“Unfamiliar Music In An Unfamiliar Setting” – Clash Meets Eleanor Friedberger

How a sense of disclocation in 3am nightclubs sparked her new album...

“Let me forget the words / let me forget the time…”

Earlier this year, Eleanor Friedberger (formerly of US art rock outfit the Fiery Furnaces) released ‘Rebound’ – her fourth solo album and most cohesive record to date. Part travelogue, part existential crisis, ‘Rebound’ sees Friedberger marooned in Athens in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. The result is a record that’s daring, elliptic and often coldly ambigious.

Sonically, the album is a notable departure from the guitar driven rock that typified her previous work like ‘New View’ and ‘Personal Record’, drawing instead on the retro futurism of Stereolab and the knock-off goth pop Friedberger heard out in Greece. For me, something in the album’s sonic (early 80s) and geographical (southern Europe) setting conjured images of the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name.

Dislocation seeps into every track. Communication is sketchy, relationships are elusive and language is a crumbling edifice (“How’s your French? It’s bad, it’s none. How’s your Swedish? It’s bad, it’s none”). Friedberger’s writing on relationships is as sharp and analytical as ever before – “the opposite of what he thought he thought / The opposite of what she wanted” she sings in ‘the Letter’ – and on tracks like ‘My Jesus Phase’ her writing is almost modernist in its fragmented imagery and disappearing conclusions.

Ahead of her first full band UK dates in over five years, Clash caught up with Eleanor Friedberger about the writing process, her reflections on her time in Greece and the re-release of the Fiery Furnaces’ sprawling, eccentric opus ‘Blueberry Boat’.

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‘Rebound’ has its genesis in the end of 2016 and you going out to Athens – which in a massive way affected the record – but going back to that point what informed your decision to go out there?

It’s a place that I’ve been to many times but only for like a day at a time. I’d been to Greece but mostly holiday style trips, but Athens I was always fascinated with as a city. I have my own personal connections because my mum’s family are from there, and since moving to Upstate New York from the city I’ve tried to go away somewhere for the winter, because the winter can be brutal here.

I thought it would be fun to have a project while I was trying to write, I was taking Greek lessons but it turned out I didn’t really do any writing – but I did take Greek lessons.

How did I spend my days? Wandering the streets, I went out quite a bit at night – and it’s a very late city there too so I kind of switched my schedule, I’m not a night owl normally. I was up til four most nights.

When I first listened to ‘Rebound’ I was on holiday in Russia, and having this record in my ears that was all about dislocation and language not making sense really resonated with me there. There’s a strong theme of dislocation that bleeds through almost every track…

That’s really nice to hear – I felt at the end of 2016 going into 2017, I felt alienated and I didn’t really want to be at home. I felt very much at loose ends, that’s how I was feeling and it’s not always the case where you can really capture your mood musically, but I was able to do it.

I’m not really sure how but that was definitely how I was feeling, I’m glad it comes through. Alienation is a theme definitely. The alphabet is different, the signs are different, that’s the same kind of thing you were feeling in Russia, a whole other level of discomfort. There’s something fun about it, but unsettling.

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It’s not always the case where you can really capture your mood musically, but I was able to do it…

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For me I really love getting to know a new city, and part of the reason I went was having a bunch of friends there, but I always feel guilty and self-conscious when you’re hanging out with people who speak another language but they’re only speaking English for your benefit – especially if it’s not just for a few days but for the course of a whole month or so. It’s a funny position to put yourself in.

I’m interested in the writing process for ‘Rebound’ – ‘Are We Good’ came from text messages that you’d gone through and transcribed, and then ‘My Jesus Phase’ has this wonderful, fragmented imagery. Were you trying to approach writing differently?

For me the biggest difference was I wrote most of the melodies and music first and then the lyrics later, and usually I work the opposite way. I don’t know – it’s similar to past work in that I usually create these series of documents where I’m writing…I don’t know what to equate it to…but as if it’s lots of short stories and I take what I can use and organise it in a way that makes sense.

For a couple of songs that’s not true – the song ‘It’s Hard’ I sat down and wanted to write a song about the nightclub called Rebound. The song ‘Everything’, I very much knew what that was about. A song like ‘My Jesus Phase’ was just a series of things that I liked the sound of – how can I make them all work together? And then you create a thesis after the fact, as if it’s an essay or something. It’s easier to make sense of it once you’ve got something going.

Can I ask about the title ‘My Jesus Phase’?

Yeah, originally it was called ‘Galaxy Bar’, which I didn’t think was that evocative – that was the name of a bar I went to in Athens, by the way. But I was telling someone a story about someone I’d met who was really interested in Jesus Christ, basically, and I was telling this person the story because to me it was a funny thing that happened and a surprising kind of event. The person I was telling it to wasn’t surprised at all and just went “oh, I had my Jesus phase last year too”, very matter-of-factly. My Jesus phase. That just stuck with me.

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There’s a funny hand-drawn sign that says No Smoking but the room is a cloud of smoke, of course.

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You mentioned about wanting to document the Rebound club on the track ‘It’s Hard’, can you give us a bit of a description of that club?

A friend of mine, Stella, told me about it as a fun thing to do while I was in town – she said you’ve got to go to this after hours club, it’s like an 80s goth disco. Now that’s not really my thing at all but she said it was like a time capsule, which it was. We went at 3am on a Saturday night, there’s an old neon sign that says ‘Rebound’ but the light was out – probably been out for about 20 years – there’s a funny hand-drawn sign that says No Smoking but the room is a cloud of smoke, of course.

It’s just a very small, dark dancefloor that felt almost like a DIY space, but it wasn’t. A dark DJ booth up high. A bar that didn’t have too many options. People kept doing this dance that my friend called ‘the chicken dance’. A solitary dance of stepping back and forth in a single line, but not joyful in any way, you’re not dancing with a partner. I tried it out, wearing my overcoat.

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Very goth. Sonically the record is quite a departure from things like ‘New View’ – I was quite struck by the idea that a lot of the music someone might think has informed the record, with it being all Casio keyboards and 80s synth sounds, isn’t actually music you’re especially into. I’m interested in this idea of you in an unfamiliar place working with a kind of music that doesn’t naturally appeal to you…

Yeah, that’s exactly right – unfamiliar music in an unfamiliar setting. I stumbled on this keyboard thinking I would write one or two songs and it just proved to be a really good new songwriting tool for me. I made these elaborate demos that were much more thought out than I had ever done in the past – they were very full, and could have been a record in a way. I grew attached to the way they sounded so I didn’t want to change anything so much. This easily could have been converted into a rock band album but I just stuck with the sound and didn’t change it too drastically.

It’s a difficult question to answer but do you think you’ll continue with a sound similar to this?

Yeah I’m just now starting to think about what I want to do next, it’s really hard. I definitely enjoyed the demo making process and the time that I gave myself to write guitar lines and stuff that I would have just given the job to someone else in the past. I would like to do that again, but I don’t know what the next thing is going to be.

‘Make Me A Song’ is a really interesting track and seems to touch on an idea of unity whilst things are quite polarised…

Yeah that’s exactly what it’s about. Me meeting someone where my expectations were turned on their head. It was someone who I had met in Greece and thought we had all this stuff in common, but then it turned out that no we were really different! It was someone who was like a born again Christian, that was what was so surprising to me, and he sent me a link to this sermon he was interested in and I ended up listening to it, and instead of just deleting it I ended up listening to the whole thing, and that inspired the song. That was the same guy (as in ‘My Jesus Phase’).

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I made these elaborate demos that were much more thought out than I had ever done in the past…

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Do you keep a diary as part of your writing process?

For me it’s more reading, lately, in the last few years. Just trying to be reading one or two books at a time all the time, and also taking notes you know? I wouldn’t call it a diary, but if something comes up that seems interesting I try to write it down. That could be walking down the street or a conversation or a TV show or anything. Reading I think is the most important thing to do for writing, any kind of writing.

You’ll be in the UK soon, I know that the last few times you’ve played in the UK it’s just been on your own but I understand that’s not the case this time?

Yeah I’ll be playing with three Welsh guys – I haven’t played with them yet, we’re going to rehearse before the tour starts. I met them through Cate Le Bon, that’s how I met them.

I was listening to the interview you did on the Adam Buxton podcast, which I like generally, but I thought it was really strange when he just started to reel off this list of musicians or whatever that you’ve been in a relationship with. Is it frustrating that stuff like that still has to leak into interviews or how people write about you, when they should be discussing your work?

Yeah, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I’m flattered that he did it at all and he put together such a nice podcast which introduced my music to a lot of new people, but at the same time he kept saying ‘don’t you understand why I would be interested in that connection?’ And I don’t really.

It’s still just kind of gossip you know? And I know that he knew about someone else that I dated that he didn’t mention (on the podcast) but then mentioned privately.

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I wouldn’t call it a diary, but if something comes up that seems interesting I try to write it down.

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In Britain earlier this year ‘Blueberry Boat’ was reissued – what’s your relationship with that record, and the Fiery Furnaces’ output more generally?

I had to listen to ‘Blueberry Boat’ again, because I was kind of curious, I listened to it on a long drive and that was interesting. It seems like so long ago, and when I hear my voice it’s like listening to a different person.

Some stuff I love, some stuff I cringe at, it’s like anybody’s part work, but it’s fun, I played the track ‘Blueberry Boat’ recently in Europe every night and that was really fun, my favourite thing to sing, and I did ‘My Egyptian Grandma’ which is on ‘Widow City’. I don’t know what it means but those were two of my favourites in the set – is that because I feel some distance and it’s like doing a cover? A break from myself? I don’t know.

The situation with the Fiery Furnaces was kind of unresolved, do you ever get offers to do a reunion?

It’s something I keep in the back of my mind that is like…it’s complicated. On one hand it’s hard to imagine because I’ve been doing this by myself for as long as I was doing the Fiery Furnaces, but yeah it seems hard to imagine not playing on stage with my brother again.

It feels emotional and strange to think about – but no, no million dollar offers to come back together! ‘Blueberry Boat’ was 2004 so maybe some kind of monumental anniversary, but I don’t know if that’s passed.

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Christine Pfister directs Eleanor Friedberger's new video, and we're able to showcase it before anyone else. The director comments:

"For this piece, I thought it would be fun to put real Eleanor in the doll world and doll Eleanor in the real world. 'It’s Hard' is about a Greek nightclub, which is also the namesake of the album, so I wanted to focus on the Eleanors travelling to the nostalgic spot."

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Words: Fergal Kinney

Eleanor Friedberger's ‘Rebound’ is out now. Tour dates below:

24 London Oslo
25 Bristol Exchange
26 Manchester Soup Kitchen
26 Lancaster Loud in the Libraries
29 Glasgow CCA
30 Edinburgh Sneaky Pete’s
31 Leeds Headrow House

1 Brighton Hope & Ruin

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