The Collage King of Queens

A walking tour and songwriting lesson with Fiery Furnaces guru Matthew Friedberger

Matthew's lessons, at least, have bathed these non sequiturs in a little more light. If we haven't attained clarity in our own songwriting, we at least understand how lines like "I burned all my clothes with eucalyptus juice/Ripped out the floors and painted all the platforms puce" and "No more revenge cobbler or whiskey pie" came into being.

"You know, I might amass material in ways we've been talking about," he says. "But once it gets to writing the songs, I'm thinking of Eleanor singing them. That's the starting point, is having either something that fits her or doesn't fit her, and therefore will be fun for me to make her do something that she doesn't want to."

Or maybe Eleanor can make those decisions herself.

"On Widow City," he adds, "she was more involved, and so she wrote with me five of the songs' lyrics. We did a method related to these kinds of methods. Eleanor did it with old magazines—old '70s lifestyle magazines, women's magazines. She went to the ads in the back and copied out interesting phrases and made these scripts—maybe it was about 10 pages on a computer. And then I used it to produce some songs."


A week later we're back in Manhattan, specifically the Mercury Lounge. The Furnaces are onstage in front of a couple hundred friends and industry types, bathed, both before and after the performance, in the light of 100 BlackBerries. Matthew is encased behind three keyboards, looking like another studied man behind the music, another backseat-driving, overshadowed, keyboard-playing half of a brother-sister combo: Richard Carpenter. But instead of gazing up at Eleanor, his Karen, with Richard's peculiar mix of threatening adoration, Matthew, on the rare occasions when he does raise his head, only glances at the drummer, the bass player, the band. Eleanor is on her own. She must be really bored at practice. During instrumental breaks she kneels down, as if trying not to block the audience's view. If you're standing in the back, she completely disappears.

As on record, songs run together like some great, rushed (though not Rush'd) art-rock experiment. The closing lines of "Automatic Husband" ("It was made by a special commission of Navajo basketball coaches and blonde ladies") segue into the opening salvo of "Ex-Guru" ("One of those blonde ladies had a certain hold on me/I went to all her seminars by the airport in the Doubletree"). These words don't make any more sense now, but on the other hand they do, sort of. The whole show, dominated by 10 tracks off Widow City, takes less than an hour. Or about the time it takes the nearby F train to curl back into Queens.


The Fiery Furnaces play Hiro Ballroom November 3, hiroballroom.com

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