The shuffler: Matt Friedberger, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and occasional singer of The Fiery Furnaces, which he and his singer sister Eleanor founded; for the past few years, they’ve been joined by drummer Robert D’Amico and bassist Jason Loewenstein. The new I’m Going Away (Thrill Jockey) is another sharp left turn in a catalog full of them—only instead of going further into the weirdo ditch, I’m Going Away is a straight-up, often lovely album of uncomplicated rock songs.
Matt Friedberger: I have one day’s worth of MP3s, it says: 244 songs, 3.26 GB. That’s not even half an iPod Touch, let alone the 120GB one you can get, which is cheaper than an iPod Touch or whatever.
This isn’t music. It’s track one, 49 minutes. It’s a lecture by George Mosse. It’s downloaded from the University Of Wisconsin; it’s a lecture from the early ’80s. It’s given away free—a whole semester’s worth of lectures. George Mosse—he’s a famous historian and teacher, I guess. On their web page, they give away recorded lectures from him and things like that. This lecture was on Rousseau.
The A.V. Club: That’s a hell of an opening track.
MF: You have to get a load of his voice. Let me try to play it to you over the phone. [Mimics Mosse’s heavy German accent.] “The idea of Winkelmann…”
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AVC: That sounds like something from The Third Man.
MF: Unfortunately, there’s no zither accompanying his lecture. If this were an NPR lecture, they’d overdub some appropriate background music. But this is from the ’80s, so it’s just him talking.
[Mosse] bridges a gap between an old kind of cultural history and the new style. He’s a very entertaining guy; he’s famous. This is the only lecture I have on my computer. He taught at University Of Iowa, as a young man coming over from Germany. In the ’50s, he could handle these big G.I. Bill classes, huge class sizes, because he was good at yelling. He pushed through this thing to abolish the football team at Iowa. The University Of Iowa started the Writers’ Workshop, which is famous there. [When he went to work there], he said, “Why are we settling for amateurs? Hire the Chicago Bears—athletes in residence!” It passed the faulty senate, apparently, but the president vetoed it. When he moved over to the University Of Wisconsin, on the first day, in the faculty lounge or whatever, the football coach came up and shook his hand and said, “Welcome.” From then on, he had respect from the faculty, since everyone knew he’d tried to abolish the football team [at Iowa].
I think it’s interesting that people use iPods to listen to books and radio shows. I don’t know which universities have it and which don’t. Yale and M.I.T. have sites with big lectures.
AVC: Are you looking at classes?
MF: No. I saw Ray Bradbury say something in the paper that I agree with: I don’t believe in schools, I believe in libraries. That’s my stance as a person in a rock band. If someone is able to go through class and achieve a degree, there must be something wrong with that person.
AVC: Then why look at university websites?
MF: I just found these lectures. [Mosse] has an autobiography I read, and I read one of his books, and then I heard these lectures. Just a witty guy. He was talking about nationalism and European history, and he said he was an enlightenment man, and that nationalism was the biggest killer in the world, besides malaria.
The Fiery Furnaces, “Even In The Rain”
MF: This is a rough mix of the song. [Pauses.] It sounds pretty much like the regular mix.
AVC: This seems like a good time to ask you about Remember, the double-CD live album you put out last year. It’s clearly not meant to be listened to all in one sitting.
MF: No, no, no. It’s not a shuffle record, speaking of what we’re doing right now. You’re meant to listen to it a half-hour at a time. The effect is diminished if you don’t listen to it for a while. But I wouldn’t listen to it very long. It’s mostly a fake live record, you know. It’s in the tradition of live records like Frampton Comes Alive and Ramones Comes Alive. Even the Bruce Springsteen record [Live 75-85]—that’s like seven records long. I bet there’s a lot of changing out of Max Weinberg’s snare sound on that band. I thought “If the songs are ostentatiously not in front of an audience…” I thought “We’re gonna have this live-sounding recording and overdub cheering.” But then I thought “It won’t be as funny as if it’s not live.”
AVC: So is all the crowd noise overdubbed?
MF: No, none of the crowd noise is overdubbed, actually. That’s kind of boring, isn’t it? But in the end, we decided to leave it dry, sort of obvious. I read a review of it once that said, “Even the crowd noise has all been scrubbed away.” You can do that now; if it’s all close-miked, the drum mike, you could gate it. You could do that, I suppose. There’s a song kind of buried in the middle of the record where there’s MIDI string overdubs and kettledrums overdubbed. I think it might be at the end of disc one, on a song called “1917.”
AVC: “Blueberry Boat” has something like eight or nine audible edits on it, cutting between all these different arrangements and levels of sound quality.
MF: There’s a lot of bad recording on it, audience recordings or stereo recordings. In a hall, you hear a lot of different sounds at one individual show, not to mention if you see the band over time. The record is from the band’s point of view, looking back on their live show, rather than an audience member’s. It’s tiring to play for four years. [Laughs.] If you have a record that’s about the lyrics [for you], that’s personal to you—that’s what this album is for me. It was tiring to have to rehearse 17 times before every tour. And nobody liked it, that’s the other thing. I thought—and my sister agreed with me, for sure—it’s good to play the songs differently live.
AVC: That’s been Neil Young’s M.O. all along—to keep changing.
MF: And Bob Dylan. He’s the most normal, famous example of that, I guess. But a lot of people don’t like it. They go to shows to get into that song they know. It’s a validation of the band; people like you and want to look at you, and it’s a validation for the other people in the audience. I think that is how it functions for people. My sister and I didn’t have that experience, I guess. We didn’t think that was normal. That’s what we thought classic rock shows were like. The songs are rearranged: “What is this version?” You’d think, “That was a travesty, but it was interesting.”
AVC: You’re about the right age to have gotten into Dylan and seen him around the time he started his Never-Ending Tour, where he changes the arrangements of his catalog all the time. Did you ever go to Dylan shows?
MF: It’s more from reading about it. There’s the Bob Dylan and The Band live record, Before The Flood. But there, the “Like A Rolling Stone”—the chorus is different. [Dylan’s] Hard Rain [live] record: Those are totally different. Or The Who: Even if the song is the same, the sound is totally different. From R&B: [James Brown’s] Live At The Apollo, where he keeps the tunes but has them go back and forth, in and out of each other. But now, it’s about making the live show like the record. Bands people take really seriously as rock bands, like Wilco and Radiohead, do that. They have enough people to make the exact same sort of details [onstage]. I’m not saying that’s wrong—but I’m saying that’s wrong. [Laughs.]
Omar Souleyman, “Leh Jani”
MF: Two friends of Eleanor’s, one who works for Google and one who invented the Major League Baseball score-giving service, told Eleanor, “If you’re not on Twitter, you’re nobody.” And these are the people who run the world! That’s what it’s about. She called me up and said, “We have to be on Twitter. The technocrats told me.” We’re a rock band, and we have to be interested in this kind of pop ephemera. Who are we to hold our noses? We signed up and posted: “I’m going to the grocery store.” “Raining—again?”
Then we found out that you have to follow the people who are following you, otherwise it’s rude; it sends a message to their e-mail account to see who replies. And we’re like, “We have fans?” I thought everyone hated us. This one guy said he was from Cairo, and he had a link to some other site; it streamed a thing by this Syrian guy. I looked him up and he was written about in The Wire, the British music magazine. He’s on tour, and the normal indie-rock websites are writing about him. I didn’t read about him in The Wire. I learned about him directly from Twitter. So now I feel totally like a 2009 music fan. I want to go buy this in a record store, but I haven’t. I just listen to it on MySpace.
We also had to start maintaining our own MySpace page; we don’t have any interns. I see you can take music off other people’s MySpace page. You can borrow songs. I didn’t know that. I feel really up to date listening to Syrian wedding-music pop being repackaged for indie rock and world music and techno fans in the West.
In all seriousness, I have a couple Sublime Frequencies radio-montage records. I don’t know of a better record label. There’s nothing like those records. There’s a lot of sound-installation things like that, but these can be listened to as music as well as somebody’s sound sculpture. That makes it a more interesting pop artifact.