On Fire: Talking To Matthew Friedberger of Fiery Furnaces


It’s always fun to encounter Fiery Furnaces Matthew Friedberger -- the man is not only one of the most wildly prolific songwriters of his generation but he seems like a genuinely nice, intense fellow, who just happens to be overflowing with interesting ideas and projects (proof: 2009 saw the release of Fiery Furnaces’ I’m Going Away as well as two other shorter releases including Take Me Round Again, which saw FF covering itself).

I caught up with Friedberger via e-mail recently -- unlike some rockers who shall remain nameless, let it be said that the man knows how to punctuate a sentence. Friedberger, his sis, Eleanor, and his super-hot band perform at Slim’s Friday, Nov. 20.

Q: Wow, no sooner than I've digested I'm Going Away than Take Me Round Again comes along. What spurred you and Eleanor to cover yourselves: the prevalence of remixes or regret over songs that need to be revisited? Is there a danger in terms of endless re-editing? In any case, it all sounds extremely meta!

Matthew Friedberger: I'd say we did Take Me Round Again for three reasons -- or “reasons”...

In the past, our songs would be rearranged to play live; I'd often make up new changes and/or tunes for them. So it seemed like a good idea to make new arrangements or versions and record them, at this point. Can't keep on doing the same thing...

Another reason was the “deaf descriptions” we asked people to do of I'm Going Away.

We asked people to review or describe the record before they heard it. Lots of people, by our standards, took a lot of time doing that -- or at least wrote at length. So it made sense to put the time in ourselves and actually record an alternate version. Even if we didn't do a job as extravagantly or imaginatively as many of the descriptions should indicate we might've.

The last reason -- I mean “reason” -- was Eleanor's notion that she wanted to do a record called Eleanor Friedberger Sings the Songs of the Fiery Furnaces, with the songs done in a simplified folk or sort-of-folk style. Her songs on Take Me Round Again are a version of that record, actually.

One of the points of all this rearranging is to help people make the song, or a song, their own. Opening up the song, or putting it in a different setting, or changing all the chord changes, is supposed to help people make the song their own. And all rock songs what to be somebody's own. If you show that the song can or is meant to change shape, people might have an easier time redoing it to whatever their temporary specifications might be. When they replay it in their head, that is. And that's the concert that counts, right?

Q: What happened to the Democ-Rock project (FF solicited receipts,bits of text, parking tickets from fans for material to write songs); anything coming?

MF: Oh yeah, that's coming out in the summer. It goes along with the Silent Record book. With the Silent Record, fans (or anti-fans) play songs the band made up; with the Democ-rock record, the band plays songs the fans make up (or determine in some form).

Q: How do these unique approaches to music-making feed the band or you two creatively? Anything new in the future?

MF: Well, it's not really related to these last two, but there is our sitcom soap opera, Friedberger and Friedberger, where Eleanor and I both have, not evil, but nicer, twins.

Q: Any surprises in store live when the band plays in SF?

MF: I have no idea what Jason and Bob will be wearing, for a start.

We'll be playing a very simple rock ‘n’ roll show, just guitar, bass and drums. And vocals.

Q: What sort of things have been inspiring you musically of late?

MF: Well, lots of things, but we very much like two of the acts we've played with this fall, Pete Um in England, and Cryptacize here. What a privilege getting the see them perform many times. And I love the record Flybys by the Curtains (which Cryptacize sells amongst their merch). What a masterpiece.

Q: You two have always been so prolific -- is there another new studio recording coming hot on the heels of the 2009 releases?

MF: Well, we might do a relatively aggressive rock record, with lots of guitar overdubs and Eleanor singing high; or we could do a record of simple songs in elaborate, Hollywood-style, orchestral arrangements; or we might make a record with Stephen Hague, the famous Pet Shop Boys producer. Or all three.

Q: Any energy saving tips for the winter (of our recessionary discontent)?

MF: Keep the thermostat at 59, like I do. I don't know if that makes any sense for the Bay Area, however. Turn off your computer, I guess.

Q: Also anything to give thanks for?

MF: Well, so much. How about the, albeit it quite slow, progress of some sort of health care insurance reform in this beautiful, never boring country? That's a nice answer.

When I was a kid, when asked at school what we were thankful for, we'd always write, "That Christmas is coming." That didn't have to do with getting presents; it had to do with more time off school.

The Fiery Furnaces play Friday, Nov. 20, 9 p.m., at Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. Cryptacize and Dent May open. $16. (415) 522-0333.

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