When Matthew Friedberger gets an idea in his head, he pursues it to its logical conclusion, or even well past it. As one half of the sibling nucleus of The Fiery Furnaces (with his sister Eleanor), he has pursed a number of concepts that have inspired admiration and more than a bit of headscratching. For example their breakthrough record, Blueberry Boat, which was an entire album full of song suites, drew a rating of 9.6 out of 10 from indie tastemaker Pitchfork but was called “unlistenable” by the New Music Express. Other experiments, such as a stream-of-consciousness collaboration with the Friedberger’s grandmother, were similarly divisive.
But having put out eleven releases over the past seven years, fans never need to wait too long before he changes direction. That, combined with the endless rearranging and deconstructing of the material the band serves up live, give one the impression that he is both restless experimenter and workaholic. Both those traits are in full effect on his most recent project, Solos, a series of six solo releases in which Friendberger plays only one class of instrument on each record. The albums come out every two months over the next year, with two bonus records thrown in to those who subscribe to the series, either through the label’s website, or through select record stores (Other Music, Aquarius Records, Experimedia, and Amoeba.)
At Length spoke to Friedberger about what instruments want to do, what rock songs need from musicians, and why you shouldn’t expect to be satisfied at a Fiery Furnaces show.
Matthew Friedberger – Shirley (Right click on the link to download a track from Napoleonette, the first of the Solos releases.)
At Length: Can you tell me something about your new project, Solos?
Matthew Friedberger: Well, I had difficulty thinking of the overall name. That’s why it’s so boring. Solos. Can I tell you about it? I can. I wanted to have rock songs in which you just play one instrument at a time. I’ve got the whole record of songs where you just play one instrument. I don’t know if people don’t like the actual records…
MF: …but hopefully the system or the idea will be interesting to people, because it is about using the instruments to play rock music even though you can’t play the instruments. I can play the piano and I can play the guitar and bass, but I’m not really a good drummer and I can’t play the harp at all.
MF: So the idea is to demonstrate to people you can use these instruments to play rock music, without playing them conventionally. It’s supposed to be for people who want to play but they don’t feel confident as to the mastery or facility of a particular instrument, they don’t have to just make songs with groups on the computer if you want to have a garage band.
MF: They can also play one note on a guitar over and over again and then add another note and make up a song that way, or one note on a harp over and over again and add another note and the songs don’t have to be particularly simple, but you can use these instruments to your own specifications. They’re quite flexible. Obviously a piano is very flexible
MF: It is a very complicated machine, but you can just look at it and see there’s a lot of things you can do with it, you can sit on it, you can keep books on it, you can put a flower put, you can eat off it and you can stand on it to change the light bulb. But also you can do some other things, you can record and use on your record. I mean, it’s all predicated on the fact that with computers everyone can be an expert in you know music concrete.
AL: Yeah exactly.
MF: Because you can record something and copy it seven times and put it in a different place and take the attack off and add a different decay to when other things attack and that’s all very easy to do now. So I am assuming that people are willing to do that. Even if people are not used to using as program they’re used to using word processors, so they’re used to cutting and pasting. And editing on those programs is just cutting and pasting. And I hope I am not restricting this to the people who have easy access to computers — some teenagers don’t, you know?
MF: But still you can still think of your songs in this way and think of what you might want to do with your friend’s broken ukelele or hopefully their not quite broken guitar.
MF: And you’re thinking about that, and thinking about what you might want to record over and over again and pitch down an octave, and so I thought it might be even more instructive and useful to you than actually trying to do it as an exercise and with the preparation and so forth. So that’s the purpose of it, though “purpose” may be the wrong word, but that is the excuse for doing it. I really do hope that people find some use in it. Now they don’t have to just make a record with just one instrument, but as far as its value as an illustration for me, I thought it should just be one instrument at a time so you can see the obvious things that somebody can do. Now, on the piano record there is very little piano playing, or what I think of as “piano playing.” In the third song, there is a phrase why I am actually playing two notes — it was a dun, dun dun dun, dun dun dun but a lot people can do that, I think. And everything else is less than even that. I am just playing one note at a time and scraping the strings. I do have a piece of paper that I am rubbing on the piano, so there’s a percussion sound, but I don’t think that’s cheating.
AL: No, no.
MF: So there is no playing on it at all and there is nothing requiring any special skill or knowledge other than the ability to vaguely keep time. So suppose I am with you on the computer, you can adjust it.
MF: If you can’t play in a given tempo for more than one measure at a time — I am not taking for granted that people can, though it’s a useful thinking to know how to do. [laughs] But the piano record isn’t the best illustration of what I am talking about, unfortunately, because there are some songs in there where I am just playing one chord, then another chord, then three chords all together. I’m a little handicapped by the fact that I am used to playing the piano.
MF: The notion works much better with an instrument you are not at all used to playing, or used to handling. That becomes more fun, not just because you look at the instrument abstractly, but also because the frustration of trying to handle the instrument clumsily can be very inspiring, meaning you get energy from it. I hope you don’t think I mean that in a sort of hippie way.
AL: No, no. [Laughs.]
MF: It gives you the satisfaction of having the instrument and not making the sound you want and the instrument directly puts in your head sounds you do want, so it’s an automatic inspiration generator in a sense. Normally, you try to make up music, if you’re used to making music you just think of something. I mean that’s how I make up music. And then you figure how you are going to push it out. Well, maybe sometimes you can’t think of any music [laughs], so the frustration of trying to play something on an instrument you can’t play certainly puts sounds in your head actively — it gets your imagination going, if only to run away from the whole of the of the sounds you are making on the instrument you aren’t playing properly. I don’t know if it makes any sense.
AL: No, it makes perfect sense. So is that why you picked the harp? That seems like the most left field of the instruments you mentioned.
MF: Yes, I have a harp. I own a harp and so that’s why I picked that one as opposed to… well, I don’t know, another instrument I can’t play. There is no wind instrument in this thing because I don’t play any wind instruments, and of course that’s not an excuse, that’s the whole point. [laughs] In this case I thought that — except for the organ — it’s better to have all percussives — the string instruments used percussively — and the organ can be the one that fits by not fitting. Even though it is a keyboard instrument, it’s different from the piano, because the sound of the organ is so different from a striking string instrument.
MF: I do have the drums to have an unpitched instrument, but the whole point will be to record in such a way that it will be pitched. I am just going to use a regular drum kit so that will be fun too, and hopefully instructive. And the guitar will be the one which I am most regularly playing on it. Hopefully all of them will be ways to construct a song while using an instrument that you can’t play. We will have lots of examples of that, but if there are people who aren’t interested in the song or don’t like my style of songwriting or they’re not interested in hearing me sing, they can still be useful, or that’s what I hope.
There is another whole reason for doing this. When you have the experience of making records, you often, and especially if you are overdubbing a lot of things, you often to do or you are often meant to do all the overdubs on an instrument at once. You mic up the piano and now you’re going to play all the piano parts for these seven songs. But you start doing that and you start thinking, “Oh, I can play this part, for what I imagined would be for a guitar or a flugelhorn or my uncle’s bagpipes, and you think I can play it on the piano.”
MF: You have the experience where you get very partisan for the one instrument you are playing in that moment and you feel the instrument want to crowd out its competitor instruments. That’s how that ends up, that’s the way you just play everything on one instrument and then you play everything on the other instrument if you are doing it, because that’s the way it seems to be most precise to record an overdub record. Though it turns out not to be efficient because you end up with all these redundant parts. For me it comes from that experience of the instruments competing against each other for your attention, their own special place in your in your timbral imagination.
AL: So when you’re playing an instrument you almost get in the frame of mind of “I am a piano player” and you start thinking in that mode, as if there were different ways of thinking with each instrument.
MF: You do. I don’t think I am a piano player, though actually that is interesting you say that. I think more that the piano wants to play that part. And that’s just kind of because as a kid I was a bass player and so playing any other instrument is just for fun. You know, playing it properly. So you don’t think of yourself as expressing yourself on the instrument as much as you think of collaborating with the mechanics of the instrument to make sounds that you like. I don’t want to get down to becoming one with the instrument, I don’t want to have a western conception of mastering the technique. I don’t mean it like that, but that is the experience that you have. You’re seeing what you can get out of the mechanics of the way the instrument operates. And the instrument is doing it as much as you are — it sounds great. That’s what they say in the studio “it sounds great.” You don’t say, “Hey, you sound great.”
MF: Maybe some people do say that, but I have mostly experienced in recording, “that’s solid, the piano sound is great, the guitar sound is great.” You don’t say, “Oh, your playing was so wonderful,” they don’t say that to you if you are working with somebody. Talk about the thing.
So that’s the other part of doing this thing, for me.
AL: So you’re selling this series as a pre-order subscription through Thrill Jockey and only on vinyl. Why did you choose to make it available in that way?
MF: To have it be records?
AL: Yeah, records and the subscription release system.
MF: Another thing about this is it’s cheap to make these records involving only one instrument. [laughs] So how do you make a lot of records? Rock music should be spontaneous and relatively immediate and therefore you think it should come out very quickly. A lot of people, a lot of bands, for their fans, will put out an mp3 EP on their website or whatever every month and that seems fun, but this seems more fun to me. Maybe just because I’m used to records, and if I like the part of the game that includes this official document like a record and I know I would as a fan, I would be more interested in that as well. Now maybe that’s just because I’m old and my experience is listening to music and buying used records, for $2 or $3 or $1.50 or $7.50, depending on the record — I could make a list; I have paid lots of different prices for records [laughs].
With the economics of it, it’s better to do it this way. Of course anyone interested in it at all, the people will be able to just file share it because first of all, there are digital copies already out that people have and I presume some one person may give a copy to a friend, or people play the record into their computer. It’s not that you get away from file sharing, because you can’t — ever. It also has to be a limited record because you can’t have more than one normal release every year or nine months or so, at least if you’re not a popular act, so how do you keep going?
MF: I think Frank Zappa said that there are two rules to playing rock music in an environment where people aren’t necessarily interested in supporting idiosyncratic examples of said music: number one was don’t stop and number two was keep going. [laughs] So it’s an interesting exercise in that regard, too.
AL: Yeah, that seems to be your M.O. — you put out a lot of records. The Fiery Furnaces put out a record a year or so ago and you already had a couple of solo releases not too long ago.
MF: That’s not nearly enough! I mean, to me, if you’re making rock music with any degree of attention, let me put it that way, or if you are trying to make something very definite and particular at this stage in this great music’s history, you are going to be making music that a lot of people in that given tradition, will disagree with. I don’t see any way you wouldn’t be doing that at this point. There is a lot of work to be done, not synthesizing the various traditions, the various styles in this tradition I mean. There is a lot of what should be done developing further the various styles in this tradition and that is going to make you, if you’re going to do that, and operate that way, you’re going to be making music that a lot of equally informed and committed people will not have any use for.
AL: It’s interesting that you mention that. It reminds me of the first time I saw the Fiery Furnaces perform live, in support of the Blueberry Boat album. I showed up for the show because I loved the record, and then you played a very deconstructed and rearranged version of the record, taking pieces from one song and pasting them into other places in one continuous performance, and it was a thrilling experience. It struck me at the time that you seemed to have a very restless approach to your own music, where you constantly wanted to be pushing it in new directions.
MF: Well I think I would say not restless, but responsible. If you are going to take care of a rock song, the rock song wants to be taken care of, wants to do something different. A rock and roll song doesn’t want to do the same old thing. You know, people have the record. They don’t need you to play it live. A band like us is not in the business of making personal appearances in which people’s fandom and interest is validated.
MF: You are validated because the people smile at you, you’re in the crowd and you’re validated because you get to sing along to a song you like. It is not a script for a group performance where everyone knows what is going to come next. So other people can do that, the Ramones being the best example. They had a script, and it was as they say to “bring the good news to the gentiles.” Their music was powerful and the power and interest in that music is not maybe appreciated or even understood, and may not be for a long time, the power of that performance that they did keep going and keep doing. You know, if you think you are a band like that, well then I guess you’re going to play your record, and you’re going to play your same record three years later when you have a new record out and it’s the same as your last one. But if you don’t think you’re a band like that then presumably you have the opposite responsibility. Then when people come to your performance they need to be surprised, not satisfied. They need the pleasure of what they used to call in an old paperback “the alienation effect” — “the V effect.” And that’s a simple pleasure that doesn’t miss or lead anywhere for anybody, but that’s presumably what bands like us should be doing, this pleasure of the small surprise as opposed to immediate satisfaction.
AL: That’s really interesting.
MF: So now, when do you draw the line, when should you turn right as opposed to turning left? Once you start thinking that way, and once the member of the audience is willing to play along, they’re going to disagree even more, even if they agree with you doing that, and so the satisfaction quotient goes down even further. Because you’re not really playing along with the band, you’re not willing to sit and accept whatever, they just have to get whatever they want. Of course, if you’re interested in the band, you know, if you are interested in my sister as a performer or watching Bob D’Amico play the drums — he has played the drums with us for so many years now — then you still have that. Then you have the dramatic effect of those people being asked to do things that they don’t seem comfortable doing.
MF: I think rock music mostly functions as a dramatic music in two different ways: one is the obvious way that people use it is for the soundtrack music in their lives, which is the “proper” use of pop music. They sing it to their friends and they play it when they’re sad, they play to get themselves excited to go out and they use it as a dramatic music in their life or in bits of their life that they dramatize, either helpfully or maybe harmfully to themselves. I don’t know, maybe it’s not good, but they do it.
It’s also a dramatic music when people are fans of a group or fans of a type of music and they go to a show or hear somebody’s new record, then that’s part of the continuing story of that act and those people or that type of band and what happens at a show of that type of band.
MF: And Zappa, to bring him up again, he called it Conceptual Continuity, that each one of his albums was part of a greater story. Now, I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that with Beatles’ career, people responded to this kind of opera that the Beatles were in the 60s. It included the records, included the press conferences, included Paul saying he smoked weed, and included Ringo being sick and then coming back to join them in Australia and that was all part of it. You maybe had a more intense relationship with one record than you did with another, a more intense relationship with one member and not another, more intense relationship with one of their interests or not. But it was all a continuing story played out by their activity, by their sort of legitimate activity that was making records or making a film; by the commercial activity that was directed by people in business with them, you know, press releases, photos, merchandise; played out by the media that wasn’t under their control — the way people wrote about them, the negative reactions people had to them; and then the way it might have been used socially and what its suggestion meant socially for you. And that would change over time with people, an experience that happens very often, where they love the frisson of leaving behind an interest, leaving behind a band. That’s a very familiar sort of clichéd adolescent thing.
AL: Right, yeah.
MF: If you differentiate yourself from friends or from ex-friends, because you’re not interested in that thing anymore, you don’t like that sitar music anymore, you like old-time music. You’re still wearing suspenders, but now it means that you are an old Appalachian gentleman, not a-
AL: I love imagining these two people having this argument. [laughs]
MF: …I am sure that’s happened. I’m sure that exact thing has happened. People like to do that. That’s a typical thing.
MF: Anyway, back to the band. The world is different now, anyway, but we’re not going to provide the drama in the sense of the story of our band, you know, the wacky brother and sister.
MF: I mean, that does exist but it’s not very interesting, so we have to do it directly in the music. You have to provide the drama of “I am going to the show with my friend who likes this band. I have never heard the band before. I have heard of them and I heard the one song he played me on the way to the show.” Okay, the band starts playing and my friend says, “hey, I don’t know this song.” So you get the drama (drama!), of the music being messed with and to hear the music being manipulated in a way that you might enjoy directly, you might think it’s funny the way it’s going, you know there are different ways you can think of it. Hopefully, in making it that way I am thinking “the new riff to this song is good, the new riff to this song is also extremely cheesy and horrible and the new riff to the song is very opposite from the way it is played on the record.
MF: It might be good because it comes right after a version of a song which is much better than the way it is on the record. I like it in a very bland sense of liking it, so therefore this next song should be tortured a little bit. And that will be interesting. You want to have the experience of going to the show, and at least if on the record its fast, then live they play it slow and it open up for you when you play, you can think that you like the song in the middle somewhere, and it hopefully lets people do that themselves and they can even make the song their own and imagine it however they like…
MF: Or they can do that any way and people do do it any way. They hear it however they want to and use it however they want to, and we know that experience because we know that people do that very effectively and very exaggeratedly. We all have that experience of someone who is a good friend of yours whose judgment you trust in general, maybe even trust their judgment on a lot of aesthetic matters and maybe even trust their judgment on a lot of musical matters — you hear the same thing, you think it sounds sad, they think it sounds happy, you think it sounds horrible, they think it sounds really really cute. How can that be?
MF: That’s the way it works. And pop music audiences are already in control and are imagining the music to be whatever they want it to be because how could they like it otherwise? We know they like it, and they make it part of their life.
MF: And why are they doing that? Because they’re working hard and adding to it and making it good. [laughs] And that’s what happens. And people can also make the best thing sound bad, too. So to some extent it’s all redundant, this kind of opening the song and playing it differently so people can listen, but then again it is a help or a performance of that process.
MF: And it’s more fun and not so extremely boring.
AL: For you, as musicians?
MF: No, no… for me as a fan. I would go see a band like the Jesus Lizard, and the type of band they were was they made records by getting recorded. They did what they did and somebody recorded them doing that and those were their records, so when they played live, well it would sound quite a bit like the records, but actually it sounded nothing like the records. It was much faster at times, it would be slower at times, the singer would vocalize totally differently and you’d have the P.A. of a little 700-capacity club.
Actually, I don’t think I ever saw the Jesus Lizard in a 700-capacity club, but it doesn’t sound anything like a record. Especially those records. But in general I want to see something different when I go see a band.
AL: So speaking of records, you guys have a new Furnaces record coming out, as well, is that correct?
MF: Well, yes. We’re going to make a new record here in this winter season time and I don’t know when it will come out, because my sister is also making a record and actually it’s almost done.
AL: Oh, excellent.
MF: So I don’t know what will come out first, her record or The Fiery Furnaces record. So I am not sure when it will come out. It comes out at the beginning of the summer or the end of the summer, really. I guess those are the only really two choices.
AL: You think you’re going to tour at all in support of the first couple of your solo records?
MF: I very probably will play shows. It will all depend on if Eleanor is playing the solo record. [laughs] Then I will, too. But if she’s not going to then I can’t do that.
AL: Right, right.
MF: I mean I can, kind of, but I think she is going to do that, so then yeah, I’ll play shows and then that will be fun to try to have some of the thing, I am not going to do what a lot of people to do these days and loop myself. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to play with a couple of people and I hope it will a direct relation to what I was talking about with the solos.
MF: You know, for me it’s almost the most fun thing to write lyrics and have them be in rock songs.
MF: Because really what I’m best at is making up tunes, I guess. I mean I can make up tunes very fast and a lot of them, however many of them are very cliche but I can do that. What people don’t like is when I elaborate the tunes or “ruin them,” I guess [laughs.] But really what I like to do, what’s more fun, is to make a song, and have the words as, I wouldn’t say more important, but sort of. I really like doing that. It’s a lot of fun to make things up, it’s one of the most fun activites, and I hope that the people find the songs funny. Those are long winded ways to say that. I think that my two favorite guitar rocks acts (or whatever instrument they are going to use) that play right now are Deerhoof and Ween.
AL: That’s a great pair.
MF: I don’t think that my songs sound like Ween. They’re not as funny as Ween’s, the lyrics are very different, but I don’t know. I hope sometimes people find the lyrics or what I quote in the lyrics, they’ll find that amusing. Because it’s me singing, I don’t feel like I need to take advantage of the dramatic situation of the singer and how the singer is going to sound and how the song is going to match with her voice or their persona or how it’s going to go against the voice persona — obviously I am thinking about my sister.
MF: For me, because it’s quite fast and it’s me singing I cant find any interesting persona for myself, which is probably a failing as a rock singer, but because of that, for me it becomes more about the song very transparently, and that’s kind of fun for me now. Even though really I prefer the idea of writing for somebody else and being able to think of the singer as a character in the song as well, whoever the character they’re playing in the song is. For me, I have difficulty doing that, which maybe is natural and also maybe is a problem, but I don’t think it’s so much of a problem that I should’t be doing it, you know I can’t quite be Randy Newman.
MF: Even though he’s somebody who is not a performer, but he definitely he had… I may think of a sentence like I can’t even be Randy Newman, much less Tom Waits.