My conversation with Fiery Furnaces composer Matthew Friedberger got off to a rocky start, aided and abetted by the Furnaces' own media kit. In the notes, it is stated that their latest record, Widow City, is for the "causal" Rock & Roll fan. Mindful of the Furnaces' somewhat abstract reputation, I thought they were being deliberately oblique.
"That's supposed to be 'casual,' " Matthew clarifies. "There's a lot of typos in the goddamn kit. They spelled 'chamberlin' (a Mellotron-related keyboard instrument) wrong, too, because the spell-check told them it was 'chamberlain,' and who's going to argue with the computer?' "
Matthew wasn't actually that indignant. He sounded like an addled middle manager earnestly puzzled by an inexplicable outbreak of secretarial rebellion. In conversation, he's egalitarian and expansive. Like his music, he tends to change tempo and direction abruptly and without warning, going off on various digressions, tangents and parallel actions, and he doesn't always necessarily make it back onto the original path.
Ultimately, however, we did get a fix on the band's latest album, Widow City, which will be released this month and could quite easily further their reputation as a Rock band that defies categorization yet is perfectly accessible to the, uh, casual listener. According to Friedberger (and the treacherous media kit), the motif for the verse and songwriting on the new album was partially inspired by 1970s women's magazines and an episode of The Sopranos.
"It's the (Sopranos' episode) where Bobby's wife dies and A.J. and Janice move in on Bobby and manipulate his kids by using a Ouija board to talk to the dead mom," Friedberger says.
What Matthew then did was ask a Ouija board what his sister, Furnaces vocalist/lyricist Eleanor Friedberger, wanted to sing about. Eleanor, in the meantime, would try to channel the thoughts of the women depicted in the old magazines.
"It was fun to pretend the lyrics came from automatic writing," Matthew says. "It's a way not to censor yourself. (The Ouija and the magazines) all fit in with that first wave of 1970s pop spirituality and feminism, the astrology and whatnot, as a game that's half fun, half serious. We're not believers; it's a formal mechanism but it's a fraud, just like the Soprano kids. It just made sense that if we were going to make up sounds from those 1970s Rock records that we should use 1970s items."
And why focus on the 1970s in particular?
"I like a lot of Rock records from that period," Matthew says. "There was a definite Rock sound, as opposed to a Rock & Roll sound — a maturity. The records from Stevie Wonder and The Who made during that time were considered to be the 'grown-up' records by those artists. And if you look at our last two records: Bitter Tea was our girls' record; Rehearsing the Choir was our old person's record; now it was time to make our young adult record."
Much on Widow City carries reverberating, pounding bass lines and enveloping, Moog-like psychedelia, and the guitar line on "Navy Nurses" is pure Jimmy Page. Like a purist film director who conveys his story arc through image instead of dialogue, the Fiery Furnaces often convey their themes through sound as much as the lyrics.
"In 'Navy Nurses,' " Matthew says, "the riff and the drum sound are supposed to be the equivalent of stumbling on a 1970s car. It can be abstract, which is fun. ... People can tell a story to themselves, if they are so inclined, but some songs are so abstract, it's hard to tell them that their interpretation is wrong."
Matthew concedes that their creative processes and subsequent product are not always conducive to a typical twentysomething small-venue audience.
"People's expectations play a large part into whether they'll enjoy something," he says. "Rock music is social, with brand loyalty, almost like a sports fan activity. Many people will get bored if you don't sound like a normal Rock band. Yet you also have these Indie shows where there's just this girl sitting on the floor whispering while some guy plays a ukulele. If people come in expecting something weird and not to get it, then they'll enjoy themselves. But if they come in expecting three-minute Pop songs, they get upset."
Widow City deftly straddles this dichotomy. "The Philadelphia Grand Jury" is a seven-minute opus with quick changes between styles so disparate, you'll check your iPod to see if it's the same song. But it's followed by "Duplexes of the Dead," "Automatic Husband" and "Ex-Guru," three short, seamlessly blended Rock songs.
"We do like traditional Rock tunes, but we also like surprises," he says. "For instance, on the Beatles' White Album, on one side you have 'Sexy Sadie' and on the other side you have 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun.' One song is conventional and satisfying and the other is surprising in the way it elaborates. We like traditional songs but we also have songs that don't go anywhere, too. And when we play live, we like to re-arrange."
THE FIERY FURNACES play the Southgate House Tuesday with Pit er Pat and The Sundresses.