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Squabbling Siblings of Fiery Furnaces Are Hot Stuff

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page N01


Unlike Noel and Liam Gallagher of the British band Oasis, rock's other notorious sibling act, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger -- otherwise known as the Fiery Furnaces -- don't violently dislike each other. Matt did stab his younger sister in the leg once, but that was a while ago, and probably an accident. Still, in most cases, the Friedbergers would probably prefer to avoid each other.

But the surprise success of the duo's sophomore release, the wordy, nautical-themed, sort-of-prog-rock, sort-of-indie-rock "Blueberry Boat," means the siblings must now endure the prospect of a tour. Together. In a van. With only the occasional roadie or touring drummer to absorb the overflow abuse. Did the Cowsills have this problem?

Drummer Andy Knowles, left, and bass/synthesizer player Toshi Yano flank Matt and Eleanor Friedberger at Coney Island earlier this summer. (Yuko Kitajima)

"We don't necessarily want to be together constantly," explains Eleanor. "What started out to be fun has turned into a job. We've started to get on each other's nerves. We've had plenty of moments where it seemed like we were gonna quit, and it's only been a year."

A year ago, few outside the confines of New York hipster circles had heard of the Fiery Furnaces, who were then poised to release their debut, "Gallowsbird's Bark." Thanks to the album's inscrutable lyrics and the Friedbergers' growing reputation for mom-liked-you-better sparring, the band had become beloved by semiotics majors and interviewers alike. Their public skirmishes were so entertaining, almost vaudevillian, it was hard not to think that the duo played up their differences for reporters.

Spend any amount of time talking to either of them, and it becomes obvious: They were actually being polite. Their father, Mark, who lives in Texas, remembers visiting them last year in New York. "They had a terrible fight right in front of me," he remembers. "I was really put out. I was like, 'What's going on here? You're going to kill each other!' One is 31 and the other's 27. They're not little teenagers anymore."

Music was supposed to bring the Friedbergers closer. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Matt was a band geek; Eleanor played sports. "When I was in high school, I don't remember Eleanor at all," says Matt, sitting in a bar across the street from his East Village apartment. After he left home, "I think we both tried to be friendly, and what we could talk about was rock music. That was what we used as a crutch so we could be friends."

Matt taught Eleanor how to play guitar when she was 19. "We were good friends because we hadn't seen each other in a long time," remembers Eleanor, on the phone from London. "It would turn into, 'Let's make a song together,' in the basement of my mother's house. I would read out of old folk lyric books, and he would play the organ. It sounds corny, but it was really nice."

Matt began to write songs with Eleanor in mind. She moved to New York, and he followed six months later. He remembers the actual beginning of the Fiery Furnaces (whose name comes both from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and a reference in the Bible) this way: "She wanted to play, and it was easy for me to say, 'Yeah.' Even if I didn't like it, it was helping my sister, so why not?"

They briefly lived together. It did not go well. They played their first show in November 2000, releasing their debut three years later on the vaunted British label Rough Trade. Recorded in three days, it's a piano-intensive compound of punk, rock, ragtime and new wave. Extravagantly theatrical and admirably ambitious, it's loaded with the same sort of stream-of-consciousness lyrical absurdities that characterize "Blueberry Boat." It doesn't make much sense until the fifth or sixth listen, and sometimes not even then. "Some people like puzzles," Matt says with a shrug.

The Furnaces' debut was a true collaboration, with the Friedbergers sharing songwriting credits throughout. On "Blueberry Boat," released 10 months later, Matt writes and arranges virtually every song, plays many of the instruments, and occasionally sings. He has rapidly become the musical force behind the duo, as Eleanor, whose fraught, grainy vocals and formidable presence suggest a younger Patti Smith ("It's not just the hair and being skinny," she agrees), has become the public focal point.

That their current situation perfectly mirrors their childhood roles isn't surprising, says Matt. "There's a big charisma gap between the two of us. People have always liked Eleanor. And then there's a talent gap between the two of us, because I've always played music and she never did. So for me, it's worked out fine."

Inspired by ambitious works such as the Who's "A Quick One" -- a precursor to the band's rock opera "Tommy" -- Matt says he envisioned "Blueberry Boat" as a concept album, though it's hard to say what the concept could be. Packed with eight-minute-plus songs about ships run aground, lost dogs and facing down pirates, "Blueberry Boat" exhaustively name-checks everything from TCBY to Lexus to Northern Irish footballer Danny Blanchflower. "I looked at the [lyrics], and I couldn't understand a word of it," says Mark Friedberger, to whom the album is dedicated. "It's very Joycean. But the best thing about it is, there's some lovely tunes."

"Blueberry" has become an unexpected success -- unexpected to the Friedbergers, anyway -- recently reaching No. 1 on the college album charts. Matt worries a lot about the people who might hate it. "I want to make another record as quickly as possible for all the people who hear [us] and are like, 'Oh, I don't really like them.' So then you do something else, [thinking], 'Well, maybe they'll like this other record.' I wish there was a race to make records in rock-and-roll, and maybe you're paired off with another band?"

He's already working on an album in which Eleanor will duet with the Friedbergers' maternal grandmother, Olga Sarantos. An 80-year-old choir director and singer, Sarantos will play the part of an old, embittered woman; Eleanor will represent her younger, more hopeful self. "It's gonna be much better than these last two records," Matt says dismissively.

Eleanor worries about the commercial viability of the Grandma Project; the album's key track will detail a fight Sarantos had with her bishop. But for her, at least, going solo isn't an option. "Matt would laugh," she says. "Before we started playing together, I used to be more independent."

She seems fairly content to let Matt write songs for her, most of which articulate her feelings so completely, she sometimes forgets she didn't write them herself. Matt is toying with the idea of making their next, post-Grandma offering a punchy, Chuck Berry-type record. But maybe not.

"Eleanor also likes birds. I always think of Singapore, with these songbirds. So the record will be 'Singapore Songbirds,' " he says. "I don't really know what that means."

Fiery Furnaces are scheduled to appear Sept. 24 at the Black Cat.

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