Love, death, religion, war: Arcade Fire explore such epic themes in so thrilling a fashion that critics, fans and their rock star peers find themselves united in wonder. In London and New York, Paul Morley discovers the secret of this special group’s magic in their most intimate interview ever.
THE SONS OF Presidents Lincoln and Grant attended the Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestige prep school established in 1781 which is 50 miles north of Boston. More recently, so did the writers Gore Vidal, Peter Benchley and Dan Brown. It has the largest library of any secondary school in the world, and its mottos include “the end depends on the beginning”, and ‘not for oneself’. The school is based on the principle that goodness and knowledge go together.
Edwin Farnham Butler III, son of an oilman and a harp-playing singing mother, grandson of the man who, it seems, more or less invented the pedal steel guitar, attended the school from 1995. He was a gangly, curious 15-year-old, and had been living a comfortable suburban life in Houston, Texas, separated from future excitement by time and distance. It would take a journey through his teenage years, across America and then over the northern border into a land of ice and optimistic creative enterprise to connect him with his future.
At junior high school, after listening to whatever music was played on the radio, a limited choice but one that helped him find the Cure, he noticed the difference between Nirvana and the group Bush. ‘I made this distinction for the first time – it sounds the same but it’s not the same. There was something in what Bush were talking about that didn’t seem quite right. I started to work out what was real and what wasn’t.’
This was quite a revelation for a teenage American music fan whose taste was already leaning towards the Smiths, Echo and the Bunny men, Depeche Mode and New Order. These groups, with their blunt love of words, rhythm and damned romance, existing in an early Eighties England where gloom was glamorous and love was mental, were sending coded, resonant pop song messages about how to leave behind the flat everyday. ‘It was information, like in a newspaper, about some other world you could get in touch with. The music just sounded so weird and alien, and you would wonder what on earth was making those sounds.’
At the Academy, he was tall enough to make a good fist of basketball, and bent out of mainstream shape enough to thrive as an arty, mutinous adolescent with a taste for science fiction. Older students with extensive music collections filled in for the older brother he didn’t have, and his music taste began to take in Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young, something grandly, madly north American that started to tangle with the rousing English introversion. He found Radiohead, somewhere in space between the apprehensive, post-punk English Eighties and an oceanic American magic-realism. “The Bends was a huge record for me.”
To escape Phillips Exeter’s “super-intense” academic pressure, to fight the trauma of moving away from home, to find his place in the world, he taught himself to play an electric guitar his grandfather, Alvino Rey, had given him. He wrote songs with a friend, mostly light, joke songs, but some with a hint of something bigger, and more real, as if without thinking about it too much he had something to say. They would put together imaginary albums.
Slowly, he was becoming Win Butler, obsessed music fan, restless thinker, separated from his loving, encouraging family, vainly looking for some kind of relevant replacement. There were various false starts. After a frustrating year in Boston, where he was just another earnest indie kid with vague ambitions, giving up on a photography course, writing songs non-stop but getting nowhere, he loyally followed his high school friend Josh Deu to Montreal. It was early 2001. He thought it was the coldest place in the universe.
“I felt like I discovered Montreal… obviously I didn’t, but I came and went, holy shit, I never even looked at this place on the fucking map, and there’s this great weird city, and it’s full of arts and culture, and I was so shocked. A year in Boston, nothing. I come to Montreal, and I had a performing band straight away. It’s hard not to think of it as fate that I found myself there.”
He half-heartedly studied religion – this meant his songs would fizz with shredded, tumultuous religious references – but his heart was set on making music. He started to put together bands, just as a way of meeting people in a strange new city. ‘I was just being outgoing. I can be pretty outgoing socially when I don’t know anyone.’
While looking for a drummer for his band, already called Arcade Fire, he came across passionate music student Regine Chassagne, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier ‘s regime in the Sixties. She would play music in shopping malls and supermarkets to support her family, make lawyers dance at Christmas parties with just a tambourine, mandolin and flute.
If there is a beginning to Arcade Fire, this group that always seems to be beginning, to be perpetually changing shape, then it is perhaps the moment when Win met Regine, when the conventionally unconventional and looked-after young American who knew exactly what he wanted, or liked, or disliked, or found boring, met the attractively exotic refugee making an imaginative haven for herself amid poverty, exile and potential terror.
It was snowing the day I first met Arcade Fire in Montreal towards the end of 2005. As newly celebrated local heroes the group were supporting U2 at the hockey arena. They were on form, and when Arcade Fire are on form, keen as hell, forced by time, lost in music, determined to prove themselves, to take the bull by the horns, to break the ice, to spread good cheer, to save souls, to storm the barricades, to put on a show that can destroy cynicism, they’re the one group in the world that can match, even transcend, the battling spirit and sincerity of U2. You could also put them on a bill with the ripest Bruce, the deadliest Dylan, the heaviest Joy Division and the moodiest Roxy and they could hold their heads high and march toward glory, and possibly, as if there is still such a thing in this neighbourhood, history.
U2 tried to persuade Arcade Fire to join them as they continued their world tour, one that was to visit Japan, South America and Australia, and end a few months later in Hawaii. It was a tempting offer, and Bono used his most lowery persuasive powers to convince the group to come with them. “I wouldn’t want any other group to support us ever again,” enthused an infatuated Bono.
The group, though, had their own plans. They were about to buy a church near Montreal, and turn it into a studio where they could record the follow up to their debut album, Funeral.
That first album was released in the autumn of 2004 in a blaze of obscurity, but its lush, ravishing and melancholy charms were soon spotted, and adored, and gradually distributed. A record made as the enthusiastic young group rapidly found its feet and discovered its sound while various family members died in quick succession, it combined desperate, precocious freshness, unfaked tear-stained feeling, a vehement gentleness and a definite moral positiveness.
It became, for many people, those that still list things and award scores for effort and achievement, the album of 2005. Football clubs and television shows would rely on an Arcade Fire song, packed with forbidding anthemic promise, to grab attention and dramatically set up what was about to happen. David Bowie, spotting kindred spirits and blood relations as much as Bono, bought the album in bulk to hand out as gifts to friends. Like other converts, he was turned on by a group who imagined what the Band would be like if Ian McCulloch was their singer and Kurt Weill their producer, who could dream up a rhapsodic Roy Orbison/Pixies/Fairport Convention/Springsteen/My Bloody Valentine/Temptations/Simple Minds/Kronos Quartet hybrid, and quietly contemplate a loud, 19th-century Joy Division singing urgent, churning sea shanties about silent suns, the mysteries of memory and the agonies of desire.
Arcade Fire wanted to record their second album as quickly as possible, before people forgot, and they slipped back into the competing pack of new groups clamouring for attention. Perhaps they needed to follow it up before they forgot how to recreate what it was they had done the first time, or became too self-conscious about the fragile process. Mostly, they just wanted to find out for themselves what their new songs would sound like now that they were so completely together.
They stuck to their guns, kept their eyes on the prize of following up Funeral with something equally as bewitching and extravagant, and resisted U2’s offer. Managerless until well after the release of Funeral, they also resisted major labels ominously gathering around them, big concerns that naturally wanted to buy into what now seemed commercially a dead cert. The group loyally stuck with the independent label that had originally released them, Merge, arranging through the manager they share with Bjork a distribution deal that would allow them to operate as they always have – in steadfast control of all the things they can control, most of all the music.
A year later, as if they really did know what they were doing, they have finished the follow-up, produced it themselves, mixed it, sequenced it, named it, leaked it, played online marketing tricks with it, and heard the first distorting whispers of over-excitement and inevitable disappointment. Neon Bible shares the name of the novel John Kennedy Toole wrote as a 16-year-old before A Confederacy of Dunces, and explores the clash between innocence and the big bad world, between spiritual emptiness and blind religious observance. It will be seen by some as even better than Funeral, and seen by the more sentimental Funeral fetishists as a ponderous muddle soaked with too much marbled pomp and Springsteen, and there are those who will settle, if anywhere, in the middle.
It is clearly made by the same group that made Funeral, but also by a different group, one finding itself in a new situation, adjusting to a different set of personal circumstances, having gained the confidence to speak their mind more aggressively, and even more intently.
“We couldn’t have made a Funeral 2 if we’d wanted to. It would have been such a chore thinking in those terms. Music doesn’t work like that for us. We just waited to see what inspired us, and followed our instincts, and worked how we always had. It would have been weird to change that just because Funeral was a success,” says Win.
By early 2007 they were in a position to precede the 18 months they will tour and promote this album around the world with some warmup shows. The shows concentrated on the new songs, and were played inside carefully selected churches in front of awestruck audiences prepared to sell their bodies or possibly their souls for tickets.
The shows would help the group work out for themselves what these songs really mean, and how they would play them live. They would begin to reveal what was in store for them now that the mainstream commercial world stretches around them like a vast, shapeless ocean. They’ve been used to navigating streams, rivers, seas and coastlines in a boat they built themselves; can this beautifully eccentric, mysteriously powered boat survive the journey into choppy, uncharted water, and the inevitable storms ahead?
The group came from nowhere, like they were born yesterday, sonic sweethearts, a scholarly post-punk gospel choir merrily identifying the menace of the world, and it was a surprise. How they sounded, how they looked, the throbbing innocence, the way they swapped roles and instruments, hugged each other, hit each other, broke for cover, jumped for joy and swore on the Bible, the way they sang their hearts out whether there was a microphone near them or not, the way that Win sang, like a soft-hearted iron man, with dashing, rustic serenity, as if he still believed rock music and songs had the power to change the world, to burn down to reality, as if they could obliterate darkness with light and fury – and now the surprise to some extent has gone. Could they maintain that sense of surprise, the coming from nowhere, and escape being dismissed as over-praised one-album wonders, naive, swindling marvels about to be overwhelmed by the dark forces of material enterprise?
“We really didn’t think too much about what people like you call the difficult second album, there’s nothing we can do about the fact a lot of people won’t like it. We’ve been ready for people trying to tear us down. We just concentrated on making something that didn’t sound instantly dated, so that in 10 years’ time some kid heard it and went: ‘Oh, 2006,'” Win says.
“We wanted something more timeless, something that will eventually just be one of our many albums, the one between our first and third, the one you might actually buy first in years to come, and that second album thing won’t make any sense. How good this album is, or isn’t, won’t be clear until we’ve made a few more, but this is where we are now, after all that’s happened to us. I guess that’s because a lot of the music I buy is by people who have already made 10 albums, and each album just represents where they were when they made it. I like relating to this in terms of people discovering our back catalogue in years to come, as an individual piece of work.”
In St John’s Church, Westminster, at the end of January this year, and a couple of weeks later at Judson Memorial Church on the edge of snowy Manhattan’s Washington Square, 6′ 5″ Win Butler, Arcade’s Fire guarded, cordial lead singer, towers over fans, friends and associates crowded into temporary backstage areas. He discreetly stoops, so that he isn’t too much of a giant. He can be very unassuming, in an imposing, slightly remote way, and you imagine this is who David Bowie was referring to when he sang of someone gazing a gazely stare.
In London, he’s stunned by jet lag, or life in general; in New York, Win is run down and running a fever, or just wounded by all the professional and social palaver that now surrounds his group and that will only intensify in the months to come. On stage, he wages war on apathy. Offstage, he often appears to have woken up out of a thousand-year sleep.
He talks with a sedate drawl that can often become a little indignant, and then a touch whiny, especially when he’s talking about people who are in bands just for the sake of being in a band. “A lot of bands now, all their music communicates is what it’s like to be in a band. I think that’s why we’ve all gravitated to each other, because we enjoy the idea of wanting to express different ideas, and when you have a lot of very talented people racking their brains trying to work out how to express an idea, it becomes more like making a film, there’s a wider scope, or more chance of achieving something original.
“It’s the creative challenges that excite us, not the everyday business of being in a band. Whenever anyone wants to package us as just another band, or process us into mere product, we get pretty restless pretty fast: ‘What the fuck is this? This isn’t what we do.'”
He wears brobdingnagian size 15 boots. He tells me they are the only pair of shoes he’s ever found in a thrift store that fit him. Over the next few weeks he never seems to take them off.
“The thing that interests me is singing about the things that you are not supposed to sing about in rock, finding simple ways to articulate difficult, complicated feelings. You get so tired of music and film and culture when ideas are not expressed, and if you care about things, and your part of pop culture, it’s important that you have ideas in your music, about something not to do with how you are bought and sold, otherwise you’re just joining in with all the rubbish.”
He appears to take it for granted, or is just coolly, possibly superstitiously, hiding his staggered delight, that his little quixotic group who started out playing Saturday afternoon shows in Montreal art spaces that would cost you two dollars and a can of food to watch is now poised on the verge of an old-fashioned rock fame not seen this century. Perhaps this kind of fame is on the horizon because not only do the songs brim over with opulent melody and mental energy, he actually dares to be a protest singer.
“The thing that is a little depressing is that in my generation there’s a feeling that if you do a song about war, there’s this, ‘Oh, I’ve already heard that, we know that war is bad, whatever.’ But I think this must be the most prime time for protest in the history of civilisation. People say, we’ve already talked about it, war, Iraq, Bush – no, we haven’t, not nearly enough. You have to jump in there and make an impression.
“This shit is still happening, in our name, and it’s getting worse by the day. You don’t have to have an entire plan of how to withdraw from Iraq in order to say something about it. I’m not a fucking political planner, I don’t know how to bale Bush out of this shit, but it doesn’t make it any less evil. It’s as though if you are confused, you’re not meant to say anything. But you should. If you feel something is wrong, you shouldn’t be silent. ‘
A few minutes before Arcade Fire make their way through the crowd in single file to the stage at the Judson church, a frail, mighty Lou Reed saunters on to the small balcony that has been reserved for the great, the good and the press. He moves slowly, as if he owns the air around him, accompanied by a small entourage including his wife Laurie Anderson, who resembles a surrealist German hausfrau. He shakes hands with a bony David Byrne, dressed all in grey with a jolt of blonde hair, looking like he’s keen to avoid the air around him.
Lou finds his seat, dead centre on the balcony, sort of the royal box. Arcade Fire abruptly plunge into action, like they’ve just thought of how great it would be if there were at least 10 of them, wedged together so their elbows touch and their minds meet, and they’re going to smash lumps out of the earth using violins, voices and accordions, and sing shining, truth-seeking pop songs, as if this is the only way they can stop their souls being stained, distorted and lost.
Lou stares hard at all the unbuttoned life and appetite ahead of him on stage that sometimes resembles a Velvet Underground freakshow made out of wood, lace and rope. He stares from up above as the youthful Win works up a labourer’s sweat and Regine bangs the drums somewhere between Motown and Mo Tucker. For song after song the infinitely impassive Lou doesn’t move a muscle. He doesn’t even seem to blink. He never taps his feet or shakes his head, and when a song crashes to a glowing climax he doesn’t applaud. Perhaps he’s working out what the trick is, if it can save him from the grave.
Arcade Fire are seven, although sometimes the way the members of the group interact and overlap, and because there are often a number of “touring members” accompanying the group, it can seem like a lot more. The tumbling combination of talents, lovers, brothers, energies, extroverts and introverts that work both accidentally and intentionally make it both obvious how the group functions, with a kind of snug members-only, us against the world, comrades in arms, ’til death do us part mentality, and also something of a delicate mystery. Those inside the group find it hard to explain how things work, or are under unofficial orders not to disclose methods and systems. They have a go at explaining, except deadpan Win, arch-protector of the group’s ramshackle yet robust specialness, who doesn’t want to give anything specific away, certainly the possibility that even he doesn’t quite understand the abstract mechanics, and Regine, who believes enough in pure and simple magic to not bother with such petty details.
A couple of hours before Lou Reed and David Byrne ease their way through the slushed-over Manhattan streets to watch Arcade Fire in church, I chat with Win and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, a founding member of Montreal’s enchanting, hardcore sensualists Bell Orchestre, and the producer of Arcade Fire’s first EP. His favourite guitarists of recent times are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, Alden Penner of the Unicorns, Marc Ribot, Kevin Shields and Joey Santiago. He’s got flamered hair and a smile somewhere between nervy and knowing that makes him look like the most beautiful geek in the world. I ask him about the Canadian quality of the group, whether this has made a difference, and helped Win create his perfect kind of group, filled with willing accomplices and members of other distinctive Canadian groups struck by his devilish American confidence.
“To make a dumb sweeping statement, I think Canadians are less sure of themselves, they have a lesser sense of their own importance. Personally, culturally, politically, they never get too big for their boots. There’s a little more insecurity. The American self-confidence always amazed me. I think our open Canadian-ness positively affected Win and his motivating American-ness influenced us… and made us in our own ways both believe in what we could do.” Win: “It wasn’t, like, Oh, now I have these docile Canadian minions that I can control at my whim!”
A few hours before they play one of their warm-up shows in London’s Porchester Hall, the sensitive seven are having their photograph taken for an NME cover. It’s taking a little longer than they would like. For such an amiable bunch they’re getting a little testy. The photographer can’t quite work out how to cram the seven members of various sizes, genders, hairstyles and moods into one coherent shot. The members of Arcade Fire don’t necessarily look as if they belong together, but their utter togetherness means that Win, or Win and Regine, won’t separate themselves from the group to supply the star photo, the couple photo, the mystic pop husband and wife, that makes easy commercial sense.
It’s like trying to catch butterflies in a net, and then pin them, near alive, inside a glass case. Regine and a couple of the band peel off to play a poised, lovely version of “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” while they wait for another lighting set-up. “Just to do something natural,” explains Regine in an accent that flutters melodiously out of an unknown country.
When the photograph appears on the NME cover, the seven members look caged, as if they are stuck in a lift, trapped inside an image of themselves they don’t believe in, as tamed, posed, ordinary pop group. The tag line claims they are the best band in the world, but the group look glum and anxious, mere shadows of the volatile group that can play on stage with such resolute shared purpose, cheerfully squeezed inside a charmed circle. It’s as if being called the best band in the world is exactly the kind of unstable hyperbolic statement that represents a world of simplification, reduction and obviousness they are trying to resist, as if they’re thinking, if we’re the best band in the world, how come we look like a bunch of strangers sullenly waiting for some lift doors to open? And when the lift doors do open, there’ll be someone there to ask, are Arcade Fire just too good to be true, and why is their second album not what their first one was?
Released after the Porchester Hall photo session, Regine literally skips down the street in Notting Hill towards a nearby dim sum restaurant, nimbly avoiding seedy middle-aged autograph seekers looking for signatures that will end up on eBay. For some reason it is easy to accept the happy prancing from this 29-year-old.
Regine is happiest when she is discovering something new. The thought of her first ever dim sum makes her happy, although the interview, something staged and sterile, does not make her so happy. She wriggles out of the way of questions that demand too much speculation, and isn’t that keen on repeating yet again the mundane facts, in case this whole adventure dries up around her and becomes dreadful habit. She is far steelier than her skipping suggests, but also even dreamier. I get the feeling she would rather answer questions with a drawing, or perhaps a strange, enchanting noise.
I feel grubby suggesting the hateful difficulties, scheduling chaos, bad reviews and internal pressures that might lie ahead now that they are so much a known property, a success story, so commercially visible. She says it’s all “an adventure where we asked our friends to join in.”
Solid as a rock bassist/guitarist Tim Kingsbury accompanies her. He arrived in the group via the kind of lightly experimental, obscure Canadian bands Arcade Fire once hoped to support and collaborate with. He’s allergic to mango and he’s just read Chris Salewicz’s biography of Joe Strummer. “For us, it’s not about having a number one hit … it’s about making the music that you find interesting, not because it will sell but because it says something about who you are and what you feel.”
Regine wrinkles her nose. “It would be horrible to think about becoming famous more than being a musician. I’m not interested in being some kind of personality; music is just something that has always been with me, and that’s not going to change just because we’ve become this big, successful band.”
Her jasmine tea arrives, and she coos with delight as a jasmine flower in her drink slowly opens.
A couple of hours before their second show in New York, as people and assistants and journalists and photographers gather to create the kind of tense, informal atmosphere only found in such circumstances, drummer Jeremy Gara offers his take on the group. “It’s almost like five different groups connecting in one place,” he enthuses, more energised by the idea of an interview than some of the others, as if he really needs to get to the bottom of things and work out what the hell’s going on.
He joined in September 2004 after drumming in various other groups, after Arcade Fire had found it hard to find the right drummer, one who can do the riveting New Order shuffle, and is fine to move out of the way when Regine wants the kit. An early Arcade Fire incarnation supported a group he played in, Maritime, at a show in Philadelphia a couple of months before he joined. “They killed us that night, and all the other groups on the bill. They’d been opening for so many bands for so long that they would fight so hard to win over an audience. They had this do-or-die thing that the group I was in just didn’t have. This need to make a special connection with the audience, which we still have. We still fight for attention, even now that we have it.”
He remembers the making of Neon Bible. “For me it was really less organised than anything I’ve ever done with anyone else. We talk all the time, but in the end, when it comes to the doing, there’s no real calendar, things just begin, and people catch up – they have to, or they miss out on what’s going on. We had this place, and we turned it into a space where we could play music, and before I knew it someone just pressed record and we were recording things. It was very loose and unscheduled, and it literally didn’t feel done until I heard the master.
“It gets really complex – are we making a record, or just fucking around? And then it just makes sense. I guess in hindsight it was just a way of avoiding that whole sophomore album thing, the idea that the second album is going to be impossible to make. Mostly, we just made fun of that pressure, about the idea of us selling out, which could have backfired, but I don’t think did.”
Violinist Sarah Neufeld joins in the interview. She was in Bell Orchestre with Parry, loved their delicate vigour, and never contemplated joining another band. “I’d never seen a rock band before and gone like, Can I come with you? Arcade Fire were hard to resist. You see this magical bunch of people dancing around and shouting at the sky and there’s a possibility you can get involved, of course you get involved. Now I’m in this band that people start to think could save the world! The beauty of it being a big group is that we can all lose ourselves inside it and forget all the pressure and expectation. We can protect ourselves from the fact that a lot of people think this is a really big deal.”
Win’s younger brother Will joins the interview, a bit like the way he suddenly joins in a song on stage. He also went to Phillips Exeter Academy, three years after his brother, and his favourite writer is Herman Melville. For a while, he was a part-time member of the band while he finished off college studies. On stage, he can be maniacally mischievous, chucking drums in the air, climbing the walls, wrapping band members up in tape, fighting for attention, looking for a role other than mini-Win. “I did sometimes doubt whether the group needed me or not. In my darkest hour I would think I might as well sweep roads in Chicago.”
Sarah: “I remember once we were all sick and we had played too many shows in a row and we were playing San Diego and Will had just left and someone in the audience shouted, ‘Where’s Will!’ Will is the spirit of the band!”
At the end of their five London days, I have breakfast with Win and Regine at their hotel in Shepherds Bush, just before they fly back to Montreal for a short break before the New York shows. The early reaction to the shows, to the new songs which immediately sound fantastically familiar and gloriously scandalised by the ordinary world, suggests their momentum, both commercially and creatively, is in no danger of slowing. Win and Regine act, without it seeming arrogant or complacent, as if there was never any doubt they would succeed following Funeral, perhaps because their only goal was to write some songs, release them, move on, and let others battle over the possible value, the overall score, the let down factor or the continuing revelation.
In some ways, Win is the leader of a group he formed, that was once just in his head, and which was then filled with friends and family, but in some ways so is Regine. In the end, perhaps the leader is a Winregine creature, this combination of Win’s standard male rock fan interests and Regine’s zanier influences, which range from Piaf to Peter Gabriel, Hendrix to Bach, Puccini to the Supremes, the Pixies to Gregorian chants. Regine’s distracted nature blends with Win’s distracted nature to create a kind of unique focus, and Regine’s spontaneous approach to composition and songwriting ensures Win’s songs don’t end up sounding the retro sum of their influences.
She was not that impressed when they first met. She asked him what kind of instrument he played. He said a little piano, a little guitar. “I went, ‘Oh yeah, a lot of people play a little piano, a little guitar…’ There were a lot of guys trying to impress me with a little piano, a little guitar…” She went along to see him, dressing down – “sweater, bad jeans, white socks” – making it clear this wasn’t about romance, this was just about music. “He played me his songs, and I thought, Hey, he’s a real artist, these are real songs, it’s not like he’s doodling, and dreaming about it. There was something in the way he talked about music that made me want to figure it out. He wasn’t like the other guys who used the idea of being in a group to show off.”
“I think people around us at that time thought we had both lost the plot a little,” says Win. “She already had a degree in communications, but went back to do another degree in music, which seemed impractical, and I seemed to be drifting a little. We both found in each other a similar spirit, and we both met someone else who thought that music was the only thing they wanted to do even if others thought it was stupid, even if we couldn’t earn a living from it. I thought she looked pretty interesting when I first met her, and when she talked about music, she got really excited.”
A few days later he saw her sing some jazz songs in an art gallery. “After 30 seconds I was convinced that we had to work together.”
They started writing together immediately. The romance started at the same time. “It’s hard to separate the two things,” they agree. Regine invited Win to the movies with a room-mate. Win said he’d come, but decided not to take friend Josh along. “I showed up on my own. She was on her own as well, she’d lied about bringing her room-mate. I was glad I hadn’t brought Josh, because that would have been the three of us, and that would have been a bummer.”
They saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Chinese film with French subtitles. “I didn’t hang out with many English-speaking people, and I forgot Win wouldn’t understand.” Regine translated for Win, whispering into his ear, a first act of intimacy. “Then we went to a party and we met all your friends. I was wearing a cowboy hat, coming from Texas, and you thought it was so exotic. You wanted me to wear my cowboy hat everywhere.”
They married in 2003. Does being a married couple in a band worry them – that it might get in the way of their marriage, or the group?
Win: “You don’t think about it in those terms. I’d just broken up with a long-term girlfriend, and I wasn’t looking for a relationship – I thought, What am I doing, here I go again. But I was so excited by it. We haven’t been apart since, apart from a couple of weeks the first summer… I’m just really lucky to have found Regine, to have the love of my life as part of the most important thing in my life. It’s not all sunshine and buttercups, but it is a very stabilising force. I think her creativity comes from a really pure place, and she’s very sensitive to ugliness and cynicism.
“We both really care about the group, we could do stuff outside, but we’re really inspired by the group. The ideas me and Regine have, the first thing I think is the context of the group. It’s the mystery element of how the seven of us come together, without us really making any rules, that I love. Regine and I have a great idea, and then I cannot wait to see what happens when it’s refracted through the lens of the group.”
Earlier with Tim, Regine said: “There could be nightmares, bands having girlfriends and boyfriends in bands. I know it can be a real problem. In this group, everyone is on equal footing, it’s all about the group, however we are connected whether friend, husband, wife, brother. With me and Win, it’s so much about the music. It sort of takes over, and the relationship doesn’t disappear, it just goes somewhere else… and then when we go back to the relationship, the music has only strengthened it.”
Tim: “I never think of it as a problem. I never really think of them being married when the group is working. They write the songs, and the rest of us help turn them into Arcade Fire music.”
Regine: “The closeness of the group makes us feel we can go anywhere and do anything. We never think of these things as being problems. It’s other people that want to make them problems. Our togetherness is what makes us special. It’s what feeds into the music, and I think people can feel that, that it is important to us because it is our life, not just our career.”
Jeremy says: “If it wasn’t a family, it would be harder to have this trusting bond and this common goal… I cannot imagine a band this big being unrelated to each other and not coming from the same place. The brothers and the husband and wife are actually the glue holding us all together.”
Richard: “I feel we care about each other’s wellbeing before we care about ourselves as a famous rock band.”
At the end of the New York show Lou Reed and David Byrne saw, one that was different from the night before and that would be different again the next night, the group make their way to the centre of the crowd, and sing ‘Wake Up’ like celestial buskers. Arcade Fire love to press themselves into the centre of a crowd and show their faces up close, to move through their flock as they warn them about impending doom, and suggest possible salvation.
Byrne had raced downstairs by the second song, a fan through and through, but Reed stayed dead still in his judge’s seat. At the end of their set, he starts to clap, and without wanting to read too much into it, without wanting to add to the level of expectation about how good this group is, or isn’t, opening up continual possibilities of anti-climax, I swear a small smile plays around his lips.
He doesn’t make it backstage after the show. Lou and Laurie disappear like ghosts into the freezing New York night. Byrne pops back to quickly pass on his compliments as the backstage area fills with well-wishers, friends, reporters, technicians and staff, until there are far more non-Arcade Fire people than group members. The waters get a little choppy with all the business, back-slapping, and small talk. Very soon, I spot Regine slip through a curtain away from all the fuss. A couple of minutes later, Win does the same. Somewhere they find a quite place where the two of them can be on their own and make beautiful music together.
© Paul Morley, Observer Music Monthly, 18 March 2007