Band of the Year: An Interview with Arcade Fire
The artistic license offered by an indie label led to the darker and more ambitious Neon Bible. It brims with arrangements that include a symphony orchestra and a choir recorded in Budapest, Hungary, and a massive church organ. "It felt sometimes like we were making a film rather than a record," Win Butler says.
NEW YORK -- For five straight nights in the middle of February, a line of shivering die-hards wraps around the facade of Judson Memorial Church, a century-old building in Greenwich Village. Some have paid ticket scalpers hundreds of dollars for the privilege of being there. One paid more than $2,000 in an Internet auction. Each night they patiently wait for hours in the snow and mid-winter chill until the church doors swing open, and one of indie rock's most acclaimed bands, Arcade Fire, turns the space into its own non-denominational house of worship.
A few hours before the week's second show, the members of the Montreal band have turned a makeshift dressing room into their own hospital ward. Singer Win Butler slumps on a couch, his sore throat wrapped in a scarf. His younger brother, Will, is stifling a cough that sounds more like a bark. Ailing guitarist Richard Perry is still resting back at the hotel. Win Butler's wife and songwriting partner, Regine Chassagne, commiserates with tour manager Amy Davidson. "I have people who can't even talk," Davidson says. "That's just not great when you're about to play the second of five shows."
This is no time for excuses, though. The band has been championed by David Bowie, U2 and a community of file-sharing music geeks, and its second album, Neon Bible (Merge), is due out March 6. Little wonder the string of New York shows attracts a Who's Who of rock royalty, including Lou Reed, David Byrne, Michael Stipe and the Strokes' Fabrizio Moretti, in attendance with his girlfriend, actress Kirsten Dunst.
Three years ago, the band was barely known outside Montreal when it was signed to North Carolina-based Merge Records. Its 2004 debut, Funeral, generated a beehive of Internet buzz. Though the subject matter was dour, written in homage to nine family members and friends who died around the time the album was being recorded, the better songs surged with transforming ramshackle power. The live shows were exuberant displays that rocked clubs and then brought invitations to big outdoor festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza in 2005. At each of those big shows, Arcade Fire rose to the occasion and left fans, critics and curiosity seekers alike shaking their heads in admiration.
Mac McCaughan, co-founder of Merge and a highly respected artist in his own right with the bands Superchunk and Portastatic, signed Arcade Fire based on a demo tape, but knew he had something special when he saw the band in concert for the first time. Arcade Fire came to the label's hometown in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the spring of 2004 to play a tiny club, the Cave. "It was like seeing U2 on the War tour when I was 15," McCaughan says. "It's not like they sound like U2 exactly, but they had these huge anthems that the crowd was responding to right away even though no one had heard the songs yet."
Funeral has gone on to sell more than 320,000 copies in the United States and has gone platinum (100,000 sold) in Canada, by far the biggest seller in Merge's 17-year history. Those are the kinds of numbers that intrigue the major labels, all of which have courted the band. But Arcade Fire remains devoted to the creative freedom afforded by being on an independent label, which gives it total control over its music and business affairs. That artistic license led to the darker and more ambitious Neon Bible. It brims with arrangements that include a symphony orchestra and a choir recorded in Budapest, Hungary, and a massive church organ.
"It felt sometimes like we were making a film rather than a record," Win Butler says. On stage, the band has expanded to 10 pieces from seven in order to do the expansive new material justice.
Beneath the stained-glass windows of the church-turned-rock club, the band focuses on its latest songs, rather than the surefire crowd-pleasers from Funeral. The first night is a bit shaky, as if the band and audience are still coming to terms with the new tunes and with each other. But by the second show, Win Butler is smiling broadly, the effects of a bronchial infection washed away by sweat and adrenaline and a buoyant audience. "I think you guys must be from a different borough," Perry jokes with the pumped-up audience.
Will Butler, the band's onstage wildcard, is in dervish mode all week. One night he pounds on a parade drum with his boot. On another he wraps tape around his brother and Chassagne. A new song finds him employing a different brand of percussion instrument: a piece of paper, which he ceremonially rips apart in front of a microphone.
"Showmanship," Will Butler beams backstage in explaining his penchant for onstage mischief.
"One time he tried to set my hair on fire," Chassagne says with a laugh.
"Nothing bad came of it," Butler says in mock defensiveness.
Such antics, all part of Arcade Fire's anything-can-happen live shows, cover up weaknesses in the band's songwriting. It's not that the band writes subpar music or lyrics, it's that their songs sound less distinct on record than they do in concert. This band is meant to be seen as well as heard, and listeners can't fully understand or appreciate its music until they've experienced Arcade Fire in person.
"The physical exertion that this band puts into performances is the most challenging thing," Win Butler says. "It feels on tour sometimes like we're sprinters trying to run a marathon."
The new album's denser and more forbidding songs may make that task more difficult. The new tunes reflect a turbulent world, sickened by the marriage of religion and war. Central to the album, Win Butler says, "is this idea that Christianity and consumerism are completely compatible, which I think is the great insanity of our times."
The arrangements reflect that cultural dissonance, as strings and keyboards coat the melodies in dread and drone. Paranoia is a running theme: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me where them bombs will fall"; "There's a great black wave in the middle of the sea"; "I can taste the fear, lift me up and take me out of here."
On Funeral, the music fought to escape grief, and at its best achieved transcendence. Neon Bible is bigger and grander, yet it sounds hemmed in and fed up.
"I don't wanna fight in a holy war/I don't want the salesman knocking at the door/I don't wanna live in America no more."
Those lines from "Windowsill" brought a loud cheer from the crowd in New York the first night Win Butler sang them.
"I wrote that song after our first headlining tour of the States," he says after the show. "It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was visiting my own country as some sort of outsider. I had lived in Montreal for a few years at that point, but I didn't realize that I had really made it my home until that trip. In theology there is this idea that it is easier to say what God isn't than what God is, and in a way that song is my trying to say everything about my country that is not what makes it great or beautiful. In a way it makes what is great and beautiful and worth fighting to preserve more clear."
Butler and his brother are the only U.S.-born members of Arcade Fire; the others are Canadian natives. They range in age from the mid-20s to early 30s. Win Butler moved to Montreal from the East Coast a few years ago to attend McGill University, then formed Arcade Fire with Chassagne.
"Win's lived in Canada for five, six years now, and traveled around the world with the band," she says. "He has a new perspective on what people outside America think and how America is perceived."
Will Butler realizes this might not be as much cause for celebration as the Funeral songs proved to be in concert. "The goal isn't to have people waving their hands in the air, or giving the middle finger and yelling," he says. "It's definitely a more complex goal this time. We want to move people emotionally, but not by spelling out, `George Bush sucks!' We're asking questions like, `What if there is a genuine deep, dark evil in the world?'"
By the second night of the New York shows, the band was transforming the dire subject matter into something worth jumping around for. If on record the songs feel dense to the point of obliqueness, on stage they spring to life, particularly the surging "No Cars Go" and the baroque "Intervention." The band members swap instruments as though they're at a flea market: a half-dozen keyboards, celeste, hurdy-gurdy, accordion, mandolin, guitars, drums, upright bass, violins, French horns, tambourines, electronic percussion, cymbals and a parade drum. The colors in the sound are matched by a presentation that relies not on gimmicky lighting or staging, but the visual expressiveness of the musicians: Will Butler's court-jester antics, Perry's manic intensity, Chassagne's flair for dancing and fashion.
"It's all one thing to me," Chassagne says. "I heard once that in at least one African language there is only one word for music, dancing and singing. It all means the same. If you sing, of course you're going to dance and of course you're going to play something. It's meant to be done together. In rock `n' roll there can be a lot of divisions between things: the singer, the songwriter, the arranger, the producer, the choreographer, the stylist. But to me, it all belongs together."
In the do-it-yourself fashion of punk bands from Black Flag to Fugazi, the band has usurped many of those roles. They went without a manager for years, own their own studio in a century-old church south of Montreal, and essentially paid for the recording of Neon Bible themselves, with revenue accrued from sales of Funeral and concerts. "They're a family in that Win and Will are brothers, and Win and Regine are married, but that's also how they operate as a band and a business," McCaughan says. "Even when we first met them, it was apparent that they were a little more mature than the average young band putting out its first record."
On stage that familial familiarity leads to interaction so spirited that shows sometimes resemble a Baptist church service more than a concert. The religious connotations in the band's music and presentation aren't accidental. Most of the members grew up attending and often performing in churches from various faiths. And many of their songs still wrestle with questions about faith and transcendence.
"When I was really, really young, I saw Jimi Hendrix on television," Chassagne says. "The idea of being a rock star was never in my plans, but I was intrigued by what was inside Jimi Hendrix to make him express himself like that. His whole body seemed to be taken over by something. I wanted to know what that feeling was like. Same with Aretha Franklin. I watch her sing, and there was something in her that made me want to feel what she was feeling."
Will Butler nods in agreement. "A good percentage of rock bands, when they perform it's a totally sexual thing," he says. "But I don't think we're that sexual. At least that's not what we're singing about or acting out. On a good night, it's more like the ecstasy of St. Theresa."
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