THE FIERY FURNACES
The bro-and-sis duo reminisces about hometown softball games, grandma’s grooves, and their latest release, Bitter Tea.
Eleanor Friedberger hit a three-run triple during her heyday as a catcher for her Oak Park, Illinois, high school’s softball team. The feat warranted a headline in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Friedberger’s Big Day Powers Oak Park.” And according to a biography for the Fiery Furnaces—the band she shares with her brother, Matthew—it remains her crowning achievement.
The biography is a tongue-in-cheek rant, a stream-of-consciousness-style life history painted onto a piece of rice—each grain of truth stretched and exaggerated until it could feed a family for a week, before deflating into a self-defeating cliché: “He then moved back in with his mother, sealing his fate and cementing his status as a parasite and waster of indulgence and advantage.”
These words, written by Matthew, the parasite, speak volumes about the band and its most recent album, Bitter Tea. They speak to their modest sense of self, cross-hatched with their propensity to indulge in the art of personal myth and their sense of humor, which is dryer than the house wine we shared at a Brooklyn bar during our March interview.
“Ooh, that’s delicious … not,” Eleanor comments upon first sip.
“I tasted dirt. Good. It’s a little dirty,” her brother concurs.
After delivering our wine, our server took a seat behind the tall bar and took to resting his chin on his forearm and listening to us talk. It was clear that he recognized Eleanor and Matthew. They are bona fide rock stars to be certain, and it is quite possible that in this waiter’s mind, something very important was happening. Granted, we also were the only ones in the bar.
To be completely honest, the majority of our conversation consisted of sharing stories about the small-pond celebrities we know in common from my hometown of Detroit. But for all of their sarcasm and brother-sister bickering, there is still an instant familiarity to their combined demeanor, and instead of an intimidating, asthma-inducing Q&A session, our interview melted into a soft-edged Midwestern meet-up. The Friedbergers hail from Oak Park—a near-Chicago suburb—and recorded Bitter Tea in Benton Harbor, Michigan, an experience they loved.
“We grew up going to Lake Michigan every summer, not too far from there,” Matthew said. “Our mom used to vacation in St. Joe when she was a little kid. Our great uncle would sing at the House of David [a religious communal society based in Benton Harbor].”
Eleanor adds, “Half my clothes are from Benton Harbor.”
But it was a big bottle of house wine, and we managed to get back to Brooklyn in our conversation to talk a little about the new record.
Speaking of honesty, their most recent release might be the most revealing of the duo’s canon. Where 2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark and 2004’s Blueberry Boat tossed a wordplay salad and 2005’s Rehearsing My Choir had the siblings in the backseat of their then-82-year-old grandmother’s life story, Bitter Tea’s lyrics have a lovelorn quality. There is a lot of waiting for true loves to return, losing true loves in the rain, and a lot of “you’re there and I’m here” and “you swore you’d never leave.” Musically, it’s a clear return to the ADD-addled, defaced-pop sensibilities of their highly touted debut.
Chinese bitter tea is known for its initial bitter flavor, followed by a sweet finish. It’s said to have cleansing qualities combined with antioxidants and anti-hypertension relief.
Matthew refers to Bitter Tea as being girly, “sissy psychedelic Satanism,” or the granddaughter record. “We made the record right after making Rehearsing My Choir, thinking that they would go together,” Matthew explains. “This one would be the other side of the grandmother record.”
Or maybe the sweet finish. It evokes the China Town hipster kitsch of bamboo plants, cute 10-cent soaps, $5 slippers, and fake Dolce sunglasses. But while it’s more straightforward in a pop sense, it is by no means bubblegum. Vocals are played backward, creating an anxious, suction-cup sensation that Matthew describes as “The beautiful sound of a human voice trying to rush back inside the mouth from which it came.” Not to mention subject matter that swirls with themes of gambling addiction and loss. Likewise, musical themes jump back and forth without warning, and all kinds of effects provide a texture far from what’s considered easily digestible.
“We always want to exaggerate it one way or the other to make it something different or definite,” he explains. He does most of the writing and playing. Eleanor does most of the singing and some drums. “If the song has got a loud noise in it, you want to make sure it’s a loud noise. If it’s backwards and not in tune, you want to make sure it’s especially backwards and not in tune.”
But the songs themselves are strong and can withstand whatever abuse is forced upon them. “Waiting to Know You” is a standout. A wistful sigh of a song, it’s the last track on some lost Northern soul album, with groove dust crackles replaced by speaker-fuzz squiggles.
Lyrically, the wordplay has graduated into a surreal style of storytelling, with a Haruki Murakami-style subtlety to its humor. In “Oh Sweet Woods,” Eleanor is kidnapped by “two extra-blond, short-sleeve, button-down-white-shirt, blue-tie mystery Mormons” who think she “stashed away the only pewter pocket watch that ever belonged to Joseph Smith’s great-great uncle’s brother-in-law.” Imagine this story set to a catchy half-disco complete with cheesy keyboard handclaps and you’ll understand.
Also a standout is Eleanor’s voice itself, carrying the narrator from a little thatched hut to Tahoe, the California side, to Borneo and a town called Nevers, which “never wasn’t was what it weren’t.”
“It’s a place you think is nice,” Matthew says softly. “You’re going to run away there, but it’s not going to be better. You’re not going to know your way around it. You’re not going to manage to escape.”
Another engaging song, “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry,” tracks a quest to find religion, listing the addresses of various houses of worship in Los Angeles, California: the Right Road Ministry, the Armenian Brotherhood Bible Church, the Iglesia Evangelica Rey de Reyes y Señor y Señores, the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star and Kingdom of God in Faith, the Sweet Hour of Prayer Mission, St. Innocent Orthodox and Jesus in Delight and so on. It ends with Eleanor saying that she finally called up with the Vietnamese Telephone Ministry at 323-221-7625. Several message boards detail Fiery Furnaces fans’ failed attempts to call this number. A quick Web search informed me that the actual number for the Vietnamese Telephone Ministry is 323-221-6725.
PLAY’S AT THIRD
While Eleanor’s voice is striking—like a blunt-edged Nico, a more lilting Patti Smith—her stage presence is what ties everything together. Rarely flamboyant in dress, she relies on other elements of intensity to grab the listener, such as highly concentrated eye contact and severely controlled movements.
“(It’s from) years in front of the mirror, dancing around to Led Zeppelin, trying to re-enact ‘In My Time of Dying’ over and over again in some strange way,” she explains. “I don’t know who I was pretending to be—not Robert Plant, not myself.”
Matthew thinks it stems back to her softball days.
“It’s from saying (in a tough, Brooklyn “accent” holding up two fingers): ‘OK, two outs.’”
“Oh yeah!” Eleanor laughs. “Being onstage is just like being behind the plate. You know, I have to stand up every once in a while, I address the audience, like when you have to tell the players how many outs there are, where to make the next play.”
Matthew continues in the same accent from before: “Play’s at third. Play’s at third.”
Eleanor equates the feeling of being onstage in front of thousands with being at bat, in front of a few family members and friends. It sounds kind of ridiculous at first, but then not, because it’s … true.
“When I used to play softball, I’d pretty much have the same feeling. I’d be a little bit nervous, going up to bat. It’s pretty much the exact same … at big games, I can remember going up to bat and thinking, ‘People are watching me.’”
Matthew is loving the direction our conversation is headed. He gets to tease his little sister, but an overriding sense of pride also rings clear: “OK people, this song’s called, ‘Two Outs, Play’s at Third.’”
“It’s just fun to play catch,” Eleanor continues. “I could do it for hours, just throw pop-ups, grounders …”
BASES ARE LOADED
Eleanor had never been in a band before the Fiery Furnaces so she didn’t have a lot of practice “except in my own private, imagined pretend time, which I did a lot of, which I think a lot of people do a lot of, but no one really talks about.”
Matthew is her only brother, and when he went to college (the started the band when they were both done with school), she had the house to herself from the age of 14. “My mom would be working, and I’d have three hours where I could be alone at home, playing music really loud, pretending to drink vodka drinks. I’d have Sprite with ice and I’d cut pencils to make them look like cigarettes, and I’d pretend to drink and smoke.”
Matthew, incredulously: “You ‘pretended’ to drink and smoke when you were 14?”
Eleanor, sheepishly: “Well, I drank, too, but not in the afternoon after school.”
Matthew, jokingly: “You had to take the edge off with a drink?”
Eleanor, also joking: “No, I saved that for nighttime.”
Matthew took piano lessons, played upright bass and played in a few bands during his youth. “None of them were very good, no offense to my good friends who were in them. It wasn’t their fault. It must have been my fault.”
When Eleanor was about 10, she remembers Matthew, who was 14 or 15 at the time, playing in the basement with two other guys: “It seemed totally normal, and our mom never cared or anything.”
And Matthew returns with: “It is normal. What are you going to do? You’re 13, so you’re not going to play fort anymore. You have to play rock band.”
The siblings’ musical upbringing goes beyond Eleanor’s lip-synching in from of the mirror and Matthew’s basement bands, however. Rehearsing My Choir made the siblings’ family myth public. They set the life of their grandmother, a retiring choir director in Chicago, to music.
“It would make sense to include our grandmother [in our music] because she’s the real music lover in our family,” Eleanor says.
Matthew is quick to correct her: “No, she’s not a music lover. She’s a musician. Our dad is the music lover, but not at all a musician.”
Their father likes classical and 18th century music, Matthew explains.
“The interesting thing about our grandmother is she’s constantly ‘playing’ music, never ‘putting on’ music, which is a very nice attitude.”
Eleanor adds: “She’s picking up the sheet music and playing the piano.”
Matthew says he really appreciates being exposed to that as a kid, “because that was a normal action as much as putting on a record or whatever, being passive about. It was very lucky [that we were] exposed to that kind of thing, where you go and play music to entertain yourself. With music, you go and play it and sing it as opposed to put it on.”
Lately, Eleanor admits that she hasn’t been listening to music as much, or in the same way anyway, saying iPods have changed the way she listens to music. But when pressed, she does say that her boyfriend was in Brazil recently, and he brought her back some records.
But when pressed on details about her boyfriend (Note: It’s been widely reported in headlines bigger than the three-run triple that her and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kopranos have dated. And, oh, the band appears to have just returned from Brazil), Eleanor is keeping quiet. “He’s just some guy I like,” she says with a warm smile.
I guess that life story is staying private, at least for this inning.