Fiery Furnaces Expect the Unexpected

Brother/sister duo find consistency in staying unpredictable

Aug 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Sibling rivalry’s kryptonite is often musical collaboration. Examples of brothers and sisters playing harmoniously together in the sonic world are as multitudinous as corn stalks in midsummer Ohio: Donnie and Marie, Tegan and Sara and Michael and Janet Jackson all are prime examples of how siblings can thrive — sometimes sans talent — when their careers firmly retain the kitschy “all in the family” tag.

For Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, better known as The Fiery Furnaces — a New York-based, Illinois-bred, hyper-experimental Indie band — family-based music wasn't a career move but rather a lifestyle. The Friedbergers boasted not only a guitar-wielding, piano-playing mother, but their grandmother was also a choir director. For them, music ostensibly doesn’t exist outside a filial context.

The duo seems content in their roles as siblings and band mates, well complementing each other in their specific tasks. Eleanor is the lungs of the operation, contributing rich, flinty vocals and charmingly irregular lyrics.

Acting as the heart, thumping in perpetual 4/4 time and often adding an extra beat for good measure, is Matthew Friedberger, the duo’s instrumentation specialist who contributions often drive the band into the experimental realm. He plays most instruments on every album and essentially dictates the tone of each record.

Their latest album, I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey), is the band’s attempt to further exhibit its brand of highly cerebral Rock, while making an album very much removed from the band’s previous works.

[Read Brian Baker's review of I'm Going Away here.]

“(This album) is the same in the fact that it’s different,” Matthew says. “This record we wanted to have a simple, casual record and that’s what it is. We made this album for people to relate it to their own lives however they might wish.”

Matthew describes the songwriting and arrangement as limited, simple 1970s songs. He describes past FF records as elaborate and developed and fraught with work. The new one is, quite plainly, “without frills.”

“On this record, we’re leaving it to people’s imagination to develop and elaborate the song in whatever way they see fit,” Matthew says. “This album requires a lot more work on the audience’s part.”

Essentially, The Fiery Furnaces are passing their deliberate paucity of imagination on the listeners and hoping they’ll craft a song more to their liking. More basic and stripped down, the album implores the listener to hear a song once or twice then extrapolate from the song they recall in their own mind.

It’s potentially asking too much to consciously construct such a casual album, a task Friedberger says was harder than creating overly complicated ones in the past.

“It’s tortuous work not be able to develop the songs the way you think it’s most fit or least fit,” he says. “I believe very much … in the fallacy of imitating.”

He frowns upon framing his music in ways similar to the lyrics, something he remembers from high school English class and applies vigorously to his records.

“If you’re writing a story and it’s about someone being confused, you’re not allowed to make the writing confused,” he says.

Matthew insists the best way to dramatize a song is to have a nice simple tune and put it in distress by toying with frequency, distortion and any other number of ways that might upend a track. This ostensibly gives the track more depth, something listeners often crave.

“The way people listen to Rock music is very complicated,” he says.

The way fans listen to The Fiery Furnaces is equally as complicated. The Furnaces have a penchant for rampant, artful experimentation and bring new skills, instruments or styles to each new album, consciously trying to not fall into the oft-seen gimmick of making the same record twice to appease fans.

In some ways, I’m Going Away is similar to the six previous releases (seven if you include the live record, and they do) in that it barely resembles any previous recordings, something characteristic of all the Fiery Furnaces’ efforts.

Each vastly different album is considered independent. The Furnaces see each work as a puzzle piece or as a smaller image that fits together with other images to create the composite, each piece being as significant as any other. Diligent fans will be satisfied as long as they keep making music, but for the fair-weather listeners, this could be a death blow.

Yet the strategy potentially can woo new fans with each release. Friedberger interprets this tactic using animal metaphors, comparing his albums to dogs, intrepid by themselves but better in packs.

It’s fortuitous that The Fiery Furnaces consistently release captivating and interesting records because, as an artist, Friedberger’s concept of that role is odd.

“You’re job is to displease and surprise (the listener),” he says. “Rock music isn’t supposed to make you feel happy or comfort you.”

THE FIERY FURNACES headline the free MidPoint Indie Summer Series concert Friday on Fountain Square. Also performing are The Chocolate Horse, Fists of Love and Brian Olive. Check out performance times and other details here.