With the Reflektor tour starting this week, let’s rewind to nearly a decade earlier via a story from the Editor’s archives. It was at a point in time when the Canadian band was still traveling by van and playing clubs, clearly on the verge of breaking through but not yet harboring world-conquering aspirations… Also, enjoy a couple of vintage live videos from the same period. Above: Arcade Fire circa 2005.
BY FRED MILLS
On January 27, 2005, Arcade Fire arrived in Asheville, NC, for a sold-out performance at the Orange Peel, a medium-sized (900-capacity) rock club that had booked the band months earlier, around the time of the September release of their Merge Records debut, Funeral. In the interim, the band began to blow up and could have easily sold out a multiple night residency at the Peel. Living in Asheville at the time and also an editor for Magnet Magazine, I had been assigned to do a profile on Arcade Fire for Magnet so I arranged to hook up with them at soundcheck to work out the logistics of an interview. (I’d already talked by phone to both drummer Jeremy Gara, who’d recently joined as a touring member, and Will Butler, younger brother of A.F. leader Win Butler, who at the time could be described as “occasional member” since he was completing studies at college and couldn’t always hit the road with the band.)
What follows is my original Magnet feature, which appeared originally in issue #67 (Sleater-Kinney cover), bolstered by additional interview content that didn’t make the print magazine due to space restrictions. Given that Arcade Fire begins its eagerly anticipated big-venue tour for Reflektor this week—starting with a high-profile series of “Big Day Out” festival appearances in Australia, and then kicking off in the States in early March—and the fact that the current issue of Rolling Stone (#1200) features an in-depth feature on the band, it seems like as good a time as any to turn back the pages a few years to get a sense of what the group was doing, how it was thinking, etc., right before it broke out nationally and, soon enough, internationally.
In fact, the tone of the new RS article, as summarized by the first-page subhead “Win Butler is on a mission to make Arcade Fire the biggest band in the world—whether the rest of the band likes it or not,” clearly suggests that while those relatively innocent days circa 2005 are gone forever, given the overheated marketing campaign for Reflektor that turned even some ostensibly “low-key” warmup shows in clubs into circus-like events, not everyone in the A.F. camp is happy with the group’s current trajectory. How this all plays out over the course of 2014 and the accompanying year-long touring regimen is impossible to predict, of course. But some warning bells have definitely been sounded, and you are welcome to note the subtle irony that now lines Win Butler’s 2005 comments to me about marketing an artist: “Ashlee Simpson’s record sells a million copies in a week, and not because it’s an awesome record. They sold it really well because they marketed it, and I think that approach has negative implications on the culture.”
Speculation aside, the band remains one of my favorites—in the aftermath of 2010’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs I named Arcade Fire BLURT’s Artist Of The Year, while the recent Reflektor ranked high among my 2013 best-of picks—and I will always treasure my memories of hanging out with them for a couple of days in Asheville. Here, then, is how it all went down….
“Have a seat and start folding.”
It’s been barely five minutes since your correspondent was introduced to Montreal’s Arcade Fire and I’ve already been deputized as a temporary merchandise person. While audio and lighting techs for Asheville, N.C., club The Orange Peel scurry around preparing for soundcheck I squat on the floor next to the merch kiosk where the band members are spread out in a semicircle putting together, assembly-line style, piles of CDs.
I’m here, obviously, to work up an Arcade Fire profile. For now, though, my immediate assignment, apparently, is to fold lyric sheets and booklets. With luck, we’ll have plenty of copies of the CD – their self-titled 2003 EP, which slipped out of print a short while back but, thanks to timely Fed Ex shipment that has just delivered boxes of the re-pressed discs, is now officially back in print – ready for sale at tonight’s show.
“Did you guys know this has been going for as much as 75 bucks on eBay?” The groans that greet my query tell me they know. “That’s just insane,” scowls Win Butler, the group’s guitarist and lead vocalist, adding that they’d put a notice up on their website pleading with fans not to pay premium prices for the record, that it was in the process of being re-pressed.
Well, business is business. And right now this band is doing – by indie standards – huge business. Every date on Arcade Fire’s winter ’05 American tour has sold out, and their full-length debut Funeral, released last September on Merge Records, is moving nearly 6,500 copies a week. Demand for interviews has become so intense that the label has found itself in the unusual (for Merge at least), if enviable, position of having to cherry pick from among the requests. Knowing that a few days after my encounter Arcade Fire will have to endure a Rolling Stone writer hitching a ride with them from Philly to New York followed by a New York Times reporter doing likewise for the NYC to Boston trip, I almost feel guilty for intruding.
That’s okay. I’ll make it up to ‘em by being the best goddam booklet folder in Asheville.
Looking around, I take stock of my hosts. There’s Butler, who with his strapping 6’ 5” frame and slightly imperious, Christopher Walkenesque looks, is clearly the frontman and leader. Next to him is his wife, vocalist/keyboardist Régine Chassagne, earthy and resplendent with dark hair curling around the sides of her exotically-featured face. Equally fetching is violinist Sarah Neufeld, who’s frequently chatting with the other violinist, Owen Pallett; both of them played on Funeral, although Pallet only recently signed on as a touring member. Pallet is also the opening act, Final Fantasy, a one-man strings/loops/samplers deal (think a postmodern Nash the Slash, minus the Invisible Man bandages).
Another new addition to the group is Jeremy Gara, a veteran of numerous Canadian combos who replaced Funeral drummer Howard Bilerman after Bilerman couldn’t spend most of 2005 on the road away from his main gig (he runs Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango studios, where Funeral was recorded). Gara’s also pulling double duty on this tour by acting as de facto road manager; as if to confirm the position, Gara’s cell phone rings every few minutes. Bassist Tim Kingsbury seems unusually quiet at first but turns out to be quick-witted and personable as he jokingly instructs me in the “proper” way to fold an Arcade Fire lyric sheet. (“So her face is the first thing people will see when they slide it out of the booklet,” he says, pointing to a stylized photo/art rendition of Chassagne on the sheet.) Lastly there’s Richard Reed Parry, who’s as tall as Butler, and who because of his thick mop of orange hair and black horn rims is sometimes referred to by internet wags as “that Napoleon Dynamite-type dude,” although up close he’s anything but nerdish. In fact, sometime later tonight a gorgeous young girl who noticed me going in and out of the dressing room approaches and asks if I’ll slip Parry a note for her. (I do.)
Missing in action is Butler’s younger brother Will, who played on both Funeral and the earlier EP and performs with Arcade Fire whenever his university schedule permits. He was on hand for some of the west coast dates at the beginning of the tour but then had to return to Chicago where he’s majoring in poetry and Slavic studies at Northwestern (and additionally has his own band, Citizens On Patrol). Interviewed by phone a couple of days earlier, he confirmed his status as a member of Arcade Fire. “But I do feel like a bit of a fan, too,” he said. “That’s partly because I’m the only one who’s actually ‘out in the world,’ so to speak, while everyone else is in the van all day. But when I am there, it’s like — ‘Will’s here! Now we’re a family again!’”
It’s tempting, actually, to employ the family metaphor when discussing Arcade Fire. For one thing, Funeral is rife with lyric imagery invoking familial relationships and the bonds of community. Too, Win Butler, as founder, clearly has a certain paternal stake in the band – which maybe makes Chassagne, as his wife, the mother hen. But in the short time I spend with the band, I don’t detect any pecking order, just a deep affection and healthy respect among the band members.
Parry tacitly acknowledges this when, asked about the pressures of being on the road for long stretches of time with so many people, he says, “We would hear about bands that had broken up and we’d go, ‘What was that band’s story?’ And you’d see how the touring had done it. Being aware of that plays a big role for us. And in the absence of what would be really terrible habits in a band, like drug habits or being really abusive — which would be common – we’re pretty lucky.”
Butler agrees, saying, “We started playing out of mutual friendship and liking each other’s music. I think we all realize it could get pretty ugly really fast. [laughs] Although if we’d had another three weeks of the last tour I think we would have killed each other!”
Right after soundcheck we walk over to a Mexican restaurant a few doors up the street. Everyone crams into a couple of booths and starts gabbing away — just like at the nightly family dinner table. As we eat I look up and notice something odd: there are people peering through the front windows of the place and pointing. Not at the menu posted on the wall, either.
Sure enough, after Butler finishes his meal he rises, nods at me, and we go outside where we’re greeted by a small gaggle of fans clutching posters and CDs. Walking back to the club Butler expresses a kind of pleased incredulity.
“That’s definitely new,” Butler says. “I mean, sure, on this tour we’re starting to see more people recognizing us and wanting autographs at the shows and stuff. But that…” He trails off, shaking his head. “That wasn’t happening before.”
And how will he feel if things get to the point where a hefty chunk of his audience is made up of people who only know “Power Out,” the Funeral focus track that commercial radio has been steadily warming to?
“I’m fine with people having just heard our song on the radio. When I went to see Magnetic Fields, I’d heard one song on college radio and I said, ‘I’m going to their show’ even though I hadn’t heard any more of their songs. I ended up getting into their stuff. That’s how people get exposed to music, you know? We’re not going to have a sign at our shows saying, ‘No Jocks Allowed.’”
Speaking of which, two jocks of the, er, good kind, from local radio station WNCW-FM, have set up gear in the Orange Peel dressing room to tape an interview with Butler, Chassagne and Parry. The spouses cuddle on an overstuffed couch, crack jokes and, as couples sometime do, complete each other’s sentences; Parry holds a laptop and eyes his email while interjecting an occasional comment or bon mot. Apparently recalling the earlier scene outside the restaurant, Butler deadpans, about the vicissitudes of rising fame, “Yeah, after we did the Sullivan show it’s been crazy.” A discussion about guilty pleasures prompts Butler and Parry to neatly preempt any possible questions about an Arcade Fire backlash by riffing, in pompous faux-fanboy style, on the Ludwig Von Beethoven “backlash.” (Butler: “If I have to read another article about him being deaf and composing music — ! Now, the early stuff, when he could hear? That was amazing.” Parry: “Dude! I really thought he sold out once he got syphilis. You can just hear it once the syphilis got to his brain – he just kind of falls apart.”) The drollery doth flows freely with these folks. They’re fun to be around.
Interview completed, the WNCW deejays tape some station I.D.s from Butler and Chassagne. As she, charmingly, does hers in French, I suggest to Butler, who is in the process of becoming a Canadian citizen but originally hails from Texas, that he should speak “real southern” for his I.D. Butler grins evilly at me: “Y’all ahhrr lissennin’ to double-yew ennn seee double-yuh…” We all crack up.
Showtime. Following a well-received set from Final Fantasy, Arcade Fire takes the stage, opening in rip-roaring, anthemic fashion with the appropriately titled “Wake Up.” All of Funeral and a few choice tunes from the Arcade Fire EP are performed, and it’s pretty safe to say that audience is with them all the way to the finish when, following a three-song encore that includes a cover of Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody (This Must Be The Place”), the band marches offstage, beating percussion and chanting, and weaves through the audience, New Orleans second-line style.
In between we’re treated to no less than a rock ‘n’ roll tent revival. As the volume and intensity pouring off the stage steadily rises, band members darting around and swapping instruments while singing en masse like some stripped-down Polyphonic Spree, the psychological vibe inside the venue also pushes upward until it feels like the roof is coming off its moorings. Arms in the crowd thrust skyward; a circle of kids near the edge of the stage pogo madly; couples smooch like it’s Times Square on V-E day in 1945; and with everyone singing along, you could swear they’ve succumbed to the spirit and are speaking in tongues.
Even Win Butler gets caught up. During “Power Out,” as the room is enveloped in cleansing, almost Phil Spectorian, wash of sound, and as his band churns away in perfect synch, he abruptly jumps into the crowd. Not the punk rock, catch-me-so-I-can-body-surf kind of jump, just a leap off the stage. The joyously impulsive act comes so unexpectedly that it’s electrifying, although it takes Butler a moment or two to recover. And after he climbs back onstage to finish the song, I can see why: there’s blood streaming from the left side of his mouth.
“Chaotic, powerful, a spectacle, on the brink of collapse, all the things that made me get into punk rock in the first place — and it was energy supported by resonant & captivating songs.” Merge co-owner Mac McCaughan is describing the Arcade Fire’s performance at Merge Fest last July. By the end of that show, he says, “the entire club was dancing — that rarest of indie rock activities, especially in a situation where no one knew these songs before hearing them that night.
“The first time I saw the band live, my feeling was just a simple ‘Yes!’ From listening to the demos they had sent, and from reading about the band, I had a feeling it would be special live, and it was. When people ask me what sells records, I still think the answer is seeing a band live, and when a band is as flattening as the Arcade Fire, you can really imagine why it wasn’t a review or MP3 blogs that created the groundswell, but word of mouth from people who had been converted in a sweaty club somewhere.”
Adds drummer Gara, “This band, before I was even in it, had done a pretty big tour with the Unicorns where they just won everybody over. Before I even saw them, I had this chance encounter where the Arcade Fire were opening for Maritime, who I was playing with, in Philly. At first I was super-stoked: ‘Oh, I’m gonna see my friends from Montreal, we’ll hang out…’ But it ended up that when they played there was already this huge word of mouth and they completely kicked our asses before we even played! [laughs] I was like, ‘Holy shit. Something is happening here!’ And it was totally organic – they just destroyed and everyone was like, ‘Holy fuck.’”
As of this writing, Funeral, poised near the top of Billboard’s “Heatseekers” and “Top Independent Albums” charts and at #151 on the “Top 200,” has registered over 90,000 in SoundScan-tallied sales. Merge has already shipped 156,000 copies out to stores and expects the album to do in seven months what it took their best seller to date, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, seven years to sell.
As noted previously, commercial radio has joined college stations in singing the praises of Arcade Fire, and MTV has requested that Merge submit a video for consideration. (Most likely it will be “Rebellion (Lies),” shot prior to “Power Out” becoming the album’s buzz du jour, although as three concerts in San Francisco were filmed for an upcoming DVD, a live edit for “Power Out” may wind up getting the nod.) And aside from its radio-friendly unit shifter status, Funeral consistently figured in 2004 best-of polls and was recently nominated for two JUNO awards nominations in Canada (for “Alternative Rock Album Of The Year” and “CD Artwork Design Of The Year”).
Talking to Will Butler earlier, I asked him for a kind of “distanced insider’s” perspective on all this. He noted that it can get tedious reading the same press accounts over and over: “You can almost track the train of articles and see, ‘Oh, this story is a direct descendant of that one…’ Seeing how writers had obviously read the [previous] articles.” Laughing wryly, he added, “But it is kind of awesome if someone like the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times does something on the band: ‘Hey, something to send home to mama!’ After the first New York Times article it was a whole new world, even more real than Rolling Stone or other music magazines, because it’s now like – ‘Okay, the band is legit now. We’re news. We’re fit to print.’”
Says Martin Hall, national media coordinator for Merge, “I’ll tell you when I realized this thing had taken on a life of its own. We were sitting in a sports bar on New Year’s Day and playing one of those trivia games they have for the TVs. A clue came up: ‘Win Butler is the lead singer of this Montreal-based band.’ The choices were Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, Arcade Fire. And I’m thinking to myself, oh my fucking god. This is a whole new dimension.”
There’s nothing in the Arcade Fire backstory that would have predicted such an out-of-the-blue vault to the top of the indie heap. If one were to construct a bare-bones capsule bio of the band it might go something like this:
Arcade Fire forms in Montreal not long after Texas/New Hampshire expatriate Win Butler migrates there in 1999 to attend religious studies at McGill University. Butler goes through several embryonic versions of Arcade Fire before meeting jazz vocalist/Renaissance player Regine Chassagne. Love blossoms, as does a creative partnership (they also eventually marry), and after putting together a new lineup they travel to Maine in the summer of 2002 to record in a barn located on Butler’s parents’ farm. Among the players are Richard Parry, of Montreal’s New International Standards and the Belle Orchestre, and Win’s younger brother Will, who during the siblings’ teenage years had pitched in whenever Win needed someone to play bass or piano on his four-track home recordings, plus several musicians with connections to the Godspeed! You Black Emperor/Constellation Records collective of Montreal talent. (Will Butler on the early evolution of the band and its shifting lineups: “Win had been having bands, and it was always the same band, the Arcade Fire, but with different musical styles and different people. So it wasn’t like this huge revolutionary change. More like, ‘This girl I’m dating is in a medieval band and we’re playing together also…’ ‘Okay, so it’s like when you were playing with Tim before, and when you were playing with Josh before.’ So it wasn’t a shocker when he finally started accumulating musicians up there and when they sort of ‘band-ed’ it up…. The summer of 2003, we had played all these shows, and it was the first consistent time where we’d have, say, two- or three-week tours. Our goal that summer was to be able to play our songs really well; we’ve never been a virtuoso band, and we’re not session men by any standard, so we wanted to tighten up as a group and tighten up the songs.”)
They self-release the recorded results as the Arcade Fire EP in 2003, although it goes largely unnoticed by all but the most ear-to-the-ground observers. In any event the band only lasts for another few months. Determined to keep going despite the utter lack of momentum, Butler and Chassagne form yet another version of Arcade Fire, this one featuring Parry and another New International Standards alumnus, Tim Kingsbury. The decision is made to do Funeral in a real studio, Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango, already well known in the indie-rock world as the recording/rehearsal space utilized and operated by the Godspeed! crew. The band remains relatively stable after that. A tour with the Unicorns in the summer of 2004 introduces Arcade Fire to American audiences, and following the release of Funeral in September and an incendiary performance the next month at CMJ, the whole fucking blogosphere lights up. The rest is history. By the time the Funeral tour reaches Asheville, eBay scalpers are listing tickets for the group’s Feb. 2 and 3 New York shows for upwards of 200 bucks a pair.
That’s basically where things stand the morning after the Asheville gig when I steer the Arcade Fire entourage — counting roadies and merch folks, it’s a solid dozen — into a downtown restaurant, the Flying Frog, for lunch. As the manager on duty apparently recognizes his visiting patrons, he’s even willing to turn the stereo system down a few notches so we can conduct the interview without having to shout over the music. (Memo to fellow journalists: If you want to take a band that size to eat, scope things out in advance and get reservations if possible. Twice we couldn’t get seated without a half-hour wait outside in the cold, while one eatery, Mayfel’s, literally refused service, claiming the size of the party was too large despite there being plenty of seating. Several years later I was recounting the story while dining at Mayfel’s with some friends, and upon overhearing part of it the waitress called the on-staff manager over to our table so I could repeat it for him. Both of them were absolutely mortified to learn that their restaurant had turned away a group of Grammy-winning musicians.)
“Do you do that often at shows?” I ask Butler, eyeing his swollen mouth. Perhaps he should have done the catch-me-so-I-can-body-surf thing last night. In the leap’s awkwardness – he was still clutching his guitar – he came down off-balance and smacked his face on someone’s head.
“Ohhh… jeez.” Butler gingerly fingers the injury while Chassagne looks on sympathetically. “No, I only do that sort of thing once in a blue moon.” He’s clearly in pain. I almost feel guilty for forcing him to speak for the tape recorder.
That’s okay. I’ll make it up to him by pointing out some of the tastier – and softer — items on the menu.
While everyone in Arcade Fire contributes to the creative braintrust, Butler and Chassagne are the principal songwriters so I’m curious to know what makes them tick. As we wait for our food to arrive, I remember something Will Butler mentioned to me on the phone a few days earlier, about how, as a kid, he was frequently the recipient of mix tapes his older brother had compiled – in particular, a couple of cassettes heavily weighted with the Cure, Smiths, New Order and Midnight Oil.
“Sure,” says Butler, smiling at the memory. “I mean, for some reason that little era of music sounded so different from the stuff that was on the radio I’d been listening to before that it was kind of exciting. The production was different — not ‘polished’ in a certain way, perhaps. In high school, when I started listening to the Cure and the Smiths, that was right around the time I started writing songs and that started becoming ‘a way of life,’ you know? Constantly writing songs became the main thing I did with my time.
“Although I don’t think there any one group, or ever a point, where I said, ‘‘I wanna be in a rock band for a living.’ Even still to this day! Growing up I was exposed to a lot of music – my mom was a harpist, playing around the house all the time, and whenever we’d visit my grandfather [late guitar legend, Alvino Rey, known as “the father of the pedal steel guitar] he’d rehearse about three hours a day and you’d hear the guitar or the banjo coming up from the basement – and I think that’s why I never made the decision to ‘do it,’ because it was just a natural, normal thing. When I did start gravitating in that direction, I just did it as opposed to having some kind of epiphany that I could do it.”
Seeing the question mark on my face as I glance over at her, Chassagne shakes her head. “Oh no, I was never like, ‘I want to become a musician!’ either. I was just obsessive about music – all the time! It was all I could think of! The first tape I bought was a double cassette of Billie Holiday – I really liked her because it was all over the place. And I’d listen to jazz but since I couldn’t understand how it was made, how it came together, I just had to listen to it and figure it out. Then when I was 16 I heard a record by Arvo Part and that completely blew me away: ‘What is this? I don’t understand!’ So I had to listen to it over and over.”
While scientists may puzzle over what a gene-splicing experiment involving eighties-rock mainstays like the Cure and Smiths, an iconic jazz singer (Holiday) and a contemporary classical composer (Part) might yield, the Butler-Chassagne musical marriage was clearly foreordained to sire something unique. As review after review of Funeral has pointed out, there’s a buoyancy and immediacy to the music that, while never exactly veering into Up With People territory, is just emotional and anthemic enough to supply listeners with a tether to something forward-looking, a means out of the twin black holes of cynicism and hopelessness of the modern era. After all, a funeral is as much a rite intended to allow the living to get on with their lives as it is a send-off for the deceased.
“And if we’d called the album Birthday Party,” smirks Butler, “reviews would go, ‘The exuberant birthday party sound of Birthday Party resonates with fun-loving people who have experienced birthdays!’”
Ouch. Everyone around us collapses with laughter at Butler’s pompous-voiced impression of a reviewer; I suspect he’s probably fielded more than a few funeral-related questions in recent months. Just the same, there’s no denying the fact that when people go to an Arcade Fire show, they’re seeking some sort of release, and this is definitely a band that delivers those goods – in spades.
Even some of the earliest, pre-Funeral commentary took due note of the group’s dynamic live show. It might be overstating the case to label Arcade Fire overtly “theatrical.” Yet they don’t shy away from visuals – stage backdrop and decorations, sharp, eye-catching attire (Chassagne in particular looks striking in her vintage dresses and gloves) – nor from injecting subtle choreographic elements such as cued instrument swapping and choreographed swaying/chanting en masse at key points in songs, suggesting that they have put a lot of thought and how their audience is going to be perceiving them. With seven, sometimes eight, people on stage, a band better do at least some rehearsing. They also have a clear sense of wanting to make Arcade Fire more than “just” a rock band. To put some physical (and maybe even some metaphysical) muscle behind the sonic release.
“I think half of a concert, what’s exciting, is what you see,” says Butler. “Not like laser beams – but you know, when Pete Townshend will do the windmill with his arm. The way Jimi Hendrix moved when he played guitar. David Byrne’s dancing style. Even the way Elvis moved. That’s what separates a record from the performance, right?”
Adds Chassagne, “I remember when I was around 12 and I saw on TV Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger. I was watching and thinking, ‘What is in these people so they are just doing that? What makes you cool like that?’”
“And there are certain things I feel are tools we use,” continues Butler, “like visual things that we repeat every night. We do try and do different stuff too, because I think we’re embarrassed if we do something to infinity. You can feel self-conscious, like when you’re onstage, and you move your hand a little bit, it’s like there’s [moves arm upward in slow arcing gesture] a greater weight to it. It can feel exaggerated.
“But this is a pretty direct medium. It has a lot to do with emotion and feeling. Like, there’s a big difference between a good poem and a good song lyric, and a lot of that has to do with the music and the performance of those words. It’s actually something more than physical.”
I bring up my tent revival notion, and Butler looks startled at first.
“I was having a conversation with a friend of mine’s dad, who was really religious. They came to our show and they didn’t quite get it. They couldn’t hear the words and they were trying to decide if it was good or evil or something. You do see people getting into it and it does almost look like someone speaking in tongues — I’ve only been to one of those churches once and it was this really creepy thing – with people getting really ecstatic about the music. He was like, ‘What spirit was that? Was that some kind of good spirit or bad spirit affecting people?’
“I guess there is somewhat of a spiritual component to what we do. But it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the spirits. People are just really into it and what we’re trying to give them is something good that we care about.”
Win Butler’s at a potentially precarious, tricky stage of his still-blossoming career. To date he’s approached the demands placed upon him and his band with a somewhat laissez faire attitude, amiably handling the bulk of the interview chores when he’d probably be writing songs or spending quality time with his wife. (“We spend all our time together but somehow never have any time together,” says Chassagne, of the sometimes frustrating paradox that is being a married couple in a touring band.) But with Funeral about to be released in the UK and Europe and a tour to follow, plus the remainder of the 2005 calendar already being penciled in, those demands are only going to increase.
“We get to explain to everyone how Regine and I met, how the band formed and what the name Arcade Fire means all over again,” quips Butler, referring to upcoming overseas promotional duties. “But one thing we’re all interested in is having good lives, and even though it’s been a pain in the ass touring, I feel happy to be doing this. That there’s a purpose to what we’re doing.”
Some of the rewards from the hard work are tangible, from record sales to box office receipts to nightly merchandising revenue. (Remember those CDs I was helping assemble at the start of this article? Nearly 200 were sold at the Asheville show.) Other dividends, such as critical kudos and awards nominations, aren’t directly bankable but in the long run may be even more gratifying. One in particular arrived in the form an Arcade Fire celebrity fan, David Byrne. The erstwhile Talking Heads mainman was the group perform last November and subsequently struck up an email correspondence that culminated in Byrne inviting Arcade Fire to open some dates for him this coming summer.
Has Byrne offered any fatherly-type counsel?
“Not yet,” Butler says. “I’m real curious myself. I’d love to hear what he has to say.”
Byrne’s career advice would arrive in a roundabout way in early February when, following an Arcade Fire show in New York that saw him guesting with them on a cover of Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody (This Must Be The Place),” he posted to his online journal at DavidByrne.com. Musing openly upon what direction the Arcade Fire might take after their Merge contract, a two-album deal, is up, Byrne noted that the majors can offer larger advances, bigger recording budgets and substantially greater marketing muscle than a label of Merge’s size could ever hope to provide.
“But maybe they’re doing alright right where they are,” continued Byrne. [A major label deal] could mean more sales for them, but those sales then merely go to pay off that larger advance the band got, and the larger recording budget. Little of it actually ends up in the musicians’ pockets unless things really break big. And most things don’t break all that big.” (Below: Byrne with Arcade Fire)
Back in Asheville, though, weeks before Byrne will make those observations, I’m pretty sure Arcade Fire is already aware of all this and more. Describing the steady procession of record industry courtesans – managers, producers, A&R personnel, etc. – that has come out of the woodwork on the current tour, Parry notes that some of the overtures have been blatantly transparent.
“Fundamentally, it’s not just like it’s because their record company is bigger than Merge,” he says. “You have to ask, why are people wanting [to talk to the band]? If it’s ‘Hey you, you’re hot shit, let’s talk!’ then that’s probably not going to be very interesting. But if it’s because someone likes the record and really enjoys what you’re doing and likes the spirit behind it, then… In theory, at the heart of what they are doing is that they really like your music and want to help get it out to the world. In theory.”
“You know what?” blurts Butler. “We didn’t want Merge to market us heavily. We didn’t want any ads that had, like, quotes – like an ad in Rolling Stone that says, ‘New York Times says that Arcade Fire is…’ That turns me off. Ashlee Simpson’s record sells a million copies in a week, and not because it’s an awesome record. They sold it really well because they marketed it, and I think that approach has negative implications on the culture, but I guess it’s good for selling a million records. For us, ideally, if someone buys our record, they’ve heard about us from a couple of different places. If my friend tells me something’s good, and then maybe I hear a song, then I read something about it, then I’m actually getting information about something – not just responding to an ad – and can then find out if I like it.”
“Also, and on the other hand, I think as a musician if you pay too much attention to it you’re crazy. For example, Pitchfork had a review of us playing ‘Naïve Melody’ live where they said it sucked. Which I could give a shit if Pitchfork thinks our cover song is as good as the original Talking Heads version. That doesn’t affect me. But the fact that people are coming to our shows and saying, ‘Pitchfork said this wasn’t any good but you guys are awesome!’ That level of self-consciousness is really a bummer.”
If the whole “Arcade Fire phenomenon,” for lack of a better term, took off in exactly the fashion that Win Butler hopes it did — through word of mouth, well before any mainstream media attention kicked in – does that say anything about what music fans are looking for right now?
“I think they’re looking for the same thing in 2005 they were looking for in 1905. Things haven’t changed that much. Stylistically things are different, of course. But when music connects with people, it’s always for the same reason. I just think there’s a lot of joy to what we’re doing. That gets translated, you know?”
News posting on ArcadeFire.com, February 6: “We just finished our first headlining tour of the United States of America. What an insane time. We are tempted to retire, but will limp along instead. Thanks to everyone who came to see us, and said nice things or gave constructive criticism. I am so exhausted and am wishing that we had a home besides a hotel, but all things in time. Take care. Luv, Win.”
(Below: Caught in the headlights – Arcade Fire circa 2014. Photo by Guy Aroch.)