The Fiery Furnaces welcome back Kotter on I'm Going Away
The unpredictable indie band becomes That '70s Group on its latest record
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Are The Fiery Furnaces going soft? On this year's I'm Going Away, the brother-sister tandem of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have let up on the highly conceptual work they're best known for—like the noisy multi-song suites of 2004's Blueberry Boat, or the grandmother-narrated story songs of 2005's Rehearsing My Choir— in favor of a sweetly casual soundscape of playful, '70s-inspired piano pop imbued with simple grooves and sly melodies. Of course, it wouldn't be The Fiery Furnaces if there weren't any surprises: the duo revisits the songs on I'm Going Away on the digital-only release Take Me Around Again, which alters the material based on the suggestions of fans. In advance of their show at the Turf Club on Saturday, Nov. 14, The A.V. Club talked with Matthew Friedberger about the album, his favorite '70s TV shows, and the band's upcoming 'silent' record.
The A.V. Club: I'm Going Way has a strongly nostalgic feel for the '70s. What did you draw on musically from that decade when making this album?
Matthew Friedberger: TV show theme songs from the 1970s—sitcom shows, mostly— like Welcome Back Kotter and Taxi. Taxi's hilarious. But also it would've been the semi-serious pop and rock of the '70s, like Ronnie Lane of Faces or Carole King.
AVC: What were your favorite shows from the '70s?
MF: I liked a lot of the half-hour shows. Taxi, M*A*S*H*, Barney Miller, WKRP In Cincinnati. I liked the characters, the attitude. Those shows were pretty keen, and they tried to appeal to the '70s mentality. My favorite theme song—although I didn't watch that show much—was The Rockford Files. I liked James Garner. I didn't like Magnum P.I.
AVC: Did you go back and watch those shows again while you were making this album?
MF: Oh no. For better or worse, they're in my brain and my heart. I didn't need to watch them again.
AVC: I'm Going Away also seems like less of a concept album, like an intentional step back to regular songs, compared with your other albums.
MF: It's very much an album still, but it's not one where there's a long story. It's pretty straightforward. All my songs [have always been] made up of simple '70s rock or soul tunes, and then they can be elaborated on many different ways, depending on what the lyrics are, or what the music is supposed to be. In this record, they're not elaborated at all. If people knew the band, they'd have expectations about how the songs are supposed to go and they would elaborate on the songs themselves, in their own heads. People who didn't know the band would just like the record based on how it appealed to them. So that's how I thought of it. It's the same for the album: There's a notion behind it, but you have to provide the dramatic context if you want to. It's less obvious—this is the record that makes people work harder than our past records.
AVC: As a brother-sister team, does your songwriting process ever change? Did you write music together growing up?
MF: No, never. Eleanor never played music ever; she only started playing music when she went away to college as a rock fan. On the first record we wrote the songs together. On the newer records, I wrote all the songs, although we'd collaborate on lyrics bit. On this record Eleanor wrote the lyrics to nine of the songs, and I wrote the music. If you're in a band with only one person, it's good to change the way you write the songs so you'll still be excited.
AVC: Talk about your next project; is it true that the next Fiery Furnaces record will be silent?
MF: We wanted to make a record that we didn't record. It's been fun to have rock music as a composer's music. The record's going to be a book with three albums' worth of new songs. Some are going to be conventional notation, just a piano and vocal melody. Some will have guitar tablature, some will be in graphic notation for improvisers. Some are just descriptions of circumstances you can use to play music. And then we're going to have a bunch of shows where people will come and play.
AVC: How do you see your music evolving from here?
MF: It's good to write music all the time, if that's what you want to do. When you're in a band, when you have something going, the hardest thing you have to do is to put everything into what's ongoing.. Especially these days you never know what you're supposed to do—if you should be more hectic, give away songs, or do a project with the voice from the Muppets. You have to have a record on Twitter. The band lends itself to do that sort of thing,
AVC: You mean gimmicky stuff?
MF: Yeah, we do a lot of gimmicky things, but it comes from us. We don't think that's so strange for us. But we've had people tell us, “Give a song away so you get people's e-mail addresses and you can send them an e-mail saying, ‘Buy our box set for $90.’" All these [music] professionals, they don't know what they're doing. What can you do? You just have to do what you have energy to finish. Luckily you probably won't follow through on things you're not really into.
AVC: Does that mean we're not going to see you giving away an album on Twitter any time soon?
MF: Well, we are on Twitter, but someone did tell us, "If you're not on Twitter, you don't exist." That's the way the world is now. You could just be interested in writing in 140 characters, but it's also your obligation to be friendly too. We still have to figure out which way to go with that, so our Twitter posts aren't very interesting. [Laughs.] With MySpace, it's the same. Forget about a website, you're obligated to have a MySpace page, and I don't know what to do interesting on that. Nowadays so many people listen to audio [on their computers that] you have to have video content to go with it. It's not that they want music videos, it's that people can't look at an image without audio, or listen to audio without an image. So if you're a band, you're better set up if one of your members can do video editing and set up a website. That's more useful now than having a great drummer in a band, because no one cares.