Monthly Archives: January 2014

STILL KICKIN’: Gov’t Mule

Gov't Mule ©Anna Webber 2013

Warren Haynes & Co. embrace their influences by shouting to the past. The band kicks off a fresh round of touring next week, Feb. 6, in Columbia, SC.

BY TOM SPEED

On a warm September night in 1994, The Rolling Stones brought their Voodoo Lounge Tour to Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis. Afterwards, I made the short drive back to my home in Oxford, Miss. But I stopped along the way, on the county line separating Panola County from Lafayette County, at a new makeshift juke joint called The Turning Point. Not bound by the stringent curfew laws of the college town, The Turning Point was designed to stay open late and to draw the after-show crowds from Oxford. This night, Blues Traveler was playing at the big club in Oxford, but the after-show was a new band comprising two members of the Allman Brothers—guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody—along with drummer Matt Abts.

My friend and I pulled up the craggy, red-clay hill that served as the driveway and made our way into the ply board structure. A bar made from unpainted two by fours served canned beer and the crowd of college kids mingled with country yokels as a thunderous roar came from the stage area in the corner. We were enthralled. Exhilarated. A little bit scared.

That was the birth of Gov’t Mule. The next year, they’d release their eponymous debut album. Soon, Haynes and Woody would leave the Allmans to focus on the “side project” full time. In 2000, Woody died tragically but the band played on. Next year, they will celebrate their 20th anniversary. This year, they are celebrating their 10th studio album, Shout!, out now on the re-imagined Blue Note Records. They’re doing so the way they have in the past, incorporating their influences into a sound all their own. That sound describes a straight line to their classic rock forbearers. Like the Deep End recordings that followed in the wake of Woody’s death and featured a who’s who of guest bass players, Shout follows the band’s first-ever hiatus with a record that includes a bonus disc featuring a who’s who of guest vocalists. Again, forging the future by embracing the past.

 

Embracing The Influence

There will never be another James Brown, but Warren Haynes may well have assumed his moniker as the “hardest working man in show business.” Mostly known as lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for Gov’t Mule, he also tours with his more R&B flavored group, The Warren Haynes Band, and as a member of the Allman Brothers Band; he also occasionally plays with various incarnations of surviving Grateful Dead members in Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead. This year, he also performed symphonic renditions of the music of Jerry Garcia, backed by several different symphonies in a nationwide tour. And he continues to host his annual benefit show in his home town of Asheville, N.C., the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, along with the Mule-curated Mountain Jam festival in upstate New York during the summer and annual treks to tropical locations for the Mule Island Exodus festivals. Whew.

But Haynes is focused on Mule now, and the band’s new record and subsequent tour. With Shout!, The Mule shows just how they’ve now carved their own niche in the pantheon of classic rock.

After the unprecedented one-year break—at least from Gov’t Mule; Haynes released a solo record and toured in support of it during the time—the band reconvened at bassist Jorgen Carlsson’s Los Angeles studio in February of 2012. The meeting was intended to be a writing session that might produce some demos. But the chemistry was so satisfying that it yielded several tracks that would end up forming the nucleus of the album.

“The hiatus was very important to us,” says Haynes, calling from a tour stop in Germany. “We’d never had a year off in the entire history of our band, and next year will be 20 years. Taking a break kind of gave us a lot of perspective. Three of the songs turned out so good we decided to keep them for the record, which kind of inspired us to immediately continue that process on the east coast.”

Soon, the quartet—Haynes, Carlsson, founding drummer Abts and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis—collected themselves at a Connecticut studio to complete the record. The writing came quickly and so did the recording, but soon a new idea began percolating. The idea delayed the release of the record but led to a unique take on the body of work, one that would allow for both a Gov’t Mule recording while also allowing them to pay homage to some of their favorite singers, both heroes and contemporaries. Shout! now comes with two discs, one of Mule in the studio performing the new songs, and another of the same songs with different vocalists.

During recording, some of the songs from the sessions seemed to exude a different character than their previous work, perhaps a byproduct of that much-needed perspective, perhaps a natural evolution. The Haynes-penned “Funny Little Tragedy” reminded Haynes of something Elvis Costello would have done, while the Haynes/Louis composition “Stoop So Low” brought to mind Toots Hibbert. “Scared To Live” sounded like a Dr. John groove, and they just so happened to be playing some dates with him soon.

The idea to have those singers play on the record was too intriguing to resist, but it also began blooming into something entirely new.

“Initially we were thinking maybe sing one verse or something,” says Haynes. “But that’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll approach to things. It seemed a shame to have somebody of that stature come in and sing a small part. So we thought maybe it’d be cool to do a whole bonus version. Then at that point I just made a list of each song and who I would like to hear, other than myself, singing the song. I started making phone calls and the response was overwhelming. But that opened a whole can of worms and we realized we were going to have to take our time and do this the right way.”

And they did, whether it was through sessions in New York or by simply mailing tracks off to the singers to have them add their parts. In many cases, the guest versions of the songs are different arrangements, not just a plugged-in vocal.

“It’s interesting to offer two different interpretations of the songs,” says Haynes. “What we intentionally did was make the arrangement of one version different than the other version. In most cases, the guest vocalist versions are a little shorter and have less jamming or shorter guitar solos, to kind of sound like more of the song and the singer.’”

The bonus disc ended up containing a star-studded list of guest vocalists including not just Costello, Hibbert and Dr. John but also Jim James, Ben Harper, Grace Potter, Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood and others.

The guest vocalist disc serves to highlight the Mule’s secret weapon, their under-heralded songwriting ability. Haynes is a more than able singer, capable of power and nuance. But when others interpret his songs, the bonus disc helps to underscore how varied this group’s sound and songs have become too. Haynes was right. “Scared To Live” is all the more irie in the hands of Hibbert. Costello lends a heightened urgency to “Funny Little Tragedy” and Dr. John remakes “Stoop So Low” into a sinister accusation that peels back the layers of funk influence. Harper (“World Boss”) and Potter (“Whisper In Your Soul”) lend power and swagger to their blues-based tunes, while James (“Captured”) elicits an ethereal quality that hints at the Pink Floydian elements in the music of the Mule.

The approach to this second disc draws obvious comparisons to The Deep End —a time in the evolution of the band where they needed to reassess their future.

“It was the only way the band could continue,” says Haynes of the two Deep End records.  At the time Haynes was distraught over the passing of his bandmate and buddy, and when pressured by management about choosing a bassist for a new album, quipped that he wanted John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Bootsy Collins and a host of other all-stars who were among Woody’s favorites.

“I was kind of being a smart-ass,” Haynes admits. But the smart-ass reply eventually became a reality and the collection eventually included other bassists such as Jack Bruce, Les Claypool, Mike Watt and Flea, among others. So many that it required two releases. It also gave them new life, and helped to change the direction of the band and broaden the musical palette that is more fully realized than ever before on Shout!.

“The influence that came from all those bass players helped open the door for us to pursue directions we always loved but would not have pursued otherwise,” says Haynes. Here on Shout!, the guests serve to illuminate just how far those directions have taken them.

Warren Haynes 

Old School Mule

 

Mule had started off as a power trio, a muscle rock sideband that Haynes, Woody and Abts looked at as a fun experiment. That’s the group that blew the plywood doors off the Turning Point all those years ago.

“We didn’t even have any aspirations of making a second record,” says Haynes of their genesis. “We were just doing something for fun. It definitely was a side project in the beginning. The original concept for what was going to be the first Gov’t Mule record was to make a very low budget, very experimental improvisational record with very little song structure. And by the time we went through the red tape of getting a record deal and a producer and a studio, all that stuff, we started writing songs and becoming more of a real band.”

Gov’t Mule expanded their sound from there, adding further instrumentation and wider range of sounds. After The Deepest End concert, a marathon Last Waltz-style extravaganza that featured most of the guests on the record, the band went through a rotating cast of bass players before finally settling on Andy Hess as the replacement. During this time, they also brought on keyboardist Danny Louis, who as a multi-instrumentalist would go on to contribute via saxophone and guitar as well.

That lineup produced three records—Deja Voodoo (2004), High & Mighty (2006) and Mighty High (2007)—and the band continued to reveal deeper influences, especially on the reggae soaked Mighty High.

But soon, Jorgen Carlsson would replace Hess, and though Louis would stay on as a permanent member, 2009’s By A Thread returned them to a heavier sound more reminiscent of their power-trio beginnings.

“Jorgen’s sound and his natural instincts as a player are not dissimilar to Allen Woody’s,” says Haynes. “They both prefer an aggressive approach both musically and sonically. That’s kind of what Gov’t Mule was founded on in the first place. But he’s also very much his own person and brings his own personality to the music.  He’s very good at adapting different bass sounds to each song.

“I guess most importantly, the chemistry that the four of us have now is very strong and getting better and better all the time. The longer we allow ourselves to pursue that the better it’s going to get.”

[Photos credit: Anna Webber]



FOR THE LOVE OF ZINES! (Pt. 2)

Zines Part 2

This is what the world looked like before WordPress, punks. And it was a more vibrant, exuberantly tactile world, too. Our resident fanzine expert Tim “Dagger” Hinely weighs in.

BY TIM HINELY

Print is still alive and well and here’s some rags to prove it!

DYNAMITE HEMORRHAGE (#1) Brand new zine from the mind and heart of Jay Hinman. Back in the 90’s Jay did the mighty Superdope zine and then went blog for quite a while (he has/had blogs on music, beer and vintage postcards). I knew he couldn’t stay away from the print forum and I’m glad I was right. In this ish he has a superb interview with Flesh Eaters Chris D. (specifically recounting the years 1977-’80)  as well as pieces on Sex Tide (who have a new record out on A Wicked Company) plus a piece on classic zines of the 80’s (ahem, including my own, Dagger) reviews and plenty more. Jay promises more issues but do not miss this one. www.dynamitehemorrhage.com

UGLY THINGS (#36) I’ve gotta say, I don’t know how editor Mike Stax does it. Each issue of U.T. is nearly 200 pages of detailed type, covering obscure (and not so obscure) of the best of garage freakbeat and psych (and as it says above the masthead every issue: “Wild sounds form past dimensions”).  No one out there cover these genres better than Stax and his crew. In this issue is an interview with Rolling Stones guru Andrew Loog Oldham  as well as pieces on The Haunted, Cyril Jordan (Flamin’ Groovies), Royston Ellis, Craig Smith & the Mystery of Maitreya Kali plus more and a ton (and I mean ton) of reviews, etc. I buy every issue and well-worth the $11 (and then some).  www.ugly-things.com

THE BIG TAKEOVER (#73)  Speaking of thick bibles, Jack Rabid and his crew have been covering underground sounds for decades, over 30 years, in his tome, The Big Takeover (yes, named after the Bad Brains songs). At 136 pages this one is a bit thinner than it usually is but still crammed full of info. On the cover (and inside) is Mr. Johnny Fucking Marr as well as interviews with Tommy Keene, No Age, the Joy Formidable (part 2), Billy Bragg (part 2), plus others and a truckload of reviews. You probably own an issue or two, but if not get the latest ish.  www.bigtakeover.com

TWO SKUNKS FOR VALENTINE’S DAY: A TRIP TO AWESOME FEST 6 (#1) Last but certainly not least is a new zine from Mr. Zine himself, Mike Faloon. As you know Mike publishes Zisk (“The baseball magazine for people who hate baseball magazines”) and used to do the terrific Go Metric (more music and pop culture though we haven’t seen an ish of that in a long while) and has done some other one-off zines as well (and a book of baseball essays too Fan Interference). This zine is half-sized with a bright orange cover and Mike talks about his travels to and from (and being in) San Diego for a punk rock music festival. All I know is that among many other bands, he got to see the Marked Men so I am mighty jealous.  Well-written as always. For a copy write to: gogometric@yahoo.com

Previously: For The Love Of Zines (Pt. 1)

 

BOMB SCARE: The H-Bombs

H Bombs top

Paying tribute to the late ‘70s Tarheel band that eventually bequeathed key musicians in NC legends Let’s Active and The dB’s—a story from the Editor’s deep archives.

 BY FRED MILLS

         “Now that I’m dead, I suggest you listen to the H-Bombs.” – Elvis (text appearingon a flyer announcing a concert, circa 1977, by the H-Bombs)

 ***

 Chapel Hill’s H-Bombs may have only enjoyed a brief existence – roughly, from the start of UNC’s fall semester in 1977 to the end of the spring semester in ’78 – but the handful of highly memorable gigs they performed, and their helping to jumpstart the Triangle punk/new wave scene,  meant that they left behind an influential and relatively sharp-looking corpse. Not only did the quartet inspire numerous other musically-minded individuals (including yours truly, who didn’t pick up a guitar but did embark upon a career as a rock writer that, for better or for worse, is still going strong), in the wake of the band’s demise several of the cadaver’s vital organs were ripe for harvesting: Guitarist/vocalist Peter Holsapple would move to New York and join Chris Stamey’s dB’s, bassist Robert Keely and drummer Chris Chamis would form the much-loved Triangle combo Secret Service, and guitarist/vocalist Mitch Easter would eventually go on to Let’s Active fame. (below: early shots of The dB’s and Let’s Active)

dBs

Lets Active

 Veteran writer Sam Hicks previously authored a fairly solid, concise capsule history of the H-Bombs as part of his massive “How North Carolina Got Its Punk Attitude” in Perfect Sound Forever, March 1998. I see no reason not to steal from, er, tip my hat to him by excerpting a portion of his text here. Run, don’t walk to the PSF website (www.furious.com/perfect/nc-punk.html) and read Hicks’ entire, outstanding article.

 Writes Hicks:

 In the fall of ’77, Peter Holsapple’s UNC-CH Neo-Punk group The H-Bombs formed (not be confused with Evan Johns & The H-Bombs). Peter, Mitch Easter, Robert Keely and Chris Chamis played at street festivals, around campus, The Mad Hatter (previously The Town Hall) or Cambridge Inn on the Duke campus. At the first H-Bombs show, Peter and Robert handed out 2-4 page “flyers” called Biohazard Informae, which began a long history of zines & music working together toward a common goal. The “Death Garage / Big Black Truck / 96 Second Blowout” single (crr-5) was recorded at Mega Sound Studio in Bailey, NC. This single featuring three H-Bombs’ songs was released in 1978 on Car Records after the band had already broken up. Peter & Mitch are actually the only people on the record, but since these were songs Peter had written & performed with the group, the cover says, “Peter Holsapple of The H-Bombs.” Although this band really can’t be considered 100% Punk either, they were pretty damned strange and would later play with Punk bands who said they could drive a crowd away with the best of them. In early 1978, with college over and nothing in Chapel Hill but “the same 40 people to play to”, Stamey, Holder, Rigby, Holsapple & Easter all moved to New York City to do various projects (later culminating into the dB’s).

 H-Bombs ad

Hicks has a good point – at times the H-Bombs were pretty strange. For starters, they looked more like four-ninths of a sandlot baseball team than a rock band. And while their aesthetic was clearly informed by the burgeoning alternative movement, rather than wear funny-looking sunglasses and run around the club like maniacs (something Raleigh’s Cigaretz, with whom the H-Bombs frequently shared bills, specialized in – throwing huge sackfuls of junk food at the audience was one favored antic) they’d express their rebellious-ironic side more cerebrally – for example, an H-Bombs stage would be liberally decorated with radios, televisions, settees and floor lamps to create a kind of we-are-playing-in-our-living-room effect. One show they put on at Duke University even featured a friend seated in front of the stage in a large stuffed chair; reading a newspaper throughout the entire set, he suggested nothing less than Ward Cleaver transplanted to the punk era, utterly unaffected by the sonic chaos taking place a mere five feet away from his lounger. The “punkest” the H-Bombs got was when Keely donned a full-sized gas mask for Easter’s apocalyptic-psychedelic ditty “Bomb Scare”; Keely would step to the mic to intro the song but all you’d hear was some muffled gurgling coming over the P.A.

 Musically, too, while Holsapple and Easter could write incredibly catchy songs (Keely contributed a handful of memorable tunes to the repertoire as well), unless you were an adventurist with a deep appreciation for, say, earlier outfits like the Move and Big Star, and additionally attuned to the contemporary CBGBs bands and their ilk, anyone with more mainstream leanings probably dismissed the H-Bombs out of hand. As with his subsequent role as Chris Stamey’s foil in the dB’s, Holsapple tended to pen the group’s poppier material, although his hooks were frequently baited with poison. One of his best songs, “Money From England,” may have seemed to have a hopeful we’re-gonna-make-it message, but it really cast a jaundiced eye upon the music biz, and whenever he tried to write a straightforward love song his characters inevitably turned out to have so many flaws and hang-ups that happy endings were never in the cards – check the gallows humor in his suicide-by-auto anthem “Death Garage.” Easter’s tunes contained plenty of hooks (and then as now, the guitarist definitely knew his way around more than his share of killer riffs – the chugging intro to “’65 Comet,” for example, or the “Bolero”-like licks in “Wrong Kind Of Girl”), but his penchant for sudden tempo twists and unexpected chord changes painted his songs in fairly progressive colors. It must be noted, too, at this point in their careers, neither Peter nor Mitch were exactly the world’s greatest singers, although they made up for their vocal shortcomings by simply bearing down and winning you over with their sheer bloody-mindedness. And with spiky riffs and twin leads frequently careening in several directions all at once, the Chamis-Keely rhythm section was the perfect meat-and-potatoes back line for keeping that H-Bombs reactor stoked.

 That said, the H-Bombs were probably never “punk enough” on a simplistic three-chord level to fully click with your average Sex Pistols devotee either. Holsapple and Easter could get all garage-aggressive with the best of ‘em (e.g., Easter’s “’65 Comet” or Holsapple’s psychobilly classic “Big Black Truck”), but as each man had been weaned upon classic pop of the ‘60s and hard-edged psych of the early ‘70s, their tunes tended to be far more complex than punks were willing to tolerate. So Hicks’ note about the band playing to the same 40 people over and over is accurate. I should know; I was one of those 40 faithful, showing up in Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill whenever the band played (and frequently taping their shows as well).

 All that aside, if you ask anyone who was on the Triangle scene at the time, they’ll undoubtedly cite the pioneering efforts of the H-Bombs – along with Th’ Cigaretz, Butchwax, the Fabulous Knobs and a handful of others – as helping to bring the regional independent rock scene to maturity. The H-Bombs took their cues from the earlier work of Arrogance (whose Don Dixon, of course, would become a studio cohort of Mitch Easter) while at the same time building upon the lessons they’d learned as teenagers before migrating from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill. By the time the H-Bombs came into existence both Easter and Holsapple were veterans of numerous W-S outfits; for some reason, that city was able to nurture very early on an underground rock scene to a far greater degree than pretty much any other city in North Carolina. And both Easter and Keely had been in the legendary Sneakers, the pre-punk mid ‘70s outfit formed in Chapel Hill by Chris Stamey. So even if the H-Bombs’ tenure, on paper, amounts to little more than a blip on the rock ‘n’ roll radar, in the larger picture the band forged a legacy that goes well beyond footnote status.

 Sadly, the H-Bombs never got a true studio recording into circulation. As Hicks points out, any studio tracks bearing the name “H-Bombs” that one comes across are probably just tapes that Easter and Holsapple made by themselves. Something on the order of 12-15 songs are known to exist that qualify as de facto H-Bombs “demos” from the pair.

 Holsapple 45

There is, however, the little matter of The Great Lost H-Bombs Double EP. In 1979, over a year after the breakup of the H-Bombs, Triangle fanzine Biohazard Informae – the same one referenced in the Hicks article above, by this point a full-on rock mag helmed by Keely and yours truly – published a nearly 1,000 word article that told the story about a nine-song, 10” H-Bombs EP. Originally slated for official release on Chris Stamey’s Car Records and tentatively titled Nuclear Waste, with the assigned stock number of CRRL-100, the project was ultimately scrapped in the wake of the H-Bombs’ demise and all copies were destroyed – with the exception of this lone acetate. Clearly, a valuable, key, artifact of the underdocumented N.C. punk era, right?

 Just one little hitch. The review was a hoax that Keely and I came up with, and I executed, just to have a reason to have an article about the H-Bombs in Biohazard one last time. Granted, there was plenty of factual information in the review, and the song descriptions were painstakingly detailed. But it was still a hoax. Considering some of the more ludicrous elements that appeared in the review, it’s incredible that anyone was duped. For example, I wrote how each side of the platter contained a pair of parallel grooves a la Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief, so you’d never know which song would cue up first when you put the stylus down on the record; while such a strategy was theoretically doable, it was probably just a bit out of reach for your average independent rock band the late ‘70s. Yet a lot of folks took the review at face value, and  to this day, urban legend-esque rumors periodically resurface to suggest that the H-Bombs did make a record. Fans of bands, and obsessive record collectors, sometimes just wanna believe.

 (There’s actually a minor tradition of hoaxes as it applies to the Winston-Salem/Chapel Hill rock axis. When Sneakers appeared on the Chapel Hill scene, Peter Holsapple – under the pseudonym “Bo Oswald” — wrote an article on the band for the UNC student paper The Daily Tar Heel. A few years later, former Sneakers/future dB’s drummer Will Rigby was able to get an article on the H-Bombs published in the DTH – utilizing the bulk of Holsapple’s original Sneakers text but subbing the word “H-Bombs” for “Sneakers” throughout!)

 Just the same, if the H-Bombs lasted, they might’ve made a killer album. They had the tunes and they had the talent. True students and acolytes of rock ‘n’ roll history, they brought a lot of wit, wisdom, vim and vigor to the Triangle scene precisely when it was needed.

 And they were generous to a fault as well: The final public statement issued by the H-Bombs read, “Now that we’re dead, we suggest you listen to Elvis.”

 H-bombs-bottom-374x500

 This article originally appeared a decade or so ago at NC Music History Dot Com (www.ncmusichistory.com), but the site appears to be currently inactive.

ONE BRAVE MAN: Bobby Womack

Womack

“If you ain’t got no style, you’re in trouble”: A revealing conversation with one of the true giants of soul.

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

Forget Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’d be a lot more fun to play the musical parlor game Six Degrees of Bobby Womack. During his more than 50 year career, Womack has touched just about every major classic rock and soul musician. He got his start performing with Sam Cooke, wrote The Rolling Stone’s first British 1 hit (“It’s All Over Now”), and went on to play with Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley. Branch out from there and it’s hard to imagine any musician he hasn’t influenced in some way.

As if that wasn’t enough, Womack also had a successful solo career, penning hits like “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “Across 110th Street,” which got a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.  He was essentially retired when Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn asked him to sing on the band’s 2010 album Plastic Beach. That led to Womack’s stirring 2012 electronic soul comeback The Bravest Man in the Universe, which Albarn co-produced with XL Records head Richard Russell.

We talked with Womack as he continued a tour that has been interrupted periodically by health problems, but finds Womack’s voice as strong as ever.

 

BLURT: How did you hook up with Damon Albarn?

WOMACK: Damon called me and said “I’ve been trying to contact you. I got a group called Gorillaz.” I never heard of a group called Gorillaz. I told him, “Last time I was on the scene there was group around called The Monkees!”

     When Damon called me and said, “Let’s do something in the studio,” I said, “Man, I haven’t recorded in a while. You might not like me. You’re judging me on what I did 20 years ago. A lot of things happened since then.”

     He said, “You ain’t changed. It’s still there. You were ahead of your time.” We recorded. After the [Gorillaz] tour, he said, “Let’s go into the studio.” I kept denying him. I said, “I’m not ready for that. Music has changed; it’s so different.” He said “I’ve got great ideas.” He brought the electronic sounds.  I ain’t trying to be 15 or 20, but I’ve got to realize it’s a new day. People are doing it a new way. I’m a trendsetter. I don’t follow nobody.

     I started singing “The Bravest Man in the Universe.” He said, “What’s that?” I told him that one day Isaac Hayes called me and said, “I want you to write something for the Memphis Horns. They’re cutting an album and we need some material.” Nothing ever happened with it. It went in the closet. I was playing it and Damon said, “Oh man, that’s a great song. That should be the title of the album.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Do you know how old that is?”

     He said, “It’s a great song. People will love it. The main thing is your voice. If it’s leading, it will cut through everything else.”

 

How did you feel about working on such an electronic record?

I could talk about old school. I’m still living. It’s new school. Some things will never change: feeling and being able to communicate with people. First, you gotta have a story, a true story. When you stay out too long, you burn out. You have to regroup.

 

Are you working on a new album?

We’re talking about it. Right now, I’ve been fishing around, dropping in and out of places. I just did something with Rick Ross. I cut something with Van Morrison. I’ve got an album already recorded that I was working on before I got with Damon. It’s really nice to compare vocals with different people. I worked with Stevie Wonder, Ron Isley, Rod Stewart. I tell them, “I always wanted to sing with you. Not to put it out. Just to hear how you and I project.”

     Everyone has a story and a way of approaching a song. If you ain’t got no style, you’re in trouble. Every time you’d hear a Sam Cooke song, you knew it was Sam Cooke. Same for Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones. These people have a style, that’s why their music is still around.

 

Of all the people you’ve worked with, is there one who influenced you the most?

I always say Sam Cooke. But I would have to say my father. My mother asked me that before she passed: “How come you never mention him?” I don’t know. If it wasn’t for dad, I wouldn’t be doing this. He started us young and got us on all the shows. Then Sam Cooke.  After that, Wilson Pickett. Pickett was real hot at the time. We both were Pisces. I remember him saying, “Let’s go to Atlantic. They’re going to flip out over you.” Well, they didn’t flip out over me. He said, “Let me record those songs. They’ll see Wilson Pickett, and right under that they’ll see your name.”

     I thought he just wanted to record my songs. But he was right. Everything Pickett ever cut was a hit. He had that feel. I miss him dearly. I think about him all the time.

 

Why did you stop playing music for all those years?

I had been with so many artists and had gotten off into drugs. I had to get my life straight. I’d walk into a restaurant and if there were musicians in there, I’d walk out. The first thing they’d say is “I got something special for you.” I don’t want to be around all that.

     When I looked and saw how many artists I grew up with, drugs have killed a lot of talented people. Talented people always have to go one step beyond to check it out and see what it is. Then they’re hooked. When I see how it has destroyed people, I said, “I’m getting away from the business. I want to sing for the feeling of singing, not hyped on something.” That was a big challenge for me to reach that goal. I’m proud of my life, the way I survived, the way I lived it.

DAVID LYNCH HONORS RINGO STARR

DSC03957

… not to mention a slew of celebrity fans, friends and fellow Fab Four aficionados….

  BY MARCUS BLAKE / PHOTOS BY UYEN TRAN

 2014 brings a slew of tributes to the world’s favorite and all-time most popular band, The Beatles.  It was fifty years ago this year that the Fabs came to America, did their landmark appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, captivating American audiences with their music creating Beatlemania  and changed the face of the world as we know it. 

 To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of these history-making events, The Beatles are being honored with the release of The Beatles: The U.S. Albums cd box set and at this year’s Grammy Awards with the band getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.  The Grammy’s festivities culminate in a once-in-a-lifetime tribute concert, The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles, where the two surviving ex-Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney are expected to reunite.

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But, first things first: on January 20th, filmmaker, David Lynch honored Ringo (above, along with Ringo’s wife Barbara) all on his own with a special tribute award ceremony and concert at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, CA.

 The David Lynch Foundation honored the former Beatle with a “Lifetime of Peace & Love” award and a “Starr” studded tribute concert celebrating Ringo’s catalog of Beatles and solo music “with a little help from his friends”. Performers included brother-in-law and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, soul chanteuse Bettye LaVette, ‘70s icon Peter Frampton, piano rocker Ben Folds, funnyman Jim Carrey, Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, percussion legend Sheila E., and musical director/producer Don Was.

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As Frampton (pictured above, with family) stated before the proceedings, “We’ve been friends ever since meeting during George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass sessions.  I play with Ringo whenever I get a chance.  I’ve also been in the All-Starr band for two tours of duty.”

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Betty LaVette (above) also added, “David has been gracious enough to let me be involved in this.  I keep telling people that I’m not really a transcendental meditator, I’m a transcendental meditation groupie!  So, I tend to kind of hang around them! We did the first one at Radio City Music Hall and I got to sing with Paul AND Ringo.  Because I had “It Don’t Come Easy” on my Interpretations album, Ringo took a fancy to that and it will be so much fun to sing it to him (tonight)!”

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The David Lynch Foundation was created to provide scholarships to teach Transcendental Meditation to youths in underserved schools, veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTS), women who are survivors of domestic violence, and homeless and incarcerated individuals.

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Ringo is a longtime proponent of Transcendental Meditation dating back to when the Beatles studied with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in 1968.

 Ringo summed it up nicely saying, “I’m supporting David because what he’s doing is basically the same as the Eastern self-help in the ‘60s Transcendental Meditation.  Also, he’s putting it in schools and domestic violence has gone down.  I mean, how far out is that?  I mean, I cannot not support him.” (Below: the author with some of  the artists featured in this article. Contact Marcus Blake via the BLURT website.)

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FOCUS/FRAME: OPTIONAL – John Cassavetes

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With the Oscars breathing down our neck, let’s detour for a moment to observe how the noir auteur recently got The Criterion Collection treatment. Pictured above: his wife (and on-screen muse) Gena Rowlands, in A Woman Under the Influence.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

After having starred in a lackluster television series and his lean mug and staccato delivery paraded misguidedly in a listless lot of Hollywood features, John Cassavetes pretty much invented American independent filmmaking. He had to. Nobody else was doing it. Pretty much in his image, yet; his improvisational dialogue was filled with rambling thoughts and run-on sentences. His guy’s guy male characters (an acting pool of his pals or on-set associates) were full of macho bravado with arguments than went on way too long. His female characters—mostly his wife, Gena Rowlands—mostly seemed ticked off at him. And nobody got away unscathed at each film’s end.

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Not only did the eccentric Cassavetes write (barely) and direct (hardly) his characters (and by this, I mean his oddly shaped team of buds such as Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Seymour Cassell). He shaped them into the man he was: hot-wired, bug-eyed, brusque, and chatty—always smartly chatty—with his films acting as fuzzily blurry and conversationally bleak (yet damned funny, even at their most harrowing) productions where focus and frame was strictly optional.

If Cassavetes’ Five Films within the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray box were albums, they’d be in-the-red and frazzled to the ear, something akin to Royal Trux or the first album from Sonic Youth: revolutionary in their messiness.

Though it would take nearly a decade for him to truly follow up the jazz improvisational, post-Beat gen flick Shadows (1959; trailer is above) with its Charlie Mingus music and its controversial tale of a black woman, a white man and interracial relationships, Cassavetes set his aesthetic in motion there with its trailed-off, unfinished thoughts and scenes that either ended abruptly or continued too long after its climactic moment ended. Like the man himself, Cassavetes’ movies drifted until their weirdly open-ended finale.

Unlike him. No one ever seems to really DO anything or get anywhere in these films (though they do talk quite a bit about doing something and getting somewhere); they are the ultimate slice-of-life flicks, perhaps even Cassavetes’ life. 1968’s Faces was shot in his house with Rowlands and John Marley acting as alienated marrieds, talking about sex and disillusionment with brutal honesty and dating younger mates. I don’t know if Cassavetes and Rowland had this problem, but damn if you didn’t consider such hum-drum heartache between them. Same with A Woman Under the Influence from 1974, a breathless drama where the ultimate suburban housewife (a gorgeous Rowlands, in the trailer above above, who never actually looks the part of an everyday hausfrau) struggles with sanity while tending to day-to-day drudgery. Rowlands, like the film itself, is at once extraordinary and ordinary. Though you crave to see restless males dramedies such as Husbands and the charmingly silly Minnie and Moskowitz (the Next Five Films, perhaps?), the noir-ish and removed-from-real-life The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), with the dignified Ben Gazzara (pictured below) as a strip club owner, is a brawny denouement to the box’s bravura. Only Rowlands’ feline fear and feminine energy as a theater actress stunned into reality after the death of a fan in Opening Night (1977) can top Gazzara’s graceful machismo.

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Be it a male character or a woman, Cassavetes knew to just let the camera run long and the emotions would overflow without sentiment or sap.

This feature originally appeared in issue #14 of BLURT.

 

MY FAVORITE FILM: Dave “Gruber” Allen vs. Fanny and Alexander

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TV’s most famous high school counselor and nude country-and-western troubadour views Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 drama through experiential glögg goggles.

 TEXT & PHOTOS BY RANDY HARWARD

 “My favorite film is one of three: The one I just saw; the one I’m watching; and the next one I’m going to see,” says Dave “Gruber” Allen. “That’s kind of how capricious (read: wishy-washy) I am in life and often when it comes to ‘favorite’ stuff. Especially movies. But among my favorite movies is Fanny and Alexander. Gimme Shelter is a “close second. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Producers both get a lifetime achievement award!”

 Allen, fiftysomething, played Jeff Rosso, the high school counselor from the brilliant-but-canceled late-nineties series Freaks & Geeks. He was also the titular truck driver from 2007 series The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show (WTFuck, Comedy Central?). Lately, Allen voices the father on the Fox animated series Axe Cop and tours the country with Cinematic Titanic, which is an offshoot of the cult-favorite movie-mocking TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 drama Fanny and Alexander made its U.S. debut in 1983, and that’s when Allen first saw the film. Two years out of college, he’d recently taken “Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman,” which he calls “the sort of elective you get at a Swedish-founded liberal arts college.” Sitting in the Varsity Theater, Allen was wowed by the “big-screen work of wonder” and its full-immersion experience.

 “It’s so fantastical,” Allen says. “It’s olde-tymey—older tymey, anyway; Swedish-y; huge in scope (both the subject matter and the way all of it fills the screen) and it’s heavy, man! And even funny in parts. “If you like birth, death, love, hate, joy, fear, food, theater, music, puppets, ghosts, flared farts, drinking, laughing, uncontrollable sobbing, religion, religion-bashing, costumes, beautiful cinematography, reading English subtitles, existential angst, a loving God, a wrathful God, possibly no God?, olde-tymey stuff, universal truths, universal questions… it’s all there.”  And despite the film’s length (three-plus hours; five-plus in the uncut version), Allen says that when it ended, “I kind of just wanted to stay there [in the theater]. Maybe that’s the business of a lot of films: They help you escape where you are to where the film takes you, e.g. 1980’s Des Moines to Olde Tymey Sweden!”

 Since then, Allen has screened Fanny and Alexander “maybe [two other times] and only once on the big screen.” He doesn’t need to watch it often, because the film’s emotional denouement really resonates. “Like I said, I’m still in the movie! I can and do play out scenes in my head from time to time. The movie is often on my mind.”

 How he reacts to it, though, is different with each viewing. “Since then I’ve seen much more of the human experience… births, deaths, and all the stuff of life in between, so I’d be bringing more experiential glögg (Swedish punch!) to the party. And yeah, the mood of a film always changes my perception of the real world. I’m always a lot nicer—a kinder person—when I exit a movie. I should go to more movies

A CLASSIC(AL) COLLABORATION: Bryce Dessner & Kronos Quartet

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The multitasking guitarist for The National adds yet another title to his job description: composer.

 BY STEVEN ROSEN

 Rock musicians usually have been free about acknowledging their influences – country, bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, Latin music and more. But there’s one exception: classical.

 Maybe it’s out of lingering embarrassment over those self-indulgent prog-rock bands of the early 1970s – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, particularly – and the bombastic metal bands with their Wagnerian pretensions. Too, once punk and alternative ushered in the notion that inspired amateurism was nirvana, the virtuosity demanded by classical didn’t seem a comfortable fit for rockers.

 But there’s always been a “cool” side to classical influence on rock. The New Music/electronic music experimentalists – older composers like Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Pierre Henry and also younger Americans like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass – have provided ideas and inspiration. In particular, the latter group’s use of repetition, percussion and sound collages was as much in synch with the radical edge of the 1960s and 1970s as was rock.

 “Rock musicians have always had diverse backgrounds –the Beatles were receptive to composers like Berio and Stockhausen, and the underground in New York was directly involved with experimental art and composers like La Monte Young,” says Bryce Dessner, 37, who has a Master’s degree in music from Yale University and is a guitarist with the Brooklyn-based band the National. (His brother Aaron also is in the band.)

 A new album of the Kronos Quarter playing four of Dessner’s classical compositions, Aheym, has recently been released on Anti- Records. It is Dessner’s recording debut as a composer.

“When Steve Reich first started writing music in the 1960s, there were not really musicians who could or would play it,” Dessner says. “But I’m someone who grew up with his music. His stuff like “Electric Counterpoint” (a minimalist composition for electric guitar, recorded in 1989 by Pat Metheny) has been as influential on my style of guitar playing in a rock band as any rock guitarist.

“When I heard that as a teenager, I thought, ‘How does he do that?’ That’s what led me to study classical guitar at CCM (University of Cincinnati’s College – Conservatory of Music) and do my Master’s at Yale. I think the tradition of classical music is exciting and it’s enticing to work with talented musicians who spend their lives perfecting their instruments. And it’s exciting to write music for them.”

The old labels that segregated classical from rock are fading. That’s thanks especially to the Brooklyn-based indie-rock scene that is home for Dessner, as well as to progressivism among classical-music institutions.

One of Dessner’s other projects, the mostly instrumental group Clogs, is as much a chamber group as rock band. With Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly, he has collaborated on original compositions about the solar system – Muhly’s opera Two Boys just was performed by the Metropolitan Opera. And Dessner has worked with Victoire, the all-female band organized by Missy Mazzoli, a Brooklyn-based composer.

Instead of New Music, a term historically used for avant-garde classical, Dessner refers to “creative music” that combines rock, classical, folk and more.

“At a certain point musicians coming out of the conservatory would go directly into classical music,” Dessner says. But now “there are more options in terms of the creative music that is happening.

“That has to do with the diversification on the popular side as well as the classical side,” he explains. “Part of it is that the Internet has offered more access for creative music. It allows audiences to diversify tastes – it’s no longer controlled by radio. People searching for creative music can find it.”

 And one place they can find it is on Aheym, which features Kronos performing four Dessner compositions. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is an equal partner with Kronos on one of them. San Francisco-based Kronos, under the leadership of violinist David Harrington, is celebrating its 40th year as a pioneering cutting-edge string quartet that has recorded works by everyone from Reich and Riley to Jimi Hendrix and Thelonius Monk.

 Aheym’s title piece, which has a minor-key forward thrust and a sense of urgent repetition that one could call rock-like, was commissioned by Kronos for the 2009 Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. The venue was the Prospect Park Bandshell, which is just a few blocks from Dessner’s house.

 “David wanted me to write them a piece for this particular concert and that’s how it started,” Dessner says. “One of the things he wanted was, because this was for 7,000 people in the bandshell, that the piece not be too quiet or subtle.

That’s why “Aheym” is this pretty ferocious piece of music. Up until this moment, the instrumental music I’d been writing for the Clogs had been gentle in character. By the time I got to writing this, I was ready to try to inject some energy.”

Harrington also asked Dessner about his family background. As a result, that led to “Aheym” being a tribute to Dessner’s grandmother (on his father’s side), who came from Russia through Poland to the scruffy but free New York of the 1920s and settled in Brooklyn. “Aheym” means “homeward” in Yiddish, the language of East European Jews.

“And at the time I wrote the piece my grandmother was alive but ill, 95,” he says. “So we decided I would write the piece for her. It’s an abstract evocation of this idea of passage.” After playing the piece in Brooklyn, Kronos performed it in Lodz, Poland – reversing Dessner’s grandmother’s journey as a way to honor her roots.

Dessner grew up in Cincinnati – where all five members of the National are from. “For a kid growing up in the Midwest, she was our connection to our heritage, in a way,” he says. “I have a mixed family background. My mom comes from a Christian Ohio family; my (paternal) grandfather founded a temple in Brooklyn. My dad grew up in an Orthodox household and then he branched out and rejected that upbringing. My brother and I were bar mitzvahed and went to reform temple in Cincinnati. More recently, I’d say I identify culturally with being Jewish and not so much religiously.”

Aheym’s three other pieces also have meaning for Dessner. “Little Blue Something” is a play on the album title Little Blue Nothing by Czech viola da gamba musicians Irena and  Vojtech Havel, who played in 2007 at the MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati, which Dessner created and programs.

 “My sister brought home that record when she was doing her junior year abroad, 1991 or 1992, and she was a choreographer and danced to that quite a lot,” he says. “So when we started Clogs, that music to me was in mind – almost like minimalist folk music with simple economic patterns played on instruments that you weave in subtle textural improvisation.”

The fifteen-minute-long “Tenebre” is dedicated to Laurence Neff, Kronos’ longtime lighting designer and has a short multi-tracked vocal contribution from Sufjan Stevens. 

And the Brooklyn Youth Chorus commissioned “Tour Eiffel,” based on a poem by Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. “Nico Muhly commissioned the piece for them – he was music-directing a show at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn,” Dessner says.

“He’s someone who really likes my music and thought it would be great to write for them. They have such energy; they’re like a professional choir at ages 14-17. And David really loves working with children as well, so I thought I’d put a quartet with it and he recorded it for album.”

Dessner has plenty of upcoming activities. The National still is doing shows for this year’s album Trouble Will Find Me and has contributed a song to the soundtrack of the new Hunger Games movie. On the classical side, this year’s MusicNow Festival in March is a full collaboration with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Dessner and his brother both will play solo electric guitar one night and there will be a world premiere of a new work by Muhly.

Whatever else he does with rock, he wants to keep writing contemporary classical music. “The tradition of rock is 70 years old or so,” Dessner says. “But when you’re writing art or concert music, you’re dealing with 700 years of history or more. It’s such a rich, exciting tradition but also daunting.”

 

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: Oscar Isaac on the Coen Brothers

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It’s a simple twist of fate that the Coen Brothers’ take on the Greenwich Village ‘60s folk scene is finally arriving in theaters nationwide. Check one of the trailers below, after the interview.

  BY A.D. AMOROSI

 Despite looking back masterfully to the American West of the late 1800s (True Grit), the deep South of the 1930s (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the cracking-wise Depression-era ‘20s (The Hudsucker Proxy) and the Prohibition (Miller’s Crossing) or the literary Hollywood of the ‘40s (Barton Fink), the directing/writing Coen Brothers (otherwise known as Ethan and Joel) could hardly be thought of as period film makers. There’s too much monkey business between the auteur brothers; too much of their own dedication to their quick talking, observational language and Coen-ese atmospheres where looking away from the screen occurs at the viewer’s peril. These guys aren’t genre-specific. They’re Coen-centric.

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 Inside Llewyn Davis, then, is a rarity amongst the Coens’ works. The film is richly dedicated to much of the precise spirit of Greenwich Village’s early ‘60s folk scene and all of its nuances (smoky coffeehouses, earnest emotionalism) at the cusp of a revolution: the entrance of Bob Dylan, and the explosion his crackling prose and sinewy vocal delivery would bring to a group of players and listeners rapt with their own brand of protest and tumult. Despite present-day stars like Justin Timberlake (above, with title star Oscar Isaac) and Carey Mulligan (below) acting with erstwhile tenderness and sorority (or disdain and self-centeredness, with its title character modeled ever-so-slightly after folk great Dave Van Ronk), each actor seems to exist solely between the strum of an acoustic guitar’s strings. The movie is magical, sparse, and enveloping with each minute drawing you in to that Ferlinghetti-esque McDougal Street of the mind.

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 With that inscription comes a soundtrack, of course, produced by Coen Bros’ stalwart T Bone Burnett, whose immersion into all things potent and folksy (be it the urban blues, the gospel lament, the Americana-lite, the Spanish Civil War holdouts or the wayfaring Celts, the seafaring Scots and vice versa) not only made for one helluva album. Burnett’s and the Coens’ accuracy of intent and song spilled over into a one-time-only concert—celebratory elongated concerto is maybe a better definition—of Inside Llewyn Davis’ music subtitled “Another Day, Another Time.” Played by the scene’s originators (Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth), admirers (Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Avett Brothers) and filmic executors like the film’s co-producer Marcus Mumford and its stars such as Isaac and Adam Driver, the show wasn’t sepia-toned (as the film occasionally and gloriously was) but rather red hot and blood lusty.

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 “I was incredibly humiliated,” says Isaac, the day after the Town Hall concert in Manhattan. The quiet, humble actor with a deep background as a singer/songwriter plays Davis like a proud, edgy, roustabout. In realty, Isaac is so insular, that he seems put off by his own singing and playing Davis songs the night previous. “I’m still trying to get over it. Playing on stage? Sometimes, it feels like bending over and spreading your cheeks for everyone. Terrifying, yes, but it’s also an exhilarating rush and incredible high, but a very bare sensation.”

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An exhilarating rush and a bare sensation is what Isaac, a Julliard acting school grad, felt about the Coens’ script when he auditioned for the role, one that would be his first lead after notable supporting gigs in The Bourne Legacy, Drive and W. “I loved absolutely everything about their script,” says Isaac. “Its sparseness, its humor, the darkness of it, the complexity, all the emotional punches that are part of the songs they used. That was not evident when reading the script, but as a musician, I knew the structure and it was exquisite. I loved the circular aspect of the whole thing. The script itself has the feel of a folk song, with a verse, a chorus, a verse and a chorus, where, at the end, you have the same verse again.”

 Remarkably, as Isaac relives that circular ideal, you can see Inside Llewyn Davis’ first scene in a smoky Village coffeehouse with a hung-over Davis looking at the stage, then again in the last scene, with a certain simple twist of fate.

 “They’re really something,” he says, acknowledging the wonder of the Coens’ art and their focus on a moment in history. “That’s their aesthetic; that they work from an instinctual, rather than an intellectual place.”

BEFORE THE FLOOD: Arcade Fire

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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!”

Arcade Fire 2005 1

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)

 Arcade Fire with David Byrne

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.)

Arcade Fire 2014