The Fiery Furnaces recently announced that they signed to Thrill Jockey records and a new album is expected in the fall. They're currently on tour and play the Horseshoe in Toronto on Monday, June 25.
Because they burst out of the gate with five full-length albums in three years (one of which was billed as an EP but clocked in at 45 minutes), it seems like an eternity when one ponders the fact that their latest, Bitter Tea, came out a whopping 14 months ago, followed promptly by a bewildering 2CD solo record by main songwriter Matthew Friedberger--which even this big fan found unlistenable.
Bitter Tea was in many ways their prettiest album, especially on the heels of Rehearsing My Choir, a concept album narrated by their grandmother that alienated most of the critical goodwill they had fostered with the brilliant yet divisive 2004 album Blueberry Boat.
The fact that Bitter Tea went largely unnoticed must have been a signal to the band that they needed to slow down if their audience was ever going to catch up. Much to Matthew Friedberger's chagrin, today's listeners don't have the insatiable appetite that fans of his heroes The Who and The Beatles had in the 60s, when they'd put out at least two albums a year.
And after all, few people fall in love with a Fiery Furnaces album right away. Myself, I had loathed the band (even after seeing them live in the fall of 2003) until a fortuitous Damascene moment with Blueberry Boat several months after it came out (facilitated in part by Spitzer's championing, as well as Patti Schmidt's).
I interviewed Matthew for Exclaim when Bitter Tea came out, for a short piece here. I later used different parts of the interview for an article in Eye Weekly here. He tries to explain the connections and threads between the albums, often admitting that there really isn't any. He has amusing ideas of what "proper music" is. He's also very aware of how insular the band can sound to people who might have better things to do--whatever those might be.
May 10, 2006
locale: cell phone interview while he walked on a beach in Brighton, UK
I understand that you’re not playing any keyboards on this tour.
Yep. No keyboards until the fall.
Why is that and what happens in the fall?
In the fall maybe I’ll play keyboards and no guitar. The last two records have been all pianos and keyboards. The best way to make them fun for everyone was to play them on guitar. It will be fun for me and fun for Eleanor and, hopefully, fun for the people who have to listen to us.
Is anyone else in the band playing them?
Oh, no. No keyboards!
So it’s a total rock show!
Yeah, yeah, that’s the idea.
This record was made so long ago that it doesn’t feature your current touring line-up, is that correct?
Yeah. On Bitter Tea a fella named Andy Knowles plays a bunch of drum kit stuff, but now we’re playing with Bob D'Amico and Jason Lowenstein [of Sebadoh] who plays the bass. They’re not on the record.
Will they be on a future record? Where are you in the backlog of recording and releasing?
If we record in New York, we’d like to have them play. We have a record half done. We record in August, so I don’t know if we’ll finish that record or start a new one, and use the half-done one for scraps.
This is the softest and the sweetest I’ve known the band to be. Not that previous records are abrasive, but the last one was a bit jarring with tempo shifts and instrumentation shifts in the middle of the song. This one is really quite lovely, even Eleanor’s singing is much softer than her delivery on other records.
She was supposed to sound more understated and impassive. Obviously lots of the sounds are ugly and are meant to be ugly in a pretty way. All the tack piano sounds are meant to be harsh but in a familiar way, so you don’t notice that they’re harsh, piercing sounds, because you recognize them for being little tack piano sounds. It’s meant to be a more lyrical record, as opposed to Rehearsing My Choir, which was more prose-y and not meant to sing along to. Some of these songs are supposed to have choruses.
There weren’t that many on the last record.
Also, lyrically, Blueberry Boat relied heavily on rhyming couplets. At some points I found it really distracting, but someone else [Patti Schmidt] pointed out to me that they act as signposts amidst all the other crazy things going on. There’s a very specific meter there, whereas the new songs don’t use as many couplets. Is that a natural growth or is it conscious?
No, that’s it exactly. Whoever said that to you, that was the idea. The lyrics on Blueberry Boat had to rhyme to be the genre element of the songs, which were going to be obviously all over the place musically. On these songs, a lot of the lyrics that don’t rhyme are very simple. They don’t need to rhyme to make them acceptable as rock lyrics, make them genre-appropriate. The music is much more repetitive on Bitter Tea. Even when it changes, it’s an obvious variation on something before. “Borneo” has lots of pretend-Broadway rhyming.
I’ve read that this was supposed to be a companion piece of sorts to Rehearsing My Choir…
It was supposed to come in the same package, and Bitter Tea was supposed to be the first record. The (closing) song “Whistle Rhapsody” was supposed to be the connecting song. Bitter Tea—as far as I know—is pretty much first person stuff, and then the last song is second, third person. Then it was going to go into the older woman’s proper story on Rehearsing My Choir. That’s how they were intended, even though Rehearsing My Choir was done first.
With the exception of the song you just mentioned, I didn’t see many lyrical connections.
It’s supposed to be the other side of the coin, not the continuing-story-of or the prequel or the sequel. There’s no narrative link between the two records, definitely not.
That’s good, I was worried that I was missing it!
No. Bitter Tea—there is some thing where it was supposed to be a young girl writing songs as opposed to an old woman telling stories. That’s the way the records were meant to be related—or not related!
Rehearsing My Choir wasn’t an at-home listening record to me; I listened to it the most in my car, when I could devote attention to it on a long drive and absorb the whole thing. It functioned more of a radio play as sorts. There are moments on Bitter Tea and Blueberry Boat that work that way as well. Does radio drama have any appeal to you? I’ve heard you talk about programme music before.
I think radio drama stuff is fun. There are different ways you can tell stories besides a proper ballad. If you’re going to tell stories on a record that aren’t proper ballads, presumably a lot of it will sound like a radio play or remind people of that. If you don’t have the car driving by, you’ll have something that will maybe suggest the car driving by. Maybe it’s the opposite of the car driving by! Once you start to talk at all, it’s going to remind you of [radio plays]. I don’t know what to say about that necessarily.
For Rehearsing My Choir, it was such an insular record, I just thought in terms of how it was going to be. I didn’t think in terms of how people were going to convince themselves that they weren’t wasting their time listening to it. Do you know what I’m saying?
That’s a challenge with all music, really.
Yeah, it’s always a challenge. Because there are a lot of other things that maybe you should be doing. For me I didn’t think of it as a radio play at all. I thought of it as a record that my grandmother’s going to be talking on. Anything one would say after the fact would just be… after the fact. You can make a record easily for $6000. How much does it cost to make a movie or a TV show? You can write a story for even cheaper, but rock records—people like ‘em and buy lots of ‘em. What’s supposed to be a difficult rock record can sell many thousands of copies. What’s supposed to be a difficult book will sell much less.
People get dropped for selling 10,000 records, but if you sell 10,000 books, that’s a best seller.
Maybe rock records are a good form to tell stories because you can do it in more idiosyncratic ways than you can with visuals. A lot of people should be interested in trying to tell stories with just audio recordings. You can do that on rock records with proper rock music, or between things like on Rehearsing My Choir. That’s not proper rock music—I mean, I think of it as proper rock music, but I understand when other people say it’s not.
But all that’s after the fact. I thought my grandmother’s voice would be striking on a record. All the decisions past that—like she’s going to talk but not sing, or it’s going to be not songs but this kind of little anecdotizing—they were made as a consequence of figuring out how best to use her presence on a rock record.
Have you thought about doing that without lyrics, just an instrumental audio tale?
Oh, well, you mean music? (laughs) No, I have not for myself. On Bitter Tea and Rehearsing My Choir there are a lot of cheap and amusing ways that the music continues the story. On Blueberry Boat there’s a lot of that too. I have these two solo records coming out, and one of them is a story record with lots and lots of music telling the story.
But I wouldn’t want to just have the music, because my understanding of instrumental rock music should be a visceral kind of experience, otherwise it’s not proper rock music. That’s how I think of it, like instrumental metal bands, or bands like the Shadows.
I had read that the second disc of your solo record will be more electronic and experimental.
It’s not electronic—it’s all played stuff. There’s lots and lots of things where there are three (lyrical) lines, and then the music goes on for three minutes, and it’s meant to show what’s happening. It’s meant to be the equivalent of the visuals. There’s a lot of that. But it’s definitely not ‘music’ (laughs)—proper music. It’s a rock record that tells a story, and here’s a part where the music is illustrating the story.
The obvious question with this record is about all the backwards voices and instruments on this record—it’s everywhere!
That was an idea we had on the principle of the thing, that backwards instruments and especially backwards voices, are beautiful, proper, normal rock sounds, and they should be as prevalent on a record as electric guitar. But voices especially sound so nice backwards. It’s such a physical thing. If you see a film of someone moving backwards, it’s fun but it’s not as physical as hearing a voice backwards. It’s a real pleasure. You hear time running back when someone talks backwards.
Anyway, so we thought—or rather, I thought and Eleanor agreed—that as a matter of principle, no matter what people think of what we’re doing, to have backwards things on the record. It gives it a pulpy gloominess. We wanted the record to have this morbid thing, but not in a goth-y or Black Sabbath heavy metal way. Backwards vocals were an obvious way to do that.
Is there a lyrical intent?
There is an excuse in individual songs as to why it’s backwards. In “Blackheart Boy” she’s in a bad situation and the backwards voice is her having a little daydream, and the singing is much smoother so presumably it’s a happy daydream, until she wakes up into the annoying synth and having to sing the situation she’s in.
In the beginning of the “Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” it sounds like you’re singing about someone named Sidney Falson.
That’s the fun about backwards vocals, is you can make up what it says and see what it sounds like.
It could all be about Satan for all we know.
That song is overly despairing, and is therefore devilish in that way. That’s a song that is Satanic in that it gives up to despair.
Speaking of that song and Satan, I was researching this morning and found one guy [goodhodgkins.com] who took the trouble of researching all the proper nouns on Bitter Tea. All the street addresses and everything else. [found here; not sure why the original post is gone.]
Someone did that? Wow.
He says that all the street addresses are in L.A., that they’re “non-profit faith-based centres.”
Well, they’re churches—that’s usually the proper term for them! (laughs) Obviously the Vietnamese Telephone Ministry itself is not a church. I hope people don’t call the number, because it is the wrong number.
Apparently an elderly Spanish-speaking woman picks up the phone.
Yeah, I hope people don’t bother her. It was serendipitous that I wrote it down wrong. It’s better that it’s wrong because there will be no help on the other end of the line.
What about this poor woman? You knew this would happen.
I didn’t think people would call, actually. I guess that was stupid of me.
People are still calling 867-5309!
Well, that was a hit record that was much bigger than this album will be.
I was reading some fan sites, and some people were musing that this might be the final Fiery Furnaces record.
Oh no, no, not at all. We didn’t make a record in the winter because Bitter Tea hadn’t come out, and we didn’t want to have another year-long wait between records coming out. I don’t know if we will or not, but we could have a record coming out in January. We might wait and record properly in the winter, for a variety of reasons. And I recorded a solo record because I felt that I need to keep my credentials as a songwriter, and I knew Fiery Furnaces weren’t going to make a record then. I had a vacation and figured I’d better do something.