To get to the church of the Arcade Fire, one must drive out of one of North America’s oldest cities, one where an illuminated crucifix stands watch over its citizens. I traversed the snowy countryside on a crisp January day, in the middle of the first week of a much-belated winter. While listening to apocalyptic headlines on the radio, a -20 degree wind howled outside. To my left, I passed a parade of men with guns and ghostly white ski masks, training for a desert operation on the other side of the world. It’s hard to conceive of more appropriate images to serve as an introduction to Neon Bible.
Arriving at their church, it instantly felt like a sanctuary, an ideal place to shack up and keep the world at bay. Which is exactly what the Arcade Fire did for all of 2006, as they converted the church into a studio while writing and recording Neon Bible, trying their hardest to ignore what the rest of the world was expecting from them.
I’d been parsing the text of my Neon Bible intensely before making the trek to Montreal, having received a highly-guarded watermarked copy of it mere days before leaving. I was there to conduct extensive interviews with the band, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing personally since I moved to Montreal in 2003. I left town in March 2006, but by that time the Arcade Fire were no longer people I’d see regularly in the neighbourhood. Instead, myself and our mutual friends would share stories of their success and laugh, each new story seeming more incredulous than the last.
Along with Ms. cleverLazy, I was also invited out to the church back in November, while they were mixing “(Antichrist Television Blues),” but the mood then was considerably less frantic than it was at this juncture. Now, they were rehearsing for their first live shows in 14 months: one at an Ottawa high school, the other in a church basement in Montreal. After a year of seclusion, it was readily apparent that the coming circus was here and now: managers, tour managers, auxiliary musicians, tech crew and others were arriving from all points of the world.
Characteristically, the Arcade Fire were in a bit of a disarray during my visit, juggling rehearsals with last-minute album artwork adjustments and getting fitted for custom on-stage earplugs. I was supposed to interview them before rehearsal, but that kept getting pushed back until Win Butler admitted that the best time to do this would be during the one hour of his day that his mind was clear: during the one-hour commute from the church back to Montreal.
And so Jeremy Gara drove my car back to the city, while I piled in with Win, Regine, and their old friend Chantal Vaillancourt—who they had hired to be their personal assistant this month—behind the wheel. Regine and I sat in the backseat, while Win hunched over from the front to speak into the microphone. To my knowledge, this was the first interview they’d done for the album, and it was full of long pauses as Win, always careful with his words, thought hard about what he wanted to say on the record.
We only covered half the material I had wanted to, so we met again the next day over lunch. This is part one of the interview, dealing mainly with musical matters; part two, where we get into lyrics, will run tomorrow; part three will feature Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry and Jeremy Gara.
The Arcade Fire have a rare day off today after their hometown shows in Montreal on the weekend. They play Toronto’s Massey Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Portions of this interview were used in this piece for AOL.
[For a more detailed description of the church, see Sean "Said the Gramophone" Michaels' excellent piece in Paste here.]
Win & Regine
January 17, 2007
Locale: driving back to Montreal from the church
Right after Funeral came out, you disappeared to Maine for a while to chop some wood and write some songs. Do any of these songs date back that far, or were most of them written in one period of time?
W: Jeremy started playing with us two days before the last CD release. After we got through that, we went to my parents’ place in Maine and worked on some songs. One of them was “Intervention.” It was never quite finished; it was more of a sketch of a song. We played it live a couple of times. We worked on what became “Cold Wind,” too, but it was pretty different. That’s the song we did for Six Feet Under.
Before Funeral and in the early stages of the band that you wrote like crazy and had a stockpile of songs. Does anything stretch back to that period?
W: It’s pretty much all new. Of the stuff that actually on the record. We worked on a few older things. “No Cars Go” is probably the oldest thing; it’s on the EP. Pretty much everything else was new, written after we started Funeral.
Did you want to do “No Cars Go” because the first version was so tumultuous and tenuous? I know you were talking about dropping it from the EP at one point, because you were unhappy with the recording.
W: That EP was always a demo. I’m happy with the way it turned out. It’s pretty cool for what we had to work with. The song never sounded that way live at all. We played that song for so many years afterwards in our live show that it became a different thing. Regine had always envisioned an orchestral arrangement that the accordion is hinting at. That was the first thing we recorded for the new record, right after we got off tour, so it was still fresh.
I know that the Funeral material was partially written deliberate to come back with a big attack after the near-breakup of the band, to come back with a bombastic new sound for the new version of the band. Just before it came out, I suspected that newer material might be more acoustic or quieter as a reaction to it, yet what I hear here is even bigger and more bombastic and more over the top than Funeral.
R: Some songs like “Windowsill,” in the beginning was supposed to be a very quiet, bare song, just Win, me, and a guitar. (laughs) I was listening to it in mastering and thought, ‘What happened?’ The ending is so big.
Comparatively, it’s still one of the quietest songs on the record.
R: I think it’s just what we do on default.
W: Not really. You do go into it with a prejudice of how you want it to sound, but “Intervention” was never the way we used to play it. I wanted there to be a pipe organ on that song. The band itself is recorded in a very live, stripped down, just-a-few-mics kind of way. It’s mostly that organ sound that’s really over the top.
R: It hits you in the face, like a big slap!
I don’t feel that way about that song, but “My Body Is a Cage” is so heavy and ends the album on a suspended note. The listener isn’t sure what they’re supposed to do next, they’re left hanging. How did you go about sequencing the album?
W: You start with a couple of anchors: “Black Mirror” was always going to be the first song, and “My Body is a Cage” was always going to be the last song. I don’t know where those decisions come from. We put a lot of thought into sequencing. It can dramatically change the way the songs come across.
Was it important to get a real pipe organ and not just a patch?
R: Real pipe organ, it’s so rare you get to hear it outside of a classical context. It’s such a powerful instrument.
W: It’s really aggressive.
R: It can be.
W: Especially when the stops are all opened up. The first time I heard Regine play it like that, it struck me how biting the sound was, and I’d never heard it used in a different context before.
Had you seen recitals before, or was it played in churches that you went to growing up?
R: My friend was babysitting, or taking care of a church that was about to be sold.
W: The one in Little Italy that’s condos now [on St. Laurent, near St. Zotique].
R: He invited a bunch of people to an art exhibition while he had the place. I went there and played the organ at two in the morning. I pulled out all the stops and started playing, and it was so big and physical. When I stopped, there was 20 or 30 seconds of reverb with all the crazy harmonics. It was so loud, that in the middle I thought I’d started the bells by mistake. ‘Oh no, it’s two in the morning!’ It’s a very special instrument.
It’s literally an awesome instrument: it induces awe, which is apt considering it’s original purpose. I heard the pipe organ in Jean Baptiste myself recently at a concert, and being a lapsed Catholic, it almost made me want to be Catholic again just so I could experience it every week.
W: When they started making those, it was basically the most complicated machine in the world. And it was just to make sound.
R: It’s a mechanical synthesizer, an ancestor of the synth.
That plays into my next question, which is the use of churches. Not just the one you bought and renovated, but your conscious decision to play in them when you can, like your CD launch or some of the venues you’re playing in February. As these structures are being turned into condos—especially in Montreal and Quebec, which went from being the most spiritual society in North America to the most secular in a short period of time—and otherwise being repurposed, it makes you think about what a social and spiritual hub they once were, and how glorious they are architecturally. Whereas now, our social and spiritual hubs are ugly, unwelcoming places. What appeals to you about working and playing in them? Because you’ve obviously made a point of doing so.
R: It is funny that they get turned into condos where no one speaks to their neighbour. Nobody even knows who lives next door!
W: It was mostly about the pipe organ. For the studio, a lot of small churches are designed with acoustics in mind, so that you can speak without a microphone and people can hear you. And having a space where you can spread out and work in is good. Also, we were using a bunch of different organs before we found the right one. The beds for “Intervention” and “My Body is a Cage” were recorded in a church around here that had a small pipe organ, but it wasn’t quite the right sound. Then Richard went to a show at the Jean Baptiste church, and told us that we had to hear that one. And they were pretty open to having non-Christian music play there. I guess because they need the money, because no one goes to church! ‘Whatever, you’re in a Satanic band? Okay, sure, give us $300.’
Witnessing music at a church, it’s so evocative regardless of what your beliefs might be. The original purpose of a church always bleeds into the performance, I find. It still feels like a place of worship.
W: I tend to relate to the kinds of churches where music is really important. Which is pretty much just the black churches in the States. The music in the Catholic church is so lame, and I saw a bit of the evangelical church music in the States—I didn’t grow up in it—but woof, it’s rough. There aren’t too many Bachs out there in the contemporary Christian music world.
One thing that really strikes me about this album is the way it sounds. It’s obviously a bigger-sounding record, but it takes the aethetic of Funeral and makes it sound bigger, without sacrificing the intimacy or turning into a typical big production job. Did you know what kind of sound you were going for?
W: It was important that we weren’t just polishing this rough thing into something smooth. A lot of the time was working for a couple of weeks, then taking a couple of weeks off. We used to play live while we were writing songs, and develop arrangements over time. A song like “The Well and the Lighthouse” was recorded on the day we figured out how to play it. We played it a bunch of times, and got it so that it was exciting to us, and played it the best we could, and that was it. We could have played it tighter, and it could be more rock radio sounding, but that was when we were excited about it so we followed that and got it on tape. We tried to keep the core of a weird little song.
R: You keep the energy, also. You could make everything exactly how theoretically it has to go, but that takes the soul out of it.
That energy does come through in the performance aspect of it, but sonically, it doesn’t come across as squeaky clean.
R: For me, there’s always this balance between two absolutes: the intellectual absolute, where you have to think about this arrangement where it will be this and nothing else, and nothing else will be accepted in my head; and the other absolute, which is completely spontaneous—‘now, I’ve got it, don’t even think about it.’ I try to take the best out of each method.
How long was the process from the time you recorded the first track to the final mix?
W: About a year, from when we started doing demos. There was a while at the beginning where we were setting things up technically at the church. I’d say we started more in February or March, and then did two weeks off, two weeks off, and Tim got married in the summer. We kept whittling away.
I know you had a lot of major label sharks circling around you, and one reason that many people take their bait is that they want a bigger recording budget. But listening to this, it doesn’t sound like you were limited at all: the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, a gospel choir [People’s Church of Montreal], etc. How much more did this cost than Funeral?
W: I don’t really know. A lot of it was investing in the studio. If you take that out… (long pause) I really don’t know. Definitely more. But we paid a lot of people after the fact for Funeral, because we didn’t have any money at the time. You always make the most of what you have. It’s important for us to have genuine freedom to realise stuff we want to do. A lot of the bands that are models for us have been able to do that, do some crazy shit when they want to but not get into that radio world, where you need hits and you’re only thinking of that and spending money on nothing.
Tell me the story of the Budapest orchestra. Were any of you actually there?
R: Yeah! Owen and I wrote the arrangements. It was very intense, because it was in a very short time. I went there with Win and we recorded the songs.
W: I knew that Regine had always wanted to do orchestral stuff, so it was important to me to find a way to make it happen. Arvo Part’s son is a recording engineer, and he helped with the sessions. He’s our age, but he’s been around the classical world his whole life. He knew the studios in Budapest and set up the conductor and helped make it happen. Those were by far the hardest songs to mix. We didn’t want it to sound like Arcade Fire with the Walt Disney orchestra on top. I don’t think you can necessarily tell which songs have the orchestra and which just have our strings on it, because only a couple have the orchestra. It’s just a bit grander than what we can do on our own. For “Black Mirror” and “No Cars” in particular, those songs were conceived with orchestral stuff in mind.
Why Budapest, though?
W: I went to Budapest after high school on a trip through Europe, and I loved it there. The options were Prague or Budapest, and I really wanted to go back to the thermal baths in Budapest. We also did a song called “Surf City Eastern Bloc” that we’re going to save for something else, and we used a military choir from there, just because we wanted someone from Eastern Europe singing it.
Is there something about Eastern European music that appeals to you as well? I know Will [Butler] is a fan.
W: Yeah. I studied Russian literature in university, and I’ve always been interested in Eastern European stuff.
What I like about it in the mix is that a lot of other string sections on rock records sound more like string patches. This sounds very physical.
R: Yeah! It was important that it didn’t sound like Hollywood strings.
W: That’s what was cool about Budapest, is that they were really good players but it wasn’t like the London Symphony Orchestra, where everything is immaculate. There’s weird little stuff in there that makes it sound more real.
It has the grandiosity, it has the same oomph that the pipe organ does.
W: That was really, really hard to mix.
R: ‘Turn down the bassoon! It’s not there! Wait, it’s in the flute mics! Turn down the flutes!’
What’s the maximum number of tracks on any of these songs?
W: I don’t know. The orchestral stuff is in sections, so it’s not that crazy. It’s just a lot of sound to put your finger on.
Looking back on the last time I interviewed you, just before Funeral came out, you told me that you never wanted to mix a record again.
Regine: (cracks up) And you just said it again!
W: I don’t! It’s horrible!
R: We did it three times now.
W: We did have help this time.
One thing that struck me a few months ago was that even though Nick Launay [Nick Cave, Midnight Oil, Kate Bush] and Marcus Dravs [Brian Eno, Bjork] were there, it was Win sitting at the computer 80 per cent of the time, and the entire band was in the room, or as many as possible.
W: Maybe one day we’ll be able to send stuff away and it will come back sounding exactly the way we want it. It was really great having Nick and Marcus, having other ears and having Nick set up the basic mix and we could bring the details from there.
R: For certain things, it’s easier to do it yourself and more complicated for other people.
Why did you choose the men you did to work on this record?
W: We knew we wanted a couple of different engineers, to have different approaches. We met Scott Colburn when he did a KEXP radio session for us in New York early on. He lived in Seattle and came and saw us. He had a familiar approach to recording to the way we were used to: working cheap, and finding ways to make things sound cool without being obsessed about gear. Liking good microphones, but not being obssessive about it. Then we met Marcus through [manager] Scott [Rodger] because he had done a lot of Bjork’s stuff. He came from a different approach. I think their styles complemented each other, and it was good to have different opinions.
Why bring Nick Launay in to mix it?
W: We sent a few different people a couple of songs to do test mixes on. He really got it the most. We sent him “Ocean of Noise.”
R: That’s a weird one—to mix, anyway.
W: I really like the sound of the Nick Cave stuff he’d done recently. Plus, the stuff he’d done early in his career. He did the best job of the people we sent stuff to. He got the feel of the band and really cared what we thought about stuff. It was about helping us get the sound we wanted to. He’s a very humble guy.
For someone with his wealth of experience, it looked like he enjoyed watching over your shoulder and watching you figure it out.
W: One thing I thought was really cool about Nick was that he said, ‘I realised midway through my career that I really like the first records I did. They sounded better. Then I got carried away in the 80s. When I didn’t know what I was doing, I did a better job, so now I try to have that approach now of not knowing what I’m doing.’ I thought that was really cool. You never meet people who’ve had any kind of success who don’t have this whole, ‘I know what I’m doing’ attitude. This whole, ‘I can do that because I did it before’ thing. It’s such bullshit. No one really knows what they’re doing. It’s nice when people actually admit that.
What new instruments did you acquire in your travels? I didn’t expect to see you try and play hurdy gurdy on stage. What other surprises are there here?
R: There are steel drums, but we’ve used those before. This time, though, we have bass steel drums, which are huge barrels. There’s dulcimer, but I’m not going to bring that on tour. I have too many toys.
W: There’s a lot of weird bass stuff. Will [Butler] plays a Moog Taurus quite a bit, and the low end is really weird on a lot of the songs. Tuba, and stuff like that.
R: I wanted a hurdy gurdy for so long, since I was in a medieval band. I play piano, and there was no piano in medieval times, so I had to play recorders and tambourine and mandolin and stuff [she still sounds frustrated]. But they were so expensive and I couldn’t afford them. I saw one in France, it was from Austria at this fair, and seriously, I couldn’t sleep all night thinking about it. But I couldn’t have it because I was poor and had student loans. It was like being in love and being obsessed. So when we went back to tour 10 years later, I got one. It’s funny, because I’m not in my medieval band anymore.
When you get something like that—hurdy gurdy, steel drums—are you tempted to suddenly put it on everything?
R: No, no.
W: It’s more like you hear things and think, ‘One day that will be really good.’ I still don’t feel we’ve used the bass steel drums the way I want to hear them. When we heard them on our honeymoon, in this weird community centre in Tobago, these teenagers were playing it. We could hear the sound from across the town, and it was really mysterious. It’s not that prominent on the record, so I do want to nail that one on a certain song. Sometimes having stuff that your hands aren’t familiar with helps you come up with different chords. We have an omnichord, and “Ocean of Noise” was written on it.
The vocals are very front and centre here. Both the lead vocals—and your vocals, Win, are stronger than I’ve ever heard them live or on record before—and the backing vocals, which are treated in a much more choral fashion here than typical two or three part harmonies. A lot of times the backing vocals bleed with the orchestra, sounding one and the same. Were there certain things you wanted to achieve vocally here?
W: Before this record, I’ve always sung about an octave above my range. Kind of on purpose. “Tunnels” and “Power Out” are definitely too high for my natural singing voice, but for what the songs are about it kind of made sense. This record is definitely the lower end of my voice. “Neon Bible” has the lowest notes I can sing. “Intervention” is pretty low. Singing “Keep the Car Running” feels so good, because it’s the only song we have that’s exactly in my range. It doesn’t hurt to sing. I can sing as loud as I want. There’s more songs in that range.
What about the approach to backing vocals?
W: It’s having more time and not being super rushed. A lot of times we had to get something in the ballpark and that would be good enough.
R: This time we could experiment with the sounds.
W: Sometimes more is more! Sometimes less might be more, but sometimes more is more.
Yes, but is more ever less?
W: I’m sure some people will feel more is less, and think it’s too bombastic and annoying. Whatever, I feel that way sometimes too.
Lyrically, there’s a large difference between the two records. Funeral is very personal and rooted in neighbourhood, friends and family. Even a song like “Haiti” is still a very personal story about a larger topic. This record seems much more external, more extroverted. You’re also writing more in first person character. Did you notice a shift?
W: Having seen a lot of the world in a really short time, and spending more time looking outward, you don’t really choose what you’re going to be inspired to sing about, or what interests you or what you’re excited about. To me, this record is more thematically united than the last one, lyrically. It feels like over time you find different things interesting at different times in your life. This record is definitely much more engaging with the world, rather than talking about a personal experience of the world. It’s trying to understand something about the world or have some sort of connection with the world. Not in a general sense, not trying to connect to people in general, but more looking outward.
Jeremy joked that every song is either about “God or bombs.” Is that accurate?
R: (laughs) Or God bombs.
W: I wouldn’t say that’s accurate. (long pause)
There are a couple of recurring themes. Two different songs have: “save my soul, set me free” and “set my body free.” “Who here still believes in choice? not I” and “don’t want to choose between black and blue.” You also bring up forgiving and forgetting twice on the record.
R: A lot of lyrics also come from old songs. There are some pieces that are ideas not in the song but in meaning that have been floating around for a really long time. They came together in a few songs on this album.
W: I just never (long pause)… I just wanted to talk about… It’s not exclusively about religion, but it does talk about religious culture and the relationship between culture and belief and the whole thing. It was interesting talking about it in a different way than the way I hear a lot of people talking about it, trying to engage with what I actually think is going on. I haven’t thought about it that much, to be honest.
The lines about choice, and not wanting to choose: in a land of opportunity, in a society of plentitude, there’s often an illusion of choice. Especially in democracy. Theoretically you can choose, but if there’s nothing you want to choose from, then it’s not a real choice.
W: I remember at the end of the first big tour in the States. We were in Boston. Jeremy was the tour manager, and he had taken off. There were all these journalists from France there and we had to ship the gear off to Europe. Regine and I were in this hotel room. I remember that night, I was working on a song that turned into “Windowsill.” It was really sinking in that I didn’t live in the States anymore. Coming back, I felt like a foreigner. Having that experience was a very strange feeling. I remember reading Terry Gilliam saying that when he moved to England, that all his art became about the States. I definitely have that experience of living in a country your whole life, and then to have a different perspective on it. Not in a judgemental way, like ‘you stupid Americans’ kind of way. But feeling like I’m looking in on something.
How do you think that song will go over when you play it in the States? Are you setting yourself up for a Dixie Chicks situation?
W: (quickly and dismissively) Oh, I don’t care. Hopefully people understand. I don’t know. Not everything is literal.
That song is interesting for several reasons. One of them is the expatriate-ism, if you will, about someone not wanting to assume responsibility for mistakes made by their country, or worried about blowback. I also wonder if the “don’t want to see it at my windowsill” plays into the NIMBY syndrome. There are several different ways the song could go.
W: Yep. (long pause) It will be interesting, because it could be taken different ways.
There’s lots of apocalyptic imagery on the record, and some of it is obviously drawn from headlines, but were there any specific books or films or personal encounters that inspired anything on this record?
W: (long pause, coughs) Some things are too personal. (another long pause) I remember when we went to Brazil for the first time, we were staying in Sao Paulo and driving through these slums, miles and miles of shanty towns, and then pulling up to the Hyatt Regency where we were staying, which was a big compound with barbed wire and a guard and stuff. Not being able to go outside because they tell you that they’ll kill you to steal your wallet. It was a very strange experience. That was the beginning of the idea for “Black Wave.”
How late in the game did you change the title of “Building Downtown”? Is the original title public knowledge at all?
W: It’s not public knowledge for legal reasons. I’d say the parentheses are symbolic.
What are the parentheses?
W: The song is called “Antichrist Television Blues,” and it’s in parentheses. It’s symbolic because we had to think about it a lot.
The character might be sleazy, but what makes him the antichrist?
W: I’m not saying he’s the antichrist. I don’t know, is he? As much as anyone, I guess. I just don’t think dads should manage their daughters.
Is the “Neon Bible” at all related to this? [I pull out document] Do you know about this?
W: No, what is it?
Harris Country, outside of Houston, has a monument outside the courthouse with a bible lit by neon light. There was a big Supreme Court case last year where an atheist challenged its presence, arguing that it violated the separation between church and state.
R: Oh wow, no, we didn’t know about this. [both peruse it]
Was the title at all related to the John Kennedy Toole novel?
W: It’s a physical thing you see from time to time, a neon sign on a church.
R: Like right here [she gestures to Ontario St. E.], there’s one right around the corner.
W: I thought of the name a while ago, and then read the book and thought, “Oh, too bad I can’t use that.” But as the record went on, I knew it was the title of the record. I’d thought of it as an idea, and then I read his other book, Confederacy of Dunces, and then heard reference to this book. It was more inspiring to me that a 16-year old wrote a book that isn’t the best book in the world but deals with some interesting themes. The idea of a 16-year old writing a novel instead of watching TV and doing whatever 16-year olds do is pretty inspiring.
How old was he when he wrote Dunces?
W: He was maybe 35 or something. Those are the only two things he published—well, he didn’t, but his mom did afterwards. [pauses to give directions to the driver] We’re using some traditional chord progressions on this record. I remember working on “Antichrist Television Blues,” and it was very strange playing a blues progression.
R: You thought it was funny!
W: I thought, “Hey, I can’t do this.” Then I realised, “Oh yeah, you can. It’s called the blues! People have been doing it for a long time.” When Regine first played the chords for “Intervention,” it sounds familiar, traditional.
R: It’s like a hymn.
W: I found it really inspiring to work within some traditional chord progressions.
R: It’s like the melody and the chords, the voicings, it’s very church-y.
[arrive at their home, interview over]