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The Fiery Furnaces: Eleanor and Matt Friedberger

Article written by Ged M
Apr 26, 2004.

The Fiery Furnaces produced one of the most unexpected, out-of-leftfield classic albums of last year, ‘Gallowsbird’s Bark’. Recorded as a demo, Rough Trade heard it and immediately signed the band and put it out. It mixes psychedelia, blues, folk and punk in a series of songs with a geographical and political punch. It’s original, inventive, sometimes coy, sometimes blatant, often witty and totally at odds with manufactured notions of cool. Live, they jangle with electrical tension, Eleanor Friedberger looking like Karen O channelling the spirit of Patti Smith, and elder brother Matt, the more serious, musical philosopher of the band, embellishing the piece with dense keyboards and guitars and the weirdest of time signatures.

They’re a fascinating couple. They spark off each other and trade what in a non-sibling relationship might be described as little insults and niggling comments, while they also possess a sly sense of humour. Coming from a sibling relationship in which my head was pushed through a plate glass window in an argument with my sister when I was 7, it seems completely familiar and completely normal. However, what’s not normal is how the tensions in that relationship have driven a creative partnership that produced one of the finest records of 2003. As they say, blood will always tell. We met up with Eleanor and Matt before their gig at the Garage, Highbury and Islington, on 24 February.

SXP: I sat with Ben Ayres at the soundcheck and he told me that he likes to listen to you soundchecking because you two compete to see who can play fastest.

Matt: Just on that one song (‘I’m Gonna Run’).
Eleanor: He does, I don’t like to do that so much.

SXP: Are you two musically competitive?

Matt: *both laugh* No, because I can bully Eleanor. I can play stuff better than Eleanor but otherwise…. I think of us as different enough that we’re not competitive. I’m sure that’s naïve. Maybe it would be better if it was just healthy competition because you’d have your roles defined by someone winning more. Eleanor defers to me just on musical work but otherwise she doesn’t defer to me at all. And I don’t defer to her. So sometimes we butt heads! Perhaps if you have a sibling relationship that is competitive you have submerged tensions more than we have. All our tensions are on the surface. Would you say, Eleanor?
Eleanor: *laughs* I don’t know. I stopped listening to you a couple of minutes ago!

SXP: Did you have that older sibling-younger sibling relationship when it came to music? You heard something and you’d pass it on?

Eleanor: Definitely. Matt is very aggressive in lots of things, listening to music included. If I were asleep in the next room, he’d have his stereo cranked up so I couldn’t help but listen to it.
Matt: Eleanor, did you hear what you said? The only things you listened to was because I would wake you up and that’s unfair.
Eleanor: *Very thoughtful; chooses her words* And everything I listened to I appreciated! Sorry if that came out wrong. No, he introduced me to so many great things. I’m really lucky he had such varied tastes.

SXP: I heard your previous interview and that final question was excellent.

Eleanor: I was just thinking about it: when did I last cry listening to a song?
Matt: When was it?
Eleanor: It’s so embarrassing. Let’s not.
Matt: What was it?
Eleanor: It was – you know – on ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’: ‘All I Wanna Do’.
Matt: That’s a good one!

SXP: There are so many English music references in your work. Are you musical Anglophiles?

Matt: I think we are. I think the culture we came from was very much a pop culture. In the north of the US it was very Anglophile without even thinking. The Beatles aren’t foreigners to Americans. Same with the Who. I remember I didn’t know that Black Sabbath were English until I think I was 12.
Eleanor: *laughs* That’s right. Late in life!
Matt: *affronted* Well, I know all about rock – that was a name I knew since I was 7 years old. It was this so called classic rock, it was very English.

SXP: You’ve spoken about bands that I thought wouldn’t be that popular in America – early Pink Floyd and the Pretty Things.

Matt: The Pretty Things didn’t get played on the radio and the Small Faces didn’t get played except for maybe Itchycoo Park but you always knew about these bands. You were looking through your first book about the Rolling Stones and there were all these contemporary bands that didn’t make it in the US and the Pretty Things were the first one they mentioned. You could go down the street to the used record store and buy a double Italian or Spanish pressing of a Pretty Things record in addition to the Kinks records that were more famous.

SXP: Are you both born and bred Americans? I understand you have an English parent.

Eleanor: Our father’s English.
Matt: Yeah but we never lived in London except when I was a few months old.
Eleanor: I only lived here when I was 22-23 for about a year.

SXP: The first album is a lot like a travelogue. You keep mentioning real places - are they places you actually visited?

Eleanor: Mostly.
Matt: So we have Sweden and Iceland that Eleanor went to; Finland or the upper lakes in Wisconsin, like in ‘Up In The North’, none of us have been to.

SXP: Is the journey on ‘Crystal Clear’ a real journey, via Trenton and Vinton?

Eleanor: *laughs*.
Matt: No, you can’t go! You can’t even buy a train ticket. Vinton’s a very small town in Iowa. You have to go by bus.

SXP: I looked it up. I thought it must be a significant journey.

Eleanor: When our parents first split up, our dad was living there and we’d take the Greyhound bus to see him.
Matt: It’s significant to us. Probably why I used Vinton [in the song] was just the idea that when someone gets in trouble in New York over gambling, he runs back to the safety of a very obscure place. It also has the significance that I’d just moved to New York so the lyric was about something you have to run back to, your womb or something, which I thought of as Iowa. You suddenly go to Trenton and you get a train to points West. But you can’t get a train over the river in Davenport, over the muddy river…

SXP: Is that the Mississippi?

Matt: Yeah. I mean it’s not a very original way to describe it. The Mississippi is always called the “muddy” or “the beautiful brown river”. It’s a way to say that the future is crystal clear when it’s not, it’s very muddy.

SXP: A friend claims that half the songs on the album are about water. Is that a particularly relevant motif for you?

Eleanor: Are there really that many?

SXP: ‘Leaky Tunnel’, ‘South Is Only A Home’, ‘Inca Rag’, ‘Asthma Attack’, ‘Bright Blue Tie’, they’re all there.

Eleanor: You’re right! We like water…
Matt: We’re not very nautical people ourselves but it fits in well with the travel imagery. You can still think of a trip as a voyage. I don’t write about airport terminals, thinking about travel. So all that water stuff comes in.
Eleanor: Matt and I have a lot of nice memories of our childhoods. We’d always go to the water, be it in Florida or Lake Michigan. Even as adults, Matt and I would go swimming together and act like kids in some ways. I don’t know if Matt’s as into it as I am but I love to swim and go into the water.
Matt: That’s true. That’s where we get along best – going to the seaside. I never thought of that but it’s true because we slip into childhood roles. The next album is even more about the water I suppose. It’s called ‘Blueberry Boat’.

SXP: When does that come out?

Matt: *perplexed* I don’t know when it comes out. Maybe at the beginning of the summer or at the end of the summer.

SXP: Have you recorded it?

Matt: Yeah it’s done.

SXP: Will it contain as many diverse influences as the first one?

Matt: I dunno. What do you think?
Eleanor: Yes and no. It’s got a more kooky sound to it as opposed to the first one. It’s because we had to record it so quick although there’s a million more sounds and it has a kind of sheen that the other one doesn’t have.
Matt: *laughs* I think that’s a mastering problem!
Eleanor: But even more than that, it doesn’t sound like where you go from song to song and it could be from a different time or place. It does all sound like it comes from the same source.
Matt: But hopefully it’s varied enough. It’s not short little numbers, one right after the other.

SXP: I heard you talking about the Who influence on it.

Matt: Yeah: that’s how I try to justify those long songs I suppose! Because that’s what I love, that’s what I listened to as a kid on the bus visiting our dad, where you sit for hours listening to your walkman. I’d listen to ‘The Who Sell Out’. There hasn’t been a time in my life when I haven’t listened to it, from when I was 11 years old. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to that - it’s not just rubbed off on me, it’s affected me.
Eleanor: *laughs* Part of his soul!
Matt: It’s not a part of my soul….
Eleanor: …his spirit!
Matt: It’s part of my stupidity.

SXP: You do some adventurous cover versions. For the Rough Trade anniversary album you covered The Fall (‘Winter’). You don’t usually do that with the Fall – he covers your songs!

Matt: I would never do it with a male singer. But I thought Eleanor could sing a Mark Smith lyric and it wouldn’t be ridiculous. That song’s a great one and it’s not an especially weird one musically. And I think Eleanor happened to care for the lyric.
Eleanor: I was resisting doing that one because I didn’t know it but it was really fun to sing! *laughs*
Matt: The great thing about [Mark E Smith] is that he’s as undelicate a presence as you can possibly imagine, so he can get away with things. He has a very written diction and in the last line ‘pogrom’ is the rhyme and it’s a very funny rhyme. It just sounds good coming out of Eleanor’s mouth, I think. And the backing track was a lot of fun for me, with the layered piano. That’s one of my favourite things that we’ve recorded. It’s too bad we didn’t write it.

SXP: You covered ‘One More Time’ by the Clash from Sandinista for Uncut magazine. You also told them that ‘Broadway’ was one of your favourite tracks. What did you cover that one?

Matt: I couldn’t think of anything to do to ‘Broadway’. I like it too much I suppose. It very much relies on Joe Strummer’s personality I think. I really love ‘One More Time’ and ‘One More Time Dub’. ‘Sandinista’ is one of my favourite records for sure. And again I had to trick Eleanor into doing it.
Eleanor: I’m not as familiar with that record and I thought there are so many other Clash records that I love that we could do. And the night before we did it I listened to the song over and over again and sang along with it and watched my Clash DVD and got myself psyched up to do it. And I loved to do it.
Matt: I think she does a great vocal and that’s a tough lyric to sing. ‘One More Time’ isn’t one of his best lyrics. Eleanor can do it and it doesn’t sound ridiculous. I couldn’t sing that. *both laugh* Forget it! That was more rushed; the recording was done in only 4 hours. But I like it very much. It’s not too different to the real version but it’s different.

SXP: You seen to have a wide knowledge of music. I read an interview where you talk about world music.

Matt: I’m not a big world music aficionado. When I was a kid I was always interested in South Asian pop music and it sounded so strange, so funky! And now those little touches are becoming more popular in North America, on dance records. I’d really like to find out about Chinese, especially Hong Kong and then Korean pop music. I think Korean pop music has to be the least fashionable music in the world. I’ve never heard anyone express any interest in it at all because it must be horrible! But there must be some strange and interesting stuff. So much to learn. Keeps you going!

SXP: Last question. There’s an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Whose statue should we fill it with? It doesn’t have to be English.

Matt: Oh no, it has to be English. You could put a big thing of Handel up there: an English connection. I don’t want to say something pretentious but I’d put John Milton up there as a great artist and a great patriot. Or maybe Keith Moon.
Eleanor: Fat or skinny?
Matt: A fat Keith Moon; a 1976 Keith Moon.
Eleanor: What about someone more people recognise?
Matt: Obviously David Beckham should be up there.
Eleanor: *laughs* Long hair or short hair?


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