Returning to their hometown of Oak Park, Illinois The Fiery Furnaces are on their North American Tour. They played at Fitzgerald’s this weekend to a quaint audience of friends, family, and a few fans. I had the privilege of talking intimately, right before the show, with Matthew Friedberger, brotherly half of TFF. We reminisced about growing up on Chicago radio, our college days at UIC, and of course the music that makes the Fiery Furnaces so memorable.
Promoting their eighth album, I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey Records, 2009), TFF have proven to be an infectiously melodic, optimistic, and amply dramatic classic rock band. TFF have tirelessly produced what they call “Democ-rock,” indie-classics that carry audiences on journeys with innovative, narrative lyricism and succinct compositions. Sister, Eleanor Friedberger’s voice will take you through your avant college-angst days to your post-grad, “real world” anxieties with poetic poise. TFF’s music communicates a sensitivity for the nuances of life, the simple pleasures, trivial triumphs and tragedies of everyday people. Their intoxicating lyrics and classic rock riffs grip at the memory, producing a wholesome nostalgia that is just as youthful as it is aged and savvy. There’s no pretense to TFF’s music, only a sense of place and a sense of purpose that spills over from Matt’s personality into the music.
Just before the show, Matt pulled me outside the bar to sit under the canopy of a calm midwestern night. We talked about the recent storm that ripped through the Chicagoland area, which allegedly popped out a couple windows of the Sears Tower (we both agreed we’d never call it the Willis whatever) and had a lot Chicago residents without power for almost a day. The setting, cool and perfect for a quiet conversation with the musical master, and socially engaged Matthew Friedberger.
Your first couple albums have a lot of references to Chicago, family history and growing up in Oak Park. How much would you say being from Oak Park has influenced or been a part of your music?
Well it’s hard to say, because you don’t ever know. It’s hard to gage. You don’t notice all those things you take for granted which are related to the circumstances in which you started playing music, or when you started to hear music. You don’t know how the social situation that you’re born into affects your tastes. I mean you know that Chicago radio influenced you. The kinda weird, both bad and the good things that Chicago radio in the 80s does to a person.
What were you listening to back then?
Well it seems that in the early 80s, all through the 80s, there were three classic rock stations for every pop station, so you had a retrospective view of the music available.
No, not oldies. There were three stations that would play white rock from the 60s and 70s. Dude, they wouldn’t even play Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder. And then they did. I don’t know if they played Family Affair; Sly Stone would be borderline. And then you had the mix, WXRT which still had the old 70s freefrom, was a different station from the programmed classic rock station, like WCKG or The Loop.
Anyways, there was a lot of community radio that you could hear too, depending on where you were in the city. So, if you were interested socially in pop music, that pop music was more likely to be The Beatles or Black Sabbath, rather than Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, you know what I mean?
Now at the same time you had the music of the 80s, the hip hop thing came through to me in magazines as opposed to radio. You read about it in a magazine. And then all the punk rock music, either bands that didn’t play anymore or the hardcore culture was seen through that background for me. I wasn’t into metal. Lots of kids liked punk and Metallica, Slayer, and whatever relationship to hip hop records they had.
A loud engine starting up interrupts our conversation. We’re sitting under a canopy, with a cool summer breeze gently blowing at the make-shift tequila bottle kerosine lanterns set on our picnic table. Somebody’s backing up the large white van parked in front of us. Matt turns inquisitively, “What the heck is he doing?”
“That’s our van.
“Oh, no wonder. So concerned.” I laugh awkwardly and reply, “Taking it for a spin.”
Matt continues, “Nah, he’s just tired.”
“That’s going to be part of the interview, a perfect interlude,” we laugh.
So when did TFF start doing the college circuit? I saw you play in Urbana, IL at the Highdive three or four years back.
Yeah, that’s my friend’s place. I went to school there. That’s a show we did on a regular tour, on our way to Chicago. Midwestern college towns used to be some of the most pleasant places. Those towns used to be some of the most liberal places. Something about those Scandinavian immigrants and The New Deal makes it very different from east coast Leftism.
You write most of the music for TFF. What’s your process?
I write most of the lyrics too. You have to have many different processes. It’s very fun to change your methods. The simple thing is you’re going to write the words first, or you’re going to write the music first. Then you have the music that’s supposed to depict what the lyrics are to be about, but you haven’t written the lyrics as such yet. So it’s good to vary, to keep yourself interested while you’re making it, while you’re writing, while you record, while you’re rehearsing. Or else it’s not going to be worked, and no one will like it. Or they won’t like it anyways. I mean, a lot of people won’t like it either way, if you’re making something definite, or something necessarily particular, lots of people will not like the decisions you’ve made, if you’re making something worthwhile.
I feel you. I do my flash fiction on the side. If you’re not inspired it doesn’t come. I feel guilty for not writing more. You have to want to write. Do you feel any pressure to produce?
Music can be very mechanical if you want it to be. To generate material you can use you’re supposed critical intelligence on… you can do it, it’s a a matter of effort as opposed to inspiration to generate material to work on. So you don’t ever really have to get stuck.
Because the music in that first stage can be very mechanical or game playing, however you want to put it, if you apply effort, you can keep going, whether or not you use it later. Exercise in any sense of the word is key. Whether it’s practicing on your instrument, if that’s the center of your musical activity, or writing music if you’re a song writer, or a composer who works in regular notation, or if you’re messing with sound sculpture things. You have to exercise your musical muscles.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading this book, just bought it today. It’s about the situation with Spanish colonization and the Comanche people in the southwest, the founding of New Mexico and Texas. The Comanche were able through efforts to remake themselves as equestrian people. They were able to do reverse colonialism in the southwest. They controlled the area. If you looked from one perspective, from Mexico City, the Spanish Empires’ head, you saw this disorganized far north of México. If you looked through the Comanche perspective everything was well organized to their benefit. And the important thing, they used the French in Louisiana and Spanish settlements to their advantage. That’s something that other Native American groups who achieved a measure of expansion or hegemony, were never really able to do. It’s called Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen. This book is interesting, as revisionist history. It’s put out by Yale.
How was your tour in México?
We played in Mexico City and Monterrey. We flew into Mexico City and then to Toluca. Monterrey feels very much like a North American city, and it is a North American city. You fly into the airport and the huge factories are right there, and the beautiful mountains, it’s very dramatic. The center of the town is very quaint.
You know, we’ve played Toronto a bunch of times. We’ve played Mexico City once. Why is that? We have fans in Toronto. But we have just as many fans in Mexico City. I know why that is. It’s not because you can’t go there and play and have fans. It’s very upsetting. It’s a very complicated thing. It’s not just going to be solved by more indie, U.S. American bands going to Mexico and more Mexican things of all different types having an interest in the north. But Chicago is a very Mexican city. It fits very well with Chicago’s history of immigration, both in terms of assimilation and keeping our own identity. It’s not strange for Chicago at all to be a very Mexican city as opposed to being a very Irish city, a very Polish city, a very German city, a very Jewish city.
When you were a high schooler where did you used to go in Chicago?
Being from Oak Park is cool because you have two “L” lines. Not that it didn’t take forever to get anywhere. Back in the 80s, all the nightlife was up north. North of North Avenue. In 1988 being a teenager, it took quite a long time to get anywhere. It was right at the time that people were thinking about moving back to the city. I’m talking about people who had the option to live in the fucking suburbs. The city was really starting to change. It was a weird period, say ’87 to ’93, culturally and historically. It set the stage for the next 15 years. But I don’t know. I know for me, rock music culture centered on record stores as opposed to venues. So you still had this huge record store downtown on Wabash. You’d go up to the fourth floor and look at all the world music and the rock and stuff. There was another record store, actually, up north on Irving, I don’t remember the name. It might have been Rolling Stones Records. And of course used record stores. Oak Park had only two used record stores, actually, so that was nice.
I had to go to Evanston. I had to get my mom to drive me up there to rent different Target Videos out of San Francisco, which is all the hardcore video things. So that was the first time I saw The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, and then the hardcore things. The compilations would be two Flipper songs and then two Circle Jerks songs. I had to go up there. But, you know what? I think I gotta go…
Matt looks up over to the door, and back down to his watch. His set’s about to start, maybe even running late because of our interview.
“Do you want to ask one last thing?”
What do you wanna say to your fans?
Keep using the music to do whatever you want with.