Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Exclusive Interview: The Fiery Furnaces

The Fiery Furnaces have an unmistakable sound and an unmistakable presence. Between mastermind Matthew Friedberger’s pounding around on three different keyboards, to sister Eleanor’s ultra-intense vocals, The Fiery Furnaces are a band who’s crafted quite a unique little niche in the psyche of music lovers all round that big ol’ world. With their two-night to-do at Emo’s coming less than a month after the release of the acclaimed and surprisingly accessible Widow City, Austinist pulled up a phone to talk to Matthew as he drove across West Texas, his UT graduate(!) sister riding alongside.A while back in an interview you described yourself as an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese band—I really thought that was great.

Yeah, we tried to sound like an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese version of The Who.

Do you think that description still fits?

Well, we don’t sound like that so much on this record. Now we try to sound like, let me see, what do we try to sound like? We try to sound like somebody trying to listen to Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney records through a Magic Eight Ball or Parker Brothers Ouija Board game.

There’s sort of an underlying irony to rock music, isn’t there?

Rock music is about following the rules correctly and about breaking the rules correctly, with a motorcycle jacket on and all that kind of nonsense. So there definitely is a lot of smirking going on in rock music. Smirking because you have to follow the rules or smirking when you’re breaking some supposed rule. So, you know, I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s what I said.

I was wondering about the evolutionary process in your music—the number of melodies you put into one song, the purposeful but sometimes abrupt shifting within songs, that you play songs a lot of the time in medley or play them differently live than you do on the records—do you think your songs are ever finished?

The problems with versions is that you can always rearrange a song. That’s the way I think of it. The song is what it is when you write it, you know, whatever that means. You can revise it a month later. But I think the recorded version of the song is the definitive version of the song. That’s what I say. You can always do it again, but that doesn’t mean the song is unfinished, it just means hopefully you can dress it up in a different way. Does that make any sense?

Yeah, it actually reminds me of Walt Whitman.

(Laughs) Oh yeah?

Because he wrote Leaves of Grass and published it, and that was the definitive version, but he just kept working on it.

Well, I don’t know if I think of it quite like that. I think of it more like a Bob Dylan song, the version of—wait, I don’t consider a song I wrote like a song Bob Dylan wrote. But “Like a Rolling Stone” was first a waltz, then it was recorded, then the live record with the band, Before the Flood, it got a different kind of chord, but the song is finished. It’s just all different versions of it. That’s what you do with a song, make new arrangements of them, the traditional way to handle them. As opposed to this song is not quite done. In rock music, the recording is more definitive than the song, you know? Like “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, the recording is what you’re interested in, not the song so much, even as it changed, but still, that’s how I think of it.

So it’s an evolutionary process, consistently going back and making adjustments, keeping it alive instead of letting it be a statue in a museum.

Yeah. It’s just a musical way of treating a song. Play it again three years later, you may end it different here, you’re going to inevitably play it differently, you’re not going to try to—in rock music—just play the record, make a museum piece of the record, but we definitely try not to do that. To use your analogy there.

You’re a pretty prolific songwriter, working on multiple albums more or less at the same time. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you decide what songs go in what places on what albums and your and Eleanor’s creation process?

It depends on what the record is suppose to be beforehand and how it’s supposed to sound. All the other decisions—the sequencing, the finishing—it depends on what the point about the individual record is supposed to be to begin with.

I guess, what about Widow City, what’s the context for that?

Well, it’s supposed to be a record made up of ’70s sounds from ’70s records not so much a ’70s sounding record. And the lyrics are also supposed to literally come from or be in the mold of other kinds of ’70s pop artifacts like ’70s advertising copy and things like that, and that’s what the record was supposed to be beforehand. We wanted to make a record with a rock rhythm section playing with bass guitar, actual drums, normal guitar or piano keyboard. And that’s what we did. The writing, making up the songs, it was all according to those rules. I make up the music, five of the songs we wrote the lyrics together, the other songs I wrote the lyrics, trying to be in the spirit of those five songs we wrote the lyrics together.

About the lyrics. There’s a lot of almost post-modernly poetic wordplay going on, alliteration, assonance, other devices…

It’s just pop. It’s not any kind of Postmodern thing. It’s just the kind of thing you have in rock lyrics or in tabloid headlines or advertising jingles or advertising copy. They’re big noisy fun words, lots of puns in advertisements. It all kind of comes from that kind of commercial and pop language. That’s where it comes from and that’s what I try to do. And that’s the kind of stuff that forms our personality, whether we like it or not—greeting card language, advertisements, Paul McCartney lyrics, that’s where our personalities are all from. If we like it or not.

With endless touring, I’m sure a lot of the cities blur together, but I was wondering if you had any particular thoughts on playing in Austin, it being such a live music city?

Well, I don’t, but Eleanor went to school in Austin, lived there for a long time, so she used to go to Emo’s when it was free, free if you were over twenty-one, when it was only outside. So for her, it’s big, it’s kind of not her main hometown, but it’s a hometown, even though obviously it’s different than it used to be. Our Dad lives in Texas.

Any idea what people can expect on your sets at Emo’s? Are you going to play the same songs both nights, medleys, anything like that?

We’re not really playing medleys this tour, but we’re playing a lot of Widow City and we’re playing—it’s sort of different for us, it’s got the same tunes, a lot of the same meters, the songs, so we’re playing different songs from one night to the next, but a lot of them will be the same. But it’ll be loud rock music.

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