The day before the Arcade Fire's first live show in 14 months, in January of this year, time was precious and an interview time was a luxury. Following up on our conversation the night before, their manager's assistant suggested that I stalk the band while they were fitted for their custom stage earplugs the next morning, squeezing in time with Win and Regine while they waited for their appointment.
Naturally, that didn't work out, but we did break for lunch at a nearby food court, where we walked through the Neon Bible track list to discuss lyrics as well as socio-political concerns, maintaining control of their career, the charities they're working with, encountering celebrity (both their own and others), and how the internet shaped with their quick ascendance. You know, the usual--along with some discussion of comparative religion.
Portions of this appeared in this AOL article.
Win & Regine
January 18, 2007
Locale: eating tikka chicken wraps in the Faubourg Food Court on Ste-Catherine
I thought today we could walk through the record a bit and talk about specific songs. Where did the image of “Black Mirror” come from?
W: I don’t know if I want to go too in depth. It’s an image of how so much of culture is how people want to see themselves in other things. A lot of TV and music is made to reflect how people are so that people relate to it. It was an image of something that’s the opposite of this reflection of yourself, an absence of the self. Wanting to see something that’s entirely not yourself. [long pause]
Is “Keep the Car Running” an older song? It sounds familiar.
W: We did play it after Funeral, though it wasn’t ever really a song.
R: I don’t think we ever played it outside of rehearsal.
Lyrically, this is one of the more oblique songs for me.
W: Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had these recurring dreams of people coming to get me all the time. It’s a familiar emotion from my dreams, and then having that resonate in the real world is a strange feeling.
Were you a paranoid kid?
W: No, not at all, really. I just have these dreams where someone’s coming, I don’t know who it is, and I have to get away.
Do you still have that dream?
Who’s coming to get you now?
W: I never quite know. It’s always someone who doesn’t have good intentions. There’s a lot of stuff here about names and naming things, but I’m not sure what it is.
We talked about “Neon Bible” last night, and since then it struck me that whenever I think of neon I think of the service industry: a cheap motel, fast food restaurants. The phrase “neon bible” then implies someone treating religion as a commodity, something consumerist.
W: There’s definitely an aspect of religion always combining with culture and becoming a third thing. Where it gets weird is when people mistake the culture for religion, and vice versa. These deeply held beliefs that are partially cultural artifacts. The idea that every line in the Bible is supposed to apply to some real thing in your life and you have to find some way to make it all apply.
As much of it is story as it is parable.
W: For me, it’s hard to relate to so many different stories. There’s a lot to chew on in the Bible, and [it’s impossible] to think of it as one coherent whole that’s telling you one specific thing, like it’s some kind of manual on how to live. I don’t see how you can read that and get that out of it. There is some advice in there, but that’s not the overall sense I get. It’s way more varied than that.
You studied interpretive religious texts in school, didn’t you?
I’m thinking of how integral it is in Jewish culture to debate the Torah all the time, that’s what Talmudic scholars do every day. Nothing’s set in stone, it’s all up for debate. Whereas for so much of fundamentalist Christianity, the Bible is untouchable.
W: Even in the different Jewish denominations, the spirit of the Talmudic texts was about interpretations, and then it becomes: ‘These are the interpretations.’ Know what I mean? Then the weird interpretations all get set in stone and that’s what it is.
That’s like people who transcribe John Coltrane solos. Let’s talk about “Intervention.” This is one of the many songs here talking about fear.
W: I thought a lot about how in the Bible it talks about the fear of God as an idea, and what that means exactly. “Black Wave” is similar to this. There are certain kinds of fear that make you want to change, and kinds of fear that make you want to stay the same and protect yourself.
For me, the fear of God is the type of fear where you’re in the middle of the ocean and there’s a giant black wave underneath you, it’s something you can’t see and it’s natural to have a certain amount of fear that’s about your relationship to a world that you don’t understand and trying to find your place in it.
Then there’s the kind of fear that makes you into a fortress, saying, “I am right.” Your fear then is some sort of protective thing. It can be used as a justification, or a way to not change. In the same way, many people read the Bible and take from it exactly what they want to believe. I think everyone’s like that. They want to take from the world where they already are. ‘Oh, the world supports the way I already am. That’s convenient.’
That brings us back to “Black Mirror.” When I think of so much media in the States, you have Fox News catering to one side, and Air America caters—or catered, I suppose—to the other. Have you ever looked at the satellite radio channels? One provider explicitly bills two of their channels as “all-talk right wing radio” and “all-talk left wing radio.”
W: I really think that’s the way stuff is headed. People want to be able to choose things that reflect exactly the way they are. To me, that’s where the culture starts to get weird.
R: You don’t need to think anymore.
W: It’s like a fake diversity, where people don’t have to come into contact with anything that’s fundamentally different from the way they think. It’s almost like you’re shocked when people feel differently about something. You’re outraged that someone can have fundamental beliefs that are different than yours. It’s sad. People talk so much about, ‘Oh, we all have so much in common. Why can’t we all get along?’ Well, if we had so much in common, then we WOULD get along. Not everything is the same. People do believe different things. Islam and Christianity are different. That’s why they’re in conflict so much. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
On the right wing, it’s all about “it’s different, so it’s evil.” And the left wing is all about “it’s all the same thing.” I think they’re both bullshit. No, shit’s fucking different, that’s why people are killing each other over this shit, because it’s actually different. It’s a superficial idea of understanding that doesn’t have anything to do with real life. If your parents get killed in a bombing, it takes a lot more than “Come on, we all share the same ideas” for people to actually forgive each other, for there actually to be understanding. The idea of forgiving someone who’s done something evil to you is a really terrifying idea. That’s why both sides ring hollow to me.
We’ll talk about forgiveness a bit more in a second. Were “Black Wave” and “Bad Vibrations” always meant to be one song, or two separate ones?
R: They were always together.
W: The first part is an escapist pop song, and the second part is “Woah, it’s coming for you!”
R: The first half is: “I can run away and it will be fine. You can make it if you try!”
W: There’s this Bruce Springsteen thing on Funeral that’s kind of like, [sings] “We’re gonna run away and we’re gonna make it, baby!” This time, it’s like, “You can run, but you can’t hide. It’s still gonna be there.” [laughs]
Keep the car running, because they’re coming for you. What about the line “eating in the ghetto on a hundred dollar plate”—where did that come from?
W: The Brazil thing we were talking about last night.
R: They both relate to Brazil.
W: Not directly, but the feeling.
“Ocean of Noise”? [long pause]
W: I’m really proud of that one. It was hard for us to play that soft and slow and to get the feel of it. I’m really happy with how it turned out. Lyrically, it’s a feeling I wanted to get off my chest.
[long pause] “The Well and the Lighthouse” is based on a fable by Fontaine, called “The Fox and the Wolf.” The basic plot is a fox who is really hungry and sees a piece of cheese at the bottom of a well, so he lowers himself down to get it. But it’s just a reflection of the moon. He thinks he’s going to die down there, but he hears a wolf coming. So he calls out, ‘Hey, Mr. Wolf, there’s this delicious cheese down here, do you want to come and get it?’ As the wolf is lowering himself down, he lets the fox get up. Basically, you always fall for what you desire. Fontaine always tells a story and then has a moral at the end, which is: don’t laugh at the wolf, because everyone is willing to believe what they desire or what they fear. Those two things make people blind. [Vocally in the duet,] Regine is the fox and I’m the wolf.
What is the image of the lighthouse, and how does that tie in?
R: If you draw a well, and you draw a lighthouse, they’re the complete opposite in every possible aspect. Darkness, light, everything.
The next song here [“Antichrist Television Blues”] is the epic.
W: My ribs hurt after singing this song. This song is the same idea we were talking about before. The creepiest lyric here encapsulates the whole thing: “wanna hold a mirror up to the world so they can see themselves inside my little girl.” It’s this idea of trying to make cultural art that reflects exactly the way people are, but it expresses the pornography of that idea at the same time. There are always these 45-year old men behind the whole thing, writing the lyrics and everything. It’s a sexual fantasy which is a normal part of the culture. That’s fine, I’m not a prude about it. It’s just depressing to hear girls talking as if they’re making their own choices when it’s so obvious that they’re not, when they’re slaves in a certain sense. The idea that they’re selling is not helping any girls out, that’s for sure.
You’ve talked about culture only reflecting what people are, which is fine to some degree, but personally I’ve always wanted culture to also be something that we aspire to, something that is more than what we are. The second you stand up and try and do something different or grandiose, the worst slur someone can throw at you is that you’re pretentious, and that’s somehow a negative thing. As opposed to supposedly acting like people in the street, who in fact are merely imitating those that purport to be reflecting people in the street. It’s a strange circle.
W: It’s cliché, but we really do live in a time that is very different from when we were kids, in terms of the amount of information that people distill. There’s even a generational gap between [younger brother] Will [Butler] and kids who are five years younger than him. This google generation or whatever, seeing the direct impact on the way people process information, it’s amazing.
Better? Worse? Both?
W: I don’t know. I think about my grandpa, who died when he was 96. Which means he was born in 1908, and was in New York when they were building the Empire State Building. He then drove out to California with plagues going across the desert and there was no highway. I’m acutely aware of living through a somewhat similar thing when I’ll tell someone, “Yeah, we were around before the internet.” And they’re like, “What are you talking about?!”
We were talking last night about how people might respond to “Windowsill.” Have you given it any more thought?
W: I feel like this is a weird generation, where people think, “Oh, no, not another thing about war. Oh, c’mon.” I’m sure there will be a bit of: “Oh, c’mon already, haven’t we already talked about this?”
But we haven’t really. All things considered, there really hasn’t been that much music that addresses the past five years.
W: I feel the same way a bit when the Neil Young thing comes out, and it’s like, c’mon.
I felt like saying, “Thanks for finally showing up, Grandpa!”
W: All you can do is say what you feel inspired to say.
Is a song like this hard to write, considering how loaded it could be?
W: It was pretty to easy to write. It kind of wrote itself. It says exactly what I wanted it to say, so it doesn’t feel like a put-on. Take it or leave it. I feel like it’s talking about something in a way that isn’t just criticism. It’s not the same as Green Day’s “American Idiot” thing. Maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel that way.
Who was responsible for the commercial? [posted on YouTube in January]
W: All of us, basically. It’s Will’s voice, my body and Richard [Reed Parry]’s face. Richard did the editing. He had never used iMovie before; he learned that night.
R: I held the curtain. It was really spontaneous.
W: We used the built-in camera on the laptop, and a pair of headphones for the audio.
R: We had Jeremy [Gara] make a little soundtrack of samples from the album.
W: We knew we were going to put that up with the tracklisting. Then we realised it reminded us of those TV commercials for greatest hits records.
R: Then we realised, “Hey, doesn’t this laptop have a camera on it?”
When did you realise that Arcade Fire was becoming shorthand for a genre or a type of band?
W: I haven’t noticed that.
W: What kind of band is that? Kind of theatrical?
Not really. Usually lots of group singing, usually a large band.
Of varying quality. Sometimes it’s just a cheap descriptor, other times I can see a similarity but the band has their own interesting things going on. Other times it sounds like a bunch of macho guys who heard Funeral and decided to reinterpret it their own way.
W: Thankfully I’ve been shielded from anything that’s been influenced by us.
When you went on the road, you didn’t have a manager, and that first six months was very whirlwind. Were you holding out for something?
W: We didn’t really want a manager, because we felt they usually did more harm than good. But Scott [Rodger] and ourselves were kind of looking for each other, it turns out. We were curious who managed Bjork, because she seems to have done what she wants, whether it be stupid or not, and has managed to stay around and never really do the radio thing and still be able to do it. And he had heard our record and was coming to our show anyway. He came to France for a show, and ended up coming on the bus and sleeping on the bus. We just really hit it off.
R: Right away. Even without either of us working together, he was already starting to help us. It happened really naturally.
W: He’s really motivated by artistic stuff. It couldn’t work any other way.
I know you’ve always had very high standards about what you do, and not wanting to do things the same way other rock bands do them. In doing that, and in being quite stubborn about a lot of that, you’ve also attracted a lot of people to you that don’t want to play the regular game. Do you get accused of being difficult for putting your foot down? Because you were very self-contained for so long, too.
W: Probably we do, but I don’t hear about it. The thing that’s frustrating for us that probably comes across weird is in Montreal how we’ve always played smaller shows that people can’t actually get into. It’s not a hype thing. We just haven’t wanted to play bigger places as long as we can play a week’s worth of shows or whatever. Part of me feels bad because I really want people to be able to see us, and this summer we’ll probably do some big outdoor shows. But the idea of going into these shitty big clubs, it wouldn’t be worth doing. It’s a trade-off.
It’s a lot more work to find these smaller venues, however. My impression of the dates you’re doing in February is that they’re not traditional venues, many of them, or certainly not used to rock shows.
W: Everything is ten times the work for, like, half the return.
R: Everything! It would be so easy to say, “OK, jewel case, here’s the template, go for it.” But no, we have to use this colour and this and that.
W: I really wish we could let go of it more sometimes. But whatever. Vincent and Tracy are so great, and are even more detail-obsessive than we are. It’s a crazy combo. But it’s good, because you have to live with this shit for the rest of your life, so you might as well do it the best you fucking can. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s just landfill.
You had a lot of high profile endorsements from people I know you respected. Did they pass on any advice you took to heart?
W: It’s cool to see where people are later in their careers, and how they’ve done it. Not necessarily as a model. Very often you meet rock dudes who make rock music and they’re mentally retarded. So meeting people who have real lives and who are interesting…
R: And they’re connected to the world.
W: They’re not in la-la land. It’s good to see.
I know you were offered opening slots for everyone under the sun. Is U2 the only one you took?
W: Those were the only bigger shows we did.
R: Those were just in Montreal and Ottawa.
Why did you say yes to them, and not anyone else?
W: We thought it would be fun to play a couple of big hometown shows at the end.
R: We hadn’t played in Montreal that much, and we were about to stop. They were coming here, so it wasn’t like we had to leave to go somewhere else.
So you told them they had to come to you!
W: It was a fun opportunity. As weird as it is to play those big places, more people saw us that night than have ever seen play in Montreal, period. It was cool that people weren’t expecting to see us. It was a warm feeling, not a typical shitty opening slot where no one’s paying attention. Their stage set-up is pretty interesting: it’s very low, with no barriers.
R: Very close to the people.
W: Really well-designed. Not that I would want to do those kind of venues all the time, but it’s fun to do once in a while.
How would you describe your connection to Montreal audiences, seeing as how you haven’t played here much in the last three years? I’ve heard ridiculous scalper stories about the February shows. What do you want to do when you play your hometown?
W: It’s great to play at home. We had a period where one time would be great, one time would be weird. But the shows at the Corona were some of our best shows we’ve ever played, a really warm feeling. It didn’t feel like this petty Montreal thing. I love this city so much. I think it has so much to offer. It’s important for us to do stuff here, and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.
How is your level of fame on the streets of Montreal?
R: It’s good. It’s perfect. I love it! Nobody recognizes us.
So much of what made this band successful was word of mouth and the live show, even before everyone started talking about it on the internet once the album came out. But since then, the internet has been both a boon and a bane to your career: on the one hand, it spread word even faster, on the other hand, it’s out of control when it comes to speculation and leaked tracks, etc.
W: It’s kind of a bummer to not be able to play more live without it being a big thing. There was a point when I was writing in my online journal quite a bit, until I realised that I was basically just writing for Pitchfork and NME. I might as well be doing that directly. There was a good six months that was frustrating, because it was coming across like I was trying to build up some hype for the album. I’d say, ‘We did this.’ And within minutes, those sites would be like, ‘They did this!’ Not that I’m perusing the internet all the time—I try not to think about it at all—but it bounces back at you.
I think our approach is definitely centered around the live show. I’m just excited to get these songs sounding good enough to play in front of people. I think that’s our strongest point. The rest takes care of itself. You can get away with being a shitty live band and still have people buy your records, but it’s much more inspiring to me to make the live thing really good and not to think about the radio too much.
“Intervention” was put up on iTunes with all proceeds going to Partners in Health. Why did you choose them?
W: The stuff we’re doing with them is really exciting. We’re going to do this thing where a dollar or a euro off of every concert ticket we sell this year will go directly to Partners in Health—the promoter can’t touch it, we can’t touch it, no one. I read this book by Paul Farmer, the guy who started this charity in Haiti, and felt really challenged by it. Here’s someone who’s devoted his life to this approach of giving people medicine and housing and food and how those are all inter-related. It’s all related to health. Having food and basic shelter is as important as anti-viral medication. Through Regine’s family, I feel really drawn to Haiti. From what I’ve seen, it seems the work he’s doing is really amazing. For me, the potential for raising money for them is the most exciting thing about this whole process. Because I know that we’ll see the work he does.
R: That’s the only thing that excites me about a lot of people knowing what we do, which is the possibility to do things like this.
Did you know Partners in Health before? Was your family involved in anything down there?
W: Your dad saw Paul Farmer speak.
R: Yeah, but that’s it.
Are you going to go there at any point?
R: We have to. I want to. I’ve never been.
You’ve also done stuff for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti [all proceeds from the six shows in April 2005 in Montreal and Toronto] , Katrina relief [the Fashion Cares iTunes EP with David Bowie] and the Project Red campaign [licensing “Rebellion” for use in the commercial]. Are there others?
W: We’re going to do some Montreal stuff. The secret show on Saturday is for Mission Mile End.
R: I want to do stuff with Dans La Rue, but we haven’t organized it yet.