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The Fiery Furnaces

Written by Daniel Clarke on September 23, 2009

Hot off the release of their latest album, I’m Going Away, The Fiery Furnaces are keeping the stove hot with an assortment of projects, one of which is an ambitious attempt by siblings Eleanor and Matthew to cover their own new release.

That might sound pretentious, but for the fact that the Furnaces have a long history of fuckin with the norm. From explosive live performances that meld songs together into hour-long jam sessions, to an entire album narrated by the brother and sister duo’s grandmother (2005’s Rehearsing My Choir), the band have rebelled against pop music conformity at every turn.

I spoke with one half of the songwriting pair at the heart of the Fiery Furnaces, Matthew Friedberger, recently about the essence of rock and the strange act of creating a tribute album to yourself.

Music Feeds: How’s the album release going? It’s been out for a few weeks, right?

Matthew: It’s been out for a little more than a month. I think it’s going fine. You can’t really tell, because for us the album was done a long time before release, and then it comes out and people say “oh it’s good” or whatever. Also with leaking or downloading or whatever people have heard it anyway, so there’s no like ‘now it’s out and let’s see what people think about’ anymore… I don’t know what it was like in the past.

MF: So do you pay any attention to what people say about your music? That is, do you write to please yourself or your audience?

M: You have to write to please yourself, otherwise it’s not sincere. Your job as a rock band is to do what you think is good. If you’re a pop band then you can try to please people, but as a rock band, if you try to please people you’re a failure, you’re a disgrace. That’s what rock music is; it’s not just entertainment, not just something to be consumed.

It’s gotta be different from that. Rock music, people are supposed to come to it, not the rock music coming to the people. Otherwise it’s just unpopular pop music.

MF: You’ve taken some interesting new directions with your releases in the past. When you make an album like Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School, do you expect that you might lose some fans in the process?

Friedberger released Winter Woman and Holy Ghost Language School as a solo double album in August, 2006. Winter Woman was “intended to be a summer record, full of memorable, catchy, and un-ironic pop songs,” while Holy Ghost Language School was like “Faust, the Residents, or the most ‘out’ moments of Brian Eno’s solo records.” Neither were received well by critics.

M: We thought a lot of people who liked the band would like it, and a lot of people did. That was an example of something that got a negative reaction on the Internet, but offline we got nothing but a good reaction from it. Which is more real? Hard to say. The Internet does sell records, but that album sold fine.

MF: The new album only came out recently, but are you guys already starting work on something new? Is there a disconnect?

M: I don’t know if I’d say a disconnect, cos it’s normal, that’s the way it works. But yeah, your head is elsewhere. I guess when the record comes out you do get to hear it and think about it again. And you’re playing it again to a certain extent, even if you’ve rearranged how you’re playing it.

Rock music is about live shows and going to shows, but it’s more about the record. But when you’re playing in a band you relate to the record when it’s done but you don’t think of the arrangements as sacrosanct. Some records go the distance and when you play them live, even though you’re not playing the song as it was on the record, you’re still very much thinking about how what you’re playing relates to what’s on the record.

On tour now we’ve been playing a few songs that I don’t think as being rearranged much at all from the record, but it’s cos we don’t have a keyboard and there are some other little changes. It can’t help but feel a lot more urgent when played live.

MF: Where does this album fit in with the Fiery Furnaces? IS it a straight up rock album, or a more explorative work?

M: I don’t think of it as a rock album. It’s very seventies-ish. It’s meant to be very casual. A lot of the songs started as simple seventies rock tunes and then we elaborated, sometimes simply, sometimes we elaborated elaboratedly. And sometimes the seventies rock tunes aren’t elaborated at all and the listener has to elaborate themselves.

That’s the idea, when making up the songs I was thinking of specific things, especially American TV show theme tunes. It was done very casually though, as nonchalantly as possible. To me it’s a sort of jokey reaction to the way people view our other records, you know like ‘they’re complicated for no particular purpose’. That’s not how I see them.

MF: And how are the cover versions of I’m Going Away coming along?

M: Yeah they’re done. Eleanor’s side isn’t mixed yet but they’re gonna come out the end of September. I don’t know if they’ll come out all together or if for the first week they’ll come out as two songs and then the rest later. It’s all close to ready to go.

For live shows we’ve always rearranged songs so we thought it would be funny to rearrange them casually to record. Before this record came out we asked our fans to review it or describe it before they heard it. They wrote all these different descriptions of this record and inevitably none of them are like the record, so we thought it was just a tribute to the people who put in all this work, to make alternate versions.

MF: In the studio are you more comfortable with analog or digital equipment?

M: It depends on what you’re doing. The thing about this record for us, every other record we’ve made in a proper studio with tape. A lot of those records weren’t really live band sounding; we had live drums that were manipulated to sound like a drum machine or something. So we wanted to make a rock band record, a studio sounding record with just a laptop in different apartments in New York. It doesn’t sound like it could actually be recorded in 1976 but it definitely sounds like a studio record.

I think that people can make these superbright records that are all synth sounds and sound really awful. With a tiny bit of money you have a multitrack recorder on your computer though, which is an amazing tool. It’s much more versatile than a 4-track or whatever. With rock music, if you’re in a nice studio and you’re using the laptop as a tape recorder, you can just play and play and play. Sometimes tape provides a discipline and a form that’s very useful.

I’m Going Away is out now through Popfrenzy. We’re hoping to hear a tour announcement soon.

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