With his sister Eleanor, Matthew Friedberger has released four albums (in four years) that bubble with eccentric exuberance. The Fiery Furnaces’ narratives of grandmothers and lost dogs sound best on hulking headphones, but the duo has built a firm reputation for dramatic, kinetic live concerts. scene spoke with Matthew about bringing the family circus to the Elm City, where tonight the Furnaces will kick off a brand new national tour.
scene: So have you ever played in lovely New Haven before?
Matthew Friedberger: No, we’ve never even played in Connecticut.
scene: I don’t think Connecticut is a very Fiery Furnaces state…
MF: But I hear Toad’s is a famous old place. It’s from the 1960s!
scene: So do you have any lofty aims for your new tour?
MF: Well, this is going to be the first tour that I’m playing the guitar only, not switching between the guitar and organ. For me it’ll be the most, you know, rock ‘n’ roll-y. So that should be fun. I’ll have a lot of guitar solos to play.
scene: Have you been listening to soloists to sharpen up your moves? Any Jeff Beck?
MF: (Laughs) Well, I like Chuck Berry and Hubert Sumlin, who played with Howlin’ Wolf. Those guys are my favorite guitar players, besides Jimi Hendrix.
scene: Well if you’re only playing guitar, who’ll take up the synthesizer duties?
MF: Who will be playing? Nobody! It’s just me, but I have some funny pedals, which make synthesized sounds. But nobody’s playing keyboard — if you’ve heard our records, hopefully it’ll be interesting the way stuff is different. And if you haven’t hopefully it’ll be an amusing rock and roll show.
scene: I always imagined that you made your music with synthesizers that looked like computers from the 1950s.
MF: Well, yes, yeah, we have some old synths. But none of them from the records are older than 1973. The oldest one is an ARP-2600 — no fifties ones, I’m afraid. But who wants to see a band that plays just like their records — you can just stay home and listen to their records. That’s not very pleasant for a band. I can’t imagine how bands do that. They must be so bored playing the same old crap. So we’ll try to play a little bit differently — though hopefully you can recognize the songs … Hopefully people will say, “That was a fun, amusing, rock ‘n’ roll-y show.” That’s what I say about my favorite shows.
scene: What are your favorites from the last few years?
MF: That’s a tough one. I saw the MC5 play in Australia.
scene: I didn’t know they were still around!
MF: Well, the singer is dead, and so is the guitarist, so the singers were Mark Arm from Mudhoney and the guy from the Lemonheads.
scene: Evan Dando?
MF: And Dando was, you know, high. But no one wanted to hear him sing anyway, and he couldn’t manage to do it, so he sat on the edge of his stage pretending his mic was broken. That made it even more amusing.
scene: Poor man.
MF: That’s the funniest show I’ve ever seen.
scene: When you talked about a band recreating albums for live shows, I was wondering if you and Eleanor will bring along your grandmother Olga to sing her parts from “Rehearsing My Choir.”
MF: No. Well, we changed the music around. It’s much more loud, more aggressive. Do you like the band The Fall?
scene: Yeah, I do.
MF: Eleanor does a Marc Smith impression, an extended talking kind of singing. But on this trip we’ll be doing about five bits, twenty minutes of that album. They’re very rock ‘n roll-y, so it will be a good contrast with the way they are on the record, where they’re very old-ladyized.
scene: I don’t know — I’m not sure my grandma would like the album. It’s eccentric, and very full of life, and not very easy.
MF: You don’t think she’d like it? Hopefully there are bits of it that people can like, and they’d like it well enough to listen to the whole record, and get it. … My grandparents like it, some of the old people — excuse me, older people — they like it, though maybe because they’re related to my grandma.
scene: Why do you think the Fiery Furnaces are perceived as a challenging band?
MF: Especially with “Rehearsing My Choir,” people can’t use it to get excited driving down the street, or heighten themselves up while putting on makeup to go out. The songs don’t function like that, even though the music in bits is very simple and tuneful, we think. But they’re not organized the way people are used to it nowadays. Does that make sense?
MF: Like, “Blueberry Boat,” to me it’s a tuneful record, but not catchy. Things change, things are maybe hidden a little bit. You can’t put “Boat” or especially “Choir” on in a crowded room and bop your head. And for a lot of people that’s no good.
scene: But I really like a lot of the songs on “EP,” the collection of singles.
MF: I like writing short songs. … It’s fun to pretend you’re making an old-time radio single and going to have it play on the radio station of your imagination.
scene: Do you imagine the Fiery Furnaces as grounded within any old-time tradition, like pop or the avant-garde?
MF: We think that we’re rock (laughs), a mainstream rock band. A lot of the bands that are popular now, from Creed to Death Cab For Cutie, they don’t play rock music. I don’t know what they play … But we’re not an essential part of the mainstream, the history of rock and roll will do just fine with us.
scene: What’s your favorite decade of that history?
MF: Everything up to the nineties (laughs) … After 1984 I’m lost. Because when my sister and I grew up in Chicago, there were four classic rock stations to every pop music station. So you were just as likely to hear Buddy Holly, the Beatles and Queen as Michael Jackson.
scene: How about the Furnaces? It’s been a while since your first record, do you still listen to it?
MF: I like a lot of “Gallowsbird’s Bark,” especially the sequence tracks two through four. The song that bothers me the most is “Sing For Me,” on “EP.” It turned out it was too low for Eleanor to sing, but I’d already recorded all the backing — so I had to sing, and it’s too high.
scene: Do you usually record the music before Eleanor sings over it?
MF: She’ll be there often, or she’ll be away and I’ll call her up and say, “Come on down.”
scene: What do you like about your sister as a bandmate?
MF: She can sing, she has a tough enough voice, but she wants to sing in this understated deadpan way that I like. I think it’s an appropriate way to sing rock music. I like Robert Plant as much as anyone else, but I don’t think that would be so interesting (for us).
scene: Any lofty predictions for the next few years?
MF: Our next record, we’re going to try to make our own version of “Beggar’s Banquet” or “Music from Big Pink” or “Thriller.” Yeah, “Thriller.”
scene: Will you have Michael Jackson’s problems in a decade?
MF: I promise you that we won’t.