With their startling debut album, American-Canadian collective the Arcade Fire have accumulated a fervent word-of-mouth following that numbers David Bowie, Beck, Bjork and David Byrne in its ranks. Keith Cameron delves into their nonconformist, self-contained world of love, death, religion and joy.
THE EVENING ENDS, as expected, with the band walking off the stage and into their dressing room. It then continues, as not expected at all, with the band walking out of their dressing room and into the audience.
As they weave a path through the throng, the group of four men and two women, dressed in smart suits and frilly frocks, are beating a single drum and singing a wordless round, a coda to the set’s last song, ‘In The Backseat’. They look like a group of Hare Krishnas infiltrating a high school prom. Stunned at this postscript, the audience parts, allowing the procession to complete a circumnavigation of the room, before going unequivocally bonkers.
The date is March 8, 2005. The place: King’s College, London, scene of the debut UK gig by the Arcade Fire — by popular acclamation, if not demonstrable fact, the most exciting new band of the year.
Ten days later, it happens all over again, in a room twice the size, at the University Of London Union. Only this time there’s seven in the band, and their singing chain is augmented by boggle-eyed crowd members. As finales go, the Arcade Fire’s walkabout would smack of wild affectation in the context of anything other than a transcendent performance. But filing experience of the Canadian septet’s first two UK shows alongside similarly roof-raising accounts from North America and Europe, one is bound to conclude that transcendence is a currency in which this band routinely deals.
Confounding preconceptions is another. On the day of their second London gig, they turned down the front cover of the Canadian edition of Time. “We put out our first record six months ago,” says singer-guitarist Win Butler, incredulously. “The cover of Time just seemed like a disaster. No, talk to us when we’ve put out five records. It’s not a political thing, it just doesn’t seem natural.”
That they were offered such a major publicity platform in the first place reflects the extraordinary impact wrought by the Arcade Fire’s debut album, Funeral. Released in the US and Canada in September 2004, it has since sold more than 60,000 copies, in the process breaching the notoriously exclusive citadels of commercial radio and MTV without resort to the shady quid pro quos which pass for ethical conduct in the music business. Their record label, Merge, the North Carolina-based independent founded by members of DIY pop-punk deities Superchunk and boasting a total staff of eight, has been somewhat taken aback. Likewise the band, an American-Canadian collective based in Montreal, the crucible of a vibrant and self-sufficient artistic community.
“We’re not used to anyone from outside of us telling us anything about what we do,” says Win, looking round to nods of assent from his bandmates, the day after the Arcade Fire’s rafter-raising at ULU. “I can honestly say we had no expectations. Partly because we’d never put out a record before, I don’t really know what’s supposed to happen. At the same time, I don’t feel like someone’s stolen our journal and we’re completely unprepared. We really want people to hear the record. The places we’ve played the most, Toronto and Montreal, we were really starting to get a decent following just from word of mouth. The speed it’s spread is surprising to me. But it wasn’t all from traditional media. It’s more on-line stuff, word of mouth from shows…” One especially enthusiastic fan declared on his website that Funeral was his favourite album of 2004. Given that the website was davidbowie.com, the recommendation did not go unnoticed, particularly it seems, in Scandinavia, where sales of Funeral increased markedly afterwards.
“David Bowie’s been to three shows now,” says Win. “He said to me he thought the record wasn’t immediately accessible, you kinda had to dig into it. Which I thought was really cool. It’s like you’re an architect, and another architect who’s a lot better than you tells you they like your door.”
But celebrity endorsements (to Bowie add Beck, Bjork and David Byrne) and an unforeseen commercial breakthrough are mere froth on the surface of the singular story that is the Arcade Fire. The reason for all the external frisson is the music this close-knit group of people have been able to muster, and then deliver to the world with an intensity that borders on the evangelical.
The core of the band is 25-year-old Win Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne, a Montreal native whose parents are Haitian exiles. The pair met when Butler, a Texan drifting in and out of university in Boston and New York, moved to Montreal, where he majored in religious studies. Having previously just dabbled with the conceptual notion of forming a band, Win’s ambitions quickly coalesced once he met Regine at an art school exhibition, where she was singing jazz.
“I thought she had a really unique singing style,” he says. “We started talking. She played a lot of different instruments. It was obvious from the way we talked about music that we approached it in a similar way, so we decided to try playing together. The two of us writing songs all the time became ‘the two of us’.”
Not that the couple shared identical tastes. At high school, Win subscribed to the smarter US college rock staples — the Cure, Pixies, New Order — and subsequently developed passions for Bob Dylan and Motown. Regine, meanwhile, was a classical music expert, a devotee of Debussy and Arvo Part, and played in a pre-Renaissance medieval ensemble.
“Sometimes it was awesome,” she says. “We’d play dances and weddings, to weird audiences, kids and old people, all dancing. I was really creative with the arrangements, ‘cos with a lot of medieval music you only have melody, no rhythm. But after a while I was like, OK, I have to go further, and I couldn’t do it in a medieval band. I had to be more free.”
After an initial line-up fell apart following the release of an EP in 2003, Win and Regine regrouped with multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry and guitarists Will Butler (Win’s younger brother) and Tim Kingsbury. The first song this new Arcade Fire recorded was ‘Wake Up’, the call to arms that invariably opens their gigs, written as an incantatory note to selves in the wake of the previous group’s demise. Its throbbing melodrama served as an epiphany, not least to Montreal engineer Howard Bilerman, who as well – as joining the band on drums – offered to produce their album at his Hotel 2 Tango studio and defer the costs until they signed a record deal. After work was wrapped last spring he said: “I saw it instantly in Win that music is in his blood. It’s refreshing to see a band who care more about making music than being successful at making music.”
Bilerman’s faith has been amply rewarded. Released in the UK on Rough Trade, Funeral is an unapologetically fervent album, evoking its own self-contained world, and nonconformist in spirit, though certainly redolent of some smart rock touchstones — notably Talking Heads at their poly-rhythmic pan-cultural peak. Were it a film, David Lynch would direct. One reason it has touched a chord with so many is its open-hearted embrace of life’s big issues: love, and in particular, death. During its recording, the group lost nine family members or friends — hence the album title, which occurred to Win after burying his maternal grandfather in San Francisco last spring. Crucially, Funeral is far from morbid.
“We saw his funeral as a meeting place, more about the people who were still alive rather than the person who had passed away. Looking at the themes on the record and the characters, I saw it as some kind of meeting place too. Funerals aren’t particularly dark in my family, it’s more singing and joking around. Crying, but not an explicitly sorrowful experience.”
Bilerman was spot on when he said Win Butler has music in his blood. His late grandfather was Alvino Rey, ’40s big
band-leader and pioneer of the pedal steel guitar. Win proudly mentions the obituary in MOJO issue 127. Wherever this journey takes his band, however they harness the whirlwind, you sense Win Butler and the Arcade Fire sleep safe in the knowledge that someone up there is watching over them.
“To have the opportunity to come over here and play is like a dream,” says Win. “We don’t take it for granted. I don’t think of it in terms of wanting to be hot shit. My grandpa was 95 when he passed away and he was still making records in his basement. He was on major labels and he wasn’t on major labels, he was in World War II and he was playing in the Great Depression. My hope is we’ll be able to find a way to do that: to make a life out of creating music.
© Keith Cameron, MOJO, June 2005