My brother Matt and I are not visual artists,” says Eleanor Friedberger, one-half of the brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, while cutting maps into shapes of the various states and countries mentioned on her band’s eighth album, I’m Going Away. “Not at all.” Regardless, the wildly inventive Brooklyn-based indie-rock band is always up for a challenge. When invited to create an art project on BlackBook’s office walls, they came with sketch books in hand, Eleanor in an oversize shirt that could function as a smock if need be.
“It’s not like we’ve made some big sculpture of a turkey, a pornographic color book and then a sound sculpture,” says Matt. “We’re not those sorts of artists. We work in one given genre, and explore the conventions of that. So, we thought, if we were going to do a visual thing, it had to be directly related to our music.” To that end, they set their sights on making “a roadmap” to I’m Going Away, which was recorded throughout New York, from a friend’s basement to Eleanor’s living room in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, bypassing the expense and limitations of the traditional studio experience.
Just as their music is all over the place, with more twists and turns than a high-speed throttle down a country road—thrillingly unexpected speed bumps along the way—their representational wall map offers no direct, point A-to-point B route. Matt channels the mad genius of John Forbes Nash, Jr. today, scrawling notes and numbers that only he can understand. “Eleanor’s thing is illustrative, and mine is strictly, or merely, analogical,” he says. He goes on, trying in vain to explain his three-dimensional representations as they relate to album tracks and the central theme of their single, “The End is Near.”
Eleanor’s work takes inspirational cues from the maps made by one of her favorite artists, Saul Steinberg. “There are a lot of place names in our songs,” she says. “There’s a song called ‘Even in the Rain,’ in which I mention going to Lake Geneva, so we have Wisconsin here. New York has a bunch of references, so I’m going to make a more detailed map for New York. There’s a song called ‘Charmaine Champagne’ that mentions an old West Village bar called Johnny Romero’s.”
Side by side, Matt and Eleanor focus on separate maps, the mystery of how these pieces will interact part of their process. It echoes how they create their songs. Abandoning convention on each album, these sonic rule-breakers have incorporated seemingly disparate inspirations—occult themes, Inuit lyrics and even spoken-word stories from their now-deceased grandmother—letting their muse take them wherever it may. But it’s most definitely controlled chaos. “For me, it’s all very schematic because I’m so disorganized,” says Matt. “I try to over-organize to show Eleanor that I have it all planned out, so really, then I can just do whatever I want.”