The Fiery Furnaces Burn One Down in Champaign

Transcending through a strange, dense forest of musical ground, The Fiery Furnaces have singed the tip of electric pop accompanied by their own form of rock and roll inspired (at least partially) by the ‘60s and ‘70s. After college and living abroad separately for some time in Europe, sibling duo Matt and Eleanor Friedberger returned home to start playing around with their musical talents. In 2000, they moved to New York and started what we know now as The Fiery Furnaces. After releasing their first album in 2003, the band went on tour with acts like Spoon, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Franz Ferdinand and The Shins. In 2005, their album Rehearsing My Choir featured their 80-year-old grandmother, Olga Sarantos, recounting her own memories that perceivably took place in the Chicago landscape. Widow City, their latest, is released on vinyl in a gatefold jacket (and also on CD, or course) and is perhaps their most densely packed album yet. Here, I spoke to Matt on the intrigue of today’s music and his familial connections. For the wonders of The Beatles and a Halloween costume idea, check out the rest of the story online at
buzz: You probably have a pretty good vinyl collection.
Matt: It’s OK. I’m looking at some records right now.
buzz: What is your collection made up of mostly?
Matt: All kinds of records. I have all the records I bought when I was 13, you know. I have a lot of all kinds of music, a lot of rock, a lot of random things. Here is Sebastian Cabot, the works of Bob Dylan, a lot of fun music, Don Ellis records. I love Don Ellis. He did the soundtrack to the French Connection movie. I have some opera. Vinyl is the tried and true way to listen to rock music.
buzz: So what is your most prized album?
Matt: [Laughs]. That’s a tough one. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. I had wanted a copy of it, but I couldn’t find a copy for less than $30. And then, finally, I found a copy of it when visiting my sister when she went to school in Texas for $20, and I bought it. So it’s the only record I remember buying. I remember having to call Evanston, Illinois — I’m from Oak Park, Illinois — and I had to go to the record store in Rogers Park actually to buy Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box for $45. I remember that when I was a teenager, it was a big effort, so I don’t know. They’re like kids — you can’t have a favorite. I don’t have any kids, but I have records.
buzz: In your shows, you don’t mimic your albums, but you give your audience something to look forward to. Do you think it’s your form or something you’re trying to revive?
Matt: You have a record, and a lot of it you’re going to play at least a little differently. I mean, what would be the point otherwise? A lot of people go to concerts just to sort of pledge their allegiance, and they go to the shows to sing along. And that’s how people are. That’s what they want. That’s not what I want when I go to shows. I want to hear something a little different from the people who’s [sic] playing or singing the songwriting I like — I already have the record. I don’t understand; a lot of people can’t make music off their music but off merchandising and off their personal appearances, you know? And their shows are really just personal appearances as opposed to concerts. [Laughs] You know, I don’t know if there’s anything necessarily wrong with that if that’s what you like. It’s not like they are cheating, and I’m not offended by it. So I don’t understand what other bands are playing. They’re doing a lot of karaoke stuff. I’m not offended by it. [Live shows give] you as a musician the chance to play something else and give the audience something like a different perspective on the song that they like.
buzz: I like how you called it karaoke. It’s a good word for it.
Matt: Yeah, karaoke. I don’t like to do it myself, but I think it’s very interesting.
buzz: So can I ask you what your family life was like and what brought you two together besides, you know, being brother and sister?
Matt: I always played music as a kid, and my sister didn’t. After she was 18, she was a rock music fan, but she decided she wanted to be a musician as well, and after a few years, she was confident enough that she decided she did want to play in front of people, [and] she recruited me to come and play with her. I always played, and I was always in bands, but, you know, for a woman who wants to play in a band with guys, I think she had a lot of experiences where she would play with her boyfriend or they would want to be her boyfriend, but if you play with your brother, you don’t have that element.
buzz: How does your duo work? Do you record, perform and create together, or do you come together later?
Matt: Well, we do it for making a record, and we talk about what it’s going to be like mostly. I write the lyrics, but sometimes we write together. And then I’ll go away and write the music, and we’ll get together and make it. It’s a lot like building something where we will agree on what we want, and we’ll have our different jobs — like, I’ll be the architect, and then Ellen will be contractor when she sings on the record. It’s more like making something and agreeing on what has to be made opposed to a leisure-type hobby.
buzz: When you performed on This Bird Has Flown, the Beatles tribute album, what made you pick Norwegian Wood?
Matt: Well, we didn’t pick it. When they asked us, that was the one we were assigned to do.
buzz: Oh, well that happens to be one of my favorite Beatles songs.
Matt: That’s interesting, Caitlin. That’s one of my least favorite Beatles songs.
buzz: Really, how come?
Matt: Well, I had checked it out at the library on cassette when I was 12, and it was on Rubber Soul (American). I liked Norwegian Wood at first, but I didn’t like this sort of creepy story where Lennon had some affair — this is not necessarily true, but in a book of rock, it said that he wrote the song to confess an affair to his wife without actually having to do it.
buzz: Oooh.
Matt: And I don’t think I’m a puritanical person, but I thought that was weird. So then I overcame the line, “He went to sleep in the bath.” For some reason, I didn’t like it when I was a kid, so as a kid, I never liked that song. I don’t like tribute records.
buzz: How come?
Matt: It’s stupid, I don’t like ‘em.
buzz: Well, do you like the Beatles?
Matt: Oh yeah, I like the Beatles.
buzz: Would you consider them as an influence, because I know—
Matt: The Beatles, [laughs] yeah, even when you think you aren’t influenced by the Beatles, you are. Some people don’t think they like ‘60s music — they like ‘50s music — and they like a lot of rock, but Sgt. Pepper’s, that’s when everything went wrong. Well, I understand what they’re saying, but that’s just ridiculous.
buzz: I agree, because everyone seems to refer back to the Beatles as an influence. They try to make up some curious answer, but I think it’s just that the Beatles are good.
Matt: They’re good, yeah, and I think that’s a big reason. There’s lots of reasons why maybe they’re good, but I think a lot of it is like what you said, that they’re good, superior writers. Superior tastes and superior singers, especially Lennon, and they were superior songwriters, especially both of them, and especially McCartney was a superior all-around music man. You know the Lennon songs, a lot of them were supposedly the experimental ones. Well, they would be almost impossible without McCartney making them sound good. Impossible. It was like — I think it’s less and less now — you could be a Beatles fan, but if you were a serious rock fan, you couldn’t like Paul McCartney. I never subscribed to that. I have equal admiration of Paul McCartney to John Lennon.
buzz: Your show is Oct. 30. What would you say was your best Halloween costume ever?
Matt: I lived in Champaign, and I was in a band. We were playing at a party, and we all decided to dress as the Hamburglar. We got the costumes for like a dollar.

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