Different strokes

Siblings the Fiery Furnaces overcome rivalries

For the past few years, Eleanor Friedberger and her brother Matt have recorded together as the Fiery Furnaces, making whimsical, shape-shifting music that has won many critical raves. But recently when Spin released its annual "Cool List," Eleanor ranked No. 39, all by her lonesome. Matt was nowhere to be found.

This omission seems like it has the potential to set some pretty serious sibling rivalry in motion. But Matt says he doesn't mind. "She's the frontperson, so she's supposed to be cool," he explains. "I'm supposed to be the idiot in the background."

Besides, it's not like they haven't had their differences in the past. (Once when they were younger, Matt "accidentally" stabbed Eleanor.) But none of this has stopped the flow of music. The duo has released two albums within the span of a year. And these are no 10-song quickies either. They are 70-minute quirky opuses that fill just about every bit of a compact disc. For the Furnaces, less is rarely more.

"You only get paid if you make good records," Matt says, "so if we feel we have to put more songs on the record to make them good, then maybe they'll be good and people will buy them. Otherwise, it doesn't pay to be 'indie.'"

And indie is about all the Furnaces could be, especially with the odd subject matter of the new disc, Blueberry Boat. It includes references to sea shanties, lost lockets, warrants signed by Sir Edward Pepsi, a failed typewriter repairman, and farmers with swords. Their songs seem to be stitched together from a number of jumbled ideas, and then distilled through the voice of Eleanor, who sounds like a Broadway-style Patti Smith. Instrumentally, it's a tangled mess of guitars, keyboards and synths.

The Furnaces take the same noisy approach to their live shows, which include additional musical support from Toshi Yano on bass and synth, and Andy Knowles on drums. On the tour supporting 2003's critically acclaimed Gallowsbird's Bark, the group played a continuous medley of its recorded material to date, mixing in verses here and choruses there to keep audience members on their toes and the band constantly engaged. This was inspired by one of Matt's favorite bands.

"I like the Ramones a lot," he says of that band's approach to concerts. "I like the zippin' through the songs. Eleanor doesn't like to talk while she's playing, so that was an easy way to start it. Also, it's just that we thought we should rearrange the songs live. It's fun to do that."

During the shows, Matt switches between guitar and keyboard, while Eleanor strikes poses like a robotic dancer. It's reportedly a very taxing set for drummer Knowles, who Matt always encourages to "be as tired as possible" at show's end. Indeed Matt seems to be the only one who really enjoys the breakneck pace of the Furnaces' gigs.

"It's easy for me," said Matt. "Well, surprise, I'm the person who made it up, so, what a surprise that it's easiest for me."

Indeed Matt thinks that there might be a conspiracy to get him to slow down on stage. During recent shows in New York City and Norfolk, Va., Matt broke a string on his sole guitar. The surprising thing is that he changes them before every show and usually never breaks one.

"I just thought it was a bad batch of strings that I bought, but maybe it's Andy [the drummer]," Matt says. "Or Eleanor, cause she gets tired, too."

Hmmm ... maybe the sibling rivalry isn't totally behind them after all.