The Fiery Furnaces have been lauded for their ingenuity and ambitiousness, for breaking the indie rock mold and becoming true sonic adventurers. Conversely, they've have been criticized for being too prolific, for producing music too challenging or unfocused or overindulgent for a good sit-down-and-get-to-know-ya.
Darlings or misfits, one thing is certain: The Fiery Furnaces are crafty, inexhaustible artists who may be too inspired for their own good. The core members, brother and sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, don't seem to take any downtime — they're either touring or creating music or brewing up new and better ways to play, present, record, arrange and engage their fans in their music.
"It's something we take very seriously, but it's something we would do anyway, so it makes us want to do it a lot," Matthew told me by phone a few weeks before their Tampa stop. "Make records, write songs — you wanna do that as much as possible really, because that's what you do for fun."
While Matthew claims they don't really have a set division of duties, he's the primary songwriter and is responsible for the band's studio instrumentation. Eleanor handles the majority of the vocals, and for their latest, I'm Going Away, she wrote the lyrics, too. "You have to vary your method a little bit to keep it interesting, so that you don't write the same songs again and again."
I'm Going Away has a very retro feel, some songs swinging honkytonk good times, and others a twilight ride home from a long day in the '70s — poignant soft rock that'd be considered pop music on a brighter day. "I was thinking of TV theme songs from the '70s. These songs that are very sappy and sentimental and deflating at the same time. We hope it doesn't sound like a record made in that time, but hopefully it will make you think of a record made in that time."
Matthew says he and Eleanor don't have sibling rivalry issues. "We are different enough that it's easy, that we think our roles are complementary instead of uncomfortably overlapping." Matthew says being family makes things easier when the inevitable friction occurs. "You're used to being able to disagree with family members, you're used to fighting about silly things, you're used to being annoyed — it's an experience you've had before." Plenty of bands have dissolved because their members just couldn't put their differences aside. With a sibling, he says, "Your ego is invested in the relationship in a different way."
Not that they grew up like The Partridge Family. Matthew was the older brother who played music. Eleanor was the younger sister who didn't. Being four years apart, they were neither at odds nor very close. "You know like some siblings, there's lots of imaginative game-playing growing up. We didn't really have that."
Both did their own college thing and took separate and defining trips abroad, eventually re-convening as adults at the suburban Chicago home where they grew up. Eleanor wanted to learn music, and Matthew became her encouraging tutor.
Matthew insists that Eleanor had a great voice from the start — rich, husky, low and powerful, her delivery almost muscular, words pushed together and tumbling out in streams of pleasant verbosity. "It just kinda had the right character, where it could be authoritative but without any kind of put-on rock 'n' roll sort of Janis Joplin singing — nothing against Janis Joplin."
Eventually they were writing simple melodies, playing with words and sounds and influences ranging from folk to blues to garage rock. In 2000, Eleanor moved to NYC and convinced Matthew to join her and start a band. "She wanted to play in front of people, so she recruited me to help her." For the next year, they worked days and gigged nights at small places around the city.
By the time they were discovered and signed by British underground label Rough Trade in 2002, they'd already completed their debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, and released it in 2003. Four more followed — Blueberry Boat, a multi-layered concept album of grand narratives (2004); the more accessible album of B-sides, singles and a few new songs, EP (2005); Rehearsing My Choir, an unexpected and to some, bizarre experimental project featuring their 80-year-old grandmother telling stories about her life (2005); and a collection of synthified "love songs to dance to," Bitter Tea (2006). After signing to Chicago label Thrill Jockey in 2007, they produced three more — the '70s-feeling Widow City, Remember, a 51-track live compilation of performances recorded between 2005 and 2007, and this year's I'm Going Away. All throughout they toured, supporting anyone from Ted Leo & The Pharmacists to Franz Ferdinand to Sleater-Kinney and Spoon, and since late 2005, have been joined both in the studio and on the road by Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein on bass and Bob D'Amico on drums.
What has garnered the Fiery Furnaces a devoted following, however, is their willingness to keep up a lively dialogue with their fans, usually finding inspiration as a result.
One appealing idea is the Silent Record, an elaborate songbook that'll give fans the chance to perform the band's compositions however they see fit in a series of Fan-Band concerts organized by the Fiery Furnaces. "People who volunteer to play will play the songs or their interpretation of the songs or songs that they wrote, because they hate the songs in the book, or whatever," he deadpans. Complementing Silent Record is the DeMock Rock project, where the band created songs "written" by the fans via random or ephemeral things the fans sent in — notes from their boss or their kids, a receipt from the drug store. "The melody of the songs would be based on the cashier number on the receipt, the chord changes will be the prices for some of the items, and the lyrics will be written from the things on the note."
Another fun idea: A covers album of I'm Going Away made up of complete re-dos of all the songs by the Fiery Furnaces, who leave the lyrics alone but change virtually everything else. Matthew says he was inspired in part after they asked fans to review the new record before even hearing it. None of the descriptions were even close to the actual record's sound. But since Fiery Furnaces usually play their songs differently live anyway, "We thought we should make alternate versions in the spirit of what those people described to us. It's our version of the 'Cash for Clunkers' thing. We're trading in the old versions of our songs for new ones that get better gas mileage."