To call the Fiery Furnaces prolific is like calling Tom Cruise overexposed. Having released two albums and a long-form EP in less than 17 months, the eccentric indie-rock duo — multi-instrumentalist Matt Friedberger and singer sister Eleanor — have two new albums completed and at least another LP's worth of material written.
"Who doesn't want to write songs?" Matt said nonchalantly of the band's industrious output. "It's fun. I'd like to get on a normal schedule of releasing albums — every four months."
The first product of their recent fecundity, Rehearsing My Choir, is due October 26 and is a quasi-concept album inspired by the life and stories of the duo's octogenarian grandmother Olga Sarantos. The album's conceit finds Eleanor playing a young Sarantos while the grandmother plays herself in the present day, reflecting on her life and interacting with her younger self.
"She was an organist and choir director at her Greek Orthodox church in the '40s in Chicago, so some of the stories revolve around that," Eleanor said, by way of explaining the album's title. The subject matter reads like a short-story collection — or, as Matt put it, "late '40s adventure stories." "Candymaker's Knife in My Handbag" is "about the night she was supposed to meet her father-in-law for the first time," Eleanor said. "She goes to a tiki bar and gets far too drunk on sweet tropical drinks and throws up on a stoop when she meets him," Matt added. "Seven Silver Curses," which sounds like a parable from the movie "Big Fish," is about "going to a gypsy and getting some curses to get rid of your husband's mistress," Matt laughed.
Known for their unpredictable approach — the band's past releases include 10-minute song collages and freewheeling epics that twist and turn like different films running simultaneously — the group describes its latest opus as a melange of Randy Newman, the Small Faces, '60s girl groups and a few disco beats, all set to the Dylan-esque talk-singing of their grandmother.
The ambitious pair hope to release an expanded version of Choir with an accompanying quasi-documentary the group has shot of the elderly Sarantos narrating a tour of the Chicago backdrop where much of her personal history took place. The creatively impatient group will tour North America in September and October, before the album is available in stores. "It'll be slightly confusing, as [the band will be playing] a rearranged version of a record that's not out," Matt chuckled, "but hopefully people will be amused by that."
Already looking ahead, the Fiery Furnaces have just put the finishing touches on Bitter Tea, a record they hope to release in the winter. Though the group claims that both discs are the most accessible things they've done to date, the concept-free Tea sounds slightly more digestible.
"It's a nice record with bright, love songs," Matt said, describing the the disc rather comically as "a newfangled version" of the synthesizer-heavy music from the Who's 1975 "Tommy" film, and an "old-time '20s version of Devo" with mandolin orchestras.
"The story is someone sampling some adult experiences for the first time and learning their lessons," Matt said of the title track. "It's the bittersweet knowledge that experience provides — set in Taipei [Taiwan]." Other songs slated for Tea include "Little Thatched Hut," "I'm in No Mood," "Waiting to Know You" and "Teach Me, Sweetheart."
The idiosyncratic nature of the Fiery Furnaces' forthcoming material hasn't kept them out of the British music press, where much has been made of Eleanor's year-plus relationship with Franz Ferdinand singer Alex Kapranos and a track from the forthcoming Franz record called "Eleanor, Put Your Boots Back On," which neither band has yet confirmed is actually about the Furnaces' Eleanor. The Franz connection doesn't end there: Furnaces touring drummer Andy Knowles might be joining the Scottish rockers while current drummer Paul Thompson takes a turn on guitar for the group's forthcoming gigs (see "Set A Man On Fire, Name Next LP — Franz Ferdinand Do Whatever They Want").
And as for the siblings' well-documented squabbling, both onstage and off, Matt chalks it up to standard familial friction. "We get along great overall," he said. "We're quick to say harsh words, but you're so familiar, so other people think it's terrible. I think it's just a regular thing with siblings do who love each other very much."
Track list for the Fiery Furnaces' Rehearsing My Choir, according to the band's publicist:
- "Garfield El"
- "The Wayward Granddaughter"
- "Candymakers Knife in My Handbag"
- "We Wrote Letters Everyday"
- "4823 22nd St"
- "Guns Under the Counter"
- "Seven Silver Curses"
- "Though Let's Be Fair"
- "Slavin' Away"
- "Rehearsing My Choir"
- "Does It Remind You of When?"
Fiery Furnaces' North American tour dates, according to the band's publicist:
- 9/20 - Athens, GA @ 40 Watt Club
- 9/21 - New Orleans, LA @ One Eyed Jacks
- 9/24 - Austin, TX @ Austin City Limits
- 9/28 - Tucson, AZ @ Solar Culture Center
- 9/29 - West Hollywood, CA @ Troubadour
- 9/30 - San Francisco, CA @ Café Du Nord
- 10/1 - San Francisco, CA @ Café Du Nord
- 10/2 - Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater
- 10/3 - Seattle, WA @ Neumo's
- 10/6 - Minneapolis, MN @ Fine Line Music Cafe
- 10/7 - Chicago, IL @ Logan Square Auditorium
- 10/8 - Columbus, OH @ Wexner Center
- 10/10 - Toronto, ON @ Lee's Palace
- 10/12 - Boston, MA @ Museum of Fine Arts
- 10/13 - Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
- 10/14 - New York, NY @ Town Hall
- 10/15 - Washington, DC @ Black Cat