Arcade Fire: “We might never write a good song again”
With Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor, due for release on October 28, this week’s archive feature looks back to December 2005, when Uncut awards Album Of The Year to Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral. Adored by everyone from David Bowie and David Byrne to Chris Martin and Bono, Funeral is a spectacular word-of-mouth success, and suggests whole new futures for rock music. Stephen Troussé meets the band on the eve of their Riviera Theatre set in Chicago…
There’s no blood on the keyboard tonight,” drawls Win Butler from the stage of Chicago’s ornate, packed-to-the-rafters Riviera Theatre during one of the many squad rotations that are a feature of an Arcade Fire concert. “We must be growing up a bit.” Watching the Arcade Fire live is a bit like watching the Ajax football team of the early ’70s inventing ‘total football’, only more chaotic. The tiny Régine Chassagne (imagine Natalie Merchant midway through transforming into Björk) will put down her accordion and almost disappear behind a drum kit that she then thwacks ferociously. Will Butler, the singer’s younger brother, will refrain from marching maniacally up and down the stage with his guitar and flail away at the xylophone instead. Drummer Jeremy Gara will step out to try his hand on guitar. The two violinists, Sarah and Owen, saw away at their instruments, bellowing along to the songs, regardless of whether they are in the vicinity of a mic or not. And Richard Reed Parry (Napoleon Dynamite if he’d gone indie rather than disco) will relinquish the cello, the organ or the guitar, and don a motorcycle helmet that he and his fellow bandmembers will then pound dementedly with drumsticks as impromptu percussion. The helmet frequently provides insufficient protection, hence the bloody keyboard.
Amid all this chaos, Win Butler sings about the intensity of dreams, the psychoses of suburbia, or the cynicism of the Republic with a dead-eyed stare that reminds you of Christopher Walken midway through Annie Hall. You know, when he takes Woody aside and confesses his impulse to pull out into the path of oncoming cars: “I can anticipate the explosion; the sound of shattering glass; the flames rising out of the flowing gasoline…” A few hours before the show, Win is ambling around backstage. His rangey 6’5” frame has clearly been cooped up on tour buses for far too long. His bandmates yawn and troop off to field the unending stream of phone interviews. The Arcade Fire have been on the road for a year now, and the end is in sight. “We’ve got a few more shows left, and then we’re going to support U2 back in Montreal,” he sighs with relief. “But by the time we play with U2 we’ll already be done for this tour. It’s just a weekend trip for us. We’ll already be set up in our studio at home and we’ll just drive up the street for the show. It’s not the grand finale.”
He sounds almost blasé about the prospect, but then they’re getting used to the patronage of the rock aristocracy. Last year, a few months after the release of Funeral, at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, David Byrne was to be found in the audience, taking notes. Back in September they performed with David Bowie at a Fashion Rocks event. Meanwhile, Chris Martin of Coldplay can’t stop raving about his favourite group, this new young rock band out of Canada…
The Arcade Fire story begins in Texas, where Win Butler was born in 1981. He grew up in Houston, a city he described to me earlier this year, I remind him, as “a big, humid cesspool”. “Ha! Yes, Houston is not the nicest town,” he admits. “There’s some nice places in Texas, but Houston doesn’t have much going for it. How we ended up there was a work thing – my dad was a geologist.”
It was a musical family. The Butlers’ maternal grandfather was Alvino Rey, pioneer of the pedal-steel guitar and big band leader, whose death last year was one of several among band members’ families during the recording of the album, credited with inspiring its title. The group covered his “My Buddy” on the B-side of the “Neighbourhood #1” single. “My mom’s whole side of the family is musical,” he explains. “My grandpa led a big band, but his wife performed, too – she was in the King Sisters, a kind of pre-Andrews Sisters group. And my mom is a harpist. My friends would come over and my mom would be playing Debussy or something, and my friends would say, ‘Oh, that’s so beautiful!’ But it was really just background noise to me.”
His musical upbringing didn’t make much of an impression on Butler: “I don’t know if there was a big awakening, not until I started writing songs. I went to boarding school for the second half of high school, and my grandpa gave me an electric guitar. And then I got The Bends by Radiohead around the time it came out , and that was the first big record for me. Around the same time I started getting into The Cure and The Smiths and The Clash, and then, a bit later, more Dylan and Motown and ’60s American stuff.”
But it was his decision in 1999 to quit his fine art course in New York and transfer to study religion and Russian literature at Montreal’s McGill University that kick-started his musical ambitions in earnest. “It had never really occurred to me that Montreal existed,” he says now. “It just seemed an exciting idea to go there, and I instantly fell in love with the place.” He fell in love, too, with Régine Chassagne, now his wife, whom he met soon after his arrival. “The first time I saw Régine she was singing in a jazz group in some club. I just thought she was great, so unpretentious and really open in the way she performed.”
Chassagne, a multi-instrumentalist and student of medieval music whose family were refugees from the Tonton Macoutes in ’60s Haiti, initially didn’t bother to return Butler’s phone calls, presuming he was just another sly lothario. But once she was persuaded, the partnership flourished: “The first time we played together, she came up with this great part to the song ‘Headlights Look Like Diamonds’. It was immediately just really, really easy creatively.”
The first incarnation of the Arcade Fire quickly coalesced. “Montreal is full of good places to play, it’s incredibly cheap, the whole scene is thriving,” says Win. So much so that in the Funeral-wake of the Arcade Fire, the city has been heralded as this season’s Seattle, with bands who’ve been around for years, like Stars, Broken Social Scene and Metric, becoming suddenly chic, and new groups like Wolf Parade riding the coat-tails to acclaim.
Arcade Fire Mk 1 had barely recorded an EP, however, before they disintegrated. “By the time we made the EP, it was not the best situation,” admits Butler. “It was just normal band stuff. Most bands do break up, either for artistic vision or personal stuff, people just not being on the same page. There was a whole group of musicians, but it just exploded, it wasn’t going to last. So we were almost stranded on this island, and it was kind of rough going there for a couple of months. We had to look for part-time drummers when we played shows… But that was actually when we did a lot of arranging stuff for the record, and we started writing stuff with a different energy, and the new group slowly started to congeal.”
Augmented by Richard Parry, multi-instrumentalist and leader of chamber-jazz troupe Bell Orchestre, violinist Sarah Neufeld, bassist Tim Kingsbury, and studio engineer/drummer Howard Bilerman, the group began working on the recordings that were to become Funeral. “It was recorded over eight months, from beginning to end,” explains Butler. “Howard runs a studio and he kind of gave us our breaks, so we could defer some of the money we owed him to a bit later. We were still playing shows, getting a bit of money and going into the studio so we could work on one song at a time.” By this time, the group were attracting crowds of up to 600 to see their newly invigorated, unhinged performances, which would regularly see the band marching off the stage at the end of their set leading an exuberant crowd out into the street, like avant-rock pied pipers in Salvation Army hand-me-downs.
Funeral surpassed the band’s wildest expectations. “I’m still shocked that the record ended up sounding as good as it does,” says Butler. From the moment it was released in September 2004, word spread like wildfire. On the Internet, indie review sites waxed rhapsodic, heralding the album as redemption for a generation “overwhelmed by frustration, unrest, dread, and tragedy”. Initial shows had to be rebooked into larger venues as the extent of the burgeoning audience quickly became apparent. Barely a month after the record came out, The New York Times devoted a feature to the phenomenon of the band’s success. By the end of the year, Time magazine (albeit the Canadian edition) wanted to put them on the cover.
They seemed almost embarrassed by the acclaim. “So much stuff comes down the pipeline that is hyped-up, or you hear about a lot, and you know everything about it before you hear it,” explains Butler. “Especially now radio and TV don’t play much new music at all. I guess I’ve just had a negative experience with getting too much crap about a record, getting sick of it all before ever being exposed to the music.”
Although the “Arcade Fire phenomenon” quickly became a self-perpetuating media meme, it’s clear that the band struck a genuinely mysterious chord. In one sense, with the ambition and epic sweep of their arrangements and their sublimely skewed rhapsodies, the Arcade Fire may be the first North American group to have responded creatively to the post-Bends challenge of Radiohead. It’s a response determined less by technology or formal innovation – the songs often creak and groan like they could have been recorded as easily in 1805 as 2005 – as a kind of anxious spirit. As the novelist Matthew Derby put it: “Its expansiveness, linked themes, and the meticulous nature of its production recall the cool grandiosity of OK Computer, although instead of broadcasting from space or some depressed robot’s forehead, Funeral emerges from the earth itself.”
Butler is expansive on the question of influence: “If there’s a band out there that’s truly going to be influenced by U2 or Johnny Cash or Joy Division or the Ramones, they’re not going to sound anything like them. They become something totally different… I think how Tom Waits ended up sounding, the persona he created, was doing more justice to his Dylan influence than his early stuff, where he was just kind of copying him. The later Tom Waits stuff sounds nothing like Dylan, but it’s truer to the spirit…”
There’s also an element of serendipity, a tapping into a broader mood in the culture: as the album was released, a blizzard of polls heralded the inevitability of a second Bush administration. You can hear the dread of those times all the way through Funeral – in the weary auguries of “Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)” or the gathering storm of “Rebellion (Lies)”. But at its heart is a profound refusal – or transformation – of despair. On “Wake Up”, Butler sings of hearts filled with nothing and summers turning to dust, but the song itself is sublimely rousing, pounding to a climax that’s as magnificently defiant as the Kop chanting along to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.
As their year-long Funeral march around the US, Europe and South America comes to a close, the Arcade Fire are looking forward to regrouping in Montreal. Appropriately enough for a group whose members all grew up playing in church halls of one kind or another, they’ve just bought a 100-year-old Presbyterian Church, which they’re converting into their own studio. Since Funeral, the band have only had time to record one new song, “Cold Wind”, which was commissioned by the producers of cult TV show Six Feet Under.
Butler seems relaxed – almost fatalistic – about recording the follow-up: “You can’t force yourself to produce music,” he says. “You never know, I might never write a good song again. Ideally you’re trying to grab something out of the air. So much is based on inspiration. Not in a divine sense, but just that anyone who writes songs knows you have no control over whether what you write is good or bad, you can only write things, and jot down ideas and keep moving forward. When Dylan talks about that period from Bringing It All Back Home to Highway 61 Revisited all being done in a year and a half, he’s like, ‘I don’t know how I did that – I’m not going to do that
again.’ It was a time and a place. And you try and grab it as it comes.”
THE FUNERAL PARTY: The band’s famous fan club
“When we heard Funeral, we were all prepared to get day jobs. But instead of giving up, we just tried harder,” admitted Chris Martin recently, crediting the Arcade Fire with giving them an inspirational kick up the arse during the recording of their X&Y album.
“I discovered the Arcade Fire a year ago,” Bowie declared recently. “Coldplay’s Chris Martin has been saying he’s discovered them first. But I did. So there.” Talking to Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year, he spoke of his love for their debut album. “There’s a certain uninhibited passion in the Arcade Fire’s huge, dense recording sound. They meld everything
from early Motown, French chanson and Talking Heads through to The Cure in a kaleidoscopic, dizzy sort of rush. I bought a huge stack of the CDs last September and gave them to all my friends.” He recently joined the band onstage for a cover of his own “Five Years”.
Byrne was in the audience for the Arcade Fire show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York shortly after the release of Funeral, but fled when the group worked up an impromptu cover of Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody”. They later persuaded him to join them onstage for the song at subsequent shows.
Bono and co were so knocked out by Funeral that they took to using the anthemic “Wake Up” as entrance music on their latest world tour, and later invited the band to open two shows for them in their home town of Montreal.
THE FAMILY THAT PLAYS TOGETHER… Introducing (some of) the band
Texas-born lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, Butler moved to Montreal in 1999 and, in 2003, married bandmate Régine. While still at high school in New England he directed a production of Woody Allen’s Beckettian satire God.
The daughter of Haitian refugees who fled the murderous Duvalier regime in the ’60s for Chicago before finally settling in Montreal. A student of medieval music at McGill University, Régine is a self-taught dab hand on piano, guitar, accordion, mandolin, flute, drums and harmonica, and has been known to entertain audiences with impromptu versions of the Super Mario Bros theme during technical hitches.
RICHARD REED PARRY
A key recruit to the second incarnation of the Arcade Fire, Parry is not only a multi instrumentalist, playing bass, guitar, drums and cello, but also co-produced Funeral. He is also the leader of Montreal’s jazzy post-chamber troupe Bell Orchestre, as well as inventor of the percussive motorcycle helmet.
Younger brother of Win and until recently a poetry major at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he wrote a thesis on the role of rock’n’roll in Czechoslovakia during the ’80s. Plays guitar, keyboards, snare drum and xylophone while charging around the stage, throwing abstract ‘shapes’ and attempting to strangle bandmate Parry with twine.