The Fiery Furnaces: Sibling Spats and Grandma’s Habitat

Matt and Eleanor interact like you expect a brother and sister would—sibling spats are frequent and expected.

Matt Friedberger doesn’t mind the idea of novelty because, whether he likes it or not, he realizes his band is drenched in it.

Let’s start with the simple stuff. Matt’s band, The Fiery Furnaces, is composed of two people. His musical counterpart is his younger sister, Eleanor. Together, they make beautiful music that fits together like intricately cut jigsaw puzzle pieces.

In the early winter, the two borrowed their grandmother from her duties as a church choir director to record an album of make-believe stories about a Greek-American woman living in Chicago from the 1920s through the 1950s. The album has only three stops, teeters at about an hour in length, and contains lyrical sentences that Grams corrected for improperly ending in a preposition.

Take a breath, and continue.

The Fiery Furnaces have plans to release three full-length albums this year (the grandma project being one of them). The siblings have also tossed around the idea of making a concept album in which Eleanor performs in the character of a ship. Another male vocalist (not Matt, gross) plays a pirate who commandeers this Eleanor-as-ship vessel. The songs would, of course, be love songs from the captain to his ship and from the ship to its captain. Matt can’t deny the novelty here, and, frankly, he doesn’t care to.

“I hope it’s a novelty,” he says with confidence. “I hope it’s something different.”

Novelty is often pegged as a gimmick. Thoughts of Wayne Coyne’s giant hamster ball or Gruff Rhys’ Yeti jam sessions tarnish what some critics would label artistic integrity, but Matt’s right. When used properly, novelty doesn’t have to feel cheap; it can simply describe a band that’s having a grand time doing something completely different.

Much of the difference in The Fiery Furnaces’ music stems from Matt’s approach to songwriting. Having found themselves in a position where people not only want them to record music but will also give them money to do so, the Friedbergers have entered a mindset where creation is a limited-time offer that needs to be embraced now, and as much as possible.

“It’s not like, ‘What else do I have to say?’” says Matt, his mind cycling through, and subsequently scrapping, the reasons other musicians choose to compose songs. “It’s like, ‘Better keep going until you can’t make records anymore.’”

Following the release of their sometimes bluesy, sometimes spastic, always random debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, The Fiery Furnaces plopped Blueberry Boat into listeners’ laps in 2004. The album was much more refined as the band began exploring electronic textures hinted at previously but maintained the core absurd playfulness in its songwriting. It was a challenge to get through—the first four songs jump moods like crazy and span more than 30 minutes—which is why 2005’s inappropriately titled EP comes as such a relief. Collecting b-sides and remixes from the Furnaces’ already extensive back catalog, the release plays like a perfectly sequenced pop album with short songs, crisp melodies, and enough liquor references to leave listeners tipsy.

Even with such productivity, Matt has difficulty thinking of himself as a songwriter. He is more comfortable saying he just makes these songs up, almost as if they weren’t songs at all but rather pieces that keep him amused. Matt relates this to the band’s recent studio sessions and recalls telling Eleanor to mine through an old book of Russian folk songs to collect phrases. The two pieced the phases together to make a chorus and built the rest of the song based on the pattern of the particular folk song they were using.

“Stuff like that is a little exercise which is fun to do,” Matt says. “It’s an easy little assignment slash game. Sometimes you just make stuff up, and sometimes you just do stuff like that to force the song to happen.”

With such games, one might assume The Fiery Furnaces are an extension of the childhood happiness that Matt and Eleanor experienced together. The truth is, their partnership didn’t start until Matt, who had played in bands throughout high school, had all but given up music and Eleanor, who never had enough confidence to perform in front of people, finally worked up the nerve to step on to the stage with the support of her older brother.

Matt and Eleanor interact like you expect a brother and sister would—sibling spats are frequent and expected. By blurring together the band and family relationships, Matt is able to overcome disagreements that would normally be detrimental between bandmates.

“You feel comfortable with the way you dislike a sibling,” Matt says. “It’s harder to have a break with your sibling after a fight. If you have some ridiculous fight about something really stupid but maybe there’s something real to it, if that’s with someone else, you can say, ‘Well, I’m not going to deal with this idiot anymore.’ With a sibling, you already knew they were an idiot. I’m sure Eleanor already knew I was an idiot, or at least she’s not too shocked.”

For Matt, performing with his sister is not out of necessity. He is hesitant about saying the two should be playing music together and leans more toward the practical ease of the setup. He even laughs (justifiably so) when asked if he’s learned anything about the importance of family from performing with Eleanor. But after politely dismissing the question, he proceeds to give a fairly long-winded, but enlightened, view of the whole situation.

“You can be interested in these people who you’re related to, or you can find fault with them,” Matt says. “It’s much more amusing to be interested in them. God knows you’re not going to have much in common with them, and the things you do have in common are going to annoy you. That’s just the way it is with family, but it’s much more pleasant to not think of that and just think of their eccentricities or the little quirks that they have. Then you can find that all of these people are strange characters even when they’re trying very had not to be.”

People will listen to The Fiery Furnaces simply because the group is a feuding brother and sister who work with grandma to create music about fictitious characters based on Russian folk songs. The true test is getting these listeners to realize that the novelty of the music they’re listening to isn’t a cheap gag. Matt and Eleanor really are a brother and sister who sometimes don’t get along. They really are putting out on an album with their grandmother, not because it’s weird, but because their grandmother is a great musician. They really do have a desire to record like crazy until the doors of opportunity are closed. And they really do enjoy being a little different from the pack.

“Other people will say, ‘What are they trying to pull with this pretentiousness?’ or ‘They’re trying hard to be artsy,’” Matt says. “It’s just a song; I hope it’s not stupid.”

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