Talking ‘Bible’ with the Arcade Fire

[2 October 2007]

By Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Five months after the Arcade Fire issued its second album, “Neon Bible,” the dramatic Canadian ensemble has cemented itself as one of rock’s most vital new bands—albeit a peculiar one.

The record is immediately alluring but hopelessly ambiguous. It’s an oftentimes dark and apocalyptic masterpiece, full of pipe organ and strings and cryptic lyrics that mine everything from religious zealotry to America’s lingering fearfulness to MTV tweenybopper fame.

Don’t look for the band’s enigmatic frontman, Win Butler, to explain it all, though. Both he and his wife and chief collaborator, Regine Chassagne, remain elusive interview subjects.

Drummer Jeremy Gara, who often stands in for them on the phone, called from their hometown of Montreal last month to fill us in on what he could about his band.

On the tour schedule:
The Arcade Fire has never been a road hound, the kind of band that plays 300 dates a year. The five-year-old group is about midway through its tour cycle for “Neon Bible,” which began this spring.

“We’re kind of right at the point where we’re starting to get a little weary of it,” Gara said. “This next American tour is going to be fun, though, because it’s to a lot of cities we haven’t played on this trip yet. Just the size of the shows is kind of daunting now. The U.K. tour is going to be at least mentally something to overcome, because it’s all in arenas—big venues, and not particularly nice venues.”

On “Neon Bible” sales:
Commercial success caught up with the band’s critical acclaim. The album sold 92,000 U.S. copies its first week and debuted at No. 2 in Billboard, a major feat for a indie release (it’s on North Carolina-based Merge Records). Both “Bible” and the band’s 2004 CD, “Funeral,” are nearing gold status in the U.S. (500,000 copies).

“The whole financing and selling of albums is a mystery to us. It was hard with this one. When `Funeral’ came out, they just pressed like 10,000 copies and that was it, at first. It was totally bizarre how much it wound up selling, because it never really exploded, but it never really died. It just consistently kept selling. With this one, there was a huge investment made on Merge’s part to make sure there were like 200,000 copies right off the bat. But then we had to make sure we really marketed it so it did sell. So in that sense, we are happy—or even just relieved—that it has been selling.”

On touring with 10:
Officially a seven-member band, the Arcade Fire usually bulks up on tour. This outing features three extra players, including horn player Kelly Pratt of the band Beirut. The added members apparently don’t make touring any more complicated.

“Even when we were just six people and Win was in school, it was hectic from the beginning for us trying to make everybody’s schedules fit. Now, it’s more fun, especially now that we have buses. The family is bigger. And there are more options of who you can hang out with. Inevitably, a few people are going to go out and have fun one night and a few are going to go to bed. There’s enough to choose which you’re gonna do.”

On their personalities:
With their dark lyrics and crescendoing music, the band members have been somewhat pigeonholed as ultra-serious, art-school-type dramatists.

“Some people have this idea what we’re like as people just because of the music. That’s totally the wrong impression. Really, it is a big social group of friends. It’s just constant jokes and messing around. It’s pretty lighthearted. The intensity on stage is a whole different thing from the rest of the time we’re together. It’s not a negative bunch of people by any stretch of imagination.”

On their Texan frontman:
Win Butler and his brother/bandmate Will spent a lot of their youth as far away from Montreal as is seemingly possible in North America, deep in the heart of Texas.

“Lyrically, it definitely has some influence on the vocabulary. He’s not a particularly super-religious guy. But the culture of religion in Texas is obviously very different than it is up here. (In Montreal) it’s not so much part of a social fabric. In Texas, even if you aren’t all that religious, it’s still a big part of life.”

On Jessica Simpson’s dad:
Butler surprisingly revealed in a Rolling Stone article that one of “Bible’s” standout tracks, “(Antichrist Television Blues),” was largely inspired by another Texan, Joe Simpson, father and manager of Jessica and Ashlee. Lyrics include, `Oh, my little bird in a cage/I need you to get up for me, up on that stage/And show the men that you’re old for your age.’

“It could be about other people, too, but it definitely applies to that family’s dynamic. We haven’t heard from their camp at all, which is great, because some people we’ve worked with have worked with them and said you definitely don’t want to cross them.”

On retreading “No Cars Go”:
Another of “Bible’s” standout cuts, “No Cars Go,” was actually featured on a little-heard EP the band released in 2003 but re-recorded. It’s now being pushed to radio as a single.

“We started recording the album last November. We had a new studio space and all this new gear, so we just needed to start with something that was easy for us to play so we could get used to everything else. `No Cars Go’ had changed so much on tour from how we originally recorded it. The version on the EP is cool but it’s a mess, and the version we had been touring with was way more of a straight-up rock song. So there was always talk of redoing it. And now that we had more of a budget, we wanted to record it with the string arrangements that Regine had always envisioned.”

On the next album:
“We’ve been banging around a couple parts, a few rhythmic ideas. But everybody has a bit of ADD, which is kind of a good thing. It’s not going to be one type of record. A couple of the songs we’re already playing with are totally different from each other. It’ll definitely be all over the map. We’ve all played too much, and been in bands before this one, to stay with just one certain aesthetic, like, `Oh, this has to sound indie-rock.’ The Arcade Fire doesn’t suffer from that at all, I’m happy to say.”

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