The iJAMMING! interview
MATT FRIEDBERGER,
THE FIERY FURNACES

For a Q magazine Special Edition on Icons, published in November 2004, I was commissioned to write profiles on Pete Townshend and Joe Strummer. To distinguish these pieces from the dozens of other similar features already out there, I was asked to interview musicians who were either similarly minded to or clearly influenced by my subjects. For the piece on Pete, I talked to Matt Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces and Wayne Kramer of The MC5. (The Wayne Kramer interview is archived here.) Friedberger had many interesting points to make but, perhaps because his group are still mere critics' darlings and not yet popular icons themselves, his quotes were not used. A shame.

But that's where a writer's web site comes into play. (And indeed, it's why I initially set up iJamming!: to archive interviews like this.) And so, following below, is a mostly unabridged transcript of our phone chat, with Matt talking almost exclusively about his attraction, as a kid growing up in Chicago in the late seventies and early 1980s, to The Who in general, and Pete Townshend in particular.

ELEANOR AND MATT FRIEDBERGER IN CONCERT AT THE BOWERY BALLROOM, OCTOBER 2003.

Regular iJamming! readers will be aware how enamored I am of The Fiery Furnaces. The brother and sister team (Eleanor Friedberger sings and plays guitar; other musicians join them in concert), who moved from Chicago to Brooklyn a few years back, have released two remarkable albums on Rough Trade: Gallowsbird's Bark and Blueberry Boat. Gallowsbird's Bark came complete with an in-sleeve bio that referenced Matt's love for The Who, as follows:

"Matthew had only liked The Who. He had Who records and videotapes, and as a youth, down in the basement, he tried to make Who noises. "

Gallowsbird's Bark is a remarkable album. (You can read my review here.)But Blueberry Boat is even better – and, as I discussed with Matt, it displays an evident considerable late Sixties Who influence. You can read my full review of Blueberry Boat here. You can listen to a couple of cuts from that album at the group's otherwise out-dated web site, here. You can read my live review of The Fiery Furnaces' show at The Bowery Ballroom, October 2003, here. The live photos are from that same show.

I'm posting this transcript in January 2005, the same month in which The Fiery Furnaces have released, both in America and the UK, a new EP called, as the sexy sleeve makes apparent, EP. It gathers together assorted British singles and B-sides along with a couple of new tracks, one of which is entitled 'Here Comes The Summer.' No, it's not a cover of The Undertones' single of the same name, and yes, January is the wrong month to release it, unless you're in Australia, in which case it's already too late. Still, it's their most commercial offering to date. Assuming that sibling rivalry never gets the better of them, there's no reason for The Fiery Furnaces not to become our very own (alternative) Carpenters of the 2000s – and I mean that in the nicest, most complimentary way.

The Fiery Furnaces' two albums - and new EP - are available online through amazon.co.uk and amazon.com


Tony: What makes Pete Townshend an icon?

Matt: Of all that generation of British musicians, he seemed the most self-conscious about being a British musician playing this American music, mostly African-American derived music. He perceived the strangeness of a British band playing this music back to Americans in a much more obvious way than you could The Stones or Eric Clapton.

-When were you born?

I'm 32. I was born in 1972. The Who were this totally naturalized by then, like Led Zep or Black Sabbath, I didn't realize they were a British band. You had the Union Jack, and the iconography, but that was the only clue I had. Growing up with classic rock radio culture, that you had in the Midwest, in the mid-Seventies and early Eighties, that's what I heard. The first things I remember hearing on the radio were Elton John, Queen and The Who. And obviously The Who cut a different profile, they were part of a certain kind of radio and pop culture, but they were part of black vinyl jacket- wearing, suburban cheap beer drinking rock'n'roll culture.

-And Pete Townshend in particular must have cut something different here.

He was very much more articulate in a way that translated easily into reading interviews. By the time that I was into it there were books about The Who: Maximum R&B and the Dave Marsh book. I think for people my age you got rock history a lot from these old Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock'n'roll books. For those California people like Bill Graham Promotions and Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, they really supported Townshend, and in all those wide-ranging interviews with Rolling Stone, he didn't seem like any other rock star. He was already talking, before Quadrophenia, how it was very much a record about the fans, and in the interviews around The Who by Numbers he was talking in this very pained and passioned way about how he thought the band was failing.

And even though for a kid growing up in my time they satisfied everything you wanted from a 70s rock band – they had these poppy songs, they had what you could imagine was a history, they had the ability to play huge guitar rock which could stand up to Led Zeppelin - it was was a bridge from this guitar classic rock culture back into more interesting 60s music. And I guess Townshend tried to keep abreast. There's the famous incident where he was talking to the Sex Pistols in the bar, and he cut his hair in 1977. He was easy to approach, as someone growing up, by then in the early 80s, because he in himself was as sensitive as any of the sensitive professional songwriters. The Who by Numbers is as good a record that way as any Jackson Browne record.

Matt Friedberger on Pete Townshend: "The height of his virtuosity was making the instrument malfunction - as dramatically as possible."


-And so was Empty Glass, and his other solo records.

So he was in a strange way a particular kind of MTV star when it started up. They quickly disappeared completely from that scene in 1983 and have five years of dormancy until they did that reunion tour in 1989, where people didn't talk about The Who. But Townshend had this thing that if you liked The Clash or the Gang of 4, it was much easier to fit the 70s rock that he produced into that, and he was a way back into the wildness of the 60s rock.

As a guitar player, and one of the guys who plays that most democratic instrument, the guitar, he was interesting because the highlight of his performance was to make the guitar malfunction. To produce feedback and then to smash it. That's an amazing leveling gesture, where you had Clapton and Jeff Beck and the Stones, very much about playing this genre music correctly. I love The Stones and the Pretty Things and early Yardbirds. But Townshend - they also played this very tough interesting version of R&B. It's interesting listening to the High Numbers bootlegs that are from the Marquee, supposedly and hearing Daltrey's Howling Wolf impressions. It's very interesting. But back then the guitar players were the stars, not the singers, to some extent, but he didn't just do something new, he played from a style that came from a John Lee Hooker rhythm style of guitar than from someone playing single note lead. The height of his virtuosity was making the instrument malfunction - as dramatically as possible.

-And other people you mention – Clapton, Page, Beck – were worshipping the guitar. Townshend's job was to non-worship it.

That's an amazing democratic music gesture. The guitar is so important in 20th century economics, it's the instrument you can immediately make music on if you can't really play it and it's cheap and you can take it around – and Townshend, as opposed to learning to play it properly, although obviously he could play in a very interesting way, the highlight of his show was to not make it function at all!

Townshend didn't turn himself into this triumphant rock star. Even though he developed this style as extreme and as interesting and as self-assured as any of the British rock stars. Maybe the only person along with his drummer who bears comparison with the outrageous performance styles of Howling Wolf. You couldn't say that about any of his contemporaries. There was no triumphalism in the band.

Tommy is the same kind of way. Him and (Kit) Lambert were very self-conscious about the social significance that pop music had. Maybe it was because the only product exclusively marketed to young people, but thematically they made the hero of the story someone who was psychosomatically as limited as possible. It would be as basic a person as could be. And at the end of Tommy, the point of him as the leader was that he led by listening – to you. The same with the Lifehouse stuff with the band and the audience synchronizing up, and 'The Punk and The Godfather' song in Quadrophenia.

-These songs pretty much came out before you were born.

That's the American rock radio culture that I came from and a lot of people round my age. You didn't have the pop music on the radio. There was one pop station playing Michael Jackson and Lisa Lisa to every three or four playing something between The Beatles, Substitute, AC/DC and Bob Seger. That was a weird way the marketing people divided up the media culture racially round that time. The pop culture I grew up in – in Chicago - was that you still grew up listening to The Who.

The Fiery Furnaces in concert, Matt at far right. "Personally what most influenced me were the two albums of Townshend's demos – Scoop."

-How did they fit in with punk/new wave?

Even with the punk rock prejudices you had, you could love The Who's my generation album, and say to someone at a Black Flag show that you love that record. So you would focus more on the 60s bands and the mod stuff, because the subculture they (mods) played for or to was the star, as opposed to them being the people that the fashion was aped from. They were self-consciously aping it from the audience, the community they came from was more important socially than the band was. And to someone reading Maximum Rock'n'roll in the 80s, that made you think The Who was very interesting.

-I'm hearing an influence in Fiery Furnaces from Tommy and rock operas. Most people influenced by The Who ape the power chords, the anthems.

The album that we just made (Blueberry Boat) I made self-consciously to make in the genre either of 'A Quick One' – little bits of pop songs thrown together – on in 'Rael,' where you had Lambert pushing him on, making him listen to Purcell recordings, and stuff that Lambert's father unearthed, and making him play the suspended chord at the beginning of 'The Kids Are Alright' – which everyone loves, especially with that chiming Rick sound. And 'Rael', which is more, for me, a pseudo musically integrated longer song. I love Dylan, but there's another tradition of narrative rock songs, that I think Townshend is the best in bits of Tommy, and 'Rael' – it's a mysterious, truncated story which sometimes in pop music makes it more evocative. I tried to make the record as a footnote to those songs.

The Q Special Edition: More info here.

Personally what most influenced me were the two albums of Townshend's demos – Scoop. I bought those as a kid and just pictures him with synthesizers on the wall in his home studio in 1970, and there's a song about fishing on the last side of the first scoop record ('Goin' Fishin'), and there's the 'Melancholia' demo. And the Lifehouse demos. As well as the beautiful pristine sounds of the Tommy demos – which are now on the reissued Tommy (reviewed here.) The way he talked about home recording on those Scoop records… as a 13-year old starting to try and play electric guitar and trying to save up money or convince my parents to get me a 4-track, I thought that was what you were meant to do. You were meant to assemble these sad songs – with synthesizers in the background, and an upright piano, with a certain kind of guitar playing. Townshend was a pretty good drummer too.

-Did that encourage you?

To write songs, yeah. That's how I think I tried to make up songs. And those records we've made, because it's my sister singing and playing all the stuff, that's how we’ve made those records, though we've been in a proper recording studio. Because his records were made in a house and not a studio, they're quiet and sad. The 'Behind Blue Eyes' demo, the middle section is quiet because you know live you have this huge aggressive beast to play these songs.

-I think you're getting at the fact that The Who were as a big and as loud as aggressive as any band you could name, but because of Townshend's songwriting, there was this incredible sensitive side to them that allowed you to feel there was something deeper. If you were trying to get to do something yourself, it wasn't all about going out drinking beer and picking up girls. You could jump up and down to the aggression, but you could go off and get into 'Behind Blue Eyes' or Tommy or listen to the demos and get into what a great songwriter was.

That's the thing about Townshend: He was the craziest one on stage, jumping up and down more than anyone else, but he was also the person that could write that Fishing song. His voice was that amazing thing. There's no more successfully masculine singer than Roger Daltrey, but then there's Townshend's voice - which can sound affectively aggressive, but because of the sound of his voice, it's easy to imagine the tough exterior.


iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2005


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This page last updated
Thu, Jan 20, 2005 1:15 pm


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