Solos make sense. The records are, essentially, a series of self-imposed challenges. Each album is a set of songs written for a different instrument, and the most exciting of them so far is the least likely. Old Regimes was made with a 1907 concert harp Matthew inherited from his grandmother (the same woman who serves as narrator on the Furnaces 2005 song cycle Rehearsing My Choir). But it rarely sounds like a harp. Friedberger plays the instrument like a drum, like a dulcimer, in any way he can conjure to support the songs.
"The harp one was difficult because I don't know how to play harp," he said. "I didn't want to just use it, I wanted to use it a lot. That was one of the inspirations. I don't know the whole reason. When your whole personality is involved, you don't always know why you did it."
The records thus far have also included piano (Napoleonette) and guitar (Meet Me in Miramas) and percussion (on Cut it Out, the most recent title). The remainder of the series will include records on organ and bass.
"Now it's all downhill," he said. "I'm home free because those are instruments I play so I can do what I want. The songwriting is the fun. If anything, there's too much of it. The limitations provide you with too much inspiration, too much to do."
Calling Matthew a multi-instrumentalist makes it sound like he's some kind of musical genius. Which he's not. Or at least, he's not a genius multi-instrumentalist, though he's more than adept. He is a logical player, ready to retool at a moment's notice, changing keys and time signatures with ease. He's a task master, a craftsman. If he needs a tool he hasn't used before, he figures out how to use it. He is, also, or they are (as the same goes for Eleanor, who plays guitar and drums) songwriters and storytellers par excellence.
Critics and bloggers have been making great hay about the solo projects as personality profiles: Matthew the experimentalist, the oddball foil to his younger sister's popstar potential. And while there might be a bit of a singer-not-the-song preoccupation at play, it's hard to say the records don't back it. But it's not as cut-and-dry as the eccentric brother and the populist sister.
"It does seem like I'm always trying to edit Matt a little bit and kind of take away, take away, take away when he's always piling on, piling on, piling on," Eleanor said. "But I'd hate to say I'm going mainstream. I still want to do weird things and I think he still wants to write easy, pretty things that people will like."
Perhaps showing himself to be something of a protective big brother, however, Matthew didn't take such delineations in stride. In an email subsequent to the interview, he wrote (in part):I think any sort of dichotomy between "experimentalism" and "conventionality" is a false one. It doesn't make any sense in a rock setting, if you think about it. What are the "conventions"? How do they work as such? Rock music operates by means of a complex negative theology as regards anything that might count as its rules. One might say something like this: it is an open music, as a pop thing, and therefore has some notion of anti-competency at and as its heart. That makes it very hard to get hold of in ethnomusicological terms. For any sort of music, context is everything – something is jarring in one setting, soothing in another. But one can never posit a stable ethnomusicological setting for rock music. Insofar as it is rock music, the community it takes place in – or rather, would take place in – dissolves straight away, as a result of the fundamental incompetence of both the performers and the audience. There is no authority, however temporary, to guarantee the identity of the object or process. Because there is no reason for people to hear the same thing in the same performance or recording, they don't. They – we – are incapable of it, as it turns out. This radical incapacity – the pop one – has directly to do with, as an American thing, a Protestant notion of the radical incapacity of people in relation to sin. I put the last bit of that sentence that way on purpose.
What they write about Eleanor, on the other hand, is very embarrassing. I do feel entitled to defend her, and in my own terms. To read her work praised – as if it were praise – with the dowdy lingo of the most reactionary and boring aesthetic imaginable – I wouldn't have imagined it, actually – is dispiriting.
I might go on as follows. I dare say that Eleanor's record, contrary to what one may read in many of the positive reviews, is not at all a contribution to the Higher Narcissism and all that Impossible Blandness, the great idols of the aggressively conformist contemporary pseudo-rock culture. Instead, it is a further exercise in a songwriting style (and not in a style of song) that manages to be both considerably particular and eminently teachable. The exemplary, even didactic, aspect is paramount. The record is therefore not a machine by which the listener makes a series of (falsely) comforting identification operations. That sort of empathy is the devil, so to speak.
I might add: One doesn't listen empathetically, one listens charitably – in other words, with a certain sort of love. And, as is proverbial, to love is to transform and to be transformed. So any identification is always broken off regardless. To think otherwise – to think of this music in terms of identification and conventions satisfied, for instance – is then, quite simply, hateful.
What the future holds for the Fiery Furnaces might not be clear, but one thing seems to be. Or two, perhaps. One is that they will have a future, and the other is that it's unlikely to be any more orthodox than the band's past.
"The solo records and not living around each other doesn't effect the band Eleanor and I have because we don't have any set way of doing things," Matthew said. "We didn't need a routine to give us roles we were comfortable with.
"I assume that the band will do things that are more about telling stories with music and we don't have to worry about having a record that somebody wants so we can then play on the Carson Daly show. I like simple tunes played in a simple way, that's for sure. But I don't think anyone wants that to be the only way that that can be disposed. I mean, that's pretty boring."
One thing in the immediate future is their long discussed Songbook project, slated for release this fall by Thrill Jockey. The set of songs will be published as scores on paper and possibly also as a smartphone app. Rather than touring the material, the Friedbergers will select different bands in different cities to play the songs. There's also been discussion of another new album, this one purportedly pushing toward hard rock. And there's always more irons in the fire.
"I was thinking today that a Fiery Furnaces record should be titled 'Arrested on Charges of Unemployment,'" Matthew said, explaining that the line is borrowed from Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." "All the songs could be about that. Sometimes not having a job is good, but usually it's bad. And I was thinking it could all be piano and bass, that I would play, and then I think 'What would be fun for Eleanor to do?' But maybe I'll have a better idea tomorrow or maybe I'll forget it."
A few weeks later a press release from Thrill Jockey announced 'Arrested on Charges of Unemployment' as the title for the next Solos record, made with voice, drums and drum machines. The gears, they turn.
Another of the endless array of projects Matthew hopes to take on is something called "Unsolicited Music for State Occasions."
"I would appoint myself court composer for a campaign," he said. "I think the government needs a different set of fanfares instead of 'Hail to the Chief' all the time. I hope to engage people to make their own music, and of course the music doesn't necessarily have to be laudatory. I really like the idea of an ensemble of three double basses to follow the president around. I think I can write really beautiful 45-second tunes and of course they can extend out if the president wants to go out and kiss babies."
Ask Eleanor and there's a different set of plans in store.
"The next thing I really want to do with him is work on a film so we have to figure out a way to do that," she said. "Matt really wants to do movie music."
Under this plan, the band would film the making of their next record, Eleanor explained, and then work on incidental music that would serve as the soundtrack for a film about making music. And, she added, she's plans to continue her solo career as well.
"I've been working on new songs," she said. "I want to do another album on my own while the iron is hot. And I just got an email from Diplo's manager today, so that's kind of funny. I've always wanted to do a hip-hop record."
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