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Open Art Surgery
Fiery Furnaces radically rewire their art-rock songs in the flesh
Considering the Fiery Furnaces' steady stream of albums in the past five years—a total of six if you count 2005's 10-song EP—is it any wonder Matthew Friedberger doesn't believe in writer's block? At least, not when it comes to music. "The object is simple enough," he explains, "that you can change your methods pretty radically to produce that song. You have so many different approaches."
That's not the only time you'll hear Matthew call a song an object. Discussing the band's new double live album, Remember, which features radically altered versions of their songs, he insists it has nothing to do with being tired of the originals or addressing a regret left over from the first time around.
"It's more sort of mechanic," he says. "It's not about boredom, but maybe anticipating that. It's something that I think people should do. It comes from playing as a kid. [With] a piano piece or a song on guitar even, if you're learning to play somebody else's song, you'll [at some point try to] do it the opposite of how it is. It's like an object. You see what it sounds like in this mechanically opposite way."
Of course, Matthew is only half of the Fiery Furnaces. His sister Eleanor sings most of the songs, though on 2005's Rehearsing My Choir, they memorably used their grandmother's spoken-word stories as the basis for the songs. Matthew may write the novelistic lyrics and equally dense instrumentation, but Eleanor's charismatic, hard-bitten vocals are at the front of the band, and when they perform, she's the master of ceremonies.
Matthew welcomes his sister's input—"That's the easiest way to put you in a different mood and write something differently"—and the band similarly decided to welcome input from audiences while touring during the start of the presidential primaries. They asked fans to hand over receipts and other disposable forms of information, which the Furnaces then wrangled into impromptu songs. They dubbed the process "Democ-Rock."
"It's the notion of doing music based on collaborating with fans," Matthew says. "There's this little cult of interactivity these days. You have to find an interesting way to do it that's as automatic as possible. [It was] like, 'Give us your receipts' . . . just the ephemera they come into contact with. People don't want to have to work to write songs with you."
That approach also helped distinguish the live show from the albums. "That's in the back of any band's mind," agrees Matthew, "whether they do it with stage makeup or with a joke they tell." The Friedbergers have often reworked their songs for tours, pounding such unwieldy sprawl into the firmer shape of quick medleys. Remember takes it further still, with sudden reprises and songs within songs, plus different performances of a song spliced together to make a single album track. In other words, it may be a double live album, but it's a Fiery Furnaces double live album.
"We always play different from our records," Matthew says, "so it was a natural thing to do. In between [the live show and the albums] is where the songs are supposed to live. If you're going to play the slow songs fast, maybe you should play the end at the beginning. If you think you're going to reorder everything, why not reorder everything?"
So even if you're familiar with the Furnaces' albums—from their debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, to Blueberry Boat to Bitter Tea to last year's Widow City—the 51 dizzying tracks of Remember may still feel foreign. It unfolds as a marathon of art-rock riffing, with full-band arrangements paying homage to the ambitious best of the Who and Led Zeppelin while knocking against Eleanor's tireless narration. Some tracks are a minute long, some eight minutes, and there's not one second on the album that's predictable.
The Fiery Furnaces have been called ambitious ever since they first sprang from the Friedbergers' fertile collective imagination, but Matthew dismisses the tag. "For us, it's just a reaction to being in a rock band and making records. We're ambitious to make a record that doesn't sound like someone else's record or a record we've done before."
Well, then, mission accomplished. As usual.