Fiery Furnaces to play without Grandma

It’s typical for grandmothers to brag about their grandchildren and their accomplishments, but Olga Sarantos has a one up on her friends. Olga is the grandmother to Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, the brother/sister duo that make up The Fiery Furnaces.

After the release of The Fiery Furnaces’ most recent effort, Rehearsing My Choir, she can brag that she was the conceptual inspiration and starring vocalist behind one of indie music’s most unique records in recent memory.

“It’s about the texture of her voice, really, and how surprising that is on what’s meant to be a rock record or something like that,” grandson Matt Friedberger said in a phone interview. “Some people don’t like it because it’s not normal.”

Friedberger, a 33-year-old Oak Park native, now living in New York, recently spent an hour with buzz talking about The Fiery Furnaces most recent album Rehearsing My Choir, their experiences touring, and the upcoming year.

The band intended for Choir to sound like an older woman’s record. This deviation from the norm has received mixed reactions from listeners. The Guardian called it an opera with the pomposity of “Tommy,” while critics closer to home, like Amanda Petrusich of, questioned the function of the album as an art form.

“You can pick it apart, but can you dance to it, roll around on the floor with it, weep to it under your favorite blanket?” Petrusich asked her audience. “This is not to say that art should be easy or instant or utilitarian – but it should be penetrable, purposeful.”

Friedberger labels Choir as a rock record, even if it sounds more like the second side of the Small Faces’ self-titled record than AC/DC. The intent was for the music not to get in the way of Sarantos’ singing.

“My grandmother’s got a particular type of mid-western accent, an allocution class kind of accent,” Friedberger said. “She doesn’t have a real Chicago accent. We tried it for fun. We tried to make sure the record was exaggerated one way or the other.”

The Fiery Furnaces are on tour now, in support of Rehearsing My Choir, which cost about $10,000 to make.

Sarantos, or Ya-ya as she is known to the Friedbergers, will not be joining her grandchildren on the road. When Matt and Eleanor performed songs from Rehearsing My Choir out on the road in the fall, Eleanor sang most of Sarantos’ parts; they sped through the set in little over a half hour. This time around the set will include about five songs from each of their three albums, Friedberger says.

In November, buzz readers voted The Fiery Furnaces the act they would most like to see play at a local bar. The Fiery Furnaces’ upcoming show at the High Dive will mark the first time the band has ever played in Champaign.

However, the show will not be Matt Friedberger’s first time playing at the High Dive. Friedberger attended the University of Illinois for three years in the early ’90s before failing out. He stayed in the area for another three years working with special education students at Urbana High School. The last time he played at the High Dive he covered the Sex Pistols.

“I love the Sex Pistols, but I don’t know why you would want to play them,” Friedberger said. “You’re not going to look good playing the Sex Pistols.”

He hasn’t been to the area in a while, and despite any second thoughts to cover a ’70s English punk band, Friedberger looks back on his time in Chambana favorably.

“You just remember the people you knew, the nice people who live there,” Friedberger said.

The current tour comes in the midst of a very productive time for the Fiery Furnaces.

In addition to the October release of Rehearsing My Choir, the band’s EP came out in January 2005 followed by more touring and a contributing cover to “This Bird Has Flown,” a 40th anniversary tribute to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, of

“Norwegian Wood.”

More touring is planned for this year, on top of Matt Friedberger’s effort to finish two solo albums. Together, The Fiery Furnaces will head to studio to lay down tracks for another album when they can.

Before all of that, hot on the heels of Rehearsing My Choir, The Fiery Furnaces’ next album, Bitter Tea, will hit stores April 18. Both Rehearsing My Choir and Bitter Tea were supposed to come out at the same time in the fall, but problems at their label Rough Trade shelved the album for a time. Fat Possum Records, home to the Black Keys, will release Bitter Tea.

Friedberger says that he recently received a copy of the finished album and that it sounds like a record from a downcast 12-year-old girl’s music collection.

“You’re going from one exaggeration to another exaggeration,” Friedberger said. “We like the three-minute rock song, and so we’d like to get a chance to make a record of three-minute rock songs.”

The album will feature drum machines and beat boxes, Friedberger says. However, it won’t sound like Thriller or Born to Run. In addition to being more poppy than the Furnaces’ recent work, every track can be played backwards to reveal additional elements of the song.

“Each song has its own reason why the backwards singing or backwards something gives the story of the song,” Friedberger said. “Backwards is a proper rock and roll thing to have. And I wanted to exploit that fully.”

The Fiery Furnaces are playing at the High Dive Saturday Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $13 in advance and $15 at the door.

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