It's All Relative

The Fiery Furnaces keep things in the family.

If multi-instrumentalist Matt Friedberger's relationship with his sister, Eleanor, wasn't strong, there's no way the two would have teamed up to form the engagingly quixotic partnership dubbed the Fiery Furnaces. Yet they've had their ugly moments, the worst of them coming as a result of cohabitation.

"We would play when we were younger, but very quickly, we didn't get along at all until I left home," says Matt, who's four years older than Eleanor, the Furnaces' singer. "After that, we managed to find a way to be friendly, mostly because we would talk a lot about rock music. And we managed to stay friendly until we lived together about a year ago. Then we started disliking each other again."

The issues that arose, Matt continues, were the usual "roommate kinds of things. And when you're siblings, you don't keep it to yourself and let it build up in you for a long time. You just say something nasty immediately. The old habits -- which by this time were very old habits -- came back. We would just as soon swear at each other as say hello."

Sibling rivalry: Eleanor (left) and Matt Friedberger are 
the Fiery Furnaces.
Amy Giunta
Sibling rivalry: Eleanor (left) and Matt Friedberger are the Fiery Furnaces.

Fortunately, this problem led to a simple solution. "Now we don't live together anymore, and we get along fine. We often see each other every day, and we still argue sometimes, but it's just not the same as when you live with someone. That's something we shouldn't do." Matt adds with special emphasis, "And we never will again."

Obviously, MTV had better look elsewhere for its next music-oriented reality series -- not that the network would likely be interested in the New York-based Furnaces anyhow. Their first-rate debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, issued on the Rough Trade imprint, certainly won't be confused with the mass-market pop of, for instance, vapid lovebirds Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. The music, mostly made by Matt, is heavy enough to have caught the attention of a label whose signees include the Strokes and British Sea Power. But rather than rely upon three chords and a cloud of dust, he favors kaleidoscopic arrangements that draw from an abundance of colorful sources. Blues guitar, music-hall keyboards, vintage synths and plenty more wrap themselves around rambling, often witty narratives sung by Eleanor, whose throaty, knowing vocalizing makes for a common thread of a wonderfully uncommon type.

The Furnaces' diverse stylistic blend is echoed by the tangled history of the duo's moniker. It's derived from a sentence in the Book of Daniel: "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king." But Matt decided it would make a good band name when he heard the phrase used in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As this story implies, the Friedbergers aren't exactly holy rollers. Still, they were exposed to more than a modicum of theology during their childhood on Chicago's west side. "We were baptized Greek Orthodox, so we are Greek Orthodox," Matt says. "If you're baptized Greek Orthodox, you're in for good. That's it." Nonetheless, they didn't go to their neighborhood church out of thirst for the word of the Lord. Attendance was mandatory because their grandmother was the choir director -- a position she continues to hold. "Our religious background was my grandmother trying to get my mother to bring us to church so we all could sing," Matt notes. "Beyond that, the religious impulse wasn't there at all. It was more about being Greek -- an ethnic-allegiance thing as opposed to being anything religious."

Musically, though, the services had an impact. "We would go up in the choir loft and listen to the music and watch my grandmother play the organ," Matt remembers. "And she had a big Lowery electric church organ over at her house, because she'd have choir rehearsal there. I'd always try to play on it as a kid, and that affected me, because it was just such a powerful and versatile piece of equipment. It made so many noises and was so authoritative-sounding. Sometimes I'd just play a single chord on it and be mesmerized by it."

Matt is reminded of these impressions when he attends his hometown church's Good Friday mass, which features "an old sort of chant" that transports him back to the days of yore -- "but I'll only go if I'm in Chicago and my grandmother insists that we go because nobody's there to sing."

The rest of the week, the Friedbergers didn't have to be forced to enjoy music. Their mother played the piano on a regular basis, and their father (an Englishman by birth) spent his free time listening to a wide array of recordings. As Matt entered his teens, he did likewise, developing a particular affinity for the Who. While that act sounds nothing like the Fiery Furnaces, Matt insists that Gallowsbird's Bark nods to the work of Messrs. Townshend, Daltry, Entwistle and Moon during one particular period.

"On record, I like to have our music be sort of spry, but in a rock way," he says. "On The Who Sell Out, they had all these harmony vocals, but live, they'd play everything as aggressively as possible -- not at all like the record. And, well, we don't have harmony vocals, but in a general way, I wanted the record to be lighter, so that live, you can switch the song around and bludgeon people so they'll pay attention over their beers."

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