Thursday, May 31, 2007

Review round-up May 07

Plenty of action on the review front lately, starting with this take on last Saturday's Feist show at Massey Hall. Thankfully I didn't have the same experience as Pedro from Radio 3.

I was going to write here about last Friday's Joel Plaskett show at the Opera House, but let's just say that not having seen him in five years, it's great to see him become an even better performer: very engaging, down to earth, great band, and I'm very glad I picked the all-ages night. These kids weren't fairweather fans, either: old material was welcomed just as warmly as the new stuff.

Earlier that night I saw Kids on TV at Buddies in Bad Times, which should have been amazing--and parts of it were (especially the costumes, the videos and the bungee breakdancing). But the staid cabaret seating and subdued sound system didn't match the sweaty mess that I'm used to with that band.

Some CD reviews of late:

Battles and The Rosebuds from last week's Eye.

Cinematic Orchestra from this month's Exclaim.

The Clientele from this week's Eye.

And the two absolutely spellbinding albums from Old Reliable singer/songwriter Mark Davis get the five-star treatment from me here, also from this week's Eye.

Finally, some thoughts from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

Bjork – Volta (Warner)

By her own admission, Bjork is “relentlessly restless.” “I have lost my origin/ and I don’t want to find it again,” she sings on Wanderlust. The rest of Volta could certainly use a compass.

Only a fool would expect Bjork to be conventional, but in the last ten years her albums have at least been consistent to themselves thematically: introverted works that steered her away from clubs and into icy isolation and art house cinemas.

Even if her most recent albums Medulla and Drawing Restraint didn’t pull your pop strings, they were easy to dismiss as intentionally opaque art projects. But because Volta soars so high on the strength of her rediscovered extroversion—exemplified by her collaborations here with Timberlake/Furtado hitmaker Timbaland—it hurts that much more when she comes crashing to earth with aimless meandering.

The punchy single Innocence is easily one of Bjork’s best singles ever, boasting squiggly synths, a Brazilian favela beat, and dislocated likembes from Congolese group Konono No. 1, all collapsing in a perfect progressive pop production by Timbaland.

She lets loose even further on Declare Independence, a distorted electro-punk anthem where the 41-year old mother of two sounds like a bratty teenager raging at a rave. As befits this career contrarian, it’s far more convincing than contrived.

But a track like The Dull Flame of Desire lives up to its name, as Bjork and her obviously enamoured duet partner Antony (of the Johnsons) over-articulate and howl their way through a short Russian poem, drawing it out for eight minutes while drummer Brian Chippendale of speed-noise band Lightning Bolt plays a plodding beat underneath, half-heartedly breaking into a gallop for the final thirty seconds.

And what could be another exciting collaboration—Malian kora player Toumani Diabate with a delicate, subdued Timbaland beat—is sabotaged by painfully awkward political lyrics about pregnant suicide bombers.

Any artist with such grand ambitions and curiosities is bound to miss occasionally, though Bjork’s success ratio here still finds her on top. There’s plenty here for fair-weather fans to dig their teeth into: one track at a time. (May 17, 2007)

Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars (Universal)

Rufus Wainwright is not a humble man. Any young artist who decides to re-stage Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall (the subject of a film and CD due later this year) and write an opera for the Met in New York (due next year) is not lacking in confidence.

Yet on his fifth album, Wainwright demands humility from both himself and others: friends, lovers, and even the United States itself, as he does on the scathing single Going to A Town. There, he matches Joe Strummer’s angry 20-year old declaration “I’m so bored with the USA” by singing a lilting, world-weary lament that simply states: “I’m so tired of you, America.”

So instead, he’s Leaving For Paris, peering through the windows of Sanssousci, walking through the Tiergarten in Berlin, and posing for fetching photographs in his new lederhosen. He’s still arch and dramatic; many of the album’s most powerful moments are punctuated with blasts of brass and fluttering woodwinds.

Lyrically, however, he’s more fragile than ever, musing on disappointment, self-worth and empathy. That newfound modesty is matched by melodies that are more direct than his past work, maintaining his knack for complexity without overreaching. The sole exceptions are the atrocious Slideshow and Tulsa, which threaten to undermine the whole album; thankfully, they’re sequenced together to facilitate easier avoidance.

Wainwright’s early work had some wondering if he was simply full of hubris or capable of greater depth. With each successive album, he proves the latter to be true. (May 17, 2007)

Stars – Do You Trust Your Friends? (Arts and Crafts/EMI)

The simple answer is yes: absolutely, you should trust your friends.

That’s because by commissioning their many musical friends and peers, Stars have accomplished the impossible. This is a remix album that’s far better than the original.

Their 2005 release Set Yourself on Fire was a massive breakthrough for Stars, giving their lush, romantic sound a beefy rock’n’roll backdrop. Yet something about it sounded a bit too cloying and overcooked.

Here, all the same material is surrendered to mostly lesser-known indie musicians who strip away most of the instrumentation and supply their own, often drastic reinterpretations. Final Fantasy renders a baroque reading of Your Ex-Lover is Dead; Junior Boys turn Sleep Tonight into a lilting electro lullaby; The Most Serene Republic transform Ageless Beauty into a folkie country shuffle.

Three satellite bands of Broken Social Scene chuck the original tracks altogether and record their own covers: The Stills recast Soft Revolution as a Pink Floyd epic; Apostle of Hustle do One More Night in a Havana nightclub, and Jason Collett affects a lecherous drawl on his slinky cover of Reunion, which completely redeems one of Fire’s weakest tracks.

If you loved the original album, this is a completely new work, doubling as a primer on the Arts and Crafts roster and other Canuck comrades. And if you were ever suspicious of Stars, this brings out all their strengths by letting their songs shine in an entirely new light. Forget any preconceptions you had of the band or even of some of these remixers, because this is a wildly diverse and rewarding listen.

Here’s hoping Stars take some of this to heart when they record their new album, due later this year. (May 24, 2007)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Joel Plaskett

Last Thursday, I wrote this piece for AOL on Joel Plaskett.

After years of being a beloved hero of the Canadian underground--first in Thrush Hermit, and since 1999 as both a solo artist and bandleader of the Joel Plaskett Emergency--it's a relief to report that he's finally breaking through, both commercially and in terms of national respect. His latest, Ashtray Rock, debuted in the Canadian Top 40, and earlier this year he was paired with the Symphony Nova Scotia to launch the new CBC program Canada Live.

There's no reason all this couldn't have happened eight years ago or more: Plaskett has been a fully formed rock star since he was a teenager, with a strong songbook and the ability to be equally at home making hazy psych-country recordings with Elevator's Rick White, rocking stadiums opening for The Tragically Hip, or playing the heartfelt balladeer in the best tradition of Gordon Lightfoot and Ron Sexsmith.

Although 2001's Down at the Khyber will always have a particular place in my heart, Ashtray Rock may well be his most definitive musical statement to date, an amalgam of his various influences along with the occasional goofy side-trip (the doo-wop in "Penny For Your Thoughts," the electro break in the "Fashionable People"), all expertly woven together by Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson (whose diverse production skills are usually overshadowed by his own band's descent into cheeze rock at the end of their career). And Dave Marsh remains one of my favourite rock'n'roll drummers.

Personally, I'm not as sold on the album's lyrics, a loose narrative set in Plaskett's teenage years in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park. Writing about "Drunk Teenagers" is one thing; writing like a drunk teenager is another, crooning "cruisin' for a bruisin'" like it's a deep thought. Whether he's writing in character or not, there are a few too many clunkers here to sour the whole experience for me a bit. ("They call him Johnny Hook-me-up/ I know he can hook us up." "Imagine if that lake was beer/ imagine if that rock was hash." "Their parents are ridiculously loaded/ let's get moving before I'm loaded.") Plaskett is a much better lyricist than this, as any of his four other solo records will attest.

Nonetheless, those teenage feelings were the focus of our conversation, which also touches on his early days in Thrush Hermit, his suburban experiences in Clayton Park and the Northcliffe Woods, Facebook, and the fallout of the Halifax Pop Explosion.

The Joel Plaskett Emergency plays Toronto's Opera House Friday (all-ages) and Saturday (19+) night. More dates and info can be found here.

Joel Plaskett
May 9, 2007
Locale: Maple Music office, 11th floor conference room

This album is about high school and it’s pseudo-autobiographical. What drew you back to thinking about this time in your life? Had you been thinking about high school lately?
A lot of the press has said, “Plaskett creates teen drama!” And it’s kind of true. I’ve painted it in a way that it is about growing up playing music. I’m channeling the energy of what it was like when we were younger: those friendships and the complications and the mix of everything when you’re young: fashion, music, relationships, girls. It all gets blurry. As for the actual narrative to this record, it’s not like I had a falling out with a friend over a girl and it broke up a band. That’s not how things went down. But three of these songs date back to the Hermit.

Early or late Hermit?
The song “Ashtray Rock,” I wrote the first verse back in 1992, before Smart Bomb came out. I did it as part of the same four-track demos I did “All Dressed Up” and other stuff. And the song “The Glorious Life” is from 1994, which is when I met [album artist] Rebecca [Kraatz]. We’re married now, but that was a song about her leaving and us having a long distance relationship. The song “Snowed In” is a song that the Hermit did in later days; we recorded it for Clayton Park but decided not to put it on. Those three songs bring the nostalgic element up for me, because they go back there.

But a lot of the songs come from a more contemporary place, as much as they want to evoke that time. It’s also about having played music for this long, having loved a lot of different kinds of music and trying to bring that under one roof and having fun with it. As well as the challenge of trying to balance a life in music with my home life and my desire to be with my friends and family and my wife. The songs, in roundabout ways, refer to that as much as they do the past. Certainly the context makes people think that I’m channeling that [early] part of my life, but actually I’m trying to be as in-the-present as I’ve ever been.

How old are you?

I ask, because I’m 35, and lately I can’t have a single conversation with someone without Facebook coming up and people talking about the high school friends they’ve just re-connected with. Why do you think people are so obsessed with this right now?
Part of it is access to information. Who knows if people did that in the 70s: once they get to 30 they pull out the yearbooks and start checking the phone book. Probably they did. That’s when people are having kids and getting married, and people’s looks are changing dramatically. You usually look like you did until you’re a certain age, and then everyone starts to look different.

Is something missing from their lives that they want to mythologize their teenage years?
A lot of people are married or have been in several relationships at that point, and often you think of the formative years, what defined you as a person are those teenage years. Whatever music or something you do, often it’s from there until your early 20s when you really define yourself. For me, music is so wrapped up in that: touring from the age of 18 on, and the collective experience we had [in Thrush Hermit]. And I’m sure Ian [McGettigan] and Rob [Benvie] would say the same thing. There are a lot of inside jokes on this record that those guys will get. It’s for them. They might be scratching their heads at the concept of the thing, but at the same time there are references there for them that are fun for me to go back to.

The other thing that I’m noticing more now, is that by having a narrative to it, it’s allowed all these songs that are stylistically a bit different—acoustic songs, party songs—they can all live under one record, because the story has to go somewhere. I can take a song like “Nothing More to Say” that I wrote four or five years ago, that is kind of a negative energy song—it’s about betrayal. I demo-ed it for Truthfully, and did an acoustic version of it for La De Da, but it didn’t feel right in the context of those records and I didn’t want it there. But because it works in the arc of a story, the guy gets his heart broken and then he can sing a song like that. Maybe it might seem to some people like I’m distancing myself from my own music. But by having that, it allows me to embody the song as a singer, because I can play it as a character as opposed to it being about me all the time.

When I hear other people write about high school, you have to wonder how much of it character writing, and how much of it is really the author dwelling on that time of their lives. At what age does it become inappropriate to still be thinking about high school?
Yeah, right—I had to get this out of the way now! But a lot of this is not about high school. A song like “Fashionable People,” I just wrote and it happens to fit into high school drama. It’s about any kind of new awkward social circumstance, where you just want to drink to make yourself comfortable. It’s as high school as it gets, but you can be any age and feel that way. I definitely want it turned in to a musical that high schools will put on.

I hear High School Musicals are big these days!
Yeah! So I’m all for talking it up that way. But I also want to make sure that people don’t think I’ve done this completely nostalgic trip. I feel quite connected to the songs in a present tense.

Where is the physical place of Ashtray Rock?
Clayton Park is the suburb we grew up in. The joke I’ve been saying is that Thrush Hermit’s last record was called Clayton Park, so now I’ve just taken a Google map and magnified it to one rock in the middle of the park, where we hung out as teenagers.

So have you blown the cover of this secret drinking place? Are cops going to be hanging out there all the time now?
Maybe, I don’t know. I haven’t been back in years. I’m assuming it’s still there, because it’s hard to move a boulder. It’s in a protected park, I think. You can see a bit of the outside world from there, but I really have blurry memories of the place.

For obvious reasons.
Well, not really, because I didn’t even drink back in high school. I didn’t touch alcohol. I’ve written this record about drinking, but that’s something I got into more in recent years. [he offers a sly smile and laughs]

That’s what you’re telling your mom, anyway.
‘No, really, Mom, “Drunk Teenagers”—it’s all observational! I was there but I wasn’t partaking!’ But it’s true. Everyone else there was drinking, but I was more into skateboarding and music and girls. It’s fun for me to channel and romanticize an adolescence that’s a bit fictitious. Everything changes in your mind when you get older. Your memories are totally coloured by how wrapped up in your own adolescence you are. For me, it’s so wrapped up in music.

If you didn’t have to go around the fence, you could walk in 30 seconds from Ashtray Rock to the Thomas Raddall Library, where I checked out Husker Du’s New Day Rising on cassette. I’d never heard them before; this was Grade Nine, and I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ It changed my life.

Did you ever meet the hip librarian who put it there?
I think I did, actually. I think it was this guy Josh.

Do you think there’s any connection between the album Clayton Park and this one?
Something the Hermit did that has continued in my career—and I think Ian, Rob and I all share this—is that we always celebrated where we were from. One of our first cassettes was called John Boomer, which was named after a guy we went to high school with. We just thought he had a cool name! Clayton Park was our last record, and when we were looking for a title, we just wanted to say that this is where we’re from. We’d be playing in Calgary and someone would come up and say, ‘We went to Clayton Park Jr. High together!’ That’s still happening to me now.

When I was thinking of a title for this album, I was thinking of Soundtrack For the Night, then when I stepped back I realized it sounded like a Journey album, or something equally corny. But Ashtray Rock is perfect, and it sounds like it could be some kind of dance.

The Ashtray Rock Lobster, perhaps? So how old were you when you started Nabisco Fonzie? [The precursor to Thrush Hermit]
I think we jammed when we were 13 or 14. It’s blurry. I’d like to think we were 13, but I think we were 14.

So this isn’t even a high school record, it’s a junior high school record.
Much of this record is memories of junior high. There’s a reference to a guy who ran for junior high school president, on the platform that he was going to build a pool under the floor of the school gym. Ian and Rob can attest to that, and we’ve shared many laughing memories of that.

Has he come out of the woodwork since? Mr. “Keep Metal Strong”? [This was the yearbook caption that the character left]
Dave Boyd? I actually Googled him and found some stuff and debated whether to contact him or not. I didn’t want to freak him out. In recent years, he ran for the Halifax Party in Clayton Park/Fairview. I read a blog where someone said, ‘The best thing about this record is that Joel mentions Dave Boyd! He used to buy alcohol for us!’ I didn’t really remember him at all; I just remember this character and the fact that his yearbook caption was exceptional! But this guy said that Dave Boyd ran for the Halifax Party on the platform that humans and robots should be allowed to marry. (claps hands, laughs) I was like, ‘Yes, he’s still at it!’ He was a local eccentric, and I suspect he’s no different now. I basically wrote that song as an inside joke for Rob and Ian.

And the bar code? [which features the phrase “Keep Metal Strong” in the design]
Yeah, his yearbook caption said, ‘Dave would like to thank his teachers, especially to Mrs. Parsons. Keep metal strong!’ For me, this time was when I liked Metallica and Joni Mitchell at the same time, and I still like that stuff. That’s when I established a lot of the music I love now. It’s become more refined, but that’s when it was anything goes. You can love Thin Lizzy and Nick Drake at the same time, and I wanted them both on the same record.

The last time I interviewed you was around the time of Truthfully, and you were about to make a commencement speech at Halifax West High School. How did that go?
It was wicked! I was so nervous—way more nervous than I’ve ever been for any show. Ten years later I graduated, and I had to say, ‘Look, I didn’t go to university. I took two half credits and just started playing music.’ The speech basically said that everywhere I go I run into someone from school, and I talked about the Northcliffe Woods and the Hemlock Ravine, which was the other place we hung out. All the students totally knew what I was talking about. And I just said, ‘Wherever you end up, you won’t forget where you’re from. And ten years later, we have nothing in common—except that we have something in common.’ That’s the beauty of it. If you weren’t adolescents together, you wouldn’t have that bond. Now you’re totally different people and you might be fat and balding, but you have that in common. ‘We’ll always have Ashtray Rock.’ It was a fun speech to write, but it was hard to pick the tone of the words. Though I didn’t use the words ‘fat and balding.’

That’s probably exactly what they wanted to hear, as they set out to disperse into the larger world.
To me, this album is about making a really large world really small. It’s more about the details. The scope of my music is not like U2 or something. But even them, when you think about it, the scope of their music is very Irish. You still get a sense of where they’re from.

And you also take something that’s very small and making it universal. Finally, are you and Dave Marsh the only original members of the Halifax Pop Explosion who still make a living making music while remaining in Halifax?
No, Charles Austin runs a highly successful studio where he records all the indie bands. He’s really busy. He’d be the obvious guy.

Of course. I guess I didn’t think of him because he doesn’t tour so much.
As far the Pop Explosion scene, though, people from that era who are still playing music and living in Halifax, there’s not that many. Most of them are in Toronto. I have to be careful here in case I forget about anyone. Drew from the Superfriendz is still there, but he’s in med school. Matt Mays and the Guthries guys were a bit later. But I should say that even though they weren’t on the radar of the Pop Explosion scene, but the band with Ruth [Minnikin] and Dale [Murray]—[we both struggle to remember the name of the band, the Booming Aeroplanes]—were early on the ground floor. Those guys were a teenage band. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but they go back a long way on the scene.

Where did [new Emergency bassist] Chris Parnell come from?
Chris is younger than [drummer] Dave [Marsh] and I. He’s 23 or 24 now. We’re multi-generational now. He played in a band called Slight Return, which was not emo, but maybe a math-y band, for lack of a better word. They were a real all-ages band, and I saw them a couple of times and they were pretty cool. It’s funny, Chris picked me up in a cab a few years ago. He drove a cab when he was 19 or 20. He said to me, ‘If you ever need someone to do some playing…” I always liked him, and when it worked out that [occasional bandmate and longtime friend] Ian [McGettigan] couldn’t be in the Emergency anymore because he was too busy—plus he was living here [in Toronto]—I really needed someone who could commit.

[Original bassist] Tim [Brennan] is in Dublin?
No, he’s back, but he has a kid and is teaching at the Art College. He would be available for some shows, but I really needed someone to commit. Dave and I took a leap of faith, because Chris is a lot younger than us. Dave and I, our references are the same. We’ll talk about the Small Faces and all this old stuff that we love. To have a guy that doesn’t have the same references, a lot of that goes over his head. In the Emergency, Marsh and I spar over the drums, that’s where the push and pull of the band comes from. So the simpler the bass is, the better, it doesn’t ebb and flow as much as the guitars and drums do.

You were mentored by older people like Sloan, and even today Dave Marsh is your drummer. What’s your relationship with younger bands in Halifax today? Do they come over to your house to watch Bad Lieutenant? [This is how Plaskett met the much older Marsh, introduced by Sloan’s Chris Murphy]
Ha! Not entirely, but I am involved with a band from Prince Edward Island called Two Hours Traffic. I’ve been helping them out and producing their records. That’s been fun. And that’s served as—not a mentorship, because I hesitate to use that word. But there was a lot I could bring to the table, and it was a lot of fun and they were receptive to it.

Would you use the word mentorship to describe what you felt when Thrush Hermit, who were all teenagers at the time, started hanging around the older Halifax musicians?
Yes and no. We were all young, and I really have to credit Sloan and particularly Chris Murphy for being so helpful, encouraging, and being involved in so many aspects of what we did. He did mentor in the way that he was really forthcoming with his knowledge of what was going on around them. We learned from watching the mistakes they made—not that they made a lot of mistakes, but we watched them find their footing. And of course we made a lot of our own mistakes as well. We were also trying to carve our own [sound]. We were very influenced by them, but we were also strong in our own right. So yeah, I would say they mentored us and took us on tour and put out our records. What else would you call it?


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Arcade Fire 07: Tim, Richie, Jeremy

Final interview today from this week's Arcade Fire files, and perhaps the most entertaining of the three due to the back-and-forth banter.

This band needs no further introduction, and the interview is long enough already, so...

Topics covered: learning how to be a band again, recording miscellany, the strengths and absurdities of self-sufficiency, lyrical themes, viral marketing and mistaken leaks to iTunes.

Arcade Fire
January 20, 2007
Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry, and Jeremy Gara
Locale: Café Amandine, the day after their show at Ottawa’s Canterbury High School, and a few hours before they played St. Michael’s Church across the street, at the corner of St. Viateur and St. Urbain.

I was looking back at my interviews from the last time we talked, right before the release of Funeral. At that point Win was worried that people wouldn’t like it as much as the EP, and you two were second-guessing things in the recording and the mix and still wanting to tweak it. How does that compare to how you feel now with this record, now that it’s ready?

R: Sort of the same. (laughs)

T: By this point, however, we’re a lot more finished with the record than we were with Funeral. I mean, we’re definitely finished! (laughs) If there’s anything on it that you wonder what it might sound like a bit differently, it’s certainly time to let go.

R: That’s so mature of you! The only way I can have that attitude is to think, “Oh, this part might not be exactly perfect, but it will be perfect live.”

T: I’ve really realised in the last month was remembering how learning the songs from Funeral—at the time, I thought, “Oh, are we ever going to get it right?” But I’ve been in autopilot in a way, the songs are so ingrained that I forgot that sensation. Learning these songs has been really weird—realising that we don’t know how to.

R: The first few real practices were awful. Devastating!

T: I feel like in three months from now we’ll be getting it.

During the last 14 months, there were no shows. You were writing and recording, but once that stopped, you were mixing and not playing together anymore. Is it like becoming a band again?

R: Yeah, and becoming a live team again. Making a record, there is no set way to do it, for anyone, but this band especially. Each recording process has been so different, and the lead-up has been so different. This time it was all new. None of it had really been played live, with a couple of exceptions. We were making a record all at once. With Funeral, it was: play it live, record a couple of songs, play it live, record a couple of songs, write some new songs, play them live, record some more. Now it’s a whole new everything at once. It’s becoming less overwhelming for me, but at first, it was like, ‘Oh god!’ Doing a couple of [new songs] in a set of stuff is different. You don’t really know the real dynamics of a song live until you play it [in front of an audience]. You can rehearse it a million times, but you don’t know what it’s like to have songs together until you bring them to people. Last night during “Intervention,” I felt I knew the place of this song in the set.

T: I felt that way in “Well and the Lighthouse.”

Right after Funeral came out, within a month you retreated to Maine to write songs and chop wood. There were new songs for a while in the set, and it seemed like at one point you consciously dropped them from the live set and just played the album.

J: We wrote “Intervention” in the woods and played it for a while, but yeah, it dropped off.

T: “Cold Wind.” “Burning Bridges.” I think they just needed work.

J: The set as a whole, with 15 songs that we had down really good, was really strong and fun, and didn’t feel like we needed others.

R: During the end of that tour, we started going a bit crazy and started throwing random covers into the mix to have something really rough that felt fresh.

J: It was certainly longer than any of us had ever done that before.

What were those?

T: “Age of Consent” by New Order. [they all sing it]

J: “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

T: We never did that live, just for a radio show.

R: “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen. We were doing “Queen Bitch” by David Bowie.

T: “Naïve Melody,” but that was a bit earlier.

R: Oh, and the Violent Femmes song, [struggles to remember name], “Kiss Off.”

This record keeps much of the same aesthetic of Funeral and makes it bigger, yet without being overly polished, like so many people’s first big follow-up record often does.

J: That’s great.

R: That’s a sigh of relief.

One of the things I loved about Funeral was where everything sat in the mix: indistinguishable instruments, a synth that could be an oddly treated string or a guitar, nothing is clearly separated…

T: (sarcastically) Every one of those things is very clearly mapped out.

R: We record each song seven or eight times before we get to that result. (laughs)

The other interesting thing for me was watching rehearsals the other night, and realising how much of it sounds like the live band does, how little studio tweaking or effects there are. Aesthetically, what were your intentions?

T: We talked about using the Bob Dylan school of trying to get really good live performances live together…

R: …in a big room, with that chaotic vibe.

T: Taking that and then overdubbing stuff on top of it.

R: To give it a bit more control, or weirder elements that you might not be able to do live.

Did the “Antichrist” guitar solo really take a day and a half?

R: Oh god, that was awful. [Tim does ridiculous imitation of it] This was a guitar solo for dummies by a non-guitar player…

T: Inspired by “Shot from the Heart” [Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”]

J: With a time limit. [Richard had to leave on tour with Bell Orchestre the next day.]

R: But also by not ever calling myself a guitarist, in a weird way at that point in the song, I knew I had to do some blazing shit there. Something has to come out of it like a phoenix. Knowing it really needed that was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to do.

J: It’d be fine if you had time to think about it, but it was more like: you need to do this now.

R: That was quite a day. Bleeding fingers and crying eyes.

The guitar style you’re using in that song I hear throughout the record. It’s almost a mandolin-style, fast strumming on single notes. Where did that come from?

R: It’s more recent in recordings. It started on “No Cars Go” on the EP, which is when I kind of started playing in the band. Not really being a guitar player by training or practice, I just started playing that way. It’s also a sonic necessity in this band. You can’t just slap another dude banging out chords into such a mishmash of musical elements, so it developed in this organic way, combining my lack of guitar ability and thinking about where it could be useful. It’s also trying to find an interesting sonic and melodic layer in the song.

J: It’s gotta cut through.

R: 'Okay, there’s already two acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and an orchestra… let’s go high and thin and sit on top, delicately.' Hopefully.

Much of the material for Funeral was written in part to announce a new band, and was deliberately bombastic and attention grabbing. Especially after playing that material around the world for a year, I almost expected the new songs to retreat somewhat. And yet, they sound even bigger and grandiose than ever. Did you think about pulling things back at all, or did you just want to do more? ‘If we have the chance to use an orchestra, why not?’

J: The orchestration and the decisions for that are more song to song than a global idea. It definitely had to do with being able to do it.

T: I don’t remember any conversation where we said that we had to make it huge. Except maybe “No Cars.”

J: That was meant to be more like the live version, and with orchestration.

R: I feel like it was less manic than previously. Which is what it is, and made me nervous in some ways. But you can only really be that manic and jumping out there for the first time once. You can be manic if you want, but you can only claw your way out there for the first time once.

J: Unless you fail, then you can do that for your entire career! (all laugh)

R: I can feel an energetic difference between the two. This is less manic, but hopefully it doesn’t feel any less unhinged.

J: We’re still figuring it out. I joined after the last record, but at least during the touring, there was this attitude of: ‘our life depends on this,’ ‘give it all you got or die.’ It wasn’t discussed, but that’s how it felt.

R: That was there from the get-go. It was weird doing that to 15 people in Guelph and then later doing it for 15,000 people. But that’s how we do it, whether we’re playing in Brantford when you’re in everyone’s face…

J: Now, with these songs, the energy level still has to be there…

T: We’re old!

J: But that’s true! I felt weak last night, like I am not in the same shape that I once was.

R: It’s more that we haven’t found it yet as a live band yet with this material. Whereas with Funeral, we found that a year before the record came out.

Or two days before the record came out. When were you hired, Jeremy?

J: Tim let me know I was needed for some touring while I was in Europe with another band, Maritime. Then the Pitchfork review came out and I thought, “This is going to be longer than I think it is.” I got home and we rehearsed two and a half times, and then we went. Before, it was like my life depended on it, but now it’s the same as the process of recording the album: we can take as much time as we want, we can perform anytime and anywhere we want, and it adds different stresses on it. It’s like we have to find a reason to have that energy.

Like you’re less hungry?

J: No, there just seemed like there was something more impending about last time. Then it was like, “Must do this or else.” Now it’s, “Must do this—why?” At least in my head. Maybe it’s just me. Now I’m way more settled in the band.

Were you not road managing the band as well during that time?

J: I did for a month, and it was awful. I mean, it was fine, we’re still alive, but it almost cost me a relationship. But they paid my phone bill, which was nice.

R: That’s all you asked for, dude!

Things kept getting bigger and bigger without even a manager on board, without a lot of things that most bands have in place before they get to that stage. What do you remember about that time period?

J: My favourite was pulling up to one of the venues when I was tour managing, it was the Commodore in Vancouver, and people asking, “Where’s your truck and crew? Where’s the band?” It’s like, “We are the band, this is the gear.” It struck me as so funny, thinking, are we going to do this forever? Because I’m really tired!

T: That’s the most exhausted I’ve ever been.

R: The next morning I woke up and felt like I was dying.

T: Well, that’s because you got dropped on your head that night by Will. Didn’t you get a concussion?

R: No concussion, but I did have a goose egg.

J: Getting a manager was at the exact right time. If we’d even waited another week or two we would have killed ourselves.

T: That was in March 05.

R: We met him at our second London show.

J: It was at a point in the tour where it was calm enough to talk to him. If he had come in the middle of the American leg, we would have been out of it. But in Europe we had a tour manager and could actually talk about this kind of thing.

T: “Why are we going out for dinner with you again?”

R: It was so nice, that the one stranger you meet was like that, was a guy that you’d let sleep on the bus.

T: He just slept on the couch at the back.

I can’t imagine you let a lot of those kind of guys sleep on the bus.

R: No, not really.

During that period of time, how hard was it to keep a bubble around the band, to keep all the biz stuff at arm’s length?

R: It wasn’t an issue at that specific point in Europe, because there wasn’t any time. You’d get on the bus and you’d drive to Switzerland overnight.

T: But the January tour was insane. There were a lot of managers and A&R people and publishing people wanting to take us out for dinner.

R: Definitely in every city.

J: Without a manager, even though we had a bubble, a self-contained world, it was pretty easy [for someone] to bust into. We didn’t say no to anything. We met and said hello and were friendly. We definitely made time to meet everyone who wanted to meet us, but it wasn’t until we got exhausted that we realised we should put up a bit of a curtain.

T: We were mostly curious about what was going on.

J: Yeah, we learned a tonne. It was exhausting, but it was worthwhile, and it helped inform the decisions we’ve made since then. Just meeting everyone in the entire world of the music biz.

T: (laughs) “I don’t want to work with him, I don’t want to work with him.”

J: "I don’t want to work with any of these people!"

R: "It’s a shit heap! Who are you people? Who trained you?"

J: I thought I wanted to say no, but now I KNOW I want to say no. (laughs)

R: I was really thankful that at some point during that time that we were as many people as we were. It was really easy to say, “Fuck you, we’re a group of friends and we’re going to do what we do regardless.” If you were a solo person and a similar thing was happening, I can’t even imagine.

It’s your own support group.

J: It says a lot of about the group of people that we are. It’s the weirdest assortment of weirdos, but there was so seldom a time when everyone was not agreeing fully about that whole side of things. Everyone was on the same page. “That dude WAS an asshole!” (all laugh)

What about the weight of some of the celebrity endorsements you got? Did you get any valuable advice from any of them?

J: David Byrne sent a detailed email once, which was not so much advice, but how he felt about the situation we were in.

R: Which was as much about the modern music world as it was about us. I think he put an identical thing up afterwards on his blog. It basically said, “If a band can do what they do and be happy doing it and get a mild income out of it, then is the music industry needed? Are big recording budgets needed? Are big studios needed?” It was interesting.

One of the reason a lot of people do take those offers is because they want the comfort of knowing that someone else is going to foot the studio bill, that they can then indulge any of their recording wishes. Yet listening to this, it doesn’t sound limited at all. It sounds like everything you wanted to do. Staying independent, did you feel limited at all? Obviously it helps that it’s a successful band.

J: Yeah, we were really lucky

T: We weren’t counting on a huge advance from somebody to do this.

R: That was thanks in no small part to being lucky at how this has gone, ending up in a good record label situation where we’re seeing a fair amount of the money. Whereas most artists can work their butt off and really get stiffed. We’ve been extremely lucky in that sense.

Was it very conscious to make a lot of investments, such as buying a church and a studio and becoming self-sustainable? When did you start having those conversations?

R: In theory it was probably a given in everyone’s mind from day one: if you can, it would be awesome to own your own studio and make records regardless of how you’re doing. So if the opportunity to be able to do that comes up and the resources are there, you do it.

T: We were also comparing the options of going into a studio and building our own, and it seemed like a wiser investment.

J: Building a studio might seem extravagant, but it’s still basic: a band needs a place to play. It’s also just a venue to play music in.

R: For any musician, it’s more important to keep making music than anything else. If there’s an opportunity to establish that, it won’t go anywhere. Even if everyone stops liking the band, we’ll still have a place to go and play.

I understand that a church is built for acoustic reasons and it also doubles as a spacious rehearsal space, but working in churches has been a constant with this band. Living in a town like this where churches are constantly repurposed for condos and other things, are there other elements that attract you to churches?

T: We can’t tell you.

R: Or we’d have to kill you.

J: I heard that word for word from Win’s mouth the other day. That should become this year’s motto. Last year it was, ‘Don’t keep all your snakes in one bag.’

R: Win and Regine had talked about finding one to live in, and then they found this one and figured it would make a great studio. It’s cool to be in a building that has a history to it, as opposed to studios that are just studios. Oddly enough, those just feel like studios. ‘There’s the photo of Mick Jagger on the wall. There’s a photo of a young Rod Stewart. Isn’t that nice—all that’s ever happened here is people making rock records.’ Or you can find somewhere that has a bit more life.

And instead, you have a neon crucifix that says ‘Jesus’ on it in your studio space.

T: And personalized notes from Bob Johnston. [60s Columbia Records producer known for key records by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Simon and Garfunkel, who was brought in briefly as a potential producer on Neon Bible.]

J: I couldn’t find them the other day. [Engineer] Marcus [Dravs] was trying to find them.

T: I know where they are.

Was he leaving graffiti?

T: We played him some songs and he took notes. The one just said: “hashish, bud, 123456789, horses.”

R: Another one was just a self-portrait with a sharpie that’s remarkably accurate. The one most resembling track notes just said: “#1. Drums?” We’re thinking of framing them.

What is the history of that church?

R: Someone was living in it, and they were actually doing concerts in it. I knew a couple of people in the area who used to go to shows there.

T: It was only a church for 30 years. Then it was a Masonic lodge for a while. Then it was closed for about 20 years.

J: Didn’t one of our contractors vandalize it when he was youunger?

T: Really? I didn’t hear that. That’s hilarious.

J: Yeah, he was like, ‘Oh, I know this place from when it was abandoned.’ When he was a kid he’d throw rocks through the windows and got in trouble with the law. In his adult life, he was hired to renovate it. His karma must be even steven.

A couple of months ago, Jeremy, you were joking that all the songs were about god or bombs. How accurate do you think that is?

J: I’m the worst person to ask. I pay the least attention to lyrics.

R: Yes, there are definitely lyrical themes on the record.

There’s a lot of apocalyptic imagery, a lot of end times, a lot of fine balance between hope and despair. A lot of stuff that could be pulled from recent headlines, but can you think of personal experiences or books or films or anything else you’ve encountered individually that went into the mood of the record?

(super long pause)

R: There’s a specific line in “Antichrist Television Blues” of “want to hold a mirror up to the world.” That’s an idea for me that’s omnipresent through the record. Trying to reflect back what’s coming at you, what you’re seeing around you in a really conscious way and not necessarily in an event-by-event way, more in a holistic way of reflecting what’s coming at you.

I find Funeral is very introverted, very much about family, neighbourhood, community and relating to the rest of the outside world and venturing forth. Listening to this, even if you didn’t know the history of the band, you can tell it’s a group of people who saw a lot of the world in a short time. There’s more room for general statements, more explicit political things—which can easily result in a lot of bad poetry in the wrong hands. How do you think it’s approached here?

T: A lot of bad songs are too literal. I can’t think of many good songs that are written that just state facts. Maybe “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan. I feel like on this record it’s all done as a mash-up of real events and the mood that you feel underneath and around them.

R: More impressionistic, thrown together, in a sense. You never exactly know what’s being said. There’s a lot of things being said at once that intermingle and bend each other a little bit, which I think is good. Lyrically, it’s a place where things can get boggy. I think Win does that really well. That’s one of the things I like about his lyric writing, is the balance of ideas and literal things and personal things with non-literal and non-personal things.

Who else do you think does that well?

R: Outside of the band? David Byrne definitely does an awesome job of bringing in weird ideas, at different periods of his career, obviously. In a lot of Talking Heads songs there are a lot of different things going on at once and you don’t quite know what’s being said but it’s clear that it’s something strong and interesting.

J: It’s like modern dance. If you feel a general malaise, for example, then it’s effective. [chuckles]

R: Or something where you can experience the whole thing on a perceptual level, and come away from it knowing what it was about without scrutinizing every line.

J: That’s why I’m not a lyric guy, and why The Cure is one of my all-time favourite bands. I’m fully aware that a lot of their lyrics are so blunt and obvious and not terribly interesting, but on an album level…

R: On a gestalt level…

J: It still leaves me with a certain feeling. It’s the same with dance. The really literal dance often sucks. The dance where you sort of get what they’re going for, at least they point you in a certain direction… Win is really good at that, for me. I don’t often know what he’s referring to, but I like the general impression I get listening to this record thematically. Even if I’m not sure what it is. I know there’s something there, and it’s scary.

Is that communicated musically as well? I’m thinking of how non-English speakers will relate to this, or how we in turn relate to non-English speaking music, something where you don’t have lyrical signifiers to tell you how to feel. When I think of David Byrne, I think of how underrated he is as a lyricist, because he’s not obvious, because it might be perceived as nonsensical—like the words projected behind him in Stop Making Sense—but a lot of his lyrics do communicate very effectively through very simple phrases.

R: Totally. Bob Dylan is a good example too, although he sits at both ends of the axis. He can write something totally literal in the most poetic way, but also combine that with: ‘what the hell is he talking about?’

J: I love that, when even if you don’t know, you’re left with this specific feeling and you don’t know why. It’s the same musically on [Neon Bible], where you don’t know what instrument is playing what. That’s one of the fun things about the record. You’re left confused at times, which is exciting.

R: Back to the previous conversation of finding the performance energy of a particular body of work, I think that helps—I hope it does—because it leaves a certain space in terms of what we are doing here, certain things being clear and certain things not. It feels like a healthy dynamic, artistically, for a performing ensemble.

I’m curious to hear people’s reaction to “Windowsill,” which is the most literal song on the record. It struck me last night [at the high school gig], while wondering whether or not people there were listening to the lyrics—or in fact, if they could hear the lyrics, it being in a cafeteria. Maybe because people haven’t heard the record yet, they weren’t really absorbing a lot of the new material.

T: I think a lot of the people there last night were thinking: “Is this cool?” (laughs)

J: “Do I look cool? Am I dancing the right way?” I know Win has been preparing for this [question].

R: The journalistic bombast.

J: You never know, people might skim over it. But he has it in his mind that that song in particular, people will ask him about it.

He could be the new Dixie Chicks! People might take that line really seriously. I find the song interesting because there’s definitely the expatriate-ism there, and he told me that when he wrote it, it was the first time that he consciously didn’t feel American anymore.

Yet there’s also this thing in the song—and I don’t know if this is intentional or not—but it could be interpreted as NIMBY. The narrator is obviously aware of things being done in his name that he doesn’t feel responsible for, but the chorus itself of “don’t wanna see it at my windowsill” also suggests a desire for a veil of distance or even of ignorance. “I don’t want to see this, keep it away from me.” And that’s at the heart of so much of what’s happened in the last few years.

R: I haven’t talked about this with Win, but for me I assume there’s really strong religious overtones with that song. You can take it literally, the line: “don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.” But for me there’s a second level there, distancing youself from a metaphorical house that you come from, which to me is interesting because it’s very thematic with the rest of the album. I hope that doesn’t get missed, but it probably will, just because the word “America” is in there as well.

When I think of the title image, whenever I think of neon I think of the service industry, of motels, of fast food.

R: Blade Runner.

That’s a whole other level of artifice!

R: It’s also neon in itself is this weird thing. When it happened, people put it everywhere and thought it was this vision of the future, but as it ages it’s this dirty, shitty relic of the past.

J: “Holy shit, do I look bad in this light!”

R: That too! Now we have all these shitty, aged neon signs that were once a vision of the future light.

It also plays into treating religion like a service that can be marketed, and sold as an ultimate answer as opposed to an ongoing quest.

R: Also blind consumerism. Not in a direct way, but I feel like that’s there: humans living in the world as consumers, as participants, how people choose to be in the world and react to the world and treat the world.

That ties into [“Antichrist Television Blues”] as well.

J: And the Red Campaign, if you want to take it further. [Arcade Fire licensed the song “Rebellion” to the Red Campaign in late 2006, where one dollar from certain consumer products were donated to African AIDS relief.] That’s the only thing we’ve said yes to all year. It’s the only thing that admits to the blatant consumerism of North America. So let’s tap into that for good, or at least try, instead of pretending that’s not the way responsible people are. That’s the only reason it was interesting to anybody.

People are more likely to buy something than they are to write a cheque to a charity.

J: Clearly. Especially right before Christmas, when you are going to spend hundreds of dollars on shit. You might as well tap into that. We didn’t even do that much for it, but it’s the same theme as much of the record. We’ve been approached by a lot of things we’ve said no to.

T: There are other charities too, though, like Partners in Health.

I liked how that was the way “Intervention” was released…

R: You mean masquerading as another song? (all laugh)

[“Intervention” was the first song from Neon Bible sold on iTunes, in December 2006. All proceeds were to go to Haitian charity Partners in Health. But due to a wrong click of the button, someone from the band/management/Merge Records team sent the song “Black Wave” instead.]

I was thinking more of the fact that every band obviously markets a song before the release of an album, but you chose to use that advance hype for a charitable cause.

R: Next album we’ll use everything for evil!

T: (starts singing) “Get out of my way! I’m driving too fast! For yo mamma!”

How long was the wrong song up on iTunes?

J: A few days. It was right before Christmas, so no one was around to check it. I was having the most relaxing Christmas, so calm. Win called a couple of times and left messages. I mean, we see each other all the time, so it’s not often you get a call out of the blue. But Win called to say Merry Christmas, and then called back a couple of hours later to say, ‘Did you know the wrong song is up on iTunes?’ And Christmas came tumbling down!

T: I woke up on Boxing Day and was on the computer, and hadn’t looked at the fan forum in weeks. But I saw the subject header “Intervention up on iTunes” and clicked on it, and they were all talking about “Black Wave.” I emailed [manager] Scott [Rodger] and said, “Dear Scott. How come ‘Black Wave’ is up on iTunes? I hope you’re having a nice holiday. Love, Tim.’ He emailed me back saying, ‘I just got back from a nice walk in Hyde Park with my family, and I don’t really know what you’re talking about, but I’ll look into it.’ Two minutes later he emailed back, ‘They’ve uploaded the wrong song!’

R: Was it in all caps?

J: To be honest, because it happened over Christmas and it was for charity, it was laughable. Of course, this is the first thing we try to do [with Neon Bible’s release] and it’s completely fucked up!

R: And of course it was the first thing about the album entirely carried out by someone else, and it was done wrong!

J: But it was Christmas, and Win had slept for the first time in over a week, and he was laughing about it, which shocked me. It’s like, oh well, people will have to buy that song and buy “Intervention” and give more money to charity. It’s not the end of the world.

R: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

J: What’s hilarious is if you read the message boards and the blogs, people seem to think we did that on purpose as some kind of marketing scheme. ‘Oh, their marketing team is really going viral on this one and trying to screw with everything.’ If they had any idea of how off-the-cuff and in-the-living-room and pinhole-camera our entire viral campaign was, they’d be laughing.

R: People said, ‘Oh, the marketing people at their label are geniuses.’ Well, Will set up the 1-866 number from our living room. We shot the infomercial at Win’s house on an internal camera in about four hours.

T: We sent out a junk email about 15 minutes are conceiving it. “Let’s do it now!”

J: “Why? I don’t know! It will be funny!”

I heard you were also answering the phone at the 1-866[-NEON-BIBLE] number.

R: Yeah, and calling people back. Will took a few.

J: I think Regine took a few, too.

What were those conversations like?

R: I never answered the phone.

J: Will said they were pretty casual. People would ask, “Are you playing Coachella?” He’d say, “I’m not sure!” (laughs) I think people are really taken aback. I think it’s great, especially because Will is really well-spoken and nicest guy ever. ‘Oh, you’re just a normal, nice dude. I guess I don’t have any questions for you!’

T: ‘So, uh, why are you calling?’

J: There’s nothing viral about setting up a phone number. The onus is then on the consumer to pursue it.

R: That’s the whole point. It’s like, whaddya mean, why did we make a phone number? Why did you call a phone number that you thought had something to do with a band? That’s kind of weird, don’t you think?

J: The most active marketing thing we did was have people flyer a Guns ‘N Roses show in L.A. They handed out 1-866-NEON-BIBLE handbills before anybody knew it had anything to do with the band. So the only marketing we did had nothing to do with anything, just to see what would happen.

R: We did put a couple of ads up that just said 1-866-NEON-BIBLE, randomly, but that was way before people knew that’s what the record was called. There you go, there’s your advertising budget: a couple of one-line ads!

J: It’s just fun to toy with the whole idea of things.

When Funeral broke, it struck me as funny that suddenly articles were being written about this city being a new centre of the universe, citing a lot of bands that I’d never seen you play a bill with. What was your reaction to that?

R: Just don’t move here because you read about it in a magazine, is all I ask! It’s not worth it.

T: I don’t feel it has any long-term implications.

J: Especially in Montreal. If it was any other city, it might be different, but not in Montreal.

R: At least if people move here and they can’t speak French and get a job, then they’ll leave.

J: I think to tie us into it, especially when we were doing the album, was absurd. We were on tour for a year and a half, and barely saw anybody from Montreal.

Arcade Fire also became a descriptor for a type of band, or a sound, or even a type of success.

T: You mean Arcade Fire-esque?

R: I prefer Arcade Fire-ish.

J: Did you hear that last night at the school one of the teachers called [violinist] Sarah [Neufeld] “a flame?” As in, a member of Arcade Fire is “a flame.” “Are you one of the flames?”

R: Woah, let’s nip that one in the bud.

T: The teachers were really funny.


T: They were being teachers!

R: The same teachers I had ten years ago!


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Arcade Fire 07: Win & Regine 2

The day before the Arcade Fire's first live show in 14 months, in January of this year, time was precious and an interview time was a luxury. Following up on our conversation the night before, their manager's assistant suggested that I stalk the band while they were fitted for their custom stage earplugs the next morning, squeezing in time with Win and Regine while they waited for their appointment.

Naturally, that didn't work out, but we did break for lunch at a nearby food court, where we walked through the Neon Bible track list to discuss lyrics as well as socio-political concerns, maintaining control of their career, the charities they're working with, encountering celebrity (both their own and others), and how the internet shaped with their quick ascendance. You know, the usual--along with some discussion of comparative religion.

Portions of this appeared in this AOL article.

Arcade Fire
Win & Regine
January 18, 2007
Locale: eating tikka chicken wraps in the Faubourg Food Court on Ste-Catherine

I thought today we could walk through the record a bit and talk about specific songs. Where did the image of “Black Mirror” come from?

W: I don’t know if I want to go too in depth. It’s an image of how so much of culture is how people want to see themselves in other things. A lot of TV and music is made to reflect how people are so that people relate to it. It was an image of something that’s the opposite of this reflection of yourself, an absence of the self. Wanting to see something that’s entirely not yourself. [long pause]

Is “Keep the Car Running” an older song? It sounds familiar.

W: We did play it after Funeral, though it wasn’t ever really a song.

R: I don’t think we ever played it outside of rehearsal.

Lyrically, this is one of the more oblique songs for me.

W: Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had these recurring dreams of people coming to get me all the time. It’s a familiar emotion from my dreams, and then having that resonate in the real world is a strange feeling.

Were you a paranoid kid?

W: No, not at all, really. I just have these dreams where someone’s coming, I don’t know who it is, and I have to get away.

Do you still have that dream?

W: Yup.

Who’s coming to get you now?

W: I never quite know. It’s always someone who doesn’t have good intentions. There’s a lot of stuff here about names and naming things, but I’m not sure what it is.

We talked about “Neon Bible” last night, and since then it struck me that whenever I think of neon I think of the service industry: a cheap motel, fast food restaurants. The phrase “neon bible” then implies someone treating religion as a commodity, something consumerist.

W: There’s definitely an aspect of religion always combining with culture and becoming a third thing. Where it gets weird is when people mistake the culture for religion, and vice versa. These deeply held beliefs that are partially cultural artifacts. The idea that every line in the Bible is supposed to apply to some real thing in your life and you have to find some way to make it all apply.

As much of it is story as it is parable.

W: For me, it’s hard to relate to so many different stories. There’s a lot to chew on in the Bible, and [it’s impossible] to think of it as one coherent whole that’s telling you one specific thing, like it’s some kind of manual on how to live. I don’t see how you can read that and get that out of it. There is some advice in there, but that’s not the overall sense I get. It’s way more varied than that.

You studied interpretive religious texts in school, didn’t you?

W: Yep.

I’m thinking of how integral it is in Jewish culture to debate the Torah all the time, that’s what Talmudic scholars do every day. Nothing’s set in stone, it’s all up for debate. Whereas for so much of fundamentalist Christianity, the Bible is untouchable.

W: Even in the different Jewish denominations, the spirit of the Talmudic texts was about interpretations, and then it becomes: ‘These are the interpretations.’ Know what I mean? Then the weird interpretations all get set in stone and that’s what it is.

That’s like people who transcribe John Coltrane solos. Let’s talk about “Intervention.” This is one of the many songs here talking about fear.

W: I thought a lot about how in the Bible it talks about the fear of God as an idea, and what that means exactly. “Black Wave” is similar to this. There are certain kinds of fear that make you want to change, and kinds of fear that make you want to stay the same and protect yourself.

For me, the fear of God is the type of fear where you’re in the middle of the ocean and there’s a giant black wave underneath you, it’s something you can’t see and it’s natural to have a certain amount of fear that’s about your relationship to a world that you don’t understand and trying to find your place in it.

Then there’s the kind of fear that makes you into a fortress, saying, “I am right.” Your fear then is some sort of protective thing. It can be used as a justification, or a way to not change. In the same way, many people read the Bible and take from it exactly what they want to believe. I think everyone’s like that. They want to take from the world where they already are. ‘Oh, the world supports the way I already am. That’s convenient.’

That brings us back to “Black Mirror.” When I think of so much media in the States, you have Fox News catering to one side, and Air America caters—or catered, I suppose—to the other. Have you ever looked at the satellite radio channels? One provider explicitly bills two of their channels as “all-talk right wing radio” and “all-talk left wing radio.”

W: I really think that’s the way stuff is headed. People want to be able to choose things that reflect exactly the way they are. To me, that’s where the culture starts to get weird.

R: You don’t need to think anymore.

W: It’s like a fake diversity, where people don’t have to come into contact with anything that’s fundamentally different from the way they think. It’s almost like you’re shocked when people feel differently about something. You’re outraged that someone can have fundamental beliefs that are different than yours. It’s sad. People talk so much about, ‘Oh, we all have so much in common. Why can’t we all get along?’ Well, if we had so much in common, then we WOULD get along. Not everything is the same. People do believe different things. Islam and Christianity are different. That’s why they’re in conflict so much. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

On the right wing, it’s all about “it’s different, so it’s evil.” And the left wing is all about “it’s all the same thing.” I think they’re both bullshit. No, shit’s fucking different, that’s why people are killing each other over this shit, because it’s actually different. It’s a superficial idea of understanding that doesn’t have anything to do with real life. If your parents get killed in a bombing, it takes a lot more than “Come on, we all share the same ideas” for people to actually forgive each other, for there actually to be understanding. The idea of forgiving someone who’s done something evil to you is a really terrifying idea. That’s why both sides ring hollow to me.

We’ll talk about forgiveness a bit more in a second. Were “Black Wave” and “Bad Vibrations” always meant to be one song, or two separate ones?

R: They were always together.

W: The first part is an escapist pop song, and the second part is “Woah, it’s coming for you!”

R: The first half is: “I can run away and it will be fine. You can make it if you try!”

W: There’s this Bruce Springsteen thing on Funeral that’s kind of like, [sings] “We’re gonna run away and we’re gonna make it, baby!” This time, it’s like, “You can run, but you can’t hide. It’s still gonna be there.” [laughs]

Keep the car running, because they’re coming for you. What about the line “eating in the ghetto on a hundred dollar plate”—where did that come from?

W: The Brazil thing we were talking about last night.

R: They both relate to Brazil.

W: Not directly, but the feeling.

“Ocean of Noise”? [long pause]

W: I’m really proud of that one. It was hard for us to play that soft and slow and to get the feel of it. I’m really happy with how it turned out. Lyrically, it’s a feeling I wanted to get off my chest.

[long pause] “The Well and the Lighthouse” is based on a fable by Fontaine, called “The Fox and the Wolf.” The basic plot is a fox who is really hungry and sees a piece of cheese at the bottom of a well, so he lowers himself down to get it. But it’s just a reflection of the moon. He thinks he’s going to die down there, but he hears a wolf coming. So he calls out, ‘Hey, Mr. Wolf, there’s this delicious cheese down here, do you want to come and get it?’ As the wolf is lowering himself down, he lets the fox get up. Basically, you always fall for what you desire. Fontaine always tells a story and then has a moral at the end, which is: don’t laugh at the wolf, because everyone is willing to believe what they desire or what they fear. Those two things make people blind. [Vocally in the duet,] Regine is the fox and I’m the wolf.

What is the image of the lighthouse, and how does that tie in?

R: If you draw a well, and you draw a lighthouse, they’re the complete opposite in every possible aspect. Darkness, light, everything.

The next song here [“Antichrist Television Blues”] is the epic.

W: My ribs hurt after singing this song. This song is the same idea we were talking about before. The creepiest lyric here encapsulates the whole thing: “wanna hold a mirror up to the world so they can see themselves inside my little girl.” It’s this idea of trying to make cultural art that reflects exactly the way people are, but it expresses the pornography of that idea at the same time. There are always these 45-year old men behind the whole thing, writing the lyrics and everything. It’s a sexual fantasy which is a normal part of the culture. That’s fine, I’m not a prude about it. It’s just depressing to hear girls talking as if they’re making their own choices when it’s so obvious that they’re not, when they’re slaves in a certain sense. The idea that they’re selling is not helping any girls out, that’s for sure.

You’ve talked about culture only reflecting what people are, which is fine to some degree, but personally I’ve always wanted culture to also be something that we aspire to, something that is more than what we are. The second you stand up and try and do something different or grandiose, the worst slur someone can throw at you is that you’re pretentious, and that’s somehow a negative thing. As opposed to supposedly acting like people in the street, who in fact are merely imitating those that purport to be reflecting people in the street. It’s a strange circle.

W: It’s cliché, but we really do live in a time that is very different from when we were kids, in terms of the amount of information that people distill. There’s even a generational gap between [younger brother] Will [Butler] and kids who are five years younger than him. This google generation or whatever, seeing the direct impact on the way people process information, it’s amazing.

Better? Worse? Both?

W: I don’t know. I think about my grandpa, who died when he was 96. Which means he was born in 1908, and was in New York when they were building the Empire State Building. He then drove out to California with plagues going across the desert and there was no highway. I’m acutely aware of living through a somewhat similar thing when I’ll tell someone, “Yeah, we were around before the internet.” And they’re like, “What are you talking about?!”

We were talking last night about how people might respond to “Windowsill.” Have you given it any more thought?

W: I feel like this is a weird generation, where people think, “Oh, no, not another thing about war. Oh, c’mon.” I’m sure there will be a bit of: “Oh, c’mon already, haven’t we already talked about this?”

But we haven’t really. All things considered, there really hasn’t been that much music that addresses the past five years.

W: I feel the same way a bit when the Neil Young thing comes out, and it’s like, c’mon.

I felt like saying, “Thanks for finally showing up, Grandpa!”

W: All you can do is say what you feel inspired to say.

Is a song like this hard to write, considering how loaded it could be?

W: It was pretty to easy to write. It kind of wrote itself. It says exactly what I wanted it to say, so it doesn’t feel like a put-on. Take it or leave it. I feel like it’s talking about something in a way that isn’t just criticism. It’s not the same as Green Day’s “American Idiot” thing. Maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Who was responsible for the commercial? [posted on YouTube in January]

W: All of us, basically. It’s Will’s voice, my body and Richard [Reed Parry]’s face. Richard did the editing. He had never used iMovie before; he learned that night.

R: I held the curtain. It was really spontaneous.

W: We used the built-in camera on the laptop, and a pair of headphones for the audio.

R: We had Jeremy [Gara] make a little soundtrack of samples from the album.

W: We knew we were going to put that up with the tracklisting. Then we realised it reminded us of those TV commercials for greatest hits records.

R: Then we realised, “Hey, doesn’t this laptop have a camera on it?”

When did you realise that Arcade Fire was becoming shorthand for a genre or a type of band?

W: I haven’t noticed that.

R: No.

W: What kind of band is that? Kind of theatrical?

Not really. Usually lots of group singing, usually a large band.

W: Uh-huh.

Of varying quality. Sometimes it’s just a cheap descriptor, other times I can see a similarity but the band has their own interesting things going on. Other times it sounds like a bunch of macho guys who heard Funeral and decided to reinterpret it their own way.

W: Thankfully I’ve been shielded from anything that’s been influenced by us.

When you went on the road, you didn’t have a manager, and that first six months was very whirlwind. Were you holding out for something?

W: We didn’t really want a manager, because we felt they usually did more harm than good. But Scott [Rodger] and ourselves were kind of looking for each other, it turns out. We were curious who managed Bjork, because she seems to have done what she wants, whether it be stupid or not, and has managed to stay around and never really do the radio thing and still be able to do it. And he had heard our record and was coming to our show anyway. He came to France for a show, and ended up coming on the bus and sleeping on the bus. We just really hit it off.

R: Right away. Even without either of us working together, he was already starting to help us. It happened really naturally.

W: He’s really motivated by artistic stuff. It couldn’t work any other way.

I know you’ve always had very high standards about what you do, and not wanting to do things the same way other rock bands do them. In doing that, and in being quite stubborn about a lot of that, you’ve also attracted a lot of people to you that don’t want to play the regular game. Do you get accused of being difficult for putting your foot down? Because you were very self-contained for so long, too.

W: Probably we do, but I don’t hear about it. The thing that’s frustrating for us that probably comes across weird is in Montreal how we’ve always played smaller shows that people can’t actually get into. It’s not a hype thing. We just haven’t wanted to play bigger places as long as we can play a week’s worth of shows or whatever. Part of me feels bad because I really want people to be able to see us, and this summer we’ll probably do some big outdoor shows. But the idea of going into these shitty big clubs, it wouldn’t be worth doing. It’s a trade-off.

It’s a lot more work to find these smaller venues, however. My impression of the dates you’re doing in February is that they’re not traditional venues, many of them, or certainly not used to rock shows.

W: Everything is ten times the work for, like, half the return.

R: Everything! It would be so easy to say, “OK, jewel case, here’s the template, go for it.” But no, we have to use this colour and this and that.

W: I really wish we could let go of it more sometimes. But whatever. Vincent and Tracy are so great, and are even more detail-obsessive than we are. It’s a crazy combo. But it’s good, because you have to live with this shit for the rest of your life, so you might as well do it the best you fucking can. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s just landfill.

You had a lot of high profile endorsements from people I know you respected. Did they pass on any advice you took to heart?

W: It’s cool to see where people are later in their careers, and how they’ve done it. Not necessarily as a model. Very often you meet rock dudes who make rock music and they’re mentally retarded. So meeting people who have real lives and who are interesting…

R: And they’re connected to the world.

W: They’re not in la-la land. It’s good to see.

I know you were offered opening slots for everyone under the sun. Is U2 the only one you took?

W: Those were the only bigger shows we did.

R: Those were just in Montreal and Ottawa.

Why did you say yes to them, and not anyone else?

W: We thought it would be fun to play a couple of big hometown shows at the end.

R: We hadn’t played in Montreal that much, and we were about to stop. They were coming here, so it wasn’t like we had to leave to go somewhere else.

So you told them they had to come to you!

W: It was a fun opportunity. As weird as it is to play those big places, more people saw us that night than have ever seen play in Montreal, period. It was cool that people weren’t expecting to see us. It was a warm feeling, not a typical shitty opening slot where no one’s paying attention. Their stage set-up is pretty interesting: it’s very low, with no barriers.

R: Very close to the people.

W: Really well-designed. Not that I would want to do those kind of venues all the time, but it’s fun to do once in a while.

How would you describe your connection to Montreal audiences, seeing as how you haven’t played here much in the last three years? I’ve heard ridiculous scalper stories about the February shows. What do you want to do when you play your hometown?

W: It’s great to play at home. We had a period where one time would be great, one time would be weird. But the shows at the Corona were some of our best shows we’ve ever played, a really warm feeling. It didn’t feel like this petty Montreal thing. I love this city so much. I think it has so much to offer. It’s important for us to do stuff here, and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.

How is your level of fame on the streets of Montreal?

R: It’s good. It’s perfect. I love it! Nobody recognizes us.

So much of what made this band successful was word of mouth and the live show, even before everyone started talking about it on the internet once the album came out. But since then, the internet has been both a boon and a bane to your career: on the one hand, it spread word even faster, on the other hand, it’s out of control when it comes to speculation and leaked tracks, etc.

W: It’s kind of a bummer to not be able to play more live without it being a big thing. There was a point when I was writing in my online journal quite a bit, until I realised that I was basically just writing for Pitchfork and NME. I might as well be doing that directly. There was a good six months that was frustrating, because it was coming across like I was trying to build up some hype for the album. I’d say, ‘We did this.’ And within minutes, those sites would be like, ‘They did this!’ Not that I’m perusing the internet all the time—I try not to think about it at all—but it bounces back at you.

I think our approach is definitely centered around the live show. I’m just excited to get these songs sounding good enough to play in front of people. I think that’s our strongest point. The rest takes care of itself. You can get away with being a shitty live band and still have people buy your records, but it’s much more inspiring to me to make the live thing really good and not to think about the radio too much.

“Intervention” was put up on iTunes with all proceeds going to Partners in Health. Why did you choose them?

W: The stuff we’re doing with them is really exciting. We’re going to do this thing where a dollar or a euro off of every concert ticket we sell this year will go directly to Partners in Health—the promoter can’t touch it, we can’t touch it, no one. I read this book by Paul Farmer, the guy who started this charity in Haiti, and felt really challenged by it. Here’s someone who’s devoted his life to this approach of giving people medicine and housing and food and how those are all inter-related. It’s all related to health. Having food and basic shelter is as important as anti-viral medication. Through Regine’s family, I feel really drawn to Haiti. From what I’ve seen, it seems the work he’s doing is really amazing. For me, the potential for raising money for them is the most exciting thing about this whole process. Because I know that we’ll see the work he does.

R: That’s the only thing that excites me about a lot of people knowing what we do, which is the possibility to do things like this.

Did you know Partners in Health before? Was your family involved in anything down there?

R: No.

W: Your dad saw Paul Farmer speak.

R: Yeah, but that’s it.

Are you going to go there at any point?

W: Definitely.

R: We have to. I want to. I’ve never been.

You’ve also done stuff for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti [all proceeds from the six shows in April 2005 in Montreal and Toronto] , Katrina relief [the Fashion Cares iTunes EP with David Bowie] and the Project Red campaign [licensing “Rebellion” for use in the commercial]. Are there others?

W: We’re going to do some Montreal stuff. The secret show on Saturday is for Mission Mile End.

R: I want to do stuff with Dans La Rue, but we haven’t organized it yet.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Arcade Fire 07: Win & Regine 1

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.]

Arcade Fire
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?

Both: “Intervention.”

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?

(awkward laughs)

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]