Incendiary interview Eleanor Friedberger

I mean I really like the playfulness of the band, I’m totally for that, and we’re not a normal band: we don’t have a sound, we don’t sit in a room and jam like a normal band.



Incendiary are in Amsterdam to meet up with Eleanor Friedberer, in town to do interviews and play a short set from her fabulous solo LP, Last Summer, in the Paradiso’s subterranean café bar. Though we’ve always loved the Fiery Furnaces and written many supportive articles about them, we nervously wonder if Eleanor remembered Incendiary’s unfortunate introduction to the band some eight years back: an introduction that resulted in a drunken mauling of their take of Winter by the Fall, a drunken mauling in the band’s earshot (they were right behind us), and a drunken mauling in the presence of the Franz Ferdinand lads. If she does remember, Eleanor Friedberger doesn’t show it. She is friendly, frank and in her slightly reserved manner up for a natter and a giggle. We find a seat and then we find the bloody digital recorder has a flat battery… 


IN: I hate these things I never know how they bloody work… I’m a bit old fashioned

EF: (Laughs) I been using this (points to her phone) recently to record stuff, it’s really handy. You know the voice memo application on your phone?

IN: I should look to do that, though I am a bit in love with old things. Gadgets.  Must be my age. Anyway…  I must congratulate you on your solo record. We always loved Fiery Furnaces records, we always felt you saw things differently than other artists, you always had a different way of approaching rock music, it is very refreshing listening to your work. And your solo LP has elements of Fiery Furnaces work in that it’s very confessional music. A kind of tête a tête…

EF: You know that’s funny, because I never really think of the things my brother writes as being very confessional; rather the opposite! He’s kind of hiding behind these huge stories, hiding his own personality and wants me to present them to people that sounds… uh… what’s the word… he wants me to authenticate these tales with crazy ramblings you know? The songs I have always written have been personal and autobiographical, thinking I just don’t have a very good imagination (laughs)… But I purposely wanted this record to sound “even more so”, to sound naïve and emotionally direct, you know?

IN There are tracks, things like Owls Head Park on the new LP, where it sounds like you’ve gone for coffee with your friend and having a gossip. Funnily enough I also wrote the word “Raconteur”

EF: Yeah I think so, but I’ve always written songs that way… like immortalise memories in some way you know, like writing a love letter to a friend to hold on to some memory. Rehearsing My Choir was about how we all remember things and how we all reminisce in general… and with this record,  I wanted to go back to a state of mind of how I was when I first started to play music and how it was when I first played music in front of other people before the band happened, and it was an odd thing to do… because on the one hand I really couldn’t have done it without all the experience of that band the past 10 years, but I really wanted it to be as “un-jaded” as possible

IN: I thought it was a dead simple, naïve record…

EF: (Laughs a lot) I mean it’s clever for me to fall back on a reply to you now and say “yeah we were trying to make it lie that” but it’s also a result of my limitations as a musician and an arranger and all that stuff, and I think that I am limited in my ability as a musician but I also think sometimes that works out for the best because it’s very quick to latch on to, and that was the idea with this record. I wanted to be able to put it on and listen to the whole thing, and there’s nothing too jarring and nothing jumps out too much and it’s a lame adjective but I wanted to make a very pleasant record: no huge statement, no “look at me, and I’m a pop star now” I just wanted it to be something very… easy

(Both laugh)

EF: I mean I know it sounds very lame…

IN: Well no really, okay maybe I could burnish that remark by something: I thought it was very egoless, I thought there was no ego in the record, simple songs, enjoyable music. Fun. No negotiations between you and the listener. Anyway I’d like to try something else out for you to comment on: I was struck by this phrase which came out of nowhere whilst listening to your LP, “Commuter Groove Music”. Maybe I was listening to Roosevelt Island

EF: Well that’s funny. That particular song is a very silly song... I improvised three or four of the songs including that one where I was just reminiscing about something. And half of the content was just crap but I didn’t edit it down I just left it. Half of it was goofy, part of that was taking drugs with my friend when I first moved to New York and half of that experience was on the subway so I wanted that song to sound like it was on the subway and for people to listen to on the subway (laughs)

IN: Your records as the Fiery Furnaces very playful, there’s an element of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, lots of time changes, ridiculous musical conceits...  etcetera. A friend once said whilst we were both listening to one of the LPs, “God this band would be really annoying if they were shit”. Now your solo record is completely different…

EF: I think the big change is to do with my brother you know? He’s a complicated guy who is insanely talented and he... (Pauses) I don’t know how to say this, I don’t ever want to say anything that sounds like I’m insulting him because that’s the last thing I ever want to do, but he’s into kind of self-sabotaging, he’s a trickster, he’s afraid of making things too easy or simple. He’s never made things easy or simple for himself, and that’s just his personality. It comes through in the music. And I’ve been willing to go along on the ride. But that’s not my personality (laughs) and that’s the big difference. I mean I really like the playfulness of the band, I’m totally for that, and we’re not a normal band: we don’t have a sound, we don’t sit in a room and jam like a normal band. We sit in a room and talk about ideas and concepts about or around the record we want to make and we try to execute that and sometimes it works. That’s the way we make music.

But for this it was really a case of me sitting down and wondering, “What can I do?”, and it was very much an experiment just for myself; just to see if I could actually make a record, but without the help of him or anybody else really. I did have some help in the end, but I did demos of all the songs and I gave them to a producer and told him how I wanted things to sound. I was in this great position, because he didn’t change anything he just made everything better. So I didn’t have to argue, he just helped. That sounds a wonderful situation. Now I’m ready to do another one based on what I learned from this. And I will do another one before I do another record with my brother, an experience which I think will only make the next Fiery Furnaces record even better.


IN: I think it’s important that you don’t see the band as a straightjacket really

EF: I mean we could make a record when we are in our fifties or sixties and I don’t think it will be any less weird than we are now

IN: Well you’ve made the weirdest (and one of the best) records of recent times with Rehearsing My Choir!

EF: Well you’re in a minority… (Laughs)

IN: But weird stuff is fun?

EF: Oh yeah… And I mean we’re not you know… we get to do what we want and we get to pay the price for that by not being successful or whatever but I mean we get to do what we want and that’s the most important thing.

…But I did feel like that if I didn’t do something on my own right now I would never…. I mean I am conscious of my age and of what I want, how I want to spend eth next five years of my life, something like that and erm.. you know… it was kind of like now or never for me, personally.

IN: I tell you there’s nothing wrong with being old. Especially grumpy and old, seriously

EF: I think so too.

IN: OK, one more question? Well I always think that your records feel enclosed in terms of space. This (indicating the corner of the bar we are sat in) this is a visual re-enactment of a Fiery Furnaces / Eleanor Friedberger song, a conversation in a corner. Maybe the urban commuter metaphor makes sense… it’s not wind and water music is it?

EF: No! Wind and water music that’s funny… But gosh I don’t know. Erm, I don’t know I mean the songs are made up of memories that are in a trapped space in my brain. It feels very claustrophobic in there! The song My Mistakes is about something that happened to me last summer when I was writing the song and I mentioned… I mean I say last summer it was the summer before that, which makes me think of an incident ten summers before that, it’s a kind of jumbled mess in my brain and that’s how most memories  are; your brain doesn’t necessarily know the chronological order of them…It makes me sound like a crazy person. When you remember and notate them like that it makes you a crazy person for a while… I don’t know if that answers your question… (Laughs).

…I don’t know I’ve always been… I’m not a poet, I am not great at rhyming (laughs yet again) I think what makes my songs interesting is that they list a lot of very specific details and I think those details make it seem very direct and enclosed to listen to. I’m not interested in making big statements.

IN: Everyone seems to have statements these days. I’m nicking a phrase from my review of your record: you seem to be “a master of documenting emotional detail”… a set of emotions pinned like butterflies onto a card.

EF: I hope so! I mean I just wrote, just bullshit rambling as much as I could remember about certain things. I could have gone on and on, but I limited myself, I could have spent a year writing, but I wanted to do it as quickly as possible so I gave myself about six weeks and I kept a document on my computer and I went to Los Angeles and a song came out of that trip and you know I just did it as quickly as possible… which can  turn out to be shit, it can turn out to be a bad idea and so pretentious, so I hope it doesn’t sound like that…

(Silence then we both start laughing)

….I mean I wanted it to sound girly and naïve and be a diary entry thing… In fact with the vinyl version…  I don’t know how many they will make but I was afraid of the album sounding too precious. So, while the record was being recorded I kept a diary just really to note down when a song was recorded, what days, what instruments were used and stuff like that, and I wanted to include some liner notes… And reading it back it sounded really unfunny and pretentious and stupid. So I had a couple of friends, who do comedy writing I gave them my diary and they interjected funny things in it. But it was really raunchy and I thought, I can’t use that and then a third person made a fake diary and pretended that it was me. And I can see it could be me, so anyway, in the vinyl version there are four pages included, but nobody has asked me about it… And I think just everyone thinks it’s me. I included it so I just didn’t come across as too precious. But the diary’s fake!

IN: I think it’s a poppy warm relaxed record, it’s open and friendly, and the cover’s good and friendly. It was late seventies, a Clinton feel to it even if that doesn’t sound too stupid

EF: Well, every song had a song; references we’d play to the producer and we’d say what we wanted the record to sound like this or this… Maybe no-one would hear a similarity. For My Mistakes, someone gave me a John Cale and Brian Eno record they did together called Wrong Way Up, so we took things from the first song on that album. And I was also trying to copy a sax solo from a Van Morrison song, elsewhere I was trying to copy a Tyrannosaurus Rex song.  Just every song had something.