From the Vault: The Fiery Furnaces Interview


In 2008, I interviewed the mercurial, outspoken, and often times wonky Matthew Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces for The East County Herald newspaper. Here, in its entirety, is the clunky, humorous, sometimes incendiary transcript of the exchange I had with Matthew. Known for their staccato production, esoteric lyrics, plunking pianos and rarely middling subject matter, The Chicago siblings have been both darlings and foes of the press. Not to truncate any of the bumbling questions I had asked Matthew four years ago – my style of interviewing lacked cohesion and confidence – the following is, regretfully, our entire conversation, unabridged, for your consideration.


Robert Patrick: What do you and Eleanor generally do after a show concludes?

Matthew Friedberger: Go to sleep. We actually pack up all of our stuff, which takes a long time, and then we go to sleep.


You’ve been to San Diego before. I caught you at the Epicenter awhile back and the show was deliberately experimental. How do you guys decide how and when to alter your music in a live venue?

We feel we should always alter the music in a live venue. If you go out and play music the way it sounds on the record you’re cheating people; you’re stealing their money. It can become a nice social event, but people are bored of that. We feel like we have to do something else in order to make it new.


You’re playing with Grand Ole Party at your next show. Since they’re from San Diego, are you going to have them show you around town a bit?

Of course not. We wont bother them. I’ve seen the city before. Actually, the last time we were in San Diego was for those terrible fires. We played the very next day. It was a sad day for the county. I’m glad to be back in the area on a happier occasion.

[Sounds of Matthew Friedberger speaking to a cashier]

Sorry. I’m buying disposable cameras so I can take pictures of the beautiful San Diego area. It’s a privilege to come out here.

By all means, take your time. You guys have a compilation album coming out, titled Remember, that is a collection of live performances. How did you manage to go about cherry picking certain performances to put on the record?

That’s a good question. We wanted to select versions of our prominent songs to include on the album. There is a long version of “Blueberry Boat” that is taken from a lot of different live versions of “Blueberry Boat”. We wanted to make sure to include a lot of our material because it is going to be a retrospective kind of record. But otherwise, we just chose songs that we thought would make a good record. The goal is to put one song after the other, in the best order possible, to make a complete record. The same thing goes with music notes. It’s all about sequence. The fun part was being able to put together a live record that isn’t compiled in a spuriously documented way. So hopefully the record is a lot of fun because of that.


How difficult of a transition is it to play music for yourself, and then, when it’s all said and done, play it for a live audience?

Well, like I said before, it’s an opportunity to create something new. Other artists don’t do it and I don’t know why. Why would you want to play it the same? It’s almost like a crisis of the imagination for these people. Why do they have to recreate a record live when they can play a different version of it? People don’t want the same old thing over and over again. I think some artists think that people want the same thing all of the time. Almost like the band Rancid. Not to pick on Rancid or anything. It’s basically the musician’s fault for ramming the same crap down people’s throats over and over again. They don’t have to do it. They say, “the record company made me be lame.” No they didn’t; they’re not going to put you in jail.


There’s a lot of complex, distinctive compositions in your music and yet it always remains melodic. How do you find a middle ground for both harmony and innovation to meet?

Things that make up records are small, little rock tunes. But we don’t need to make the same Todd Rundgren or Paul McCartney record that they’ve already made. We think we’re a rock/pop band. Our music is made up of tunes. So that’s why it’s tuneful – if it is. I happen to think it’s tuneful.


Do you happen to find yourself inspired by the states you visit when you’re out on tour? Do you have a particular city that you’ve written most of your music in?

I really don’t like Ohio. I think that’s the band’s least favorite state, even though we play there all of the time. We love the mid-west – we’re from Chicago – but we don’t really like Ohio.

I don’t really like Minnesota.

Minnesota is an interesting place. I don’t agree with you.

If you had to pick one song, for someone with no prior experience with your music, what song would it be and why?

Well, it depends on what they like. If I had to choose I would say “Chris Michaels”, I guess. That’s a song on “Blueberry Boat” that’s more of a rock song. It’s long and has various different parts. The song is made up of several catchy rock parts, but it’s approached in a different way. It’s sort of the band’s imitation of The Who. So I would say “Chris Michaels” or “Duplexes of the Dead”.


Many people have been introduced to your music through “Tropical Iceland”, though it wasn’t mentioned by you just now.

No, that’s appropriate. The song originally was very catchy and then we recorded a very bubblegum-like version of it.


Can we expect another solo album from you?

Definitely. Well, I don’t know. Yeah. I’ll make lots of records.


You’ve been known to have used all sorts of instruments for your albums. Is there any particular instrument that you have an aversion to?

My least favorite instrument is the Glockenspiel. I don’t like that instrument and I don’t even consider it to be one. But on this tour we have someone actually playing the glockenspiel with cymbals on her fingers. Since that’s an instrument I like the least, I thought we better have it on tour.


Have you ever made a song that you thought to yourself, “this is our sound in a three-minute nutshell?”


That’s probably a good thing?

I like to make everything sound different, so I cant really say that. I have my favorite songs, but they’re not really the typical ones. But it wouldn’t be three-minutes, I know that. [laughs]


If you could apply your music to any movie ever made, past or present, what would it be?

I wouldn’t say any. Maybe “Napoleon”. How about “The Tales of Hoffman”?


Do you think sites like Myspace and Pitchfork have helped musicians?

They haven’t helped musicians at all. People used to make money off of selling records. That has nothing to do with those websites, but those sites still haven’t helped musicians at all. I think Pitchfork has centralized information. People used to pick up a free weekly in their town, but now they don’t. Now you have a couple of these music websites – both businesses – that have ruined the vernacular of music. I would say it’s bad. I think those websites are terrible and should quit immediately. Some bands get lucky, but that also happened before Myspace was around. Those sites weren’t around when that stupid “Loser” song by Beck came out. Maybe it had money behind it. He’s a Scientologist scumbag anyway.

Do you think Pitchfork thrives because people think it’s the “cool” place to get their information?

In my experience it’s not what the writers say, but it’s the number that people read. But what’s the difference? I think Pitchfork, whether they say it or not, is publicist driven. I’m older so I learned about music through libraries and record stores. I bought things blindly, whenever I had money.


You’ve been featured both online and in print. Was that, in the band’s eyes, an indicator or sundial to the band’s success?

It’s not an indicator of the band’s success. It’s an indicator of the band’s success in getting press. But that’s about all. Our record “Blueberry Boat” got bad reviews from Rolling Stone and Spin but it received good reviews online. Sometimes it’s the other way around. But ultimately people pay more attention to the blogs than the magazines.


Because you have a forum to talk about your fans in San Diego, what would you say about them?

They’re good surfers. And they live in paradise. But, really, they are probably our happiest fans.

See, I like Boston more than San Diego.

You like Boston? I don’t understand that. Are you from Boston?

No, but my girlfriend went to school out there, so I was brainwashed.

Well, it’s good to be brainwashed by your girlfriend, but Boston isn’t as good as San Diego. You’re wrong.

You think so?

I’ll go as far as to say I know so.


Here’s a dumb question: Tell me about a movie that you saw this year.

I saw Iron Man. It was terrible. They should be very ashamed of themselves.

I gave that movie a bad review and everyone chastised me.

Well, people use their imaginations to imagine what’s good. We should give everyone a good review of who liked the movie, because they have such a good imagination. The movie shouldn’t get a good review; the people who like it should get a good review.


For more information on Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces, check out their official site.

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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