“I don’t think we have any innate chemistry,” Matt says. “Although, if you speed my voice up or slow Eleanor’s down and we’re singing we sound exactly the same. There’s a few records where people think we’ve doubled Eleanor’s vocals but it’s actually me as the double.”
Growing up, Eleanor was hardly Matt’s double. Their early relationship has been variously described as “prickly” and “rocky.” Neither did the duo fit the stereotype of a musical family playing instruments together as soon as their grubby kid hands could grasp them. While Matt played music from an early age, Eleanor did not begin to play until around the time she turned 18.
Eventually, Eleanor grew proficient enough on her instrument to warrant playing in front of others. Enter big brother Matt, who by that point had spent numerous years in the trenches playing rock music in bands. Although the band didn’t necessarily stumble upon its unique sound right away, Matt believes the years they spent growing up together might have made it easier for their styles to mesh.
“She would have heard all the records I was playing when I was 13, because she would have been in the next room or somewhere else close by, so you develop similar touchstones and points of reference incidentally or accidentally, so you have those things in common.”
Around 2005 the band started playing with other musicians and began to finalize the line-up the group currently boasts, that includes bassist Jason Loewenstein of the seminal proto-punk band Sebadoh. Loewenstein also assists in the recording and mixing of the band’s music.
On I’m Going Away , the band’s eighth album since 2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark, Matt and Eleanor tweak their sound once again, proving that the only thing constant about the Fiery Furnaces is its penchant for musical evolution. While sometimes fans of bands dislike their idols to evolve, in the case of the Fiery Furnaces, evolution is part and parcel with everything the band stands for.
“You shouldn’t be allowed to make the new record over and over again,” Matt says. “For us, we try to make our records sound different. In a smaller perspective, they do sound very different.”
To be sure, the band has always written playful and unpredictable music in the vein of Royal Trux and Captain Beefheart. However, I’m Going Away finds the band adopting a surprisingly more straightforward approach. The songs are classic sounding pop songs recalling some of the more eccentric albums produced by David Bowie and T. Rex in the ‘70s.
“We wanted to have this record be a casual sounding thing and we succeeded,” Matt says. “The songs are simple, so the listener has to do the elaboration in their own mind.”
Part of the success of the album is owed to the ability of the band to craft songs that are at once traditional and experimental in their composition—a difficult feat for any band to pull off. On “Charmaine Champagne”—the obvious single from the album—The Fiery Furnaces execute a masterful pop song that is always one measure away from transitioning from a straightforward, classic rock song into a Frank Zappa-esque freak-out. “The End is Near” is a soulful number that is warm and melodic in a Bill Withers kind of way.
In keeping with the band’s progressive attitude towards music, they are also planning a number of interesting projects in the coming years, including the Silent Record, in which the band writes music and presents it in a notation on a printed page which purchasers of the record then perform themselves, the Demo-Rock album, in which the band invites their fans to send in their ephemeral bric-a-brac which the band then turns into songs, and dual albums by Matt and Eleanor in which each sibling “covers” the new album, adding their own individual twist to the music. Additionally, the band’s August shows have been re-branded as Pro-Healthcare Reform Rallies. Far from being mere publicity stunts, these projects illustrate the connection the band tries to maintain with its fans.
Of some of these special projects, Matt says, “It’s interesting when you’re a band, a tiny band like us, you have a group of people who like you and come together at shows and maybe they don’t have anything in common, it’s fun to think of something to have those people interact with each other, directly. We’d like to have people participate in the real grassroots of the rock ‘n’ roll project.”
While in this case the family that played together has stayed together, The Fiery Furnaces also hope to transmit some of that familial vibe to fans at the group’s shows.
“You hope [the fans] can bring something in their own way to the show,” said Matt. “You hope the show is interesting even for any random 47-year-old who sneaks in the venue and buys himself a cheap beer, and looks around and hears this nice rock music. Hopefully that’s useful for them too, you know?”
The Fiery Furnaces perform at Bottletree on Friday, Aug. 21, with White Rabbits opening. The show is 18+ and tickets, still available at press time, cost $16.50. Call (205) 533-6288 or