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."

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.

"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.

The Friedbergers are confident that Blueberry Boat is a step up from its predecessor. If so, the improvement didn't come without a cost. "It wasn't as fun to do," he concedes. "Lots of fighting -- but it wasn't just regular, sibling fighting. It was more substantial fighting, and I think that's better."

Better than moving back in together, anyway.

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