It's All Relative

The Fiery Furnaces keep things in the family.

In contrast to Matt, who played in many groups over the years, Eleanor mostly kept her musical impulses to herself until the time was right. Eventually, "we pressed ourselves into service," Matt allows. "Eleanor felt she was ready to play and write songs and sing songs in front of people, and since I'd been in bands before, she could get me to be her band. And from my perspective, Eleanor was someone who could be a front-person in my band, because I don't sing very well. So we both got the benefit of that."

Even today, brother-sister pairings, as opposed to brother-brother or sister-sister combinations, are fairly rare in rock -- the reason, in all likelihood, that the Fiery Furnaces' press clippings contain references to predecessors such as the Carpenters and Donny and Marie Osmond, who aren't even in the same musical solar system as the Friedbergers. Matt has several theories to explain the dearth of groups starring opposite-gender siblings. For one thing, family bands that were prevalent in pop and country circles during the pre-rock segment of the twentieth century were probably perceived as "kind of corny" by rock aficionados, he believes, and the stigma may linger. For another, "Men and women, when they were singing together on rock or pop records, would usually be singing duets, and if it was a love duet, that would be weird."

No such incestuous moments mar Gallowsbird's Bark, but from a lyrical standpoint, Matt and Eleanor seem eerily in tune with each other's sensibilities. Many of Eleanor's efforts were inspired by visits to distant locales that ranged from the exotic to the mundane: Take "Leaky Tunnel," which commemorates a stroll she took along the Regent's Canal in the Greenwich portion of greater London. It comes as a surprise, then, that the couplets in "Crystal Clear," "Bow Wow" and several other tunes with a similar sense of wanderlust come from Matt, not her.

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

"It worked out well by luck," he says. "Eleanor likes to write about anecdotes from her life, and she had been traveling a lot, so there are a lot of place names. And I don't really write about those things so much, but I like to use place names as a sort of Composition 101 thing. Place names are often silly words that add a sense of concreteness to your would-be fantasy. So we were writing the same kinds of things for other reasons. And everything on the album that I wrote, I wrote for Eleanor to sing. I think they sound good coming out of her mouth."

Enhancing this thematic compatibility is music that's consistently off-kilter -- but in a good way. The opener, "South Is Only a Home," mates lines about "Whitehall women" and "Brixton bunnies" with a rapidly descending melody that suggests a piano tumbling down a flight of crooked stairs; "Inca Rag/Name Game" juxtaposes a vaudeville vamp with mentions of Madonna and King Juan Carlos of Spain; and "Asthma Attack" offsets a politely Beefheartian riff with a series of deadpan observations that Eleanor reported instead of imagining. "They're snippets of conversation she overheard in an office she was working at," Matt says. "I think that's how lyrics should be written, using overheard conversation as literally as possible. Hopefully you'll mix things up as best you can, and if you do it right, you'll get close to the way people actually talk."

Reviewers, especially in Britain, have frequently lauded the Furnaces' work, but they've had an awfully difficult time quantifying it. "Over there, a lot of people buy records from what they read in the press," Matt maintains. "If someone likes a certain kind of music, he'll go and buy it if a critic writes, 'This is a good example of this kind of music.' But because writers have said we sound like this and this and this and a bunch of other things as well, that sort of behavior has been inhibited. So we haven't exactly been tearing up the balance sheet."

The Friedbergers aren't shooting for a financial bonanza -- but Matt knows they need to demonstrate at least a smidgen of commercial appeal. "We want to keep making records, and you've got to sell some so they'll let you keep doing it. But that's not the main thing."

Indeed, the just-completed Blueberry Boat, which Rough Trade plans to release in May, doesn't seem like a bid for a spot in the hit parade. To describe the platter, Matt again uses The Who Sell Out as a touchstone, but this time he spotlights a specific composition: "Rael," an ambitious opus that prefigured the quartet's first full-scale rock opera, Tommy. "There are lots of seven-and-a-half-minute songs with stories on the new record," he reveals. "Sometimes they're relatively easy to follow, and sometimes they're incoherent -- like 'Rael,' which is pretty incoherent, too. I guess you'd call them imitations, and I don't have any problems making imitations of the Who. That's a classic format in rock music -- but hopefully you do it a little bit differently, and not just worse."

The "different" part of that equation should be a snap. "Musically, well, if they had a pit orchestra at a Chuck E. Cheese, it might sound like that," Matt says.

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