It's All Relative

The Fiery Furnaces are brother and sister, but they're definitely not Donny and Marie.

The Fiery Furnaces, with White Magic and Gris Gris The Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 14, $10, 216-383-1124
The Fiery Furnaces: Happy to be separated.
The Fiery Furnaces: Happy to be separated.
If multi-instrumentalist Matt Friedberger's relationship with his sister Eleanor wasn't strong, there's no way the two would have teamed up to form the engagingly quixotic partnership dubbed the Fiery Furnaces. Yet they've had their ugly moments, the worst of them coming as a result of cohabitation.

"We would play when we were younger, but very quickly, we didn't get along at all until I left home," says Matt, who's four years older than Eleanor, the Furnaces' singer. "After that, we managed to find a way to be friendly, mostly because we would talk a lot about rock music. And we managed to stay friendly until we lived together about a year ago. Then we started disliking each other again."

Fortunately, this problem led to a simple solution. "Now we don't live together anymore, and we get along fine. We often see each other every day, and we still argue sometimes, but it's just not the same as when you live with someone. That's something we shouldn't do." Matt adds with special emphasis, "And we never will again."

Still, all the drama and dissonance between the Friedbergers is painted in broad strokes on their 2003 debut Gallowsbird's Bark and its follow-up, this year's Blueberry Boat. The music, mostly made by Matt, is heavy enough to have caught the attention of a label whose signees include the Strokes and British Sea Power. But rather than rely upon three chords and a cloud of dust, he favors kaleidoscopic arrangements that draw from an abundance of colorful sources. Blues guitar, music-hall keyboards, vintage synths, and plenty more wrap themselves around rambling, often witty narratives sung by Eleanor, whose throaty, knowing vocals make for a common thread of a wonderfully uncommon type.

The Furnaces' diverse stylistic blend is echoed by the tangled history of the duo's moniker. It's derived from a sentence in the Book of Daniel: "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king." But Matt decided it would make a good band name when he heard the phrase used in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As this story implies, the Friedbergers aren't exactly holy rollers. Still, they were exposed to more than a modicum of theology during their childhood on Chicago's west side. "We were baptized Greek Orthodox, so we are Greek Orthodox," Matt says. "If you're baptized Greek Orthodox, you're in for good. That's it." Nonetheless, they didn't go to their neighborhood church out of thirst for the word of the Lord. Attendance was mandatory because their grandmother was the choir director -- a position she continues to hold.

Musically, though, the services had an impact. "We would go up in the choir loft and listen to the music and watch my grandmother play the organ," Matt remembers. "And she had a big Lowery electric church organ over at her house, because she'd have choir rehearsal there. I'd always try to play on it as a kid, and that affected me, because it was just such a powerful and versatile piece of equipment. It made so many noises and was so authoritative-sounding. Sometimes I'd just play a single chord on it and be mesmerized by it."

The rest of the week, the Friedbergers didn't have to be forced to enjoy music. Their mother played the piano on a regular basis, and their father (an Englishman by birth) spent his free time listening to a wide array of recordings. As Matt entered his teens, he did likewise, developing a particular affinity for the Who.

In contrast to Matt, who played in many groups over the years, Eleanor mostly kept her musical impulses to herself until the time was right. Eventually, "We pressed ourselves into service," Matt allows. "Eleanor felt she was ready to play and write songs and sing songs in front of people, and since I'd been in bands before, she could get me to be her band."

Even today, brother-sister pairings, as opposed to brother-brother or sister-sister combinations, are fairly rare in rock -- the reason, in all likelihood, that the Fiery Furnaces' press clippings contain references to predecessors such as the Carpenters and Donny and Marie Osmond, who aren't even in the same musical solar system as the Friedbergers. Matt has several theories to explain the dearth of groups starring opposite-gender siblings. For one thing, family bands that were prevalent in pop and country circles during the pre-rock segment of the 20th century were probably perceived as "kind of corny" by rock aficionados, he believes, and the stigma may linger. For another, "Men and women, when they were singing together on rock or pop records, would usually be singing duets, and if it was a love duet, that would be weird."

Reviewers, especially in Britain, have frequently lauded the Furnaces' work, but they've had an awfully difficult time quantifying it. "Over there, a lot of people buy records from what they read in the press," Matt maintains. "If someone likes a certain kind of music, he'll go and buy it if a critic writes, 'This is a good example of this kind of music.' But because writers have said we sound like this and this and this and a bunch of other things as well, that sort of behavior has been inhibited. So we haven't exactly been tearing up the balance sheet."

Indeed, Blueberry Boat, released in May, doesn't seem like a bid for a spot in the hit parade. To describe the platter, Matt uses The Who Sell Out as a touchstone, spotlighting a specific composition: "Rael," an ambitious opus that prefigured the quartet's first full-scale rock opera, Tommy. "There are lots of seven-and-a-half-minute songs with stories on the new record," he says. "Sometimes they're relatively easy to follow, and sometimes they're incoherent -- like 'Rael,' which is pretty incoherent, too. I guess you'd call them imitations, and I don't have any problems making imitations of the Who. That's a classic format in rock music -- but hopefully you do it a little bit differently, and not just worse."

The Friedbergers are confident that Blueberry Boat is a step up from its predecessor. If so, the improvement didn't come without a cost. "It wasn't as fun to do," he concedes. "Lots of fighting -- but it wasn't just regular, sibling fighting. It was more substantial fighting, and I think that's better."

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