Friday, July 23, 2010

Arcade Fire

In June, I was invited to Montreal to interview Arcade Fire and write their promotional bio. This is not that bio. These are just random thoughts and observations.

Win Butler’s fortune cookie states the obvious: “You are the kind of person who will go places.” It’s mid-June 2010, and the Arcade Fire front man proudly displays this premonitory phrase for his bandmates, who are taking a dinner break while rehearsing in a Montreal warehouse the size of an airplane hangar. They are preparing the stage show that will find them going plenty of places for much of the next year, promoting their third album The Suburbs (out on Aug. 2).

In the past, Arcade Fire has always underplayed their own popularity by playing smaller venues; while touring 2007’s Neon Bible, they opted to play three shows at Toronto’s Massey Hall, when the local promoter insisted they could have sold out the Air Canada Centre. In 2010, there’s no point in modesty. The first leg of the tour, before the album was even released, found them playing European festivals where they headlined over Jay-Z. Two dates headlining Madison Square Gardens in New York City are booked for mid-August.

These days, this kind of global domination isn’t that shocking for Canadian artists, especially a band whose debut album, 2004’s Funeral, was named the No. 1 album of the past decade by Rolling Stone. What’s unusual about Arcade Fire is that they’ve achieved this while trying to maintain a maximum distance from celebrity culture, mainstream radio and mega-marketing.

Six weeks before The Suburbs arrives in stores, the band is still mastering the vinyl version of the album, proofing artwork and learning how to play the songs live. No one in the band is on Twitter. Not a single ad has appeared anywhere. Not a single journalist—nor the band’s record label—has heard the finished product. Thousands of local fans heard the new songs before anyone else, at live shows in Montreal, Sherbrooke and Toronto in the past month—including a free show on June 9 in a suburban mall parking lot in Montreal, announced on mere hours’ notice, that drew almost 10,000 people.

The outside world is clamoring for details—even ones that the band aren’t trying to keep secret. During rehearsal, the band’s management gets an email from a Rolling Stone fact-checker, asking questions about recent gigs and new songs. Among other details, the fact-checker wants to confirm that the new song “Rococo” is, in fact, “slow-burning.”

The Arcade Fire camp—most of the crew and staff consist of old friends, some dating back to high school—all appear relaxed, a welcome contrast to the anxiety that accompanied the release of Neon Bible. This time, the only real pressure the band feels is internal; no matter how many external accolades they receive—from journalists, audiences, or musical heroes—Arcade Fire have never been convinced that they’ve managed to meet their own standards. The best is always yet to come. There is always work to be done. And the only people any one of them really wants to impress are the seven other musicians on stage every night.

Guitarist and bassist Tim Kingsbury had driven me to rehearsal from his new house in Point St. Charles, a slowly gentrifying neighbourhood on the south side of Montreal’s Lachine Canal. In his dishevelled car, five CDs are stuffed into the passenger door pocket: AC/DC, Jackson 5, the Pretenders, fellow Montreal band Sunset Rubdown, and Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. The latter, he said, is homework before the tour.

Every Arcade Fire member has bought property in Montreal in recent years. Certainly nothing ostentatious, despite the fact that the fiercely independent band is, to some degree, rolling in dough; they’re financially secure enough to announce recently that they would match up to $1 million of their fans’ contributions to Haitian relief, which has been a pet cause since well before this year’s earthquake (founding member and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne is the daughter of Haitian immigrants). “Take our money, please,” Win would urge an audience in Quebec City a month later.

At the warehouse, the stage is set up in the middle of the cavernous room, surrounded by black curtains. There is everything they need for a festival gig: a full lighting truss, a video screen and stadium-size sound system. Despite the production, rehearsal is as casual as it would be in the living room of bandleaders (and married couple) Win and Régine, where some of The Suburbs was recorded. The band is unselfconscious about mucking around, pulling songs apart and trying different arrangements, even if it leaves the crew—who are supposed to be rehearsing cues—a bit befuddled.

Many of the new songs have never been performed together by the eight people in the room now. The song “Empty Room” fades out on the album; here, they decide to segue into “Modern Man” by having Régine hold a high note in F-sharp minor while they shift into the key of A. They try a choral approach for two songs: one from Neon Bible, one a sombre cover of recently deceased garage rocker Jay Reatard (“Oh It’s Such a Shame”), who was scheduled to open for Arcade Fire this year. At one point everyone drops their instruments and stands in a circle to arrange harmonies. For a band that built their name on bombast, it’s a remarkably delicate moment.

It’s not incongruous with the arguably more mature Arcade Fire that can be heard on The Suburbs. They’ve dialled down the intensity that fuelled their earlier work; Win jokes that they wanted to write some “music to do dishes to.” But even hearing them rehearse an older number such as “Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)”—a song that was once performed live with motorcycle helmets used as particularly violent percussion—it now sounds older, wiser, not as strident. There is a quieter strength at work, yet no less forceful.

Everything now has space to breathe; for all the glorious urgency of earlier material, it could also be claustrophobic. Part of what was so frustrating about seeing Arcade Fire back in 2004—both before and after the release of Funeral—was that they sounded so much bigger than they actually were. Instruments would break. The sound mix would be muddled. The band wasn’t reaching the intensity that an often visibly agitated Win wanted. Audiences didn’t always understand. They could look and sound constricted, like watching professional soccer players trying to play on a basketball court.

Now the music has found its home: less restless, less like it has something to prove, but no less eager or hungry to live up to their own high expectations. Most importantly, the new material is considerably more welcoming than the weight-of-the-world fog that marred some of Neon Bible.

And why wouldn’t it be? Despite their deadly serious reputation, the members of Arcade Fire are, understandably, quite happy. They’ve carved out considerable success on their own terms. They feel like a family. They’ve been able to shine a light on their own projects and those of their peers (drummer Jeremy Gara was a key part of recent masterpieces by Owen Pallett and Snailhouse).

Furthermore, they’ve been able to put their money where their mouth is, by helping kick-start a new Haitian foundation called Kenpe, and by funnelling one dollar from every concert ticket they sold over the past three years (and the current tour) to Partners in Health, which focuses on community partnership solutions to poverty and health-care issues in the developing world. During the 2008 U.S. election, they headlined two pro-Obama rallies in North Carolina; the Democrats took the state for the first time in over 30 years, by a thin margin. On Obama’s inauguration day, Arcade Fire played the volunteer and staff party; they met the President for a photo op, and Win gave him a copy of George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Sitting in Tim’s home-studio office the next morning, a photo of the band with Barack and Michelle Obama is one of the only clues that a member of Arcade Fire lives here. Tim sets me up with an unmastered version of The Suburbs and leaves me alone for the rest of the morning.

I actually need most of the morning to listen to The Suburbs all the way through three times—the album is 63 minutes long. This concerns multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, who confessed at rehearsal that the length is the one thing he doesn’t like about an album he’s otherwise very proud of—and the latter statement doesn’t come easily from this workaholic and perfectionist, who devotes most of his non-Arcade Fire time to his project with violinist Sarah Neufeld, Bell Orchestre.

Parry says there were many discussions about the track list and the format. Should some songs come out on an EP? As stand-alone singles not found on the album? That seemed to work for Belle and Sebastian, the Smiths and, uh, the Beatles. Ultimately they decided to throw it all on there, and, despite Parry’s reservations, the album doesn’t suffer for it. The Suburbs is dynamic and deliciously satisfying. Besides, the kids these days are going to listen to MP3s out of order anyway, right? Or at least one side of a double vinyl set at a time?

As always with Arcade Fire, “the kids” figure prominently on The Suburbs, not just because Win and Régine are writing about wasted time in the suburbs of their youth. This time out, however, there is a different tone. In the past they would rally the children, as on “Wake Up,” “Power Out” or “No Cars Go,” and now there’s a bit of a sneer: chastising “the kids with their arms folded tight” (“Month of May”) and, on “Rococo,” practically mocking: “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids / They will eat right out of your hand / Using great big words that they don’t understand.”

Those aren’t the only times Win—who just turned 30—sounds a bit like a crotchety grandpa: “We Used to Wait” is a fond remembrance of antiquated days when lovelorn teenagers wrote letters while separated for summer vacations. There is no romance in texting, it’s true. Thankfully, there is no verse about how far the narrator had to walk to school, and in what adverse weather conditions.

The Suburbs is definitely a concept album: we know this because the word “suburbs” appears in almost every song. It’s a rich theme, encompassing ennui of youth, wasted time, wasted potential, technological transformation, urban planning, and dreams of escape. But after “The Suburbs,” “Suburban War,” “Sprawl 1,” “Sprawl 2” and “Wasted Hours”—some of which share not just themes, but specific lines—it’s easy to feel trapped on a cul-de-sac.

Amidst the suburban angst, there are touching laments for disappearing landscapes—which sound less grandfatherly than they do like the legitimately apocalyptic anxieties of a potential parent: “This city’s changed so much since I was a little child / Pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild.” The title track asks, “So can you understand / Why I want a daughter while I'm still young? / I want to hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before all this damage is done.”

There is no resignation, however. There is a pointed call for responsibility, ala Inauguration-Day Obama: “I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light / But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?” Apathy isn’t just a crutch, it’s a dishonest denial: “Some people say we’ve already lost/ but they’re afraid to pay the cost.”

The Suburbs is dense with musical majesty. It doesn’t sound like either Funeral or Neon Bible, even though it’s quite obviously the same band. The rousing anthems are largely absent (Régine’s “Empty Room” and the fuzzy punk of “Month of May” being notable exceptions); now Arcade Fire is much more selective in applying its intensity. A sense of economy—perhaps the influence of labelmates Spoon or tourmates LCD Soundsystem—is evident throughout. The Springsteen influence this time out is more “Jungleland” (sparse, epic balladry) than “Born to Run” (all-or-nothing barnburners). New wave textures colour mid-tempo pop songs with stuttered rhythms. And as a left turn right before the album closes, Régine’s “Sprawl 2” sounds like Swedish reggae—in a good way.

You can take all of this with several grains of salt, if you like: the band members are friends of mine--even if I've barely seen them in recent years--and I’ve been a huge fan, though not an uncritical one, since I first heard a cassette demo in December 2002. But The Suburbs is thoroughly satisfying, in ways that I almost don’t even expect anymore from my favourite artists.

In 2004, just before Funeral came out, Régine told me: “I’m always at zero trying to get to square one. For me, I haven’t achieved anything yet. This is a start.” As beloved as that album is now, The Suburbs trumps it on almost every level.

Later that day, after a full day of interviews, the band and crew assemble for a barbecue at a friend’s house in a lush, green neighbourhood near Parc Laurier. It’s partially a belated birthday party for Win and one of the production staff, and partially an album-wrap party before the European tour.

The Butler brothers play backyard basketball with their friend’s seven-year-old son. Tim and the band’s video director Vincent Morisset talk birdwatching. The Canadians try to explain to the Americans what proroguing Parliament entails. Rock’n’roll decadence this is not.

When the birthday cakes come out, Régine leaps to the piano, instantly intuiting the key everyone’s agreed on for "Happy Birthday." The singer of one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last 10 years extinguishes his birthday candles by obeying chants to “suck! suck! suck!” Win then makes a brief toast, congratulating everyone on the culmination of a year’s work.

This calls for another celebratory song that everyone knows—except that no one knows what that should be. “What does everyone know?” someone mumbles. “Christmas!” comes the suggestion. “Silent Night” it is, then, even on this warm summer night, in a town with a crucifix on a mountaintop.

Of course, that doesn’t seem quite triumphant enough—so Will, a transplanted American, strikes up “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To a rousing, laughing chorus of “glory, glory, hallelujah,” the army of Arcade Fire raise their glasses and prepare for a triumphant year.

Earlier interviews with the band on this site are (from 2004) here and here and here, as well as (from 2007) here and here and here.


Fatzers said...

a great read, cheers :)

historyjen said...


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ley said...

wow.... nice words...