The Fiery Furnaces
Interview by Alexander Laurence
Fiery Furnaces are my favorite new band to emerge this year.
The music of The Fiery Furnaces is a mix of garage-rock,
blues, and folk, yet it sounds like none of the above. The
duo is Eleanor Friedberger (vocalist / guitarist) and Matthew
Friedberger (guitarist / keyboards / vocals). The sister
and brother were born and raised in Chicago but soon moved
to Brooklyn, where they formed different incarnations of
the Fiery Furnaces, with other members. They played some
early shows at Enid's and things started to happen.
The group played around NYC for a couple of years. They
supported bands including The Kills, French Kicks, Spoon
and Hot Hot Heat. Soon, with their strong word of mouth
reputation, they secured a deal with Rough Trade. They released
their debut single "Crystal Clear" in fall 2003.
A few weeks before their full-length, Gallowsbird's Bark
Their live show is a mix of folk and electro, and they tend
to play songs in a series of three. I was able to check
them out on their West Coast tour at the end of January.
This included several sold out shows supporting Ted Leo
and The Pharmacists. You should definitely check them out.
AL: How do you feel today?
Eleanor: A little tired and grumpy.
Matthew: Good. It's very nice weather in San Francisco.
It's very pretty here.
Eleanor: Free Williamsburg is that online thing?
AL: Yeah. We did The
Hipster Handbook last year.
Eleanor: Our drummer
Dan really likes it. He was talking about The Hipster
Handbook the other day.
AL: You played the Rough Trade show with The Kills and
Adam Green in New York. How was that?
Eleanor: That was fun.
Matthew: We played with Adam Green in London too.
AL: There was a Rough Trade show in London too around the
Matthew: Eleanor had a great time that night especially.
Eleanor: Yeah. I had disasters both nights.
AL: What are we talking about?
Eleanor: I got very emotional. I got drunk. I was crying.
Matthew: She got in a big fight with people. Not with me
AL: Was it a heckler?
Eleanor: No! It was very silly. I won't talk about it.
All the shows were a great success.
AL: Do you get nervous before a show?
Eleanor: No, this happened after the show.
Matthew: It was accidental.
AL: Are you clumsy?
Eleanor: Yeah, that is for sure.
AL: How long have you been playing? Matthew has been in
several bands before?
Matthew: I might as well not have been in any bands before.
For how much people heard us, and how good we were, and
how much I learned, which was nothing. This is Eleanor's
AL: When did you start playing together as Fiery Furnaces?
Eleanor: The first time we played in New York was in November
2000. We played at Enid's. A year later we were playing
at Bowery Ballroom.
Matthew: We would play with just the two of us. Then we
played with just one drummer. We had another drummer.
AL: Had you been in New York for a while?
Eleanor: I had moved to New York in 2000.
Matthew: I moved there at the end of 2000.
AL: How did you get the gig at Enid's?
Eleanor: A friend was Djing there. They had set up a show
there. We were the middle act.
AL: So many of these songs that are on the first album
were written a while ago?
Matthew: Pretty much. The last song "We Got Back The
Plague" was written at the end. It was topical. It
was written after the record was meant to be made. But it
took us so long to mix the record. We recorded the album
in August 2002, but we didn't finish it till January 2003.
We had all the songs together for a while.
AL: How do you do the songwriting in the band?
Matthew: How do we do it Eleanor?
Eleanor: Matt and I have different methods. I don't have
AL: Are you equal songwriters?
Eleanor: I wouldn't say that. On our first album maybe.
Matthew: We wrote songs separately and together. It's a
nice half and half thing. In general, I have a bunch of
songs. I have more songs than Eleanor.
AL: Did you write lyrics or music first?
Eleanor: I had the words for "I'm Gonna Run."
I wrote them while I was working. Matt and I got together
that evening. He played a riff on the guitar and we put
the song together.
AL: So you made up some chords in your bedroom? Did you
have a four-track recorder?
Matthew: We were sitting in her bedroom. These songs were
not written on a four-track. The songs that we wrote together:
Eleanor had some words written on some paper. It was often
some overheard conversation heard at the office. I would
say, "I like this bit and that bit." And she would
say, "I like that bit too." We would figure out
who would play what. Eleanor would try to sing the words
over it. She would do it on her own or I would suggest a
way to do it. It was a very normal teenage way of desperately
trying to write a song. This record is a very happy experience
because we worked on it together.
AL: Do you feel strange singing someone else's lyrics?
Eleanor: No, not at all. He doesn't write about personal
AL: Some of the lyrics seem like there was an almanac nearby?
Matthew: I have memorized the almanac. Many of the songs
with place-names are Eleanor's. They are her personal songs.
"South Is Only A Home" are all Eleanor's lyrics.
That is all about her life and her Swedish friend in London.
AL: Did you experiment more live or in the studio with
Matthew: We had these songs that we had made up or had
been playing. Eleanor had written "Tropical Ice-Land"
and I had written "Up In The North." Those are
the songs we had been messing with them together. We had
played them live. When we recorded them, I had some ideas
about how we were going to do it. Those ideas were based
on my years of making horrible bad songs in basements and
trying to put them over. The record had nothing to do with
how we played live.
AL: You went into the studio with an open mind?
Matthew: We planned it out. I wrote it out. I should it
to Eleanor. In the studio my mind would be wandering and
I would forget to do things. Eleanor would remind me to
do something. The record turned out almost as we intended
AL: Did you record any of the record as a live band?
Eleanor: There were a lot of overdubs. But on most of the
songs Matt and I were playing guitars, and Ryan Sawyer was
playing the drums, and I would do a scratch vocal. In some
cases we kept the scratch vocal and that is the take. Then
we would do the bass, keyboards, and the real vocal. When
we did "Asthma Attack" that was a scratch vocal
because we didn't have any time. It was a good enough.
Matthew: "Leaky Tunnel" is also a scratch vocal.
All the guitar in the first part that you hear in the background
is from the vocal microphone. We only had three days to
AL: Are you the producer of the record?
Matthew: Yeah. I am the producer. They are all my arrangements.
Nicolas Verhnes was really good. He was working in the studio
with me. He was a good audience.
AL: He didn't tell you what to do?
Matthew: He miked the drums. I didn't have any ideas about
that. I have to give him the credit. There is a lot of drum
AL: Does anyone in your family play music?
Eleanor: Our grandmother is a musician and a choir director
at a church. She always wanted us to sing. But we would
sit in the balcony. It was a Greek Orthodox Church.
AL: What bands do you like?
Eleanor: Lots of stuff.
Matthew: I like The Who especially. They are famous. With
this record and what we play live is not like this. But
hopefully we will one day do a meandering light record,
and then, as a live band you play it as aggressive as possible.
I like that vibe.
AL: On this tour you play songs from this album and a few
Eleanor: Yeah. Our next record is coming out in May.
Matthew: We just finished it a month ago. It's called Blueberry
Boat. That record is more like The Who. It's in the line
of the 1966-68 Who where you have these long songs like
"A Quick One."
AL: Do you have a lot of synths?
Matthew: I have an Italian synth that I bought in Illinois
for seventy dollars. It's an imitation mini-moog. There
is a drone on "Leaky Tunnel." It's sounds like
cliché 1971 synth noise.
AL: You like a lot of different textures and things going
Matthew: I like The Who's Quadraphenia. I like Stevie Wonder's
stuff he did in that time.
AL: Do you like recording or playing live better?
Eleanor: Matt doesn't seem to like either. I like playing
live for the people.
AL: What are your hobbies outside of music?
Eleanor: (laughter) Right now I don't do anything very
AL: Did you go to school in New York?
Eleanor: No, I went to college in Austin, Texas. I like
to cook a lot, but I haven't done anything.
Matthew: I like to buy dictionaries. I bought a Japanese/English
AL: Have you read any books recently?
Eleanor: I just read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Matthew: I read The French by Theodore Zelden. It's about
the France from 1848 to 1945. He wrote a popular thing that
was a pseudo-sociological. He's a serious historian.
AL: What is the plan for 2004?
Eleanor: We are going to be touring non-stop. We have a
plan to do things until September.
Matthew: We are trying to get people to like us. It's a
hard job. We want to play better.
AL: Who is playing with you now?
Matthew: We have been playing with Toshi for a while. He
plays bass and keyboards. Dan is our drummer for just the
past few weeks.
Eleanor: We are playing in America and Europe this Spring.
We have played a bunch of shows with Hot Hot Heat and Franz
Ferdinand last time we were in Europe.
AL: Are there any other bands that you played with who
Eleanor: We played with Sleater-Kinney. They were good.
Matthew: We have also played with Quasi and Hella.
AL: Do you have any advice for young people who want to
start a band?
Eleanor: We need it. We need business and relationship
AL: Who does your website?
AL: How did you learn how to do that?
Eleanor: I didn't obviously. Have you seen the website?
AL: That's good.
Eleanor: I found a tutorial on the web. I was too lazy
to find a book.
AL: Have you seen any good movies?
Eleanor: We have been flying on planes so much. That is
where I see most films now.
Matthew: I saw All The President's Men. That was great.
Jason Robards was especially good. I saw Dog Day Afternoon
when we were in England. It was nice.
AL: It has that gender bender thing going on.
Matthew: It's mostly all about working up a sweat. I like
AL: So you like anything with Al Pacino?
Matthew: Not really. I like all the stuff from the 1970s.
I like all the cars and the street signs.
Eleanor: I saw the most recent Woody Allen film. That was
AL: Do you collect anything?
Matthew: Books. Anything thing with funny words.
Eleanor: I don't have a place to live so I have gotten
rid of almost everything. It's a nice feeling.
photo by Danna Kinsky