When trying to comprehend the complicated world of Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, it may help to understand where it all began. Long before forming the Fiery Furnaces and assimilating into the art/music mecca of Brooklyn, the garrulous, keyboard-crazy brother and more reserved, coolly headstrong sister spent their childhood in Oak Park, Ill., a quaint Chicago suburb known for its conflicting mix of modern, sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright houses and boxy, heavily ornamented Victorian architecture. This dynamic of new and old, simple and grand, expansive and densely jumbled is something the Furnaces have perfected over the course of seven years and five albums. Appropriately, when Matt is pressed to describe the Furnaces’ sixth LP, Widow City (Thrill Jockey), the band’s composer and chief lyricist answers in typically elusive fashion.
“The record is made up of knick-knackism,” he says. “Wondering and wandering with the Ouija, although I was too poor to afford a real Ouija board, and messages (that came) from moldy and mouse-masticated magazines from old people’s houses.”
Despite the seemingly sly abstraction of this explanation, Matt doesn’t intend to be confusing. When trying to put his ideas into words, he often asks, sweetly and genuinely, “Does that make any sense? I mean, I’m trying to be as specific as possible. I’m sorry if it doesn’t seem clear.”
Truth be told, even Eleanor is sometimes left in the dark about the way her brother creates music that consistently defies conventional structure and timing. “I don’t know what his process is because it’s a mystery to me,” she says. “Like how he comes up with musical parts, I really have no idea. If he’s imagining playing a Ouija board, for all I know, that’s what’s really happening.”
Whatever goes on inside his brain, Matt’s mad-scientist creations run the gamut: Widow City showcases Led Zeppelin-style hard-rocking riffs (“Navy Nurse,” “Uncle Charlie”), whistles and monkey and cow noises (“The Old Hag Is Sleeping”), bumping bass lines that take a cue from Kanye West (“My Egyptian Grammar”) and a cauldron of other instrument sounds including flute, brass and strings, all played on a Chamberlain keyboard. On top of all this, there’s Eleanor’s voice: sugary-sweet at times, cold and acrid at others. Most impressive, though, is her uncanny command of language and her ability to expel tongue-twisting, proper-noun-spiked lyrics faultlessly. For her, it’s all in a day’s work.
“It’s a cinch,” she says coyly, making even these three words sound playful and out of the ordinary. “No, it’s hard, but it’s not that hard. And that’s what makes it fun. Singing, ‘Ooh baby, I love you, I’m sorry I left you,’ that’s not fun.”
“I think it’s good for the songwriter to clot up the words rhythmically,” says Matt. “So what would normally be eight syllables or eight notes, the singer has to make it a 19-syllable line. It’s a cheap and easy way to make the rhythm interesting even though the song itself is in a very simple meter. For Eleanor, I think that’s what she’s really good at doing, so I try to write a lot of stuff like that.”
Even though the Friedbergers have recorded and toured consistently since their inception, they’ve barely reached the brim of mainstream success. It’s not for a lack of media exposure: Eleanor modeled alongside “it girls” Chloë Sevigny and Maggie Gyllenhaal for luxury fashion label Miu Miu, Prada’s cool cousin. She’s gotten more buzz for her romantic relationship with Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. In addition to the Furnaces’ Bitter Tea, Matt put out two worthwhile solo LPs last year. So why haven’t the Furnaces achieved more commercial success?
“We had to do what we thought was appropriate, which was to make the sort of records we did,” says Matt. “In other words, good records. I think a lot of people are frustrated by [our music]. Widow City is meant to be a ’70s-sounding record. Most rock records now seem to operate by the principle of nothingism; they don’t want anything to stand in the way of the tune and the singer. We don’t like that. You know, we play simple songs and have tunes, but people are maybe frustrated by the fact that they don’t get easy access. Presumably, you have to take the bad with the good, and that’s what makes it more enjoyable.”
“We’re just hoping that more and more people come to think like us,” says Eleanor. “I genuinely don’t think that we make weird music. It’s not about not wanting mainstream success or selling more records. We’d love to sell more records, but we’re not gonna change our taste. We hope other people will change theirs.” She pauses and lets out a gentle laugh. “And I think that they slowly will.”