The sound of the suburbs

ARCADE FIRE's third album is a sprawling 16-song epic that evokes everyone from The Byrds to The Ramones.

The ‘burbs are taboo in rock ‘n' roll. The homogenous sprawl has produced a succession of blank generations who grew up to be Dylans or Strummers or Springsteens or Smiths, but musicians still tend to get shifty about middle-class origins, compelled to forge a fictional bio in which the principal was dropped to earth in a Martian pod, raised by carny folk, hopped trains from the age of ten and taught himself to write songs on a one-string lyre won from Blind Deaf & Dumb Ziggy Boy Williamson in a fleabag motel poker game.

Investigative biographers inevitably discover a more mundane reality: scratch the skin of any self-created working-class hero and you'll find the son or daughter of a civil servant or schoolteacher. Arcade Fire's Win Butler made the above point in an NPR interview last month, in which he and his brother Will premiered two songs from his band's much-anticipated third album The Suburbs, a record whose themes and atmospheres hark back to their childhood in Houston.

"You can put negative connotations on anything, but I think the thing about when you grow up in the suburbs is you have to make your own artistic culture," says AF drummer Jeremy Gara, a few hours after HP has been given a preview of the new album. And true enough, Arcade Fire know all about the rub between mythic and mundane. The band's debut Funeral created a world within a world: its originality stemmed from a synthesis of post-punk fire, post-rock scope, Motown scaled arrangements, and Lord of the Flies meets Pan's Labyrinth imagery. The follow up, Neon Bible, was by contrast a lock-caps bold type state-of-the-nation address that introduced Orbison to Orwell and Woody Guthrie by way of 4AD. Both records sounded like they'd been directed by Terry Gilliam. The new set is closer to Wes or PT Anderson territory. If anything, the closest cultural reference point is probably Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. You can feel the camera move through lawn sprinkered streets, panning over kids with bicycles and skateboards, peeking through windows into shag-carpeted TV-illuminated living rooms.

"That I can totally relate to," Jeremy says. "I feel the same way about it. A little more vignettes and a little less action adventure."

But The Suburbs is – true to its title – a sprawling record, 16 songs that, depending on where you drop the needle, evoke The Ramones, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Byrds, Giorgio Moroder or the Flying Burrito Brothers, all sprayed with a patina of almost MBV haziness. The overall effect recalls teenaged memories of playing DJ at your mate's house, poring over gatefold sleeves and yakking for hours about the meaning of it all.

"Yeah, it's funny, all those bands were referenced for sure," Jeremy admits. "My Bloody Valentine and The Cure were the first bands that I didn't hear on the radio that blew my mind. We had the same love of music, we loved a lot of the same bands as kids, I watched the same indie shows on TV."

So how did the band set about weaving such a disparate collection of songs into some sort of coherent statement?

"Well, we took a long break (after the Neon Bible tour) and Win and Regine were able to disappear and write little bits of songs, of which there are countless amounts. But we took enough time off that when we got back together we were just full of creative energy, which I think was really healthy. Y'know, we meet all these bands who, by the time they finish the tour they can't stand each other. For us, we stop touring, we take a week off, and after a while we start hanging out together, without playing music."

Was there much conceptualising or discussion of the kind of record they needed to make?

"Well, a song like ‘Month of May' for instance, it was clear the intent of what that song should be. We didn't have to tell each other, ‘This song should be a really simple rock song'. But you're right, something like ‘Rococo', which is one of the more ornate songs on the record, Regine had more... conceptual ideas of what that song should be and the challenge of it is just using ‘feeling' words to go at it."

Deep roots in Montreal, Jeremy reckons, were a major factor in buffering the band from external pressures, allowing them to decompress after that year-long Neon Bible tour (122 shows, including 33 festivals, in 75 cities and 19 countries), which coronated the ensemble in the eyes of even old pros as heirs apparent to The Clash, U2 and Bruce.

"The nice thing is, the community we're part of in Montreal is so musical," he considers. "Basically everyone who lives in Montreal is doing something extremely creative. We're all between 25 and 35, so everyone that we know here is really just locking into something great – they're in visual arts or they've just finished PhDs or they've just opened restaurants or they're musicians in bands, so when we get home it's easy to jump back into our community. Like, when I was younger and in other bands, if I had a really good friendship and I'd go away for three months and come back, it was hard, because I'd feel like I'd abandoned the relationship. But now we're a bit older I think everyone we're still friends with understands, because they're used to it, and also because they're involved in their own creative things.

"The end of all the phases of the Neon Bible tour, North America, Europe, the UK, everywhere, we ended on such a high that when we finished it was a huge relief to tap back into normal life in Montreal. The pace of things is really easy, there's little to no big rock band stuff, which is great, especially for the more recognisable people in the band. So when we got together... Like, we're part of a giant rock machine when we're on tour for sure, there's a million people doing things, videos and mics and lots of staff and stuff like that, but when we get home and start playing together, for better or worse that all goes away. Which is not great for people that work around us, but I think we're mindful that we have to come from a really pure beginning. No more in-ear monitors!

"So we just got together in Win and Regine's living room for a long time, and then we'd go to a cottage and bring drums and a couple of keyboards and guitars, and that is truly how this record started. We were just like, ‘Let's keep it as simple as possible'. Even the sheer fact that the room we were playing in was so small: ‘We can't bring in the weird pipe organ sample thing! Leave that outside!' We really just wanted to be in a band without the trappings of being, like, a megaband. I think some of the subtlety comes from that."

The measure of any great artist is not so much how they escape obscurity, but the manner in which they survive their own success. That Bruce could make a record as gloomy and glorious as Darkness On The Edge of Town after the success of Born to Run is testimony to his willingness to drive for hours at night, hanging around gas stations after dark, soaking up the lunar atmosphere, the swinging traffic-lights and shabby diners and cut-price econo-lodges.

"Absolutely," says Jeremy. "I don't know if you read the headline about Bob Dylan getting stopped by the cops in, I think it was New Jersey or something, in the States a few months ago because they thought he was a vagrant. He was walking down the street with his hood up, looking at the neighbourhood. And whether you like new Bob Dylan or old Bob Dylan, he is very true to his craft, as is Springsteen."

And the notion of Bob being hustled into a car by a twenty-something police officer is an image that could've been plucked from the grooves of Neon Bible: the prophet astray in a strange age, the truth-teller interrogated by over-zealous law enforcement in a land where, as Burroughs said, nobody is allowed mind his own business, let alone embark on an aimless walk through a New Jersey suburb after dark. The 21st century is suspicious of the rambler, the mutterer, the idler. In the twilight of the Bush regime, anyone breaching the cultural curfew was cause for paranoia. But The Suburbs telegraphs a 
new era.

"It comes from a place of picking up a guitar, being comfortable with exploring lyrics and playing with your friends," Jeremy says. "I talked to someone a while ago and they asked me if it was hard to call up the emotions playing older material, and it's like... Chris Martin said it too and he's totally right: we're so lucky to say this is our job. I think as long as I feel lucky every time I get to play music, we'll be fine."

 

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