Matthew Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces Launches “Willfully Obscure” Crowdsourcing Campaign

Posted October 4

Matthew Friedberger is launching a crowdsourcing campaign for his upcoming album, Matricidal Sons of Bitches (due out 10/30), but he doesn’t really expect his fans to put any effort into it. Perhaps because he’s asking folks to send in video and text inspired by his new album — a movie without a story or pictures that has yet to be unleashed unto the world.

If the above left you scratching your head, you’re not an idiot (or maybe you are, which isn’t really our concern). Friedberger — one half of the brother/sister duo Fiery Furnaces — is well aware that his project is a little obscure, a little offbeat, a little weird, and thus totally in line with his previous projects: a concept album narrated by the Friedbergers’ grandmother, an 8-part, vinyl-only solo project called Solos, a request that fans review an album before its release. So, as you can see, it’s all par for the completely obfuscated course.

So what exactly is Friedberger doing? We had him explain it to us below, but we’ll break it down here in simpler (and less lengthy) terms: 1). Friedberger has a new album based on the films of Poverty Row, a super B brand of B horror movies. It’s pretty much like a silent film soundtrack for a nonexistent film. 2). No one has heard it yet (aside from a few tracks), but Friedberger goes on tour on October 18, so that will soon change. 3). This week, however, Friedberger launched a project on his blog wherein he’s asking fans to send him video and text interpreting the music on his yet-to-be-released album, 4). Friedberger plans to post said videos and text accompanied by his music to his blog, or create entirely new music inspired by the video and text that was inspired by his album. Get it? Kind of? Good.

Granted, there are been a plethora of crowdsourced videos and projects cropping up over the last few years — some soliciting photos, others video — but none so existential as this one. As you’ll see below, Friedberger sees this exercise as a metaphor — in a sense — for the experience of listening to music. A band creates music, you listen to it and form your own perceptions, you see that band in concert, you react to that performance, and the band may alter their performance based upon your interpretation and reaction. Yup, the term “marketing campaign” is hard to stick on this particular exercise — Friedberger’s elucidation of the project below practically repels it.

Read on to see what we mean. Also, we have a track from Friedberger’s new album below, which should be helpful if you’re thinking of submitting to his project and don’t dig fumbling in the darkness.

So I heard you were inspired by B movies when making this new record?

Well, it’s what they call Poverty Row movies, which were super Bs. There’s a wonderful book… I’m going to get it right now so I can give you all the bibliographical information correctly. It’s called Poverty Row Horrors!: Monogram, PRC and Republic Horror Films of the Forties by Tom Weaver. It’s a very nice book and it’s about horror films from the ’40s.

In the ’30s, the Hays Code, you know the censorship [code], gave horror films intermittent problems. Then in the '40s they eased off so it was easier to make horror films, so the tiny independent producers and the little studios -- however loosely connected they were -- they made more horror films. These films were often more artistic, amateurish.

So in this book there's a tiny little thing, a tiny little chapter by Bill Littman called 'The Music of Poverty Row' -- it's only three pages long. I thought, 'Oh, yes!' because I knew of these albums by John Zorn -- I think one is called Spillane -- where it's a fake B movie, the soundtrack to it. There's sirens going on off and of course the music is wonderful and the players are great, because it's a John Zorn record. I thought, 'Oh, yes, it would be fun for me because I don't have access -- I'm not as clever to have a wonderful band and so forth and so on. I could make a record like that. Other people's soundtrack records are proper movies or even proper B movies, mine will be a real Poverty Row version of making that. I'll have to do it all myself and I'll have to do it very quickly.' I don't know if any of that makes sense, but that was my own personal, actual thinking making this record.

In general, I like narrative music. Or music that would seem to have some sort of narrative function. Or music to which you could erroneously attach some sort of narrative momentum. I like that whole kind of thing -- to put it very articulately. And I like the fact also that if music is meant to illustrate something, people will be interested in all sorts of different kinds of music. They'll listen to music that in other cases they wouldn't listen to -- if it's meant to be a pop song they won't like that there's siren blaring in the background. If it's music that's meant to be accompanying some sort of scene, they'll like the siren blaring in the background or the flute, oboe, electric guitar that's imitating a siren. I'm interested in that kind of thing. So that's why I made this record.

I'm also interested in the weird way that people -- I don't notice this now, but a few years ago everything was accompanied by images and sound, everything had to be together. People weren't interested in listening to a record and staring at it turning around. Or looking at the CD player or staring at the window while they were concentrating on listening to the record. People, they wanted it to be background music or to be more than just a record cover to look at while they imagined what the music was depicting.

So I like the idea of making a record that was supposed to illustrate something maybe, but there wasn't anything it was illustrating. I like the idea of it being arbitrarily impoverished. You wouldn't normally complain that the album doesn't have any photos; it doesn't have any pictures, it's just a record. It's not supposed to have pictures. So I like the idea in this case because it's a movie without any pictures or a movie soundtrack -- the fact that there is no movie, the record is already at a disadvantage. It's artificially impoverished. And that's fun -- to me.

So there are no pictures at all? I was looking at your blog and it looks like you have illustrations of some of the characters from the 'movie' up there. Do you have some kind of story in your head? What's going on there? [see above]

No. There was a cover [made for the album] with drawings -- very poppy, cartoon drawings -- that seemed like the sons of bitches the title refers to. Those are those guys. A friend of mine drew those faces and that's the kind of material you can use to listen to the record or ignore -- angrily ignore. Like, 'They have nothing to do with the record, those fellows!' But they can have to do with the record.

There's little baseball cards for them [too] and on the back it's all Dick Allen, statistics from Dick Allen -- he's a player from the '60s and '70s. It's a piece of transparent, pseudo-mythology, 'What is this nonsense?' There's nothing -- as far as pop, esoteric nonsense -- like the back of a baseball card. You can't get any better than that. I mean that's an archetypal thing -- it's super pop, it's for kids, it's nonsense. But it's also this esoteric golden knowledge that you can read off the back of the card and reconstruct a summer from 20 years ago or 40 years ago. But you have to know how to read it properly. A baseball card can be a golden ticket.

Baseball cards were ruined by the fact that they started to be worth money, supposedly. Kids wouldn't touch them or put them in the spokes of their bike anymore, because they had to keep them mint condition. But, anyway, I don't really care about that, it's just that they were these little plaque cards with information that kids would have. I love that. You look at them and they're totally ridiculous. The design is ridiculous, the photos were taken when they weren't even looking. And then on the back there's these meaningless numbers. What is it? It's nonsense. But you can really tell yourself an interesting story from the back of a baseball card.

Anyway, it's so willful -- willfully obscure. I know a lot of people don't like things that are willfully obscure -- they think you're either trying to be too clever or trying to trick them into thinking the person doing it is smart. But it's just fun to play with things like that in my opinion.

Speaking of being willfully obscure -- this campaign that you're putting out where you're asking people to make videos inspired by your unreleased music...

Campaign -- I like that. It's a military maneuver! The notion is that because the whole point of the record is that there's no pictures, and that's the essence of the album -- oh well, you might as well have pictures! You might as well ruin it. You might as well ask people to help you ruin it.

Putting out a record, it's already an interactive project -- because you make it and other people listen to it. And listening to it is not a passive thing. Especially a poppy record or a rock record, well, any kind of record. You put yourself into it negatively or positively. The preconceptions you have have a lot to do with if the record is going to be useful to you or if the record is going to be able to be something that can grow on you or annoy you sufficiently enough that you keep on listening to it and then you like it.

The idea is that if people relatively inattentively send video footage or movie scenes -- written-down movie scenes -- to illustrate the music, that's just kind of an acting-out of the way people interact with any music they hear. Any record they take into their home or electronic devices. They add their pictures to it, metaphorically speaking. I mean, I don't want to make people do anything. I don't expect people to do anything. I don't expect people to make any effort. I hope they wouldn't.

The record is not out and I don't know how crazy people are to illegally download it. People have to be interested in the record to steal it. So it's fun in this case because as of right now people haven't heard it, so they don't have anything to react to. They're not going to go make a little movie file with their camera of something based on anything they've heard. Again, I can't imagine somebody necessarily doing that -- going out and specifically doing this. I imagine more that people will send footage of their kid's birthday party, or their friends that they don't like's kid's birthday party, rather. Maybe people won't respond at all. And that's good, too. That's interesting. Then the record doesn't get ruined by their goddamn crappy footage of driver's ed class graduation.

On that note, you said that you're going to be changing the music to fit the footage that people send in. How will that work?

When people send [footage] I match it to music. Maybe people will say, 'This goes to this part of the record.' Or maybe they won't. Or maybe I'll even say, 'No, it doesn't. It goes to this thing that I've played live that's a different version of something on the record. Or it has nothing to do with something on the record.' I won't necessarily match it to actual bits from the record, although I could do that. I could match it to other recordings that I have that I'm using or making on the tour. It is active for me. I'll have to do something besides just import a file. The idea is that I will react to anybody's reactions, as opposed to just being a mechanical thing where I just put it to track 31 on the record.

It's acting out, in a different way, playing a show. People hear the record, they come to the show, they have a song they like the most, they cheer louder for that song, you play it more. You play it differently, they don't cheer for that song. You start playing it differently. The old-fashioned type of feedback is just as powerful as anybody doing any newerfangled thing with the technology that everybody likes to use now.