Described in Beatles terminology, the Fiery Furnaces have always been a lot more “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” than “Revolution #9.”
The eccentric sibling duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger has rarely delved into social commentary. They prefer weaving random observations and found material into twisted absurdist narratives, heavy on alliteration and perfectly suited to their unique brand of funky, futuristic circus-psychedelia.
Speaking from a cell phone in Brooklyn at the dawning of an election year, however, Matthew Friedberger is suddenly chomping at the bit for a straight-up, Tim Russert-style political chat.
“This band doesn’t endorse any presidential candidate, because who cares what a band has to say?” he says. There’s a brief pause. “The tour that we’ve started, however, endorses Barack Obama.”
Splitting hairs like a true politician, Friedberger soon shifts his focus to the Fiery Furnaces’ own campaign platform, something they call democ-rock. “That’s what we play,” he says.
Explained in far greater, Jeffersonian language on the Furnaces’ website, democ-rock is essentially the Friedbergers’ grassroots effort to empower their CFAs (that’s the citizen, fan, and audience) to directly contribute to the band’s creative process. It’s already begun with an online caucus, in which fans can vote on a field of eight insanely diverse concepts for the next Furnaces’ album. According to Matthew, it’s just the beginning.
“This first record [which will be the band’s sixth] is really going to be just a normal rock record that people vote on,” he explains. “But we also want to have a second, more thorough type of democ-rock, in which the fans contribute the actual material that becomes the songs of the band—music and lyrics. Now mostly, it will happen with texts, which will, in a schematic way, set the music. But, you know, people don’t have to do any work whatsoever. They can just copy the comments to an R. Kelly video on YouTube and send it to us, if they want. It can be any random text.
“The point is to let the people have a say in the songwriting. You know, nowadays, whether bands like it or not, people are getting their music for free. So it only makes sense that they should have to help write the songs, too.”
Of course, democ-rock isn’t just a clever marketing gimmick to tie in with an election season. It actually fits perfectly with what the Fiery Furnaces have been about since their debut album Gallowsbird’s Bark made major indie-rock waves in 2003. Releasing another new LP every year since, the prolific siblings have continued to take advantage of outside, found material as a prime source for their unconventional, often witty lyrical rants.
“It’s a great and fun way to write songs,” Friedberger says. “You’re more likely to sit down in an hour and write two good songs with found material than you are through an hour of forced inspiration.”
Only time will tell how the Furnaces’ democ-rock experiment pans out, but in the meantime, Friedberger is more than happy to continue discussing that other major political campaign currently going on.
“I think a big part of the Obama campaign, and for the Democrats in general, is to make mainstream politics a part of young people’s normal, everyday pop culture, so that they’re just as concerned about whether their senator could be doing more as they are with what Britney’s doing,” he says.
And why do the Furnaces believe Obama is more capable of achieving that goal than Hillary?
“Well, you know, we’re from Chicago, and we’re White Sox fans—so we support the White Sox fan [Obama] over the Cubs fan [Clinton],” Friedberger responds, sounding a little more like the absurdist behind most of those strange words his sister sings. A moment later, though, he’s back on the McLaughlin Group.
“These days, you have to have a presidential candidate who is, as John Edwards says, ‘the celebrity candidate.’ And for the Democrats, you have two celebrity candidates—as Edwards rightly complains. You have Hillary, who is famous for being the First Lady, and is a capable and interesting person. And you have Obama, who is a celebrity because he’s the perfect modern politician—someone who can compete with Britney and Lindsay and Paris and [Tony] Romo and Jessica Simpson and everything else. That kind of stuff—it sounds trivial compared to whose healthcare plan you like better, but really it’s not, I’m afraid. Picking a presidential candidate is a matter of picking leadership for now!” With this declaration, Friedberger chuckles at himself. “Anyway, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to use any of this nonsense, but there it is.”