FOREWORD: After a nifty set at Maxwells in Hoboken, I told Fiery Furnaces multi-instrumentalist Matthew Friedberger that one of his epic numbers sounded like early Genesis. He didn’t appear pleased, but his sister, Eleanor, got a chuckle. Anyway, that was a few months after I did this interview with Matt in support of ‘04s audaciously unconventional full-length saga, Blueberry Boat. The brother-sister duo took an even bigger chance when they put their grandmother’s narrated stories to music on ’05s middling Rehearsing My Choir. Luckily, ‘06s brilliantly textural synth-pop masterwork, Bitter Tea, reached a high water mark, bettering ‘07s less dependable Widow City.
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger had little in common until they separately decided to head East for the Big Apple. Forced to study Classical piano and upright bass as a child, older brother Matthew soon became enamored with The Who’s riff heavy rock.
“My parents weren’t into contemporary pop. I remember going to the local library to rent a Beatles album and my father said, ‘Oh, Rubber Soul. “Norwegian Wood.”’ Besides that, he hadn’t given any indication to liking rock, though my mother listened to pop station WLS and played some piano,” Matthew spews.
After visiting Berlin post-high school, Matthew flunked out of University of Illinois, got further education, and became a Special Education teacher. He saved enough money to move to New York City and soon began the Fiery Furnaces with his sis.
“I used to play in local bands and Eleanor would come watch. She was into rock and that’s what we’d talk about to try to be friendly whiling away the boring hours talking during holidays. So other people encouraged her to pick up an instrument. As a Christmas gift one year, I bought her a guitar and drum set. At one point, I thought she’d be a good front person, but she didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Nothing happened for a long time. Later, when she did want to perform in front of people, she took the initiative and we moved out to New York a few months apart for no real purpose,” he explains.
On the duo’s enthusiastic ’03 debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, Eleanor’s stately mezzo-soprano coquetry endears tactful folk-art tunefulness and ancillary post-rock aberrations. Drifting across bouncy melodic promenades and striking rhythmic intricacies with flirtatious informality, this fabulous entree unintentionally hearkens to the undervalued pre-fame, post-blues Fleetwood Mac period of fascinatingly quaint endeavors such as Heroes Are Hard To Find and Bare Trees. Descending twinkling piano droplets and free falling whistle ensconce the plangent “South Is Only A Home.” Coiled guitar squawks and tumbling crescendos politely stimulate the pastel “I’m Gonna Run” while the rejuvenated conniption, “Asthma Attack,” saunters seductively. But the tweaked concubine carousel “Worry Worry” tops all with its darling enticement and shadowy reverb. These delicious highlights merely scrape the surface of what is a guilelessly gleaming, innocently enchanting, crystalline overture.
Valiantly trading elemental Epicurean efficacy for engagingly protracted eccentricities, the Fiery Furnaces (with bassist-keyboardist Toshi Yano and drummer Andy Kittles in tow) subsequently felt compelled to challenge conceptual limitations. Affectionately imitating the “Kit Lambert-influenced Who” of mini rock operas “Rael” and “A Quick One While He’s Away,” the more abstract Blueberry Boat takes listeners through a pastoral pastiche of adventurous prog-rock escapades chock full of contrapuntal medleys, nautical sea shanties, carefree cabaret, ruffled ragtime, and scurried skiffle. The percussive opening mantra, “Quay Cur,” ambitiously shuffles obsessive twists and oblique retreats, pitting the piano-laden neo-Classical grandeur of theatrical ‘70s visionaries Renaissance against early Genesis’ allegorical parables. The wondrous title track patches charmingly obtuse Zappa-esque befuddlement into bleating electronic hullabaloo while the sumptuously schizoid “I Lost My Dog” counters fast, busy snipes with slow, spare stanzas. On the exhilarating roundabout “Chris Michaels,” Matthew’s guitar arpeggios recall idiosyncratic mentor Pete Townshend. Only the compact “Straight Street,” with its luxuriant bluesy slide, reaches back to the radiant concision of Gallowsbird’s Bark.
Your arrangements seem affected by spectral ‘70s prog-rock bands such as King Crimson and early Genesis.
MATTHEW: I liked Peter Gabriel and Genesis, but I never had any of those records. I liked Eno as a teenager. I had his first four records and the pre-elevator music productions for Roxy Music. Roxy’s first two albums sound a lot like Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets. But I was never a Yes fan. I liked King Crimson. They were cooler.
Were you aware of jazzier prog band, the Soft Machine?
I knew of them because they played on Syd Barrett’s solo debut, The Madcap Laughs. But I wasn’t a fan. I only had their Lark’s Tongue In Aspic record. When I was younger, I was afraid to like things that were too prog because in my immature mind I thought it went against anything cool like punk. When I was 14, you could like the Plastic Ono Band record because the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Lydon enjoyed it. But I was definitely a Who fan. The first tape I bought was Van Halen I, then Who’s Next. My favorite Who records are Quadrophenia and The Who Sell Out.
“Bow Wow,” with its pristine piano hooks, snaky bass, and symphonic synth, truly reminded me of Christine Perfect before she joined Fleetwood Mac. Were their pre-Buckingham-Nicks records an influence?
No. I was prejudice against Fleetwood Mac before they came to L.A. We’re trying to build off late ‘60s light psychedelic pop but with Blues stuff added.
I couldn’t get to the bottom of the rhythmically abstruse “Asthma Attack.”
That’s from an overheard conversation Eleanor picked up at work. They were talking about being in the Bahamas for vacation and someone had a story about how they cleared the beach because a shark was swimming in shallow water. Her co-worker said ‘I almost had an asthma attack.’ So it’s a silly lyrical quote translated onto a hectic beat.
Amazingly, Blueberry Boat’s lengthy opuses defy self-indulgence. You take some imaginative chances composing four 8-minute-plus tracks on it.
We had the opportunity to do more overdubs and thought it’d be just as risky making a record that sounded like the debut. Two-thirds of it was written before the first record came out. We hoped the two records would make more of an impression with the differentiation. They function as a demonstration of what we could do from simpler to not-so-annoying story songs. The funniest criticism of the debut was someone saying we should go to clown college because it sounded too much like a carnival.
Take me through the twixt text of “Blueberry Boat.”
That song is about Eleanor driving a Sunfish up to a party boat on Lake Michigan and stealing beer from a cooler. Then, it flashes forward to her being captain of a container ship bringing a cargo of American produce, especially blueberries, in from Hong Kong. They get attacked by pirates in the South China Sea so she scuttles the ship and won’t give up the blueberries and goes down with the ship.
Were you into the early ‘90s Chi-town alt-rock explosion, which incorporated North Side stalwarts Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, and Shrimp Boat?
I was into Jesus Lizard more because they’re harder rockin’ and singer David Yow is hilarious live.
What current bands float your boat?
Electrolane, who I saw in Europe. We toured with Franz Ferdinand. I think they’re brilliant. Their singer has a lower voice so he doesn’t sound like an Ian Curtis imitation and he doesn’t yelp like Duran Duran. Stylistically, it’s familiar, but they mix rock and pop elements well.
How will your next album differ from its predecessors?
We’re gonna do a record in Chicago with my grandmother, who’s gonna sing ballad duets with ‘50s rock and roll influences. We love Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley so we want to do our imitation of our idealized Chess records version. It’ll be about expectations going wrong, a time travel with Eleanor singing the young persons’ parts and my grandmother filling in the aging role.