INTERVIEW- Democrock: Fiery Furnaces let fans do it

The Fiery Furnaces consist of the sibling combo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger and two other fifth-wheel types who don't really help steer the ship. You'd think this would open up the possibility of a discussion of dysfunctional familial relations in a musical context, but it's all pretty cut and dried: four-piece indie rock and a healthy reverence for The Who. That's not exactly a controversial formula.

It's only once you add the strangers into the mix that things get interesting: Matthew has recently been seeking novel ways of interacting with his fans. Refreshingly, it's not all about using the Internet– let's face it, anybody who still sees that as a brave new world at this point probably hasn't done enough with it over the past 10 years to really learn how it works.

Friedberger's ideology smacks of Idol but lacks the usual accompanying dog-and-pony show.  His band rode the indie revolution right into a world where signing away creativity to a record label is probably more excruciating than ever before, but he's still stoked to be able to freely share the one thing the Furnaces have left: their identity.

The Hook: You played at the Satellite Ballroom a few years ago. What's new on this tour?

Matt Friedberger: People have been voting for the songs they want to hear.  The stage has a ballot box.  We play a set, and then we play the votes.

The Hook: And you enjoy giving the audience that level of control?

Matt Friedberger: I have some songs that are half written with the public. We've been getting some nice material. People are writing lyrics, but they don't have to work that hard– they can give any random pieces of text they have on them– we get a lot of ATM receipts.

The Hook: Which say what, exactly?

Matt Friedberger: Here's a Rite Aid receipt on which somebody wrote "Paul McCartney finally felt his pressure." That's the kind of stuff we're getting, so we're going to write something on the website specifically about fan-generated recording and songwriting.

The Hook: They do this while you're performing?

Matt Friedberger: No, we say it at the end of the show. Last night somebody gave me their video rental card. I like stuff like that. And sometimes they write stuff down. On a napkin: "Ravens flock like Poe's lovers. Should we hide under the covers?" It's nice to get something like that, but really they should just empty their pockets. "Democrock"– it's spreading over the country... the voice of the people, put directly on wax. The citizen fan community can help write songs, and then the band can just wither away, and the fans are left to themselves in this utopian state of "derocmacy."

The Hook: How do I spell that last word?

Matt Friedman: Switch the R and the M. But hey, actually, you can spell it however you like. 

The Hook: How clever.

Matt Friedman: I'm hoping to get somebody to do a Wikipedia entry about it– defining derocmacy– but I don't know how to do that.

The Hook: I'll tell a few of my friends. But wow, you have a real political fever these days, don't you?

Matt Friedman: Well, that's what's going on in the country right now, so we just want to be relevant during this crucial and exciting time.

The Hook: So this fixation only emerged recently, then? 

Matt Friedman: We think we're very reality based band. "Reality rock"– that could be another term. Our records are about real things, even if they don't seem to be. I don't know how effective rock songs with topical lyrics are. Right now there's a lot of effort to get people on the cultural left into the Democratic party, so maybe now is a time when topical lyrics in rock songs could be appropriate.

The band has a responsibility to be a good, legitimate rock band. But political business? We're not an activist band. Sometimes it's part of the band's appeal, their brand, that they're selling some sort of social goings-on to people. But no, the important thing is to do what a good rock band should do in today's time. That doesn't necessarily include writing an anti-Hillary song this month, or a pro-Ron Paul song.

The Hook: So what, if anything, did you do in 2004 to fit with the political climate back then?

Matt Friedman: On our first record, there's a song about the 2002 midterm election– "Get Back the Plague." It's about our president's campaigning– where he went and who he was campaigning for. In 2004, we don't have anything to say about that unhappy election. I have things to say personally, but the band doesn't.

The Hook: Okay, let's talk glass-half-full stuff then.

Matt Friedberger: The biggest record in 2004 was the Outkast record. That's just what everyone expects to be a hit record, because it's a crossover record. People feel good when there's a crossover, because [multiple] demographics can like the same record.

The Hook: And do you think you have any crossover appeal? Which disparate demographics converge on the Fiery Furnaces?

Matt Friedman: Luckily it's not part of my job as a songwriter to think about the demographics. We're not supposed to think like that– it's against the rules, or it should be against the rules. If we're going to make a decision for artistic reasons, we're not supposed to think about what that might mean– who might download a song or buy a ringtone.

The Hook:  Then why are you using your website to run a public poll– or "non-binding caucus," rather– to determine the next album's name?

Matt Friedman: Not just the album name, but what kind of album it's going to be. There's eight different choices for the album with a name and the description. You're supposed to vote based on the description. It's not so much voting, just starting the discussion.

The Hook: So will you make them all someday either way? Or did you just have them come together in one afternoon of brainstorming? Can you really base the next eight years of your band on something like that?

Matt Friedman: Could be. I'd like to, I like them all. They're all real notions. It wouldn't take us eight years, though. We'd make them quicker than that.

The Hook: Again, though, doesn't all this mean you're bending over backwards to do what the public wants?

Matt Friedman: We're asking the rock fans what they want to hear, but we're not imagining that we're going to be a pop idol act because we asked. Just because we're asking the community of our fans tohelp us

decide doesn't mean we're out for mainstream success. We're just not allowed, in a guitar rock band, to be concerned with that. We not making focus group rock.

The Hook: That may be my favorite of all the terms you've coined so far.

Matt Friedman: Maybe we'll have a side project.

The Fiery Furnaces perform at the Satellite Ballroom Saturday, January 26, with support from Ki:Theory and Tapeworms. $15, 9pm.