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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 14, 2004

For Fiery Furnaces, it's a two-ring circus of rock

By Susan Carpenter
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, a.k.a. the Fiery Furnaces, have been making music together nearly four years, but when you're talking to them, they act more like children than collaborative rock stars. Perhaps that's to be expected from a band made of siblings.

When Matthew launches into a nursery rhyme at the beginning of an interview at a Cuban coffeehouse in Los Angeles, Eleanor leaves the table until he's through.

"We still need to adjust to being around each other all the time," she explains upon her return, a cup of tea in hand to help fend off a budding cold. "But we'll learn to ignore each other more."

The Furnaces' familial sparring makes for an unlikely musical partnership, but the off-kilter energy of this Brooklyn duo has had a happy byproduct: music that is challenging but catchy, odd without being off-putting, and adorable, not cutesy.

That combination has made them one of rock's most buzzed-about bands since Rough Trade's release of their "Gallowsbird's Bark" album last fall. England's New Musical Express named the record "one of last year's most stimulating and refreshingly unconventional albums." It came in 28th in the Village Voice 2003 poll of the nation's pop critics. Spin magazine recently singled out the group as a "band to watch."

Silly and surreal, the songs on their full-length debut seem to have been inspired by an acid trip through a boardwalk fun house. Weaving strains of old-time show tunes and '60s British Invasion bands with whimsically tall tales, they are psychedelic storytellers. Birds chirp in the background of the oxymoronic ditty "Tropical Iceland." Sharks are the inspiration for an "Asthma Attack."

As the group's chief lyricist, Matthew tends to push his songs to their most illogical conclusions, as if he were playing to an audience of gullible children instead of seasoned rock fans.

Their innocence and Dadaist whimsy give the impression that Matthew would have liked to press "pause" on his life at age 8, so he could fill in the blanks on a world he was just beginning to understand. But he's grown up now, so Matthew does the next best thing — he redraws reality in a way that's more to his liking.

"The simple songs that we make up, we're trying to make them not so dull," Matthew said. "We've got to mix and match and do these clever little things to have them not be so deadly dull and the easiest way to do that, for me, is just to be self-consciously playful or crafty about it."

This oddball outlook isn't only in the music. It extends to the liner notes of "Gallowsbird's Bark," which claim the band began after Matthew hit Eleanor in the head and stabbed her in the knee.

The truth is far less dramatic. After college and separate trips overseas, the two boomeranged home to Oak Park, Ill., where they decided to use their time together making music. Then Eleanor left for Brooklyn, where she took an office job at a Queens insurance agency. Matthew followed, finding work as a special-education teaching assistant.

"I always wanted to live there since being a little kid," said Eleanor, a mane of shaggy hair framing her thin face.

"I never knew it," countered Matthew.

"Why would I ever talk to you about it?" responded Eleanor.

Eleanor and Matthew readily admit they didn't like each other much growing up. But watching the two interact today, one gets the feeling they may be playing up their sibling rivalry for amusement value.

"Matt was a very overbearing older brother," according to Eleanor.

However strong their animosity, it's surprising the two decided to form a band. For Eleanor's part, it was going to a lot of uninspiring rock shows and spending time with marginally talented home-recording friends that gave her the idea.

"Music was just around me all the time, and Matt had always been playing around me, so I just thought I'd try," she said.

The Furnaces' second release, "Blueberry Boat," is due in July. According to Matthew, the record "sounds like a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant pit orchestra." It's an apt description for the album, dotted with saloon piano, noodling guitars, Kraftwerk-like electronics and sonic novelties of unknown origin.

Lyrically, their new songs are just as ludicrous as those of their debut, involving lost dogs and boats filled with blueberries. Structurally, they're as crooked as San Francisco's Lombard Street, taking off in one direction, then veering in another, without losing the listener.

The new songs do, however, require more patient listening. Several clock in at over eight minutes, taking the listener on a rollercoaster ride of tempos and textures that make them less accessible but ultimately rewarding. If "Gallowsbird's Bark" was Pop Rocks, "Blueberry Boat" is a candy jawbreaker — just as sweet but more challenging.

In an admittedly unusual move, "Blueberry Boat" is coming out less than a year after "Gallowsbird's Bark," but "the fact that they want to keep the creative process going and release stuff is fine with me," said Keith Wood, president of Rough Trade America. "There's a point where you can hit overkill, but record companies shouldn't stand in the way of creativity. If an artist is creating great songs, we should give them a platform to put (them) out."

Wood signed the band early last year, after listening to a demo tape. At the time, the first record was, for the most part, finished and the second was already written.

Indeed, the band is so wound up creatively that it has plotted out its third and fourth records. According to Matthew, No. 3 will feature duets, "with Eleanor singing the young person's part — the expectation of what will next happen — and our grandmother singing the failure — the disappointment that actually happens each time." No. 4 "will be very '50s," he said, "a Dylan-sounding record" with "rock 'n' roll free association" and "beatnik lyrics."

That's a lot of records, especially for a band whose members don't consider themselves musicians.

"I'm not," said Matthew, 31. "I don't have control over what I play."

"Well, if he doesn't, then I really don't," said Eleanor, 27.

Both are lying. Matthew grew up playing the stand-up bass. He taught himself piano and guitar from imitating his mother, who liked to tap out Gilbert & Sullivan tunes on the keys and strum folk songs at parties.

Eleanor also plays some guitar, which she learned from her brother. On "Blueberry Boat" she plays drums. Her primary role, however, is singer. And for good reason: Belting out no-nonsense, unisex vocals, her voice is striking. And her presence at shows is commanding if oddly serious considering the absurdity of the songs she's singing. During a recent show, she pounded out the beat in a stationary march. She rarely smiled.