Like most people, I fell in love with the Arcade Fire the first time I heard them. Unlike most people, that was on a poorly dubbed, unmarked cassette that came packaged in a regular letter envelope that read "with love from the arcade fire," the word love replaced with a red heart. I'd bought it from singer/keyboardist Regine Chassagne at La Sala Rossa in Montreal on December 1, 2002, where they had opened for Broken Social Scene and Royal City (the latter band of bridesmaids were the headliners, which might be hard to believe today). I was in town scoping out apartments for my imminent move, but missed their set due to my primary mission. Nonetheless, everyone there was raving about them, and at $2, the cassette was hardly a gamble.
Their story since then is well known. The debut EP, featuring some of the tracks from that cassette, was released in March, 2003; the band almost broke up on stage at the release show. A new line-up started recording what would become Funeral in the summer of 03; it was released in September 04 on Merge Records. That same month, I wrote this cover story in Exclaim magazine, the transcripts from which will comprise the next few posts.
I've had the immense pleasure of witnessing the band in just about every conceivable concert setting: tiny venues playing to almost no one (but not the legendary London, ON show where they literally DID play to no one), endless shows where audiences stood wide-eyed in wonderment and discovering their new favourite band, CD release shows in tiny Montreal bars and huge churches, the Hillside Festival in Guelph, a tiny show at Mergefest in Chapel Hill, and Central Park in NYC with David Bowie. They never fail to thrill, even at their worst shows (like an afternoon set at Arlene's Grocery during their CMJ coming out party, where I found myself standing beside Merge's Mac McCaughan and Sire's Seymour Stein chatting away).
The new album is called Neon Bible and it comes out the first week of March. Two songs are now available: "Intervention" is for sale at iTunes, and "Black Mirror" can be streamed at their website here, if you click on "Win's Scrapbook." They put up a very amusing commercial on YouTube over the weekend.
I'll write more in later posts, but let's get to the meat, shall we?
Part one is with Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the married couple who are the core of the band. This interview was postponed for about a month while they were on tour in the U.S. with the Unicorns, and we didn't have time to do it at either Hillside or Mergefest. This was squeezed into the only free morning they had before my deadline.
Interviews with Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, and Howard Bilerman will follow in coming days.
Win Butler and Regine Chassagne
August 10, 2004
Locale: Café Amandine, corner of St. Urbain/St. Viateur, home to the finest and most frugal eggs benedict in Montreal
It seems to me that you disappeared for a whole year to make this record. I remember hearing a version of “Wake Up” a year ago this week. Almost every day of every week whenever I’d bump into one of you, you’d always say, “We’re still recording!” Was it really that intense?
W: When we first went into the studio, we just wanted to record two songs—“Wake Up” and “Power Out”—while [his brother] Will [Butler] was in town, to put out on a single. We just did three sessions, three days, and we didn’t do anything else for a long time. We didn’t really start again until the winter, because we didn’t really have a band at that point. We taught [Wolf Parade drummer ]Arlen [Thompson] the song the day before we rehearsed it. Regine played drums on “Power Out,” but that didn’t end up working out. It wasn’t like we went in to make a record. Then we started playing with [producer/drummer] Howard [Bilerman] right after that, so we had to get to be able to play again.
Was it important to take a lot of time recording? A lot of people’s first record they want to do as quickly as possible, or as cheaply as possible.
W: We weren’t actually in the studio that much. The thing about this time was that we had to work around our schedules. Everyone was working, and I was still in school, and the studio was booked a lot. We were second priority fitting in whenever there were holes. There were five days when Howard went away and Silver Mt. Zion was on the road, and we got the keys and we were in there for 24 hours a day pretty much. It wasn’t a situation where we were a band for a long time before, touring the songs. We were trying to figure out how to play together and arrange the songs.
Would you still be recording if Merge hadn’t given you a deadline? You were still recording and remixing right down to the wire.
W: I wish we had more time and money. I think we did pretty good with what we had. Maybe we’ll have more time next time. But I don’t want to take more time, I just want to have more time in a row. We could have done the whole thing in a month if it was a solid month.
The more I listen to it, there are no wasted notes. Everything is very constructed and deliberate and layered. I can’t imagine going back and thinking of what you would change. It sounds fully realised.
W: I don’t want to ever mix a record again.
You’d rather hand it over?
W: Yeah. This was a weird situation because since we did a lot of recording when Howard was gone, we’re not good at labelling what track was what. It would have been impossible for a third party to come in, because it was so unprofessional. Like halfway through the tambourine track, Regine’s vocals might come in. We’d try to jam so much into the tracks we had. The mixing/mastering period was so hard. I hate it. You lose a lot of perspective. “Haiti,” which has turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the record, almost didn’t make it on there. We were so depressed with the way it sounded. We were so overloaded from working and thought it was such a piece of crap. Every day we were tormenting ourselves. Regine and I worked on it for five days, doing a completely different mix, stripped it down and got rid of everything. Then Richard [Reed Parry] and Tim [Kingsbury] came back after being away a while and said, ‘No, this is crap.’ So we went back to square one and redid it. It turns out that I like it a lot and I listen to it a lot. It was the same thing with “No Cars Go” from the EP.
R: We almost didn’t put it out. It was such a mess.
W: It sucked so bad. I just assumed that it wasn’t usable. When we were in Maine [where the EP was recorded] listening to it, we just thought, ‘Oh god, this sucks.’ After working on it for a while, I went back to it after assuming that it wasn’t going to be on the record, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s not worse than anything else.’ (laughs)
A song like “Haiti” was one of my immediate favourites, because it wasn’t one I’d seen you play live, as opposed to everything else here. But even the sound of it is very different than the rest of the album, different textures and instrumentation.
R: We were scared of that one too.
W: We did a demo of that on the computer, just to flesh it out. We had these two organs at my house and threw up a room mic and me and Richard just did some stuff on the fly. We ended up really liking it. And there was a percussion track we really liked too. We ended up using this electronic kick, the organs and this percussion track from the total rough mix as the backbone of the real song.
R: It was one of my favourite things. I had to go to work, teaching arts and crafts to kids at the school just over there. And I came back, and they had recorded this.
But you added vocals later.
W: That took fucking forever. That song didn’t have a vocal melody.
R: We had the words.
W: But we didn’t know how it was going to sound. Because the sound was so bizarre, the way it was recorded, it was really important to find the right vocal sound. We kept recording vocals, and the song would sound worse. It was better as an instrumental. We had to try and find a sound that would sit in the mix and actually make the song better.
I don’t know if you went through various sequences, but it’s paced perfectly. “Tunnels” opens beautifully, and “In the Backseat” is an ideal closer. It feels like a full narrative, and there even seems to consciously be two sides of a vinyl record.
W: There definitely is a side A and B. It’ll be nice to hear it on vinyl, because I think there’s a natural flow to the two sides, and that was intentional. But it was a pressure thing. We had to submit the artwork three weeks before we were done. We had to decide the order without having final mixes. We didn’t even know if “Haiti” was going to make it on the record.
Yet it bleeds well into “Lies.”
W: That was intentional. We knew it would sound good going into the other one.
Were these songs always intended to be a group? Because I know you have a stockpile of other songs I’ve seen live.
W: There were a couple of others that didn’t really work out or complement the others.
R: We did all the songs we chose to do. But it’s not like these songs were born to be together.
What’s your song stockpile up to?
W: We’ve been handicapped for the past six months. We’ve written a few things, but not much. We were so prolific for the first couple of years.
R: Then all the recording, and organization, and touring…
What was that period like? Were you writing a couple of songs a day?
W: Yeah, for a while there. I think we’re getting back into it again now. You have to slow down at a certain point, too. It’s a lot better with a song like ‘Rebellion’ that we came up with while we were recording, and without labouring over it too much. Fresh stuff is better in that way.
Ever since I’ve known you, since the first time I saw the band, you’ve always been very demanding of yourselves, of your performances. It’s not something you take lightly: the show, the way a record turns out. Are you happy with the record? Are you happy with your shows lately?
R: Oh no! I’m never content. For me, I’m always at square zero trying to get to square one. [food arrives] For me, I haven’t achieved anything yet. This is a start.
W: I think the record is an improvement over the EP. Some people might say the EP is better, but that’s a load of crap. The singing on this is a lot better, for both of us. I definitely think there’s progress, and that’s what keeps me moving. We’re figuring some things out. I don’t know if it ever feels like ‘Oh, sweet, we’ve done something really awesome.’ The only time I felt really free was when Will was around and I wasn’t playing instruments all the time and I could actually think about doing other things. I feel in a rut having to perform while holding a piece of crap and trying to make the song stay together.
R: Me too! I get so angry at my keyboards. I always told myself that I never wanted to play keyboards in a rock band—that would suck! If there’s a girl in a band, she’s always playing tambourine and a keyboard, it’s so annoying. But I end up doing that anyway and I get angry.
W: The guitar’s bad too, Regine.
At least you get to walk around [with a guitar].
R: It’s like I’m sitting at a desk, it’s really annoying.
W: At least you get to sing without holding an instrument once in a while, that’s more than I do.
How often have you been playing drums now on stage?
R: There are two or three songs now I play on stage.
W: There’s a bit more on the record.
When did that start?
R: I believe it was…
W: When we didn’t have a drummer!
R: I think it was end of last summer, exactly a year ago.
When did the dress code enter the band?
R: Oh, dress code is annoying.
W: It’s in flux.
R: I’m tired of wearing the same thing all the time.
Do you, though?
W: No, you don’t.
R: I change my socks.
W: Oh, everything’s annoying, Regine! Dress code, annoying. Playing keyboards, annoying.
R: Oh, what do you want? No, I love playing keyboards. I just want to dance too. That’s my problem.
Did you always want the presentation of the show to be theatrical?
R: For me, I don’t think about theatrical. For me, it’s not something that I put on. It’s not much of a game or a character. It comes out theatrical, but I don’t think of that way.
Maybe just compared to every other band.
W: Maybe. The clothes we wear is more for us than the audience. It’s important for me to put on clothes that I’m not already wearing. It puts you in a different mode. There’s a difference between playing a show and walking down the street. You have to appreciate your audience, which makes it different from playing in your living room. What we’re actually wearing is abritrary, and it will change. It’s more for our own headspace, to make it special. Also, I was a teenager during the grunge thing, which was a reaction to hair metal and glamourous crap, and everyone wore whatever they felt like. I think it would have been unusual in the 60s to see a band not wearing some kind of stage clothes. Maybe I’m wrong. Jimi Hendrix wore really weird, exaggerated clothes.
He’d also wear that on the street, though.
W: That’s true. He lived the part.
A friend of mine looked at a picture of Modest Mouse the other day and said, ‘How come these guys always look like they’re coming over to fix your plumbing?’ But I was remembering some early shows where you were quite demanding of the audience. Very intense, where you’d almost be staring down the audience. I’ve noticed that happening less since the band has had a more solid line-up. Is that because you feel more comfortable with what’s happening on-stage?
W: I don’t know. (long pause)
Do you expect certain things from your audience?
W: The audience has a lot of power as to how the show goes, almost as much power as the band. It’s impossible for a band to make something be there that isn’t willingly given by the audience. It’s annoying when bands are always saying, ‘Come on, people, dance! Come on! Dance!’ I wouldn’t say we’re expecting people to do something they’re not comfortable with or that they’re not naturally going to do, but I think we do appreciate that the audience has a lot of power, and we’re not going to pretend like they’re not there. We’re sharing something with them and performing for them. There’s some confrontation in that naturally.
Speaking of discussions with the audience, I though that the artwork in the album looks like a contract, that you all signed. It looks like this is something you’re promising the audience. Why did you do that?
R: I wanted to do that. It’s more personal.
W: For a while we were going to make t-shirts with Tim’s home address on them. (laughs)
W: I don’t know, it’s just really personal information! The whole t-shirt would just be his address.
Not ‘Arcade Fire,’ not even ‘Tim Kingsbury’…
R: Also, this makes it seem like real people, who signed here.
W: Me and Will’s signature is quite similar. The last name is almost identical. Whenever we get a rental car and have to initial things it looks exactly the same.
The way the band sounds now—is that the way you always envisioned it, or does it have a lot to do with the people who ended up playing in the band? Everyone has very distinct personalities.
W: ‘Wake Up’ was written in reaction to the band breaking up. We wanted to do something that was louder than anything we’d done before, very bombastic. We wanted the first song we played after we started playing again to be very bombastic. At least, I did. It was written as an opening song. Some of the heavier stuff, like ‘Laika,’ came from me being sick of playing acoustic guitars…
R: And xylophones.
W: It will probably swing the other way eventually, because you get sick of playing loud rock music after a while.
R: It’s a phase.
What did you think would happen in March, 2003 [when the band appeared to break up on stage, at their EP release party]? Many people thought the band would be over.
R: We were a bit depressed, but we’ve never really known what’s going to happen with the band.
Wasn’t there one show after that with just the two of you?
W: Yeah, but it wasn’t supposed to be. That’s actually when we met Wolf Parade, that was their first show. We showed up and none of the drummers showed up, and we figured we’d play anyway. It was really depressing.
R: We got our friend Josh just to play kick on one song.
W: There weren’t many people there and we just thought, ‘what has this come to?’ But we’re just going to keep going. Not playing is never really an option. It always swings back and forth between being hopeful and being hopeless. We never know what’s going on. The one bright spot of that show was meeting Wolf Parade, because we really liked them.
How long have you known Richard [Reed Parry]?
W: He morphed into playing in the band. When we got back from that summer [he had recorded the EP], we had played together a lot and become friends. He played upright bass and some other stuff at the CD release. There was a while when he was considering learning drums for us.
I wanted to ask a bit about the very beginning. Was that you and some friends in Texas, or Maine?
W: Me and my best friend Josh. I was in school in New York and was really depressed. I didn’t have many close friends and didn’t know what I was doing. I was going to this really expensive liberal arts school and taking all these classes, but I spent all day skipping class and writing songs on a four-track. That’s all I did. I thought, what the hell am I doing? It popped into my head one day that I should play in a band with my best friend Justin, who was my best friend from boarding school. We were really close and he influenced me a lot. He had this mythical friend Josh, who was even taller than me and a really talented songwriter. I thought the three of us should be in a band. So I went to a pay phone, called Justin and told him, ‘You guys are moving to Maine this summer. My parents won’t be there and we’re going to start a band.’ From that moment on, I committed to playing music in a band. It was really clear all of the sudden that it was what I wanted to do.
That was well before you moved here.
W: After that I was in Boston for a year and then I moved here in 1999. I’ve been following that trajectory ever since.
You followed Josh here. Was he ever in a performing incarnation of the band?
W: Yeah, for about a year in Montreal. Then he left. Regine didn’t know what to do in the band at first, because there were three guitar players playing all the time and there wasn’t space to do anything. But we knew she had to play and we knew we had to play together but it wasn’t really clear. As that fell apart and Regine and I started writing more, there was a sound of the two or our styles coming together that became realised more. It was real, it wasn’t hypothetical.
R: At first it was really clashing, but then we started being influenced by each other and knew what the other one was going to do, learning to adjust to each other. It was very intense, because we were falling in love at the same time.
Did Josh not want to continue with the band, or did he not like Montreal anymore?
W: It was kind of weird, but Josh had this intuition that he needed to do something else. It’s not like we broke up or anything. He just felt inspired to do something else. He’s getting married this October and I’m his best man. We’re still very close. He did all the animation on the website.
Does he write all the ooo-ooo parts in the songs? That seems to be a trademark of all his co-writes.
W: (laughs) He wrote the bass line in “Power Out.”
The Cure-like one?
[they both sing it]
And the others are “Tunnels” and “Headlights”?
W: Yeah, he helped me write the vocal melody on that one. That’s about four years old.
So Regine, you were singing jazz and performing medieval music at the time?
R: I was doing medieval music and singing jazz. I quit the medieval band a year ago. I want to sing jazz still. I think there’s a lot of possibilities there. I don’t know. I’d like to do something different.
Did you have high school bands? Any rock bands?
R: No, this is my first rock band. Before I met Win, I was really not connected to the rock band world. I started meeting all these people in rock bands, and I thought, ‘What’s with all this rock band stuff?’ I wouldn’t ever have thought of it. I was mostly making music in my head. I had a piano in my house when I was six and I started playing. I took a couple of lessons but really, really didn’t like it, but I played the piano so much. The piano was my friend. In my neighbourhood there weren’t any friends my age. They were my sister’s age or younger, or way too old.
Were you learning songs by ear or by sheet music?
R: Oh no, no sheet music. I can read now, but I’m not the best reader. I would play everything I heard, whether it was a classical song on the radio or the Super Mario theme.
W: I’m lucky in a sense. It seems like people in your family must have missed that you were such an amazing musician, otherwise you might have been pushed into a total classical world.
R: [sings operatically]
W: Because you could totally do it, and they’d be idiots not to notice. You were picking up all these classical songs off the radio by ear, and if you’d done that in my family, my mom would have made you go to conservatory and really push it. You have such a natural thing. But luckily… untrained.
Did you always want to play music then?
R: I didn’t know any musicians around me. For me it was such a privilege to meet a musician, and I would grill them: ‘You play drums? You play music? Tell me everything!’ When I was young I would think that in the best world I would hang out with musicians. It was a very naïve way of thinking. I always took music very seriously, because it was not something that was obvious. I didn’t have a lot of CDs, so everything I heard was very important.
If not rock music, what were you listening to?
R: A mix of so much stuff. I listened to the Beatles a lot, jazz, classical. Every music that I don’t understand, I’m automatically interested, because I have to figure it out. That’s what happened when I was really young and I heard jazz. It was, ‘woah.’ I had to listen to it until I got it. My understanding of music is totally personal, because I remember those moments when I was listening to jazz and I had those little songs I would tape off the radio, like Charlie Parker. One day I heard the same song, but not Charlie Parker doing it, but I knew the changes and it all clicked. ‘This is the same song, but they’re just improvising over it!’
The floodgates opened!
When did you start playing in the medieval band, then?
R: In CEGEP [Quebec’s post-high school pre-university schools]. I was really interested in it, because it works on a completely different aethetic than any modern music, from the Renaissance up to today. It’s a completely different era.
W: I think a lot of people confuse Renassiance music and medieval music.
R: Yeah, it’s much weirder than that. [sings cartoonish version of Renaissance music]
Was that with people your own age?
R: People my own age. This girl wrote in the school paper, ‘Do you want to play in a medieval band?’ I thought it would be interesting, but I went and it was just a bunch of girls singing. I was about to quit, but we finally found some guys and it got a little better. Even then it was a bit, ech. Then we got more instruments and it got a bit more rock and I was happy.
You were playing what?
R: I learned to play recorder really well, by accident basically. (laughs)
Hmmm. Just like the drums, the piano…
R: We played this big show with my medieval band for New Year’s Eve, and I was playing recorder and everyone was dancing like crazy, almost like a rave. It never made any sense to me. For me, recorder was like in grade two, so boring.
So Win, before New York did you have high school bands?
W: I played in a band in high school with my best friend. Our shining moment was at rock assembly.
W: Well, we had assembly once a week where high brow speakers would come. Once a year they’d do this rock assembly where they’d let student bands play for the other students. My friend Justin, it was his last year. I was in third year, he was in fourth. He was in love with this girl, our friend Hilary, and they dated for eight years after that. We played ‘Just Like Heaven’ by the Cure in rock assembly and it was amazing. That was the highlight of high school for me.
I’ve heard you talk about the Cure before, but I never noticed it in Arcade Fire until I heard the recorded version of “Power Out.”
W: I haven’t listened to them in a long time, but for a brief period in high school they were the band that got me into totally different kinds of music, it changed the kind of music I liked.
You both grew up in suburbs, yes?
Neighbourhood is a running theme of the record. How do you think your music relates to growing up in that experience, or does it at all? Is there something about the grand gesture of Arcade Fire songs that fits in there, in the same way Bruce Springsteen sang about getting out and dreaming of something bigger?
[uncomfortably long silence]
Maybe that’s a ridiculous question.
W: I think everyone tries to find some meaning in the situation they’re raised in. The music we make could only exist in a privilged kind of environment, but that doesn’t mean that the emotional experience or what you’re trying to find out about life isn’t profound or important. It’s kind of crazy that people in different social situations can have such a similar experience, but everyone’s just trying to understand their own experience.
Why do you think it exists from a privileged position?
W: Well, we own instruments, we have an apartment where we can play music in. It’s referential in a way that is an educated referentia. You know what I mean? It isn’t just folk music. There is a sense that it is part of a lifestyle, but it’s more complicated than that. I don’t know.
R: That made me think of something else. The audience for me, when I was playing with my medieval band, we had the weirdest gigs ever. Once we played in a mall, or people would hire us to play in front of a store, or in an old folks home. When we played, it was often just acoustic. We would show up and just play. I discovered a lot of things that don’t happen anymore, where you have bands that are so far away with a bunch of lights and it’s so loud. Sometimes we’d play in a restaurant no bigger than this. I would get so much out of that. We would play at parties and they would treat us like family. It was a really rich experience for me. That’s why every time, I really want to see the audience and who’s there. A lot of bands, sometimes you see people [on stage] and they look away: ‘where are you? You’re not in your living room! There are 400 people here to listen to you!’
Watching this band, which I have many times, I always enjoy watching people who’ve never seen you before. The first time I saw you was in Toronto, which I think was your first time there, with Jim Guthrie. Then the Nathan Lawr show at the Rivoli [their second Toronto show], or even last week at Chapel Hill: I always enjoy looking back at the audience, and it’s immediately moving them, they’re reacting very strongly right away. Mouth open, eyes wide open. Maybe it’s because the opening number is written for that purpose, as you were saying. What do you hear from people directly, what do they tell you after shows?
W: We’re in this mode right now, especially when we did the tour with the Unicorns, where people haven’t really heard of us before, especially in the States. That’s the performance mode we’re in. The last time we played in Toronto and Montreal, it was harder. We haven’t figured out how to play when people are familiar with your stuff and have expectations. I know this is a really limited time, but it’s a really great energy. I know it’s not going to be like that forever.
What did you learn from touring with the Unicorns last month?
W: We learned that we want to tour. And it’s hard to eat well.
R: Learn how to stay human after sitting in a car for seven hours, getting up, moving some amps, then ‘rrrrrawwwwr,’ then go to sleep.
What has it been like watching that band get so big?
W: Being in the States with them was cool. I think they divide audience a lot of times. I think it’s great, seeing what they’ve built for themselves down there just on the power of their personalities and their music. They’ve put a lot of thought into it.
You knew them when they were playing to nobody here.
W: They’ve come a long way. They’re a great band and play really well together. I think they’ll be around for a long time. They’re writing really great songs now too. They’re like a real band.
Like a real band?!
W: No, they’re a real band. Not all bands are real bands. A lot of bands are the idea of a band.
Going back a bit again, can you tell me about recording the EP in Maine? Was that a living/working arrangment and how long were you there?
W: Two months. We were, anyway, everyone else was there for a month.
That was a combination of Montreal people and high school friends?
W: Mostly Montreal people. There were some people on the island you played some of the orchestral instruments. But it was mostly Brendan [Reed, also Win’s roommate at the time], Dane [Mills] and Myles [Broscoe]. And Richard.
How many people were living there?
R: Me, you, Will, Brendan, Dane, Myles, Richard, Gregg [Davenport]. That’s it.
Was it an idyllic thing or was it intense being in closed quarters?
W: It was a little segregated. Even before we went, stuff was a bit stressed. I don’t know, man. Being in a band is hard. I don’t know how to do it yet. It’s hard to keep it together.
R: It’s hard to get everyone on the same page about what we’re doing and why we do it. Everyone has to have the same motivation.
W: You have to be united, but at the same time everyone has to be coming from a different place creatively or it will be really stale. It’s impossible to balance. You just have to balance it for as long as you can. Almost no bands stay together unless, like, huge sums of money come into play. It is possible. It does happen. But I’d say that the overwhelming number of bands break up unless some giant sum of money brings the Pixies back together to tour! (both laugh)
The ones that do stay together that long are like family and understand each other intrinsically. And family is a big influence on the lyrics. Is everyone’s family very supportive?
W: My family is very supportive.
R: My family is strange.
When did all the funerals begin, that play into the lyrical theme of the record?
R: There was Nancy my grandma, my mom—but that was before. Alvino, your grandpa.
W: Alvino was huge on a musical level. For me, he was very inspirational.
Did you know him well? How often would you see him?
W: I got to know him really well over the last five years or so. I spent a lot of time with him. He was so sharp, so there mentally. I’d ask him a lot of questions.
R: He was 95. I would speak to him on the phone, and there was no difference between him and any 20 year old. He was cooler than anyone I knew.
W: At the wedding he stood up and gave his speech and had everyone in stitches. He got the biggest reception. Great comedic timing.
Did he hear the Arcade Fire?
W: I don’t think he would have liked it. He doesn’t like jazz combos! (laughs)
And the Arcade Fire are a jazz combo?
W: No, but he played in the big band era, so I think he thought the combo thing was a bit of a rip off. So the rock’n’roll thing was even a bigger ripoff of jazz combos, and where the hell we are now is some post-modern monstrosity of the copy of the copy. I think he could have appreciated aspects of it. We played ‘In the Backseat’ for my extended family at the funeral one night, and they all really liked it. It was just piano, guitar, Will was there and my mom played harp. There are certain songs that we can play for our families that aren’t too weird.
Is that a hard song to play? Do you have to remove yourself from the lyrics?
R: It’s always a very intense song. That’s why I’m saying that we do looks theatrical, but it’s certainly not a Broadway show.
When you write lyrics, do you think in French or English first? There are some French lyrics on the record.
R: I’m sort of overwhelmed by English these days, because I speak it all day all the time. I’m kind of going crazy. I’m sure I’ll go into a rebellion stage soon and speak only French.
W: English works really well with rock music because of the rhythm of it, the accent is always on the first syllable. ‘Hey! You! Get offa my cloud!’
R: With French it’s always on the second.
(they both do exaggerated imitations of French singing)
W: That works better with cabaret than rock music.
R: I find it more difficult to include French in rock music. I’m trying to find a way that I’ll be okay with, that I personally will think sounds good.
The songs on the album that have French aren’t really rock songs.
W: We’re conscious of the rhythmic aspects of it when we put it together. You can do it, and sometimes a song works that needs an accent on the second syllable.
R: Sometimes we’ll try it in both languages and it works better in French.
W: What French is amazing for is if the structure is a bit more free, like Jacques Brel style. Then it’s almost like the vocals are a drum, at least to me.
R: Know what? I listened to Jacques Brel recently, and realised how much it’s been ingrained in me and yet I’d completely forgot about it because it was all on records at my parents. All that orchestration. It was everything I liked, beautiful arrangements.
I love the sounds of the strings on this record. Even though I’m sure it’s only two or three strings multi-tracked, it sounds huge.
W: It’s two tracks of four strings.
R: Oh! (gasps) That day was one of the best days of my life, having all these strings in my house, in my living room. Because I played drums on that track, I knew when and how it was going to speed up, so I was conducting them all. I was in wonderland! I couldn’t have been happier. It was like my birthday times 1100. So fun, like a big party.
Finally, how did it feel last week in North Carolina [at Mergefest]?
W: There was one point after we played [on opening night, at Local 506] when they were doing Merge karaoke. [Win and Regine did Magnetic Fields’ “I Was Born on a Train”; Richard did a Lambchop song with Merge’s Christina Rentz.] A bunch of people who work there were singing a Neutral Milk Hotel song. I was so happy to be a part of what they’re doing. Can you imagine going to a Columbia records party, and having the entire staff drunk and giving it and singing the stuff in their catalogue? They were so into it.
R: You know they love their music so much.
I know that Merge was a goal for you for a while, or at least one of the labels that you really wanted to work with. I remember you giving the EP to the Essex Green when they were in town. Why did you want to work with them so much?
R: When I met the Merge people, they were really down to earth and looked at you in the eye. They were really, really nice.
W: I just don’t really like indie rock very much. The one time I was actually forced to listen to college radio for a long time, I was working in a store, and the Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel were two of the only things I actually thought were real and had a lot of weight to them as records. A lot of times, people who record themselves and do the indie rock thing doesn’t really reach me, but that stuff really did. Both [Magnetic Fields’] 69 Love Songs and the Neutral Milk Hotel stuff was all done themselves, and it sounds as good as anything.