This coming Tuesday sees the release of Fiery Furnace Matt Friedberger’s solo (double disc) album Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School—a sprawling set of 40 songs that run the gamut from (surprise) metaindecipherable to actuallyfactuallycatchy. We pulled Mattie off his tour this summer to talk about Kipling, being drunk in high school, Scrabble and science projects.
There are almost forty songs on your new album—that’s a lot!
Well, a lot of people write songs real fast. It’s harder to record. The thing that I’m more impressed with is that we paid a lot of attention to how it sounds…It’s a lot of Todd Rundgren imitating on my part. Todd Rundgren… is very talented. I’m not a fan of Todd Rundgren, but he is very talented and I like to try and be as bad as he is.
One thing I’ve noticed on all your albums, including this one, is this nostalgia for a youth that is not necessarily your own—where does that come from?
A lot of that is just because of the tone of rock music. Just talking about the indecision and lack of good thoughts you have when you’re either young or not quite adult—does that make sense? That’s kind of the subject matter you think of when you think of rock music, and the types of different music and the types of different sounds that make up rock music, they go along well with those kind of stories. The looseness of it and the casualness of it. But I don’t actually think about that myself. I think that when a lot of people talk about the band, [they say] it sounds like some crazy kids set loose with their toys. And sometimes that’s on purpose—it is meant to sound like that—and sometimes that’s just because there’s a lot of stuff going on. We try to have that casual sound that we think is appropriate for rock records, so people associate that with “playing” and they associate that with kids. I don’t know about some of the words, except on Bitter Tea because that record is supposed to be kind of a girlish record.
What about the themes of going home again and lost youth that seem to appear a lot?
Well, oh yeah, traveling, leaving home and going home, that’s real important. I think I like to write lyrics stolen from business sections of newspapers, and from things that sometimes are kids books, I guess. But uh, Rudyard Kipling, that’s as fancy—as pretentious—as I think the books that the rock lyricist should steal from. Do you know what I’m saying? An adventure story kind of tone.
What was your teenagehood like?
I was a dumb kid. I was too afraid to be especially bad but not good enough to be good, or be a good student or whatever. You know? I was in-between, lame because of it. I was just thinking [recently], I don’t know why, but I was complaining about my how poor my high school was. It was such a nice high school and the teaching was terrible in the high school! I mean I never got any smarter from eighth grade on. But maybe that’s my fault, maybe I was stupefied, maybe I was drunk—I wasn’t drunk, the whole time, I never went to school drunk.
Were you interested in music?
Oh yeah, yeah, I was interested in rock when I was a little kid, from 11 to 15 that’s what I liked. I liked sports too but, when I was 13 I realized I was no good at…
tennis… baseball—and I realized [that] in little league. I hated Coach. I hated being coached, you know what I mean? I wasn’t going to be any good. Then I turned around and got interested in beer and rock music. I think a lot of people had this experience—I know my sister did—but you throw a team party, and somewhere between ten or 14, you’re more interested in having the adult’s beer—you’re not interested in sports anymore. You’re interested in beer all of a sudden! I remember having that when I was 11, pouring beer in the Sprite can—normal spoiled kid behavior. So I was an idiot when I was a kid, a complete idiot. I wasn’t interested in words, that’s for sure, and still now I can’t do crossword puzzles, I hate Scrabble, I hated word games, I hated Edward Lear, I hated goofy word things. So then when I was 18, I loved alliteration and stupid word games much more, although I don’t actually like word games, I liked the kind of writing that’s showy and stupid.
What was the catalyst for getting interested in words?
I don’t know. I liked noisy words. I liked that they were pretty, they sounded good to me. It was like music. I didn’t realize you could think of words in terms of the way they sound. I wasn’t a teenager who wanted to write poetry or be a writer. I thought that was ‘gay’—unfortunately I would have said that word, I was a dumb kid—so that’s why I haven’t gotten older. When I was younger I liked children’s stories and talking animals and a lot of alliteration, so that’s still what I like. Now I’m embarrassed that I said I thought it was gay.
You guys have put out so much material in the last couple of years.
Well first of all, we don’t have any reason not to. We haven’t had a hit record, we haven’t had any kind of successful record, so there’s no need to keep working the record that’s doing well, there’s no commercial need. I mean you could disagree with that a little bit, and say, Well one of them could have sold another 20,000 copies maybe, if we had just toured and played that record. That—and it’s your job to play. If you’re lucky enough to get to play around. And you know with [Rehearsing my Choir], I wanted to do it while [our grandmother] was still well enough to do it happily. And it’s fun [to record]. It’s satisfying to make things up and record them.
Why did you decide to do an album without Eleanor?
The Bitter Tea record hadn’t come out—our record company wasn’t functioning for nine months because their parent company didn’t have any money, so that album was going to come out a year after it was recorded. There was no cause for the band to record again, and I thought it was better to keep up my non-existing credentials as a songwriter. I thought I should record, and what’s the fun in making one record? I should make two.
What’s the scenario for these albums? I know that “Holy Ghost Language School” is one where there are no teachers—people learn from the Holy Ghost.
With [Holy Ghost Language School], I thought it would be fun to have a story that would provide cover, an excuse for real simple rock & roll parts to spaz out via the delay effect. [Winter Women] was meant to be simple songs, I thought I’d better write the lyrics to take advantage of male singing. So some of the songs are about ladies, in some vague way. “Her Chinese Typewriter” or “Big Bill Crib” is more appropriate for a guy to sing. With those songs, if a woman was singing, it would be unnecessarily racy—not that that would be a problem. In writing the songs, you cobble together not a coherent story, but hopefully it works from beginning to end. I don’t know if that answered your question at all. The record, I don’t know if you noticed, sounds very muddy, (chuckles) and so the record is supposed to sound kind of like you have your car windows down. I worked hard to make it sound muddy like that.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
I don’t know, I remember the first thing I ever wrote down was because I had this science project, in fourth grade and it was about the weather—like Weather Unit, and we had to make a weather vane, and I had to make a barometer. I had no idea how to make a barometer, there wasn’t a chance in hell I could make a barometer, and it was like due the next day, or maybe it was due in three days, and I went to the teacher and I said, “Look, how about I write a piano piece about the weather?” And I thought she was going to yell at me and say “F, you already get an F” or maybe a U. I don’t even know if they gave letter grades, but she was like, “That’s great.” She loved the idea so I thought, Oh well, I better go write a piece. So I went home and played it out—I’m sure the way I wrote it down was really bad. And then I had to play it—we had music class like twice/three a times a week—and it was called, “Cumulous Nimbus Cloud” and it was like pounding on the piano.