By Steve Weinstein
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Matt Friedberger is impressed. "Did we suddenly become hugely famous, and this is what it's like?" he asks, twirling to take in his surroundings, i.e., the bowling alley. He and his sister/bandmate, Eleanor Friedberger, have just enjoyed a private, pre-opening tour of the Brooklyn Bowl, Williamsburg's newest hot spot. Now, they're changing their shoes for a game. Going head-to-head with your sibling at the neighborhood lanes doesn't ordinarily scream "rock 'n' roll glamour," and it remains to be seen whether the Fiery Furnaces' new album, I'm Going Away, will finally catapult the cryptic art-rock band (they both write, she sings, he flits among various instruments, and, lately, Jason Loewenstein handles bass while Robert D'Amico takes drums) from Brooklyn cultists to nationwide superstars. But Matt is right about one thing: This is the fanciest bowling alley in the city.
So let's start there. The Bowl expertly balances high and low culture, a whiff of quality fried chicken wafting in from the massive kitchen run by the lauded Blue Ribbon chain. The brand-new bowling-shoe collection includes nifty styles with Velcro closures. Even the bathrooms upstairs are cool, with low-flush toilets and peepholes looking down to the main floor, where 16 bowling lanes sprawl among gorgeous, energy-efficient lighting and gleaming woodwork crafted by local carpenters and sourced from well-managed forests. It's all designed to score points toward LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a high rating by the U.S Green Building Council that has never been awarded to a bowling alley).
The place comes by its greenness honestly: Jam-band mogul Peter Shapiro, with the help of his partner, Charley Ryan, is running the show. An environmental activist since his days as proprietor of Tribeca's Wetlands Preserve, Shapiro has since created an Earth Day celebration, the Green Apple Music and Arts Festival, and co-founded consultant company GreenOrder, which helped the Brooklyn Bowl in its quest for eco-superiority. "Because of my background, I had no choice but to do it this way," he says, bragging about the venue's less obvious green features. There's a shower on-site to encourage employees to bike to work, and the bar only serves draft beers made in the borough: Brooklyn Brewery, Six Points, and Kelso.
So before they get down to business, the Friedbergers suck down a pitcher and watch a bit of The Song Remains the Same on the dozen or so rear-projection HD screens hanging above the pins. According to Shapiro, this is actually the best way to view a concert film: "In a theater, you're at a distance, but you don't have the right sound system. And if you do it at home, with stereo sound, you're too close." Still, he favors the trip-tastic Discovery Channel series Planet Earth when bands are performing at the other end of the space.
Which brings up the other remarkable thing about this bowling alley: its alternate identity as a 600-person-capacity live-music club, making it competitive not only with Willy rock 'n' bowl staple the Gutter, but also the similarly sized Music Hall of Williamsburg. All kinds of acts will perform at Brooklyn Bowl, says talent booker Mia Sladyk, a folksy redhead wearing a necklace with a ball-and-pin pendant: "We can totally do metal one night and a jam band the next, and then there are other fun things, like the Lebowski Fest." Existing clubs in this vein include the zydeco and r&b haven Mid-City Lanes Rock 'N' Bowl in New Orleans, and the multilevel Magic Stick in Detroit, but Brooklyn Bowl is the first venue to really plan out the configuration so that the bowling lounge is the best place from which to watch the show.
In fact, the raised, stage-level platform is almost like a VIP area alongside the general-admission pit, which explains Matt's suspicion that he has died and gone to rock heaven. Sinking down into an oversize leather sofa at the end of Lane One (no hard plastic chairs in this joint), he sits opposite his sister, who is dressed in a vintage bowling-team shirt worn especially for this occasion. Still rocking the signature heavy bangs that won her a Miu Miu modeling campaign a few years back, she is a real child of the '70s. "I think our new album could've been played at the bowling alley in Forest Park," she says, reminiscing about the Chicago-area spot that hosted her grammar-school-years bowling team, the Gutter Balls. Matt concurs: "Yeah, it sounds like a bowling team."
Abstract as such comments are, you can sort of see what they mean: The album is a '70s-ish affair with maudlin piano ballads, smooth-jazzy guitar lines, and love stories. The band's eighth release since Gallowsbird's Bark (their 2003 debut), Away is the closest the Furnaces have come to straight-ahead pop, but only relatively: The Friedbergers are famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for their defiance of rock conventions. In their catalog of painstakingly composed rhapsodic long-players, vocals sometimes come out backwards, lyrics are stubbornly surreal, and a ragtime keyboard melody might suddenly interrupt the momentum of a stoner-rock riff. Although it's brilliant to some, the herky-jerkiness drives others nuts. And though Away is far less rebellious musically, it's not exactly free of quirk: Consider that two different songs, "Charmaine Champagne" and "Cups and Punches," share common lyrics. "It's a running story about a prostitute going to a bar in the West Village that doesn't exist anymore called Johnny Romero's," Eleanor explains. "I wrote the first verse, and Matt liked it so much he wanted to use it again."
The Furnaces actually have a whole list of methods for ongoing unconventional music-making. Between turns on the lane, they talk about the "silent record" they're working on: a book of sheet music. "We thought we'd have shows where fans could play the music for us," Matt explains. He's also pumped about their recent "Democ-rock" campaign, in which the band's shows are caucuses to determine what future material will sound like. The two have also cobbled inspiration from scraps of paper found in concertgoers' pockets and written songs based entirely on fans' reviews; most famously, they made an entire record, 2005's Rehearsing My Choir, based on their grandmother's spoken-word storytelling.
When it comes to bowling, the Friedbergers are determined to play it straight, but it's obvious they have no idea what they're doing. Matt wonders if the balls are color-coordinated by size, complains of hand pain, and asks an employee to explain exactly how one bowls a strike. Lanky-armed Eleanor eyes opportunities to pull ahead, but the two stay neck-and-neck pretty much the whole way: It's a classic battle to bowl less badly. Finally, Eleanor rolls a late, clutch spare and sighs with relief despite her low score. "I just want to beat him," she whispers, pointing at her brother. And she does, 112 to 109.