Interview: Matthew Friedberger (The Fiery Furnaces) – part 1
Published on August 23rd, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Interviewing Matthew Friedberger can be rather like listening to his music: a bombardment of ideas, meandering trains of thought that sail off into the distance before re-emerging from the other side like on some old platform game, a compelling dichotomy of thoughtfulness and playfulness, fiercely intelligent but sufficiently self-aware not to beat you over the head with it.
Friedberger – one half of beloved adventure-pop outfit The Fiery Furnaces alongside his sister Eleanor – is blessed with a muse that just don’t quit: over the last year he has released no less than eight albums as part of his Solos series, and now he’s back with Matricidal Sons of Bitches, a 45-track score for a fictitious film inspired by the B-movie studios known as Poverty Row, or ‘Poverty Rue’ as the Paris-dwelling Friedberger has appropriated it.
Rocksucker was honoured to be granted a private telephone audience with the man himself, and what an interview it turned out to be…
Did you opt for the title Poverty Rue purely as a Frenchified version of Poverty Row, or were you at all swayed by the double-entendre of ‘rue’?
No, it just seemed like an obvious substitution for the word ‘row’, but the fact that ‘rue’ sounds discouraged – as does ‘row’ as it [conjures images of] people working hard in a boat, I suppose, although ‘rue’ sounds more discouraged – well, you’ve got to give me credit for it. (Laughs)
Is Poverty Rue in any way related to Arrested on Charges of Unemployment?
No. It sounds down and out so it’s related in that regard, but to me it isn’t. When I made the record I was thinking of California, trying to make a movie very cheaply about where I am; although it’s not a Parisian record, if anything it’s more Los Angeles in my mind. But it’s an imaginary one, just for me making it; I wouldn’t want to impose the association on anyone listening to the record. That’s why I don’t really mention it or say anything about it.
To me, doing it, I thought of people trying, mostly in vain, to do things in California. Like I said it was just about the associations I had in my head while I was making it, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what someone might think of when they’re listening to it. So no, there weren’t any specific beliefs in my head about what was meant to be going on in that record from Solos.
Is it three separate imaginary movies, or one movie in three parts?
I definitely see it as one movie: it’s the same length as a lot of the movies they made in the late ’30s/’40s, just over one hour. But then there are movies that drift a lot, like The Ape Man movie: in parts of it nothing seems to be going on, but it holds your attention in a funny way. They can often seem unconnected, different things as opposed one connected statement, and you might like the one part but don’t find the rest of it amusing at all. I think people would have the same relationship with this record.
Sometimes you listen to some parts of a record much more than other parts, and the other side of the record can be unfamiliar territory to you, which can be nice when you go back to listen to it. So I don’t think that people necessarily have to take the whole record together. People could listen to it in an even more disconnected way than people watch any type of movie, without even thinking about it. For me while making it, it was all one thing that goes together, but people are going to listen to it not that way even if I try to forbid it (laughs).
I’ve been consuming it in whole gulps at a time, immersing myself in it if you will.
It’s a long record. I don’t think it’s a ‘tiring’ record, like people talk about, but then I never think of that.
The tracks themselves are pretty short on their own, though.
I made it as four songs, thinking of the four sides of a vinyl record, but I thought it would be more fun to index nearly every change and transition, as opposed to arbitrarily splitting up. There are a few things that are two minutes long, but mostly it’s between 45 seconds and a minute and a half. That’s how I think it works best, but if you listen to a CD of it…the way any CD is indexed affects the way you encounter the music, or however you want to put it.
So you won’t notice the four side breaks on the CD, you’ll have to look at the artwork to see what’s supposed to be significant as the opener of something [and what isn’t]. Maybe some people will listen to it as one long thing and some people will just listen to their favourite thirty-second bit, and I hope that they do, even if it is just little snippets they like.
There’s such a dreamlike quality to the music (as ever) that I imagine its genesis to be something along the lines of a melody appearing in your head, then you sit down and figure out how to play it. Is that at all on the mark?
Yes, that’s exactly what happens! (Laughs) Yeah, you think of a tune, you write it down, or you try out the pre-made melodies on some of those instruments – Chamberlin and Optagon, things like that – and think, “I’d like it to be something like this.” Everything was written for this record so it was occasioned by whatever I was thinking the record was; the tune would bring something to mind as opposed to the other way around. I don’t know if that makes any sense!
I don’t know if I would say it was ‘dreamlike’. I hope it has a ‘lazy’ or ‘confused’ quality, the way it goes on…I mean, the music changes a lot but sometimes you get a chord coming in that goes (imitates droning, monotone chords), which can either be tedious or…well, that’s good if it’s tedious, it’s part of the effect. I hope it is a little bit tedious, in an effective atmospheric way.
You’ve said that the movie could be a horror movie, but that the music itself isn’t scary; yet the more I listen to it the scarier I find it by virtue of how un-scary it is, as if there’s something lurking in Poverty Rue but it’s something that’s become familiar.
That’s the effect that I want it to have so it’s great that you say that. Again, to someone else it might sound nice and sentimental, but to some it might sound a little more sinister, or cynical as you hear it more, and I wouldn’t want to say that any one way is the best way to use the music. To me the idea that nothing’s going on is nice, just a lot of fake smiles; unless something bad happens, I don’t know!
However silly or legitimate it is to have a movie with no pictures, there’s no fun in saying what it’s about because then you might as well have the pictures. (Laughs) If you say, “This is what it’s supposed to bring to mind…” then you’re cheating. The music is simple enough and blank enough – you could say it in negative terms, like it’s boring or banal enough – that it can mean a lot of different things, accompany a lot of different trains of thought.
Obviously you could use any type of pop music in the same way, whether you think it’s good pop music or not. There’s nothing more sinister than a Spandau Ballet song: I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody said that. It doesn’t have to be Spandau Ballet, it could be some current hit. I don’t mean it’s sinister because they make it for money or to irritate people (laughs), but you can imagine it being quite sinister, especially the emotional melodies: that type of performance, it can be nice, or comforting, but it seems to me it can also be very sinister. I’m trying not to say “Celine Dion” or something that people make fun of, think is bad, but in a certain situation that type of music and that type of performance can be…scary. Not just all the Pop Idol/American Idol sort of music but also stuff that’s more “serious”, quote-unquote.
I’m not trying to say that the music has a special power that Rod Stewart singing a cover version doesn’t have, because that’s more frightening than any of the melodies on my record. It’s not going to have ‘Hollywood scary’ music on it because those types of movies are famously not scary but funny, or boring. In other words, my answer to the question is: yes! (Laughs)
I see it as more of a brooding, The Wicker Man type of world.
Well, The Wicker Man is a lot scarier. It’s way too fancy a movie: it has beautiful photography, a beautiful dance and a beautiful huge wicker man. There are elements of the movie that are funny if you watch it now. Those old Ed Wood movies are famous now because…I’m not an expert but it seems to me that they functioned specifically for exhibition conventions of theater chains of the day, and that’s how they made their money, how they existed. Once TV came in in the ’50s you couldn’t make money with such a cheap movie any more, you had to make a different kind of movie, like the Roger Corman B-movies.
When you think of a super-cheap exploitation movie from the ’60s, it’s a whole different world: that’s real cinema, not much different from a big Hollywood movie. I don’t really know what I’m talking about with these things but The Wicker Man is way too good a movie, conventionally speaking. It’s too conventionally successful, and I don’t mean conventional in a bad way.
Matricidal Sons of Bitches will be released on 29th October through Thrill Jockey Records. For more information please visit www.thrilljockey.com/thrill/Matthew-Friedberger/Matricidal-Sons-of-Bitches