The Fiery Furnaces: Fire-starters

The sparky brother-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces are burning with new ideas and originality. Making four albums in a year is the next goal, they tell Kevin Harley

When Matthew Friedberger, half of the brother-sister team that makes up The Fiery Furnaces, is asked if you can still be original in rock music, he takes the bait. "No," he shrugs. "Guitar rock is a genre: you have to sound like something. When you're a kid, you play because you want to sound like something... We don't have any pretensions to do it, but the best you can do is give an impression of originality."

If that's true, The Fiery Furnaces give a better impression than most. Raised in Chicago but now Brooklyn-based, Matthew and his quieter, younger sister Eleanor, the singer, have made two albums, neither of which sound much like anything else, or like each other. Recorded in three days for $3,000, their 2003 debut album Gallowsbird's Bark was essentially a 16-song demo of travelogue tales set to a vividly itinerant musical backdrop of folk-blues, discordance, wonky music-hall stompers, childsong whimsy, and more.

And for their next trip? The hyperactively sprawling Blueberry Boat, which sets tales of Depression-era farmers, high-seas adventure, salty dogs, sales reps and riding the rails to music that embraces Sixties rock, 10-minute pop operas, psych-pop, fuzzy folk, mangled blues and more - sometimes all in one song, all in a spirit of bewildering, thrilling restlessness.

"We thought it would be nice to at least make it sound like we could do something else," he says, nonchalantly. "For the first record, we borrowed money. This time ... the fact that we had $14,000 was the excuse to make a more extravagant record."

The album sees the band creating an uncommon language of their own, much of it grounded in their fractious sibling dynamic. "It only bothers me when people make out that we don't get along," Matthew says. "We've had a situation... where we've been talking and Eleanor would be looking at the floor. Then I'd read the story, and it would say, 'Eleanor looked disgusted at Matt over in the corner.' Well," he sighs, "she might have been bored, but she wasn't disgusted."

"No, definitely not!" Eleanor laughs. "It's just Matt likes to talk for a long time, so I might look around. But it's not in hatred."

The two then discuss Singa- porean songbirds, airline host-esses and Australian wildlife. It's mildly befuddling to an outsider, but it's indicative of their creative impetus, and the music that results. "That is the dynamic of the band, our relationship," Matthew says. "We make up the songs together, or I write them for her to sing, or she writes it and I'll like it. That's all it is: us imposing our lack of rock'n'roll taste on each other."

"Beyond that," Eleanor adds, "we'll both get stuff in the same way. Like, we under-stand why we love kooka birds so much, in a way that we can't explain to anybody else."

"Right," Matt adds. "We were raised by the same people and we were around each other when we were young, we have more in common than we perhaps noticed. I mean, we have nothing much in common, really, except the sibling thing - which means we have a lot in common."

It wasn't until 2000, that the two of them began playing together, after Eleanor returned from the European travels that provided some of the lyrics on Gallowsbird's Bark. Matthew had the idea that people would enjoy watching his sister sing live: indeed, Eleanor swiftly became the centre of attention at gigs. "She feels good about it," Matthew grins.

Concerts add an extra level to the music. Reshaped from the studio versions, many of the songs dissolve into one another, only to pop up in a new guise later. "It's supposed to sound played; that's how I think of it," Matthew says. "You know; playing as opposed to just contributing a part in an architectural sense. You shouldn't just be like, 'That's the part, get it right.' You have to think, 'Oh, that person over there has a funny look, I'm going to play this note instead,' in order to give the impression of spontaneity. And the best way to have the impression of spontaneity is to actually be spontaneous."

It all adds up to a sense of a band building a world distinct from anything else - even, in its unpredictability, from its own landmarks. That capacity for reinvention may seem wilful (some critics have pegged the Furnaces as the equivalent of skittish children), but that's part of the deal: they're the kind of group who won't wait for audiences so much as plough ahead on the off chance that audiences will eventually catch up.

Certainly, Matthew isn't bothered that Blueberry Boat doesn't have any obvious singles that would amplify their success. "Making money isn't the most important thing in the industry," he shrugs. "We haven't made any, not for ourselves or anybody. Exceeding expectations is the only thing that counts. With this record, though - yeah, there's no single on it, so it's considered a missed opportunity for the band. We messed that up."

They haven't, it transpires, even had a manager to help push them ahead. "We're thinking of getting one finally," Eleanor muses. "But we were talking to this guy about how it's gonna change things. Are we going to make regular money, or videos, or what?" Matt says: "We don't know enough about the industry to be competent enough to make the most of the position we're in." He catches himself and adds: "Which isn't any kind of position, really."

For all his self-deprecation, though, it's clear that The Fiery Furnaces are buzzing with ideas. "I want to put out four records in a calendar year," Matt says, emphatically, "including a record of duets with our 81-year-old grandmother. Just real sordid family-history stuff, a lot of failed love songs contrasting the timbres of Eleanor's and my grandmother's voices. It's going to be a real tearjerker.

"Then there's an album of two-and-a-half-minute pop songs that we'll put out at the same time, in May. And then, hopefully, we'll record a double album of more seven-minute story-ballad songs."

With the pop album, will Matthew be providing the record label with anything they can release as a single? "All I've sold it to them on is that it's going to be short songs," he says. "And that's enough. They were like, 'OK, great!' They imagine it's going to be poppy."

He looks mischievous for a second. "And it will be," he adds, "but only in the sense of what we think is interesting." Hazarding a guess? It'll probably sound like nothing else around.

'Blueberry Boat' is out on Rough Trade

Comments