Interview: Matthew Friedberger – part 2
Published on August 23rd, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Here is part 2 of Rocksucker’s interview with Matthew Friedberger…(click here to read part 1)…
Are the faces on the cover based on anyone’s in particular?
Those are some sons of bitches, I suppose. It would have been nice to stage a photograph like one of those movies but obviously it would look too much like it was a still from the movie. A cartoon could be from the film but it also seems like it’s related to the album. They’re some sons of bitches, that’s all I’ll say about it! People can make up their own minds if they appear in the record, and what they have to do with the record.
Do they have names?
Peter…(laughs)…I can’t remember, but they’re nice guys. The real cover doesn’t exist…well, it does exist, but they didn’t send it out to anybody. You’ll have heard it just as MP3s, right?
On the actual CD or LP they have their own names. But they may or may not be in the record.
Are you a fan of The Olivia Tremor Control, or more specifically their 1996 album Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle?
I don’t really know their stuff. Didn’t their singer just pass away?
Yeah, Bill Doss.
Well, I hope I’m not just ripping them off. A lot of people were fans of the Elephant 6, and of the Kindercore Records label also from Georgia, but I don’t really know a lot about those bands; I think I associate them with Neutral Milk Hotel. There was a band from Tampa, Florida called Home [who also made a soundtrack for an unrealised movie], and back then – second half of the ’90s, I guess – I didn’t like listening to them, preferred the more aggressive music around at the time. All those instrumental post-rock bands, it’s like they’re making movie soundtracks, so I’m not saying that the frame of this record is a great new idea, making a soundtrack for a movie that isn’t there.
The first cliché about the way people use pop music is that they use it to fill in the boring times of their day, or the exciting times, so people use “Won’t Get Fooled Again” like that; then they see “Won’t Get Fooled Again” used in the Spike Lee movie Summer of Sam and they’re either annoyed or they like it, because when they were chopping wood they thought of the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” too, just like when someone’s getting beaten up in the movie! (Laughs) I can’t remember.
The way that movies and TV have affected the way people listen to music privately and socially, well it’s old ground, I guess: people try to take advantage of it, big stars like Bruce Springsteen creating movie substitutes meant to compete for our imaginations. A big part of how people listen to music is what they visualise it to be. It’s a complicated relationship, and The Beatles and Elvis’s movies were very important to who they were so it’s nothing new. It’s all part of the continuing story that individual pop music performers entertain their fans with, you know?
I noticed that your Solos LPs of last year aren’t available on iTunes, Spotify or even the Thrill Jockey website. Where can one get hold of them?
You can’t! (Laughs) They’re not popular enough to be available to steal, I don’t know, but I made a compilation of it called The Diabolical Principle. You can buy a different version of the set on vinyl now but I would like them to one day be available to people who don’t like record players. Right now it doesn’t seem fair to people in Europe: they’re quite expensive compared to in the US because of the exchange rate and postage. They’re out there in some form if people want to buy them. I suppose it would end up on iTunes and things like that though; I don’t think there’ll ever be a CD version of it.
Click here to listen to a selection of tracks from the Solos series on SoundCloud!
How did it come about that you interviewed Dylan Hicks? And how was he?
I was asked to be on the panel of a Bob Dylan conference – I think they couldn’t really get anybody they wanted to get! – and Dylan Hicks was the moderator. That’s how I met him, and then he asked me to interview him about a novel he wrote with an accompanying album. He’s a nice guy, and to me he’s an interesting guy: he’s a local rock guy, played in bands and wrote for one of the alternative weeklies. Then he seemed to get bored of, or frustrated with, rock music, seemed to say, “I can’t do this any more: I’m too old and maybe I was never right for it anyway, even though I wanted to be.”
Then he was going to be a writer, and the next I heard from him he’d written a book. Becoming unsatisfied with playing and making rock music, that’s very interesting to me, especially with people who are interested in other cultural activities; it’s interesting to me how they become embarrassed by it or come to associate it with different things.
Indie culture is not alternative any more: it’s a mainstream thing, first degree music as opposed to second degree music. It used to be that if you saw a rock band in the ’90s and a guy put his foot up on the monitor while playing a guitar solo, he wasn’t joking but there was an element of parody involved. Now it’s performance, a conscious thing rather than a naieve one. When you saw a band in 2002 and all of a sudden there’s a guy banging on a laptop and bobbing his head up and down at the front of the stage: it wasn’t a joke, he wasn’t trying to be funny.
A good example is a band from the ’90s called Brainiac: they did a lot of jumping around onstage and it wasn’t a joke, wasn’t a parody, but it wasn’t first degree. Even serious bands like Black Dice, they had bobbing and stuff you’d see at different times…and Animal Collective, especially Animal Collective: when they bang on the drum they’re very ‘into it’. I’m not saying their music or their performance isn’t very complicated or rich, potentially. Then you have these other indie groups who are less oppositional, at least in origin, and they get really ‘into it’.
Anyway, the point of what I’m saying is that I assume for a guy like Dylan Hicks, he couldn’t stomach that stuff. It wasn’t clever to him, it was just dumb, just people getting ‘into’ something and they don’t know what they’re doing, making fools of themselves but not realising that they’re acting the fool. I’m not saying he’s right, and I’m not even saying I represent his position, I’m just imagining him as a character. He said to go and do something else: “I don’t make rock music any more.”
But then he wrote a book about rock musicians and made a record to go with it, so he couldn’t give it up! And why should he? That was interesting to me: to make a record he had to make a whole new frame for himself, and as a writer writing a novel he could therefore then make a record. I don’t know how much importance he places on the record, whether it’s something he made because he just knows how to do it, how to make records, and you have to promote your book any way you can nowadays.
Other kind of stuff interests me: the way people adapt to music through different changes in their life and changes in their aspirations, that’s very interesting. And the people making the music, how they change or don’t change over time.
I don’t have any suspicion of them, I just think they always feel it’s important if they can [come across a certain way], and why wouldn’t they be? I don’t know if they say this any more but five years ago people used to complain that NME had to have a new band [on the cover] every week. The old NME of 2000-2005, and the way Pitchfork was then, it was in their interests to always have a new band, because then you have to go and look up the information from them. It wasn’t something they planned, it’s just the way it turned out.
It’s all about what booking agents call “baby bands” (laughs): the new band, it was their first show in town, and what was fun was that people got excited about that. That sits in well with the way Pitchfork, and maybe the NME a little before it, worked. I heard a lot of people complain about and be suspicious of that. Then again, “Who is this new band? Why aren’t they coming to see my old band?” isn’t necessarily very well-founded complaining.
It’s interesting that the websites centralised in North America to make the Free Weekly. Every town had its own weekly with a rock critic that everyone hated because they didn’t like their band, or loved because they were a friend of the band. That was what it was all about, but they didn’t have the same prestige in the national magazines in North America they weren’t taken. All of a sudden everybody read the same four websites and that was a big change. When guitar music became international pop music again people from all around the world came to these sites for information. That was a big difference.
I don’t know if the writing is better or worse in Pitchfork in 2005 or The Village Voice and Chicago Reader in 1991; you’d think maybe an individual person would be better, but… I don’t know how Pitchfork works, I could be totally wrong, but there’s no ‘voice’. Maybe there’s a bunch of people that write all the reviews, I don’t know. That’s the only thing I’d say is different. Some people say indie music hasn’t changed in that time: it has, it just sounds the same because people still have the same five records they can imitate.
You can never blame people for what music they like: you don’t know what they’re hearing, people will always make use of something and they’ll make it interesting with whatever associations they bring to it. Of course there’s more that they could find interesting in some music other than what might be currently available on the radio seven times a day. Nobody knows what people use music for and that’s nice: a group of friends might like the same kind of music and if they didn’t then they wouldn’t be friends, you know? There’d be a problem: I don’t know if that still goes on, I assume it does.
You can’t really know whether people like this cool new band we all agreed we liked or if they’re just pretending to like them. Why do two people like the same kind of music? It’s like a fun sort of cult, and cult operations have built up around a lot of seemingly innocuous pop music, which makes for gratifying divisions. I might as well just say it: I don’t think the main purpose of pop music is to bring people together, like at an Elton John concert, and I love Elton John very much. I think its purpose is to divide people, make friends argue with each other. There’s a secret benefit to that: I don’t know what that is, but that’s what I think this whole culture is about. A lot of people don’t think that at all! (Laughs)
What’s going on with your book The Progressive Use of Popular Culture 1: Music?
(Laughs) I don’t remember when I mentioned that but I didn’t really have a book. I did the music for an awards event they had at the Guggenheim two years ago and I had to have a fancy bio! In general about that, I suppose it’s frustrating for me that…not that people don’t like my records so aren’t amused by what I say about the records, but that they think that I’m trying to do what they would want to do if they were making records. I’m very surprised by that, and if you don’t justify yourself then nobody’s going to do it for you.
You are obligated directly to tell people why you think what you’re doing is worthwhile, and why their objections to it are irrelevant or misplaced. It’s very unseemly to do that, and where is it appropriate in rock music to do that? Well, the best rock criticism is another rock record: make a record about the record you don’t like! The rock culture is an all-encompassing one, therefore the evaluation of it has to be equally as all-encompassing: you can’t just write a memo about what you like, you have to write a song about what you like, wear a different shirt to the people whose shirts you don’t like, or not notice your shirt because the other people pay less attention to their shirts.
I do feel, in an aggressive way, like people have to justify their horrible, boring taste to me, not that I could justify my horrible, boring taste to them! I tend to be offended by other people who make music as opposed to other people who like music or write about it. When you see a band you don’t like for whatever reason it’s infuriating, but then it goes away and you realise that for them they’re in the right balance, the right spot, whereas for you it’s in the wrong spot.
I’m not saying it’s all subjective because it’s not, it’s very objective, it’s out there in the public and people’s reactions are unpredictable. There’s a big difference between unpredictable and subjective; it might seem random but it has a logic to it, albeit I don’t know what it is. It’s debatable to some extent, I suppose.
I thought it was great!
And what does she think of your new stuff?
She hasn’t told me, but she likes the covers. It makes me very angry that Eleanor’s not a huge star, which of course I’d benefit from! She’s going to make another one; I don’t know if it’ll be even better but I’m sure it’ll seem even better at the time, know what I mean? I’m sure she’s proud of her brother too.
Have you talked about a next Fiery Furnaces album?
We’ve talked about it but she thought it would be best for sure, and I agree, that she should make another record now, that she shouldn’t alternate between The Fiery Furnaces and her solo stuff. It was important for her to have her own space and not get jumped on by a Fiery Furnaces record, and it’s perhaps even more important that she saves this space for her second album. A lot of people don’t like the band; the band is relatively well-known by a certain small segment, and not necessarily positively, so obviously they’re going to associate our solo stuff with the band, which is unfair on her. I have a lot of solo records now so she needs to catch up with me!
Finally, if you had to spend the rest of your life with the entire works of just five different artists, whose would you choose?
Five is a lot. Whenever I get a question like this I’m always unsure whether I should pick rock music…
Anything you like. Other art forms welcome too.
(Pauses in deliberation) I don’t know what I should say. I don’t want to be a bad sport and not answer the question, because it’s a very normal question to ask…I’m very sorry I don’t have a snappy answer! I really like Pelican books, the non-fiction series. They were great books to collect as they only cost, you know, one pound. So I’d like the complete Pelican classics, but they can be empty: I can just have the covers and think about what might be written in them. That could be a lot of fun.
I’ll say American people [to narrow it down]: I’m going to pick Chuck Berry, Art Tatum, James Brown, Thelonious Monk and…Duke Ellington, I guess. I was going to say Muddy Waters but I guess Chuck Berry will have to do for the Chess [Records] thing.
Matthew Friedberger, thank you.
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