Band of the Year: An Interview with Arcade Fire

Greg Kot
Arcade Fire (L to R: Tim Kinsgbury, Jeremy Gara, Will Butler, Regine Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry, Win Butler, Sarah Neufeld) [Photo: Win Butler]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

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.

Arcade Fire

Neon Bible

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2007-03-06
UK Release Date: 2007-03-05

PopMatters review of Neon Bible by Adrien Begrand

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 midwinter 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.

Arcade Fire [Photo: Davida Nemeroff]

"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."


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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