The Fiery Furnaces Will Rock You

The Fiery Furnaces Will Rock You

It’s never been terribly easy to listen to the Fiery Furnaces.  I first encountered them with 2004’s epic Blueberry Boat, a schizophrenic rock opera as hyper as its breakfast-cereal name, which, until the release of this year’s Widow City, was considered their most accessible record.  The group, whose primary members are brother-sister team Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, became more challenging with each post-Blueberry release; Rehearsing My Choir featured guest vocals by the Friedbergers’ grandmother, Bitter Tea was considered a bit weird even for the most hardcore FF fans, and Matthew released a double-LP solo album.  So when early reviews for Widow City came back praising the band’s return to semi-traditional song structures and thick sound, I must admit I was among the many taken aback.
But Widow City is a hell of a record.  Over the course of 52 minutes, the Furnaces run through the gamut of 70s popular music, from Thin Lizzy metal to Donna Summers disco, name-checking Ratatat, Philly soul, 80s New York hip-hop, and the Beatles along the way.  And somehow, it doesn’t seem like too much.  Before anything else, Matthew Friedberger is a fan and scholar of rock music, and grants it the respect normally reserved for fine art.  Widow City is his attempt to do justice to what’s come before him, to place himself firmly in the artistic tradition of rock while at the same time bringing it into the future.
The Furnaces’ live shows are equally stunning, with the group often running through roughly thirty songs in a hour set.  The Friedbergers strip the album tracks of their original elements and, like a hip-hop DJ, reconstruct them in a way that is interesting without being alienating.  This makes for an intense, sometimes confusing, but always entertaining evening, one that finds the group ripping through time changes and rhythm shifts with great precision.
ANTIGRAVITY pulled Matthew Friedberger away from a Christmastime conversation with his mother to talk about the way he crafts his songs, the aesthetic tradition of rock ‘n’ roll, and Queen.

ANTIGRAVITY: I don’t know if you remember this, but we were the first ever magazine to put you guys on the cover.
Matthew Friedberger: Yeah, I remember that.  I still have it somewhere.
AG: The new record sounds a bit more like a conventional rock record than your last few records did.  It’s definitely more of a rock record.
MF: We wanted to make one with a rock rhythm section because we hadn’t done that before.  There’s hardly any bass guitar in any of our records.  When I was a kid I was a bass player.  So to do that we knew we’d need an excuse, so we came up with having these early to mid-70’s stories in the songs.  It’s not meant to be a 70’s-sounding record but it’s meant to be a record that’s full of 70’s-sounds, if that makes any sense.  So that’s the idea.  Music is like that, you know, it fits with the stories that the songs are supposed to tell.  And that’s why most of it sounds more like a normal rock record than [previous FF record] Bitter Tea, which doesn’t have any normal rock playing on it; even when it seems like it does, it’s not.  So hopefully it’s still interesting, it’s not just an AC/DC cover band record or something.
AG: Is there a central concept to the record?
MF: Well, there’s not some overarching story.  Some songs – like songs two through four – are like one song and the third side of the record, which on the CD is songs nine through twelve, have the same character.  But it’s not sequenced to tell one story all the way through.  You can listen to it as just individual songs.  But we wanted to have these songs and stories that came from that kind of supposed young-adulthood of rock/pop culture in the early 70’s.  That was the first wave of laid-on thick commercial pop feminism, like Virginia Slims ads and all this other stuff.  So Eleanor went through all of these old women’s magazines, like home beautifying magazines from the 70’s, and she copied down a bunch of phrases and made a script like that and gave it to me and I made up five of the songs on the record from that and then I wrote the rest of them.  Hopefully it all fits with that kind of stuff, that post-psychedelic, pop-spiritual-type things.  You know, all of the horoscope-type things that you had in the early 70’s.  We wanted to have that kind of atmosphere on this record and have the music match in a way that is reminiscent but doesn’t sound like a proper revivalist record.
AG: So when you write lyrics, are you trying to tell a specific story or do you view words as more a device for color and tone in a song?
MF: No, I like to tell different stories even if there’s not much going on in the plot, you know?  I mean, as opposed to setting a mood, which is good, too.  It’s not about telling something specific.  But for the people listening to it, it can have the function of a story that you think you’re getting across or it can function where the details make moods.  Hopefully you have details that are specific enough so that people can make it mean what they want.  I mean, as opposed to keeping it vague enough so they can make it mean what they want.  It’s fun to have it as detailed as possible so that people can latch on to different things and make something you didn’t think was important into something really important for them.  That’s the fun in putting out a record; it’s having someone put it to use in a different way and have it mean something different from the way that you think of it, you know?  That’s what I like to do as a songwriter.  And then have the music tell the story, too, or contradict the story, because words are ambiguous; even something that’s clear can be ambiguous.  But music is much more ambiguous.  A thousand different interpretations for a piece of music are perfectly reasonable, even moreso than interpretations of someone’s story or someone’s overheard conversation.  You take a meaning out of it or think that it’s supposed to express a certain kind of emotion when actually somebody else hears it in a different way.  There’s a lot of stuff on this record, big normal rock parts.  I can play rock music fine, and Bob D’Amico, the drummer, he’s a real good rock drummer.  So the rock parts on the record sound real to me.  But then again, I wouldn’t think it was wrong – in fact, it’s often my intention – that when there’s a big rock part it’s supposed to sound like a joke, a parody of a rock part.  But is it a parody?  It’s both.  There’s the song “Navy Nurse,” it’s a loud song on the record and it’s got this keyboard riff and it’s supposed to be good and sound like something between Foghat and Led Zeppelin.  But it’s also a parody of those kinds of riffs.  And that’s a normal thing; it’s not some clever art school bullshit.  That’s the way that music works, you know?  The same music will sound triumphant when you’re in a good mood and when you’re in a bad mood it’ll sound like someone blowing a raspberry.  Does that make any sense?
AG:  So when you’re writing, you’re not only taking into account a relativist reading of what you’re doing but also sort-of planning it out that way?
MF: It’s that way anyway.  That’s just the way it works.  And especially with something as social as rock music, where everything counts as something anyway.  When a guitar solo comes in, it sounds like a guitar solo.  You stop listening and you hear an idealized guitar solo in your head, you know?  Think of the guitar solo in “We Will Rock You.”  The guitar solo on that recording is very weird!  He doesn’t peel off or anything, and he’s Brian May!  He can play anything he wants!  But he plays this halting, weird kind-of guitar solo and people post-Van Halen would listen to it and think, “What is this crap?  That’s not a guitar solo.”  But people hear that and they hear that the solo has started and they think, “Triumphant!  Guitar solo!”  I bring that up to say that it’s such a social genre of music and people listen to it by not listening to it some of the time.  It’s not lazy or wrong, it’s how you’re supposed to listen to it.  You’re supposed to take the signals from it.  It’s brilliant of Brian May to do that, to take this heavy song like “We Will Rock You,” and [make us figure out whether it’s a joke].  And it’s definitely both.  Take “We Are the Champions.”  It’s a little less weird than “We Will Rock You.”  Dave Marsh, an old rock critic, called “We Will Rock You” fascist.  I don’t think it’s fascist but there’s a definite element to it that it’s not a joke: We Will Rock You.  The normal big million-seller rock music of the 70’s had it both ways.  So you have to be aware of that when making a record as a shadow or a footnote, standing on the shoulders of those giants.
AG: It’s funny that you bring that up, because I heard “We Will Rock You” the other day and realized how strange the solo is.  Because it doesn’t really rock at all, it just sorta slinks along.  It’s almost kind of sexy.
MF: And at the end, he doesn’t play the normal power chords.  He just voices the octave.  That’s a clever musical choice where you least expect there to be.  You don’t expect him to be subtle there.
AG: No, definitely not.
MF: Obviously that song is so exaggerated that it’s more interesting.  If you think of the Beatles’ White Album and the Lennon songs on there – “Dear Prudence,” “Cry Baby Cry,” “Sexy Sadie” – which are rock songs as opposed to rock ‘n’ roll.  That’s what rock is supposed to be.  That’s what people imitate to this day; “Cry Baby Cry,” they wish they could write that song.  And they wish their records could sound like that.  But don’t forget about “Revolution 9” or “Yer Blues,” and there’s also “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on that record, which is written in the opposite way.  It’s not this one little riff, verse-chorus-verse thing.  It’s a little string of tunes strung together in a way that’s surprising but still feels like a satisfying, coherent story or journey.  And that’s what I try to imitate in general: “Happiness is a Warm Gun” instead of “Sexy Sadie.”  [The Who’s] “A Quick One While He’s Away” or “Good Vibrations” as opposed to “Help Me Rhonda” or “Pictures of Lily,” you know what I mean?
AG: Definitely.  There seems to be something of an Egyptian or Middle-Eastern influence on the record, from some of the song titles [“Clear Signal From Cairo,” “My Egyptian Grammar”], to just some of the melodies and sounds.  How did that come about?
MF: Well, I listen to a lot of Egyptian soap opera music because where I live in New York there are many delis and that’s what they listen to, so I get tapes off of those guys.  But on this record the tunes…no, there’s not much Egyptian stuff.  You know, a lot of that stuff is one chord.  A lot of the instrumental sections that I wrote for this record are one chord with a bunch of stuff over it, whether it’s “Clear Signal From Cairo” or the one section of “Ex-Guru” where there’s no singing, and even in “Navy Nurse” there’s a part.  But, no, we’ll be imitating that on another record, maybe.
AG: Can you explain the Chamberlin organ to me?  I know you guys used it extensively on the record.
MF: It’s the American mellotron; it’s an old 60’s keyboard that plays tapes of one note of an oboe, one note of a flute, one note of a trumpet, one note of a cello section.  So it’s just like a mellotron, but it’s a little more versatile.  One set of tapes on a mellotron has three different instruments and the Chamberlin’s got eight.  And our Chamberlin used to belong to Foghat.  And Bob actually might have known somebody who stole them in the 80’s from Foghat’s old storage…well, that’s a different story.  Anyway, they play tapes of someone playing and they’re like time machines because they give off such heavy atmosphere, even more than a clavinet, which is a different kind of keyboard.  They’re such heavily atmospheric instruments because they’re playing recorded sound and you get the benefit of that social sound that you’ve not only heard a million times on other records but it’s someone else actually playing, so you get the benefit of their recording techniques in addition to your own.  So, it’s just a mellotron.
AG: What are your feelings on sampling?
MF: Well, I think it’s amazing and fun!  It’s more fun to make and record your own music, but it’s a great technology, and people have made great records with samples.  With you being in New Orleans – I thought that Meters was a Big Daddy Kane record, and then I heard the first Meters record and I realized that Marley Marl hadn’t made that up.
AG: Yeah, the same thing happened to me the first time I heard side B of Abbey Road.  I’d already heard “The Sound of Science” by the Beastie Boys and I had no idea that all of those sounds had come from the Beatles.
MF:  Yeah.  And that’s fun, you know?  I think it’s good.  Maybe I’m wrong but it doesn’t seem like there’s as much action with sampling in pop music now.  When “Kashmir” was in the P. Diddy/Godzilla track [“Come With Me,” from the Godzilla Soundtrack], the only thing people liked about it was hearing “Kashmir” again.  I heard another track with “Straight to Hell” by the Clash kinda sped up, but the person wasn’t doing anything interesting over it.  So sometimes it seems a little redundant, but not to them if you’ve never heard the original song.
AG: Your website mentions something about this record being about the loss of husbands, of “gurus being shunned,” feeble affection.  Are you talking about a general sense of apathy?
MF: We said that?
AG: Um, it’s on Thrill Jockey’s website.
MF: Well, there’s women who are trying to get away from a situation, and that’s what’s happening in a lot of those songs.  It’s not so much about love – true or otherwise – but it’s mostly about situations ending, either by choice or by accident or force.  It’s about the emotions that are there, that created those situations in the first place.  It’s not really about that. (laughs)
AG: You guys tend to drop a ton of place names in your songs.  I know you’re from Chicago, live in Brooklyn, and you obviously tour and travel a lot.  How important is a sense of place to you in your writing, and do you think that touring has had a major effect on that?
MF: First of all, that’s traditional for a good rock song to be about a place and to name places.  That’s just good, normal rock writing.  You mention street names; it’s just traditional songwriting.  “My baby left me in the outhouse.”  Where was the outhouse?  What town?  Where’s your baby gone?  Well, she’s gone down to New Orleans.  You have to mention a place.  I don’t know why Interpol doesn’t have a bunch of street names – or whatever band you want to mention.  Sonic Youth, they don’t have a bunch of place names in their songs?  I guess they don’t.  I don’t know what their songs are about.
AG: Sometimes I think that Sonic Youth don’t know what their songs are about.
MF: Well, I bet they do.  I’ll bet they got it all figured out.  My sister and I, we like maps, and we like to know where we’re going.  We don’t like to get lost.  I don’t know that that has anything to do with the place names being in the songs, though. […] I don’t really have anything interesting to say about traveling, or “it’s a small world after all, nowadays,” or anything like that.  People are interested in their job, their personal life, and they’re interested in places.  That’s what’s interesting in life, to me.  They’re interested in not going to any other place.  “I just like it here.  Other side of town, I hate that side of town.  The other block – they suck.”  People can’t stand other places, they don’t wanna travel anywhere.  But that’s just where a story starts, you know?  Somebody went somewhere and it was either a different time or a different place.  You might as well name the place.  Does that make any sense?
AG: So it’s been a while since you’ve been here.
MF: We played at One Eyed Jacks at the end of 2004.
AG: Was that your last New Orleans show?
MF: Yeah, it was.  We were gonna play One Eyed Jacks in September of 2005, but not too many people played in New Orleans in September of 2005.
AG: Yeah.  Has the live show changed at all since then?
MF: Well, it’s had a couple of different changes.  Let me see.  We played one tour where I was on piano and guitar; one tour where it was just guitar, bass, and drums; we did a tour with me on keyboard and we had a percussionist; we did one tour where I played Bitter Tea just on guitar; we did another tour with Bitter Tea and I just played keyboard and there was also guitar and percussion.  And now we’re playing these Widow City songs with three keyboards, bass, and drums.  And it’s pretty loud.  The arrangements of the Widow City songs are not too different; the tunes are the same as on the record, pretty much, and we’re trying to replicate the dynamics of the record, though the instrumentation is totally different.  Uh, and Eleanor sings. (laughs) Our drummer, Bob D’Amico, he loves all Crescent City music; he’s a big fan.  It’s been real disappointing for us that we haven’t gotten to play New Orleans for the last couple of years.
AG: Do you have a day off in the city?
MF: No, because we’re only getting down there now as the opener on this other tour, with Super Furry Animals, so we go to Dallas the next day…actually, we have a day off between Atlanta and New Orleans, so we’ll be there during the day.  We hope to play our own show in the summer.
AG: I read somewhere that Bob Dylan considers the recorded versions of his songs to be his standards, and that’s why he changes them so radically over time.  You can go see Dylan today and you won’t realize that he’s done “Don’t Think Twice” until the last chorus.  I’m guessing you feel similarly?
MF: Yeah, that’s correct.  And we feel authorized to do it the way Bob Dylan does it.  If that’s the way he does it, that’s the way it’s meant to be done.  Obviously, I follow that.  But his songs are actually standards now, and they were when he wrote them.  We don’t have a similar status for our songs, but that still seems to be the right approach.  And sometimes, it’s fun to play it with pretty much the same tune as on the record.  Occasionally you’ve gotta change it up, but you can’t always change the tune totally.  If nothing else, people have heard the record but when they come to see the show, you’ve gotta give them something new because they paid money to see the show.  I know a lot of people that’s not how it works; when they go to a rock show, they want the validation of it.  They want to sing along and to cheer to the song they know, and that’s what it’s about.  But I like to get something different that’s still related to what I like about the band.  I like a new record that’s different live, at least a slightly different one.
AG: How long do you keep an arrangement?
MF: When we play a tour, it’s usually the same thing.  Usually for about two tours, it’s the same.  New York we’ll sometimes play more than one show with the same arrangement, but other cities we won’t.  Sometimes we do New York or Chicago twice relatively quickly, so we’ll play more than once with the same band.  But otherwise the idea is that we’ve already come around with that show, and even if we go out four months or six months, we’re playing the same way.
AG: Do the arrangements change over the course of the tour?
MF: Well, yeah, but mostly not.  Mostly it’s just how I made it when we rehearse before the tour.  But some things work better than others and you try to accentuate what works well and get rid of what doesn’t.
AG: You’ve said in the past that live versions of your songs are more conventional and stripped sometimes because that’s what they are at their core and you can add so much in the studio.  Are you unsatisfied with a more stripped version of a song or do you just find it more interesting to see what you can add to it in the studio?
MF: It depends on the song.  Sometimes I’ll make up a riff and it’ll be simple so it’ll be easy to elaborate on and vary, and in that case it will be a stripped down song before it gets complicated.  But mostly it’s not like that.  Mostly it’s written to be like it is on the record, which is not necessarily so simple.  Then you think about going to play live, when you’re going to play it with a guitar, or at least you’ll be playing in bars, so you change the song to make it more direct, so it can be louder or appeal to people who are drunk.  Even if people often aren’t drunk.
AG: You’re going to have to deal with that in New Orleans.
MF: Well, that’s good.  So it’s not so much I’ll write a simple song and think, “Oh, that sounds boring.  Let’s make it more weird.”  That’s not how it happens.  It’s not like – to go back to the White Album – it’s not like, well, we can’t make a normal song so let’s just make it weird or add a little song onto it and, there, that’s good enough.  No, you actually think the way “Good Vibrations” is arranged or the way “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is written is a legitimate way to write a rock song.  It doesn’t just have to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-double chorus, you know?  A lot of people have that prejudice but that’s just because they’re prejudiced.  Too bad for them.  It’s not just Elvis Costello songs, that style of songwriting.  That’s not what’s necessarily best in rock music.  Nothing against Elvis Costello.
AG: I know what you mean.  A friend and I were talking about Weezer the other day and saying how Rivers Cuomo claims to have discovered this formula for pop songwriting and it seems like it’s stripped all of the soul from what Weezer does.
MF: Well, if you think of Ween, Ween songs are totally formula songs that they write to be “joke songs,” but I wouldn’t say they’re soulless.  I’d say there’s talent behind them.  They’re really good at writing songs.  And Weezer’s very good at making songs people like, I guess.  Or they were.  Whatever.  But maybe [Rivers Cuomo]’s not as good a songwriter as the people in Ween, and I don’t think he’d disagree with that because the guys in Ween are just a different class.  So sometimes formulas are cool and they can be interesting and you can do all kinds of fun interesting things just by playing with them and breaking just one rule a tiny bit, but there are other rules, too, that you can play by.  Like pop-punk, guitar-pop music…what’s her name, from Canada?
AG: Feist?
MF: No, no.  (laughs)  The blonde hair.
AG: Avril Lavigne?
MF: Avril Lavigne.  That’s fine to write songs like that, but there’s also this other type of music that sold millions of copies at one point.  They all buy The Who and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Good Vibrations,” [not to mention] Close to the Edge by Yes or something like that.  You don’t even have to evoke any prog-rock stuff, just talk about the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Who.

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