Thursday, January 11, 2007

Arcade Fire 04: Howard Bilerman

The final installment from the Arcade Fire vaults, interviews conducted for this story in Exclaim in September 04.

Howard Bilerman is a longtime leading light of the Montreal scene, primarily as co-proprietor of the Hotel 2 Tango studio in Mile End (the studio's initials comprise the first part of the neighbourhood's postal code). In addition to most of the Constellation roster, he's recorded people like Angela Desveaux (also drumming on her album), the Dears, Pony Up, and Thalia Zedek. Bilerman co-produced Funeral with the band, and served as their drummer for the year it took to record it.
At the time these interviews were conducted, his future in the band was in doubt. I'd been informed beforehand that he was likely not going to continue with the band, but no final decisions had been made on anyone's part. One of the main reasons he ultimately left is that he didn't want to abandon Hotel 2 Tango, which continues to thrive, and that was the official reason given.
One can also speculate that personality differences might arrive because Howard was ten years older than the group's strong-willed bandleader. But though Howard has outspoken political beliefs on the state of the music industry, and would likely be uncomfortable with some of the minor concessions Arcade Fire has made to the industry machine, the band has remained on Merge and turned down plenty of lucrative offers to retain their independence and integrity. To my knowledge, Howard has never commented on the record regarding anything Arcade Fire-related other than for this piece (whoops, and this piece, not by me, which is a gear geek article).
Despite the precarious future ahead, I deliberately treated Howard as a full-time member of the band in the piece, as I felt he was just as important to the album's realisation as the rest of the band, and without his skill as both an engineer and a drummer, Funeral would have turned out much differently.
Jeremy Gara (Kepler, Snailhouse, Jim Bryson, Julie Doiron), a longtime friend of Tim Kingsbury and Richard Parry, was one of several drummers who played the Funeral release show in Montreal; he's played every Arcade Fire show since, also serving as the band's road manager during the first several months after Funeral's release.

Howard Bilerman

August 11, 2004

locale: Arts Café, Fairmount and Jeanne Mance, Montreal

Had you heard the Arcade Fire before they showed up at your door, lonely, in need of a studio and a drummer?

(laughs). When I was recording Molasses, Scott Chernoff, who works with Tim, passed me their EP and said, ‘Do you want to hear the next greatest band in the world?’ (laughs). I was like, come on. I listened to the EP, and it didn’t really grab me so much. I thought it was a band who did have more of an identity than others, but that hadn’t really found their sound yet. A few weeks later I got an email saying that they wanted to come to the studio to record two songs. I told them I’d like to see them play beforehand.

Do you normally do that?

No, but I had a suspicion that it would be more difficult to record than other stuff and I wanted to know what I would be faced with. I went to Win and Regine’s kitchen and the band played ‘Wake Up,’ and I was just knocked on my ass. It was such a huge leap from everything I had heard on the EP.

Who was there?
Everyone who’s in the band now, with Arlen of Wolf Parade on drums. And he played on the studio version too. We did a few days of recording, and then Win emailed me saying that they were looking for a drummer, and if I could recommend anyone. I had just recently picked up playing drums again after so many years of just recording bands.

Had you even been playing at home?

No, nothing. I played drums on one song on the last Silver Mt. Zion record. That’s what made me realise that I love playing drums and expressing myself that way. I told Win that the only person I could think of was me—that was available, anyway. I know tons of great drummers, but they’re all in 19 bands. I didn’t hear anything for a week, and we were recording the whole time. They didn’t say anything the whole time, and it was like asking someone to the prom and having them tell you, ‘Hmmm, I’ll get back to you.’ Even though the prom might be next weekend.

At the end of the recording session, they asked me if I was serious about my offer, and I said absolutely. We practiced the next day for an hour, and then I started playing live with them that September.

What was your last band before that?

[long pause] The last band I played in was the last incarnation of a band called Frog Machine, in 1996. By then it was called The Famous Meats. That lasted for a few months before it disbanded.

What other Montreal bands did you play with?
Oh no, you’re not getting that one from me! (laughs, before revealing all, off the record) Once the studio started getting going around 1997, I just had no desire to hear music outside of the time I was spending recording.

Do you record many pop bands at Hotel 2 Tango? Because it’s known mostly for the stuff on the Constellation roster.

I recorded more pop bands before I moved into the Hotel. My studio was called Mom and Pop Sounds in Old Montreal. I did the Paper Route, early Tricky Woo, Les Secretaires Volants. I think I’ve recorded about 200 bands, and about half of them would be poppy.

One thing that strikes me about this record is how big it sounds, yet how raw it is, in all the best ways. There are a lot of layers that could easily become overproduced, overly bombastic and bloated.

I had to put my foot down a bit. I can’t stand records that are more about production than songs. Reverb and delay and compression were used very sparsely. The recording of Funeral was a car crash of so many different influences. Richie loves Brian Eno-type production, and I don’t ever want to ever put production before the music. Win, for his vocal treatment, at the beginning was very uncomfortable not having his voice supported by effects. I tried to suggest more interesting ways than your standard reverb and delay. Plus, I also think that effects tend to date a record. That whole bombastic orchestral type of production from the past five or six years really bores me, and I think it’s been done to death. (off the record opinions on specific examples)

I especially love Regine’s vocals on “In the Backseat,” when she’s hitting the stratosphere. Other people might have the tendency to dress that up or turn it into a Celine Dion moment, but here it’s very raw and honest.

Richie recorded that vocal. I recorded all the beds, set up the mics and went away for a week and gave them the keys to the studio. They tracked a lot of the overdubs. Win had a heavy hand in setting up the initial mixes, and he was very good at it. It was a great way to work He would hear something in his head and set it up, and I’d say, ‘I think it’d be better if we moved this guitar off to the side, or add some EQ.’ He would have a breath of fresh air and I would get my hands in there, sometimes changing it drastically, sometimes not at all. Then we’d just ping-pong back and forth and at the end of the night we’d have a mix.

More so than a lot of other people I know, both Win and Regine have very high standards for themselves and the band and how they present themselves. They don’t want to settle for less at any point. Even after I’ve seen them play the most incredible show, they’re always self-deprecating about it. It could always be better. Did you see that drive in the studio?

I saw it instantly in Win that music is in his blood. And it’s always refreshing to meet a band—and I’m talking about all of them—who care more about making music than being successful at making music, who are working on music and living up to the responsibility that I think should be involved in putting out a record. I also definitely saw some impatience. Sometimes Win gets very obsessed over wanting things to happen right away, and I don’t think it’s a negative thing as much as it is he’s young and eager. The way he and Regine work together, they really do come from two opposite places and meet in the middle.

She was telling me that she never wanted to be the girl in a rock band playing keyboard and tambourine. How have you seen her drumming evolve?

I think Regine is an amazing drummer. What makes her an even more extraordinary drummer is that she plays open-handed. She plays like a left-handed drummer would, but she’s right handed. [demonstrates] She has so much fun, and it’s really beautiful to see someone discover their instrument and enjoy it so much.

I know that you have Merge connections going back a while. Did that play a role in how the record landed there? I was listening to the new Portastatic and noticed that you’re credited in the liner notes with ‘gear assistance.’

It’s true. I met Mac and Laura when Superchunk opened up for Mudhoney at Foufounes in 1991. Then they came back a few months later. I got to know them just because I’ve seen about 20 Superchunk shows and hung out with them. More recently, Mac was setting up his home studio and had a lot of questions that I helped him with, emailing back and forth. Did it have any effect? Yeah, I’m sure that opened a door for the Arcade Fire to be listened to ahead of the 100 CDs that get sent to Merge every week. But it certainly didn’t make them like it.

What was it like for you playing Mergefest?
It was weird! Because I’d spent 13 years in clubs waiting for Superchunk to play, hanging out with Mac and Laura. Then we went to Chapel Hill and hung out and it was my drum set on stage. It was surreal.

I’ve always enjoyed watching people’s first reactions to the band.

This is the most beautiful thing about this time for the band, and it’s a time that will come to an end when the record comes out. When we toured with the Unicorns or do one-off shows, 95 per cent of the audience has never heard an Arcade Fire song, let alone seen us. So there’s no expectation. By the end of the set, it’s beautiful to know that you’ve won over some people. Even now when we play Toronto now it’s all expectation and anticipation and there’s a bar that’s been set that we have to live up to. It’s already changing. It’s still going to be exciting, though.

There always seem to be so much invested in any given show, and the passion that comes off the stage always feel genuine and real.

The Arcade Fire has never made the decision to put on a ‘show,’ or to perform with a given amount of energy. That’s just what happens when those six people get on stage. I can’t see it any other way. It’s not put on. Which is not to say that it’s not tiring and taxing and you don’t feel like you’ve run a marathon at the end of the set. I just can’t see it being any other way. Nor would I want it to be.

Anything else I should know?

I have very little tolerance or patience for any aspect of this industry that isn’t directly involved with making music. I found it very difficult as soon as the Arcade Fire became quote-unquote the band to watch when parts of the industry came out of the woodwork to quote-unquote help us. It makes me very suspicious and uncomfortable and it almost makes me not like being in a band. Ultimately, it’s meaningless.

The help, or being in a band?
Definitely the notion that they want to ‘help’ us is meaningless. They want to make a dime off our buck. Which is their job, I guess.

That’s the record company’s job, too.

But at least Merge has shown over 15 years that they’re more on the artist side than the industry side. Knowing them and seeing how they work, they’re far more interested in their bands being healthy than selling tons of records—and that’s rare. I’m talking more about critical acclaim and acclaim from managers and agents and other record companies. To me, it seems meaningless and is a knee jerk reaction to someone, somewhere saying, ‘You must like this band.’ It’s more important that we like the record we made, and that our families and friends like the record we made, and that it touches people. It’s been difficult to navigate, I’ll leave it at that.

How does this cover story fit into that?

I’m well aware of the hypocrisy involved in, on the one hand, not wanting to partake in that industry, and on the other hand potentially having my face on the cover of Canada’s largest music magazine. For me, it’s more about the integrity of the people involved. It’s more about that … I think what’s really beautiful about the Arcade Fire is that we’ve never asked for press or attention, which is quite different from the way most bands operate. I know that it’s based on word-of-mouth, rather than a publicist or a press release.

Howard emailed me the next day to follow-up on some of our thoughts, for the record.

"music is very very important to me...i can honestly say it changed my life...became my life at quite an early age. i keep this in mind when making records & certainly when performing live with the AF. as musicians & performers, we must always remember that music gets people thru stuff...that maybe the whole day at school is alienating & oppressive, but that listening to your favorite record on the way home somehow makes you feel life for me wasn't the same after i heard the clash & the violent was the first time i felt people were speaking directly to me thru their's something i can only hope i can participate in from this side things."

"the only system i believe in is one that is 100% independent. major labels have such a bad track record with artists, due mainly to the fact that every corporation boils down to a dollars & cents operation. even if you & your bevvy of lawyers walk away from the major label table with some amount of a "head-above water" deal, you are still making money for an industry that does not really care for the health & well being of its artists. this is not some leftist's a story that has been documented by decades of musicians. so, if this record makes money for merge, i know other artists will directly benefit from that...and that's a decision that i can sleep well with."


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