Published Jan 01, 2006A conversation with Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger is unnervingly like the records they make as the Fiery Furnaces, albeit more linear. But while Matthew fumbles for the real name of the red-haired math teacher they both adored ("Pabst!" Eleanor shouts in the background, "like the beer!") the technicolor stories that unspool all over each other on the new album are entirely, giddily fictional. Whereas the punked-up adrenaline blues of their Gallowsbird's Bark debut inspired comparisons to a certain other duo, Blueberry Boat chews up the American pop canon and vomits it onto shore. It is a lurching, disorienting ride, with disjunctive guitar riffage and tasty analog synths amped up to 11, and songs that reorient themselves every 30 seconds. It is confident and ambitious, epic even; prog rock without the linear progression.
The genteel suburb of Oak Park, Illinois provided fertile ground for the siblings' musical exploration. Their piano-playing American mother oriented their lives around music, while English father collected records and bestowed upon them a certain wanderlust. Then there was compulsory attendance at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, not as much for their religious education as to appease their Choir Director grandmother. When his younger sister's fancy turned to rock'n'roll, Matthew bought her a guitar, saying, "you know, you can play all this stuff yourself."
Fast forward past college and separate sojourns in England: Eleanor and Matthew found themselves inadvertent room-mates in New York City, and the idea of collaborating took hold. They played a few gigs, but soon turned their energies to recording. "We thought we could do something even better if we paid to go into a proper recording studio, and so we borrowed money to go in and make the record we wanted," Matthew says. "We weren't making a demo, we were making a record. So it was very lucky that this record company thought it was good enough to put it out." Just as Gallowsbird's Bark was released, they returned to that Brooklyn studio with the same engineer, Nicolas Venres, and picked up where they left off.
"The first one we did in three days and the second one was over a period of five weeks," Eleanor says. "But it was comfortable because it was my brother and my boyfriend [Venres]. I think if we went back and did another one we would really know what we were doing. Matt and I were arguing all the time. We had just signed up with Rough Trade when we started recording, so everything was changing." Their familiarity allowed ideas only hinted at on the first album to fully germinate, as if each song from Gallowsbird's Bark gave birth to an entire feuding family.
"Sometimes you have a germ of a song and it expands out both ways," Matthew says. "You try to make it more interesting: 'this seems to indicate something here, what would it be?' The first song on the record just went from one place to another, it was a simple little tune and the song would spin back around itself in various ways, based on the little germ of the tune, but it was written from Point A to the end. I mean, you just make it up to amuse yourself."
Perhaps because of their enthusiasm for hashing it all out, they are eerily in sync with each other. It isn't obvious whose songs are whose. "We do like the same sorts of things, very much," Matthew says. "If I go in one direction, she might like it or not, but I also try to play up to her. I'll write a song that I know she'll like, either with the lyrics in an oblique way, or the structure."
The Fiery Furnaces do have a thing for structure. It takes a good ten listens for the album to get under your skin, and when the breakthrough occurs, the inflammation is total. "I like things to be complicated," says Matthew. "That's how it should go. Sometimes you make a recording and the one part suggests an arrangement, and that's satisfying. You do a mix of satisfying the expectations you have when you're writing the song, and also not fulfilling them. And the mix of those two things hopefully provides an enjoyable little ride that the song is meant to be, a little rollercoaster ride. A very, very low budget amusement park."
Despite the rollercoaster they're currently riding, they are anxious to get on with things. Like the next record, a series of duets between Eleanor and their Choir Director grandmother, also apparently their toughest critic. "We were in The New York Times last summer and that was the best kind of validation," says Eleanor. She pauses. "I don't know how to get a good perspective on everything. We didn't exist as a band a year ago, I keep forgetting that.