Catching up with the Fiery Furnaces
The brother-sister duo Fiery Furnaces tell Leah Greenblatt about their childhood, their past day jobs, and what they have in common with John Mellencamp
Once upon a time, those toothy, vestal siblings Donny and Marie Osmond warbled the joys of being ”a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll.” Some 30 years later, a listener would be hard-pressed to find much country in the creations of another brother-sister duo, current indie sweethearts the Fiery Furnaces, but there’s certainly a lot bit rock & roll in the mix: a swirling, heady stew of garage-pop, trippy psych-folk, and helter-skelter wordplay. Recently, we caught up with the pair — Eleanor Friedberger and her older brother, Matthew — on the heels of their latest release, Bitter Tea (Fat Possum), and their brand new video for its first single, ”Benton Harbor Blues” (watch it on their website).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So it’s pretty early in the morning, about 9 a.m. Do you guys have other stuff to do today?
ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER Yeah, we’ve got a few more interviews, and then a meeting at 1.
What’s the meeting about?
ELEANOR Secret things, top secret.
MATT FRIEDBERGER We’re meeting with Madonna.
Ah, yes. I heard she was looking for a new crew. Anyway, you guys are four years apart, right? Matt, when did you guys actually become friends enough to hang out, instead of just siblings who wanted to hurt each other?
ELEANOR Well, Matt hasn’t tried to punch me in about… [Pauses to think]
MATT Actually, I liked to hang out with her and play games and stuff until I was 8 or something like that.
ELEANOR No, that’s not true — up until I was about 13 we did both, and then Matt just kind of started to ignore me. He had a nasty temper, so I didn’t like that.
Are you better now, Matt?
MATT Oh yeah, better every day. Well, better month to month, backsliding all the time. [Laughs]
So tell me about this new video for ”Benton Harbor Blues.” Matt, you’ve done some short film stuff, haven’t you?
MATT Well, when I was a teaching assistant in special ed, I used to take kids to high school film class and we’d make videos, and especially with one kid, he loved it, he was a good actor. Those videos were much, much better than our video.
ELEANOR This we made with pals from Chicago; one of them actually lives down the street from our mom. Graham Gangi is a guy I went to high school with [at Oak Park River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill.], and his buddy Matt Miller from work, this is their first video, and they’re good friends. It was shot in Benton Harbor, in Michigan. It’s where the studio is [Key Club Recording] where we recorded both of those last two records. You can’t get more real than that. It’s just, like, shots of the town and stuff.
Like John Cougar Mellencamp’s ”Little Pink Houses”!
ELEANOR Yeah, I guess. [Laughs]
MATT Those guys, they did a bunch of video of us before, with our grandmother [Olga Sarantos, the muse and star of last year’s Rehearsing My Choir].
So, you’ve been in New York about six years. At what point did you guys get to quit your day jobs?
ELEANOR Around July of 2003, I worked at an insurance company called American Company Insurance in Elmhurst, Queens. It was a pretty cushy job in a lot of ways.
MATT I was trying to be a special ed teacher, and I worked for my girlfriend. She was an art person.
ELEANOR He hung pictures.
Well, I’ve heard that Eleanor, you wrote most of the lyrics on your first album (2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark), and Matt wrote most of the second (2004’s Blueberry Boat), and the third (Choir) was lots of grandma. What’s the division of labor on this one?
ELEANOR Matt wrote almost all of it, and I wrote lyrics for a couple songs.
What are you into, Matt, besides videos and special education?
MATT Every day when I wake up I look on the Internet to see if the Chicago White Sox have won.
Um, that’s baseball, right?
ELEANOR [Laughing] Yeah, that’s baseball…
MATT Ooh! Here’s something: [Lengthy discussion of Chicago mafia history, and its alleged involvement with the Kennedy family, follows]
Wow. When I think of Chicago I think of, like, Oprah and Wilco.
MATT What? No. That’s horrible. You owe it to yourself to find out more, to discover the interesting and important role the Midwest has played in our country.
I will work on that.