The Fiery Furnaces: Kindred Spirits

Fiery Furnaces
Photo by Amy Giunta

Frank J. Oteri: Do you work with any kind of musical notation at all? How do you learn the melodies to songs?

Eleanor Friedberger: Just listening, really. Listening to a tape, or to Matt. [turns to Matt] You’ve done it live a few times by accident.

FJO: Your melodies marry the speech so well. Do you shape the melodies to fit the lyrics? What’s the process of how you put things together from start to finish?

Matthew Friedberger: Well, I think that’s the one technical thing that we do try to do, whether it’s re-writing the lyrics, or—on the first record when Eleanor wrote most of the lyrics—we tried to set normal, four-square rock stuff, and instead of the lyric being 8 or 12 syllables that fit properly, we tried to fit 19 syllables. And so that’s the rhythmic interest of the song. But hopefully it doesn’t matter. A song like “I’m Going to Run” on our first record, and another bluesy song which I wrote called “Straight Street” on Blueberry Boat, is a kind of exaggerated version of that.

EF: I remember sitting with Matt the first time he handed me the words to “Straight Street” and said, “It’s gonna go kinda like this.” I remember reading it and thinking, “I can’t read all of this.” It was too many words! And he was like, “Well, just try it.” And then it became one of my most favorite songs to sing, because of that.

FJO: So in terms of learning the melodies, you learn them first by listening to recordings of Matt singing them?

EF: Sometimes.

MF: I do a lot of playing at the piano, and I say, “You can use these three notes; pick whichever ones you want,” especially if it’s a kind of I-IV-V blues tune. Sometimes I’ll ask Eleanor to go up or down at specific places, and then it’s a matter of however she feels is more authoritative. The song “Quay Cur” is like that—I thought it would go one way, but Eleanor didn’t like singing it that way, so she took it down with the same phrasing and melody.

FJO: Now, it’s interesting that you brought up “Quay Cur”; that song is 10 minutes long which, in and of itself, is atypical for rock.

MF: Well, it has a long intro part in which nothing happens, so it’s a little bit of a cheat. I think that in rock music, there’s an interesting tension with it being music people use to put on in the background. Listen to that Neil Young song, “Cortez the Killer”; it just goes on and on. I guess you’re supposed to be sitting there stoned, or on quaaludes or something, and it works really well like that. He’s not playing anything interesting. But other times, like on a Queen record, for example, you’re supposed to sit there and listen to it, be a little kid looking at your 45 as it spins around, and you notice every little bit of the song.

FJO: In your own music, do you ideally want people to listen to every little part of it, or have it in the background?

MF: I think it’s interesting to see how it works either way. People have very set notions of how rock music is supposed to be usable: whether or not it has to be something they can listen to while driving, or when they get ready for work, or do the dishes. But if they don’t like it on first listen, it doesn’t work.

EF: We grew up being active listeners, sitting at the phonograph, looking at the record, that’s all we’d be doing. That seems normal to me. Even if there were only five lines of lyrics, I’d still sit and look at them as if it were ten pages.

FJO: Did you only listen to rock music growing up? What other kind of stuff did you listen to in the house?

EF: Rock music, mostly. I mean, our dad only listens to classical music.

FJO: Does he listen to your music now?

EF: Oh, yeah.

MF: Yeah. He moved to Texas, and then he started listening to Bob Dylan. But he only likes 18th-century music. In the ’80s, he was an authentic performance snob. He wouldn’t go see a Haydn symphony done by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, not that they’d ever play one. It would be an abomination. So, there were these baroque organizations he’d go to at churches to see some Handel oratorio or something. That was because he was only concerned with the tone of the instruments. I remember him playing for me some old Dorati recording of a Haydn symphony—for some reason I’m thinking it was Trevor Pinnock, but it was probably a Norrington recording of the same symphony—and he’d say, “Listen to how much livelier it is.” Of course, he just likes everything fast.

EF: Actually, he’s coming to visit us next week, and part of the reason why is that he’s got 100 records to give us.

MF: Oh, that’s right—he bought a whole bunch of records from the university library at TCU, so that’s a good sign.

EF: They’re all classical, though.

FJO: So are you going to listen to those records?

MF: Oh, yeah. And I like to buy music at the Housing Works Shop on Crosby; do you know that shop? The turnover there is amazing. It’s only a tiny little record collection. But they always have great stuff. Their jazz section is good, and it’s even smaller than their classical section. So, yeah, I’m going to listen to it. When I was a kid, my thing was to listen to rock music. And then at 16, I remember just not wanting to listen to those drums anymore, that drum beat. And so I listened to WFMT in Chicago, in my grandparents’ house, and they played the Shostakovich 15th Symphony. There’s that William Tell Overture part in the beginning, and I didn’t know when it was from! I thought it was from the ’20s or the ’30s, because I just guessed that’s when Shostakovich lived, and I thought, “Oh! There’s sampling! They were doing it way back then.” And then—it’s a fault of being interested in the histories of people—I bought the Testimony book—

FJO: The Solomon Volkov book.

MF: Yeah, that’s what I was into.

EF: I remember when we got our first CD player, and Matt was either 16 or 17, and all he had were Shostakovich CDs, and then he left, and the CD player stayed, and I had maybe four Led Zeppelin CDs, and that was our CD collection at home. That was it!

FJO: So you do have a classical music background.

MF: Yeah, I played the bass and I took lessons and everything, but I never practiced. And the thing about it was I could get by without ever improving my technique. I could play along to the Beethoven Third Symphony with the bass; it was easy. And then I got to Mendelssohn, and I couldn’t play anything! For some reason, in anything past around 1820, the bass part was much more difficult. But I could play the 1812 Overture and the Meistersinger Overture, things that were stately and slow. So, playing the double-bass is a great thing for kids to do, because they can participate in the student orchestra without much effort. [Laughter]

FJO: So when did the transition take place between that period and making your own music? When did the spark hit where you said to yourself, “I’ve got to make my own stuff”?

MF: Well, I always wanted to play my own music, to play rock music. For me, though, the first way I could conceive of practically writing rock, or any music, really, was the Pete Townshend Scoop recordings, his demo records. They were these home recordings. Listening to those records and having his liner notes, I thought I could write music that was very tactical, experimental. Not that the music would be strange, but that you could mess with the tape recorder, you could play the organ even if you didn’t know how to play, you could mess with machinery and use whatever taste you had to construct some kind of object.

FJO: The “studio as instrument” sort of thing.

MF: Equipment that is musical. Audio equipment is an instrument, sure. But if you had to wait to get into a studio to do it, though, you’d never make it. Getting into a studio when you’re a 14-year-old kid is like, “A studio? How do you do that?”

FJO: There’s a long period of time between being a 14-year-old kid, though, and then forming The Fiery Furnaces and putting an album out. So what happened in between?

MF: Nothing, really! I didn’t progress at all. I didn’t learn anything about recording. I didn’t learn how to play anything better; I got less technically skilled. I used to be able to follow the conductor and everything, he would cue me! But then, nothing. Maybe it was Dave Marsh who said that a good rock musician doesn’t necessarily have to have a lot of talent, just a lot of unrealized musical ability, because if it’s realized then it’s just going to be too showy, and it doesn’t communicate anything. I don’t necessarily agree, though. It’s not that I have a lot of unrealized ability, but maybe it’s still uncultivated.

FJO: The other half of this, of course, is the words—text, poetry. Where did the interest in putting words together come from?

MF:As a teenager, I’d only read history books. Later on, I thought of words as objects that had aesthetic interest—a funny word is an interesting, pretty thing—because I was a latecomer to it. I had this interest in big, noisy words, and silly, simple, crude effects, alliteration, and all that. But I wasn’t interested in words as a kid at all.

EF: Yeah, but what changed?

MF: I don’t know. I realized I was wrong, I guess. I still can’t do crossword puzzles, I can’t spell. I don’t know what it was. When I was 20 or 21, I decided that a sentence is just as open as music. I thought of it in terms of music. I never realized that one way of following one word after the other is better than any other.

FJO: So with the work that you both create now, does the music come first or do the words?

EF: Usually the words…

MF: I prefer word-setting, for sure. That’s where the rhythmic interest or complexity can come from. That’s what I think it should be derived from, not necessarily the meaning of it. But after all, it is a sung music. And if you’re going to sing words, all the other things are going to come from the words. The words are going to be the cornerstone. That’s where you’re able to either impose some rhythmically erratic phrase over a simple rock background, or build the whole thing around rhythm. That’s what I like to do now. Rehearsing My Choir isn’t really like that. The music and the words illustrate each other, back and forth. But it would be fun to make it even tighter.

FJO: An example where it’s really tight is Bitter Tea. The words run backward and forward to the point that the sounds of the backwards words themselves have become music.

MF: It’s a beautiful rock sound. It’s particularly thrilling. It’s more interesting to hear audio backwards than to see images backwards. I don’t know why that is. It’s particularly uncanny, depending on what it’s meant to mean in the tune.

EF: Each time it was used, it was used for that particular song.

MF: In “Black-Hearted Boy,” it illustrates an opposite situation to the one the person is in.

EF: The first time we did it was for “Tropical Ice-Land.” There was a verse that was a joke about drugs, and we thought it’d be funny to put it backwards.

FJO: You were playing off of the whole backwards-playing record thing where rock music is satanic and corrupting our kids.

EF: Yeah, and we liked that so much that we had to do it.

FJO: You can’t do that live, though.

EF: Yeah, we can’t really do that.

EF: Although there were a few lines in “Black-Hearted Boy” that I did backwards live, that was hard…

FJO: So you learned how to do them backwards?

EF: Well I couldn’t do it perfectly.

MF: I don’t know if we could decide on the syllables you would sing, exactly, but it was something like “mnnshmnnattsmnnaaa.”

FJO: Have you ever done “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” live, with all its backwards stuff?

EF: We do it live every show, but we don’t do it backwards.

MF: I actually just play the tune of what I sing backwards.

EF: It works well.

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