They love Ireland and Ireland loves them. As the Arcade Fire ramp up for world domination, the band talk about love, death, war and making music in churches.
It’s not overstating the case to suggest that this might be the most fervently anticipated record of the decade, not just for the band’s rapidly expanding following, whose devotion increasingly bears comparison with that of a religious cult, but a wider pool of peers, musicians, writers and just about anyone with a shred of faith left in the revivalist power of rock ‘n’ roll.
There will, no doubt, be bigger selling albums this year, but few will inspire the same kind of sheer evangelical belief in the notion of music as an elemental unifying force that transcends demographics, focus groups, airplay and sales figures, and translates into the realm of the social and communal.
Within a week of our meeting, Neon Bible will debut at No 2 in both the UK and Billboard charts; echoes abound of another second album released some 15 odd years ago. In her book Route 666 – On The Road To Nirvana, Gina Arnold stated that when Nevermind topped the charts in the second week of January 1992, it was as sure a portent of an incoming Democrat in the White House as any political analyst might conjure.
Certainly, the feeling in the air prior to Neon Bible’s release bore comparison with Radiohead prior to OK Computer, REM and U2 in the mid 80s, Springsteen circa Born To Run.
Never underestimate the power of a whistle-stop campaign in which the electoral candidates press the flesh with their constituents. Like the aforementioned acts, the Arcadians are a playing band, a sort of post-rock alternative Rolling Thunder Revue whose shows go far beyond the strictures of promotional strategy and into the realm of sacramental rite, a regard for performance as its own reward that qualifies them as arguably the first act since U2 and Bruce who might take on the stadia on their own terms and win.
The band’s first appearance on these shores, at the Electric Picnic in 2005, was closer to a deep south tent-show testimonial than a one-nighter by a visiting band. They struck a resonant chord with Irish audiences from the off, a mutual love-in significant enough to merit mention on the band’s Wikipedia entry. But then, race memories are long, and the Canadians seem to fit all the requirements that guarantee a faithful Hibernian following: stagecraft, stamina, a certain contrary streak, and an affinity with roots forms, all attributes shared by bands who traditionally regarded Ireland as much more than an easy opening date on a European tour: Bruce, REM, The Waterboys, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
The pan-Atlantic connection is very much on the minds of Régine Chassagne and Richard Reed Parry as we join them for lunch in the Morrison Hotel by the Liffey, the day after the first of two dates in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.
Like many musicians, they seem creatures of deed rather than word. Régine is tiny and delicate-featured, four years older than her 26-year-old husband, Arcade Fire leader Win Butler. She’s brown-eyed and slightly Bjorkian in manner, with French-Canadian inflected English that sounds like melting chocolate. Richard, by contrast, looks like the class swot who grew up to make millions from some fiendishly clever software patent. Artistic of bent, yes, but not given to flights of fancy. Until, that is, the subject of the band’s Electric Picnic set comes up.
“That was the funnest show ever,” he gushes. “It was a-maaazing. For everybody in the band, that was the best show we played in that whole six months.”
Régine: “It was craaazy. I remember at that show I saw 16-year-old girls with their arms in the air next to 45-year-old men, crying. I was thinking, ‘What is going on?!!’ When I heard the people singing the songs before we went on stage, I was just like, ‘What? Oh my god, people are singing the string lines!’”
Richard: “It’s really exciting to start (this tour) here, because the Electric Picnic show was everybody’s favourite show of all of Europe by far, so it was deliberate: ‘Let’s release the album and start in Ireland, that would be so awesome.’”
Régine: “There’s something in the air here, and in the people, there’s some kind of spirit. I have a real crush on Ireland.”
Richard: “I think everybody does in the band. The people, as individuals, I just wanna hug everybody I meet, I love it. Music is a living thing here.”
The previous night’s show took place amidst less than ideal circumstances – late flights, late soundcheck, late start, technical teething problems – but was otherwise a predictably celebratory affair, the band turning in a full tilt performance in front of a partisan crowd.
Régine: “It was quite intense, because we had new gear to figure out yesterday.”
Richard: “And we hadn’t seen each other or played together in like, a week and a half. Everyone just got off the plane and played basically, but it was fun to do it.”
Régine: “But then the people are there and it’s like a battle: ‘It sounds like a storm onstage, I don’t understand…’”
Richard: “‘But I don’t give a shit! I’ll look where I’m playing when I can’t hear the notes!”
Arcade Fire came together in 2003, a pool of musicians that coalesced around the nucleus of Butler and Chassagne. Win was born Edwin Farnham Butler III, his mother Liza a musician, his grandfather Alvino Rey a pioneer bandleader and jazz guitarist, his grandmother Luise a member of the King Sisters, who once had a weekly variety programme on ABC.
Butler was brought up in The Woodlands, Texas before moving to New Hampshire at the age of 15 to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy preparatory school, where he played with student bands with names like Willy Wanker and the Chocolate Factories. After graduation he studied photography and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College before dropping out after a year to sell Dutch wooden clogs in Cambridge, MA. In 2000 he moved to Montreal, Quebec, to attend McGill University, where he met his future wife.
Régine Chassagne was the daughter of Haitian emigrants who fled the dictatorship of the infamous Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in the 1960s, settling in Montreal via Chicago and New York. A prodigious all-rounder (accordion, drums, xylophone, hurdy-gurdy, keyboards) as comfortable with medieval scales as popular music, she grew up in the St Lambert suburb of Montreal and earned a BA in Communications at Concordia University in 1998 before studying jazz voice. It was at Concordia that Butler first saw her perform, singing at an art exhibition opening. The pair’s musical relationship soon became entangled with the personal; they married in 2003, as the embryonic Arcade Fire’s personnel expanded to include Win’s younger brother William, Tim Kingsbury, and Bell Orchestre stalwarts Sarah Neufeld and Richard Reed Parry. The band recorded the Us Kids Know EP, initially sold at live shows, later remastered and given an official release when they signed with Merge Records.
By then, Arcade Fire had evolved into an almost symphonic collective, merging Anglocentric indie with avant garde classical, soul, blues, folk and gospel. At times they sounded like a post-rock combo attempting an abridged compendium of the Harry Smith Anthology by way of the Kronos Quartet.
Régine: “The good thing about this band is everyone really cares about the song and what it’s trying to express, so everyone really works towards that. Y’know, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to play all the time. It takes some kind of maturity to just be like: ‘I don’t have to play right now. It doesn’t need me right now. I’m just gonna wait and play…here.”
Richard: “I don’t think it was a thing of finding people that did that so much as, that’s why we’re playing together. We played together and did stuff together and had things in common, sensibilities and viewpoints or whatever.”
Régine: “It’s almost like the band grew up in that way. When we met, Win and me were in an older version of Arcade Fire that fell apart, and Richard and Tim were in a band that also fell apart, and we had played shows together, our two bands, so we were just musicians hanging out together, and started playing together, coming from the same experience and going in the same direction. And that’s how we approached music.”
Richard: “Intuitively. We were already kind of doing it, and by then we’d started pushing it forward, playing shows and being a band. But it wasn’t like, ‘We need this and this and this.’”
They began work on ‘Wake Up’ in July 2003 and had completed an entire album by May of the following year. Entitled Funeral, that full-length debut was released in September 2004 in Canada and the following February in Europe. Impassioned, epic and avowedly un-ironic, the songs invoked Scott Walker and Nino Rota, the nervy art-rock of Pere Ubu and early Talking Heads (David Byrne and David Bowie both joined the band onstage before they’d achieved headline status) and the gloomy icescapes of UK post punk and 80s Amerindie, all clothed in Spector-sized arrangements. It was a record that sounded at once haunted and riotous, a solemn requiem mass followed by an exultant wake. Unsurprisingly, it was conceived during a tumultuous period in its creators’ lives. In June 2003, Régine’s grandmother Nancy died; in August, Win and Régine were married; in March 2004, Win and Will’s grandfather Alvino died; Richard Parry’s Aunt Betsy passed away in April; in May they inked a record deal. It’s all in the songs: blood, bereavement, rebirth, and an all-pervading air of strangeness.
“I think part of the feeling behind it, we were all into Terry Gilliam and that kinda stuff,” Tim Kingsbury told me in July 2005, “so I guess that kind of dark, funny stuff creeps in.”
Indeed, the novelistic four-song ‘Neighbourhood’ cycle alone seemed to suggest The Cement Garden or The Lord Of The Flies relocated to the Northern hemisphere, a musical fable of children gone feral in an ice storm blackout. Even slower songs like ‘Crown Of Love’ erupted into cathartic wig outs. ‘Haiti’ was Chassagne’s elegy for her homeland, with its refrain of “Mes cousins jamais nés hantent les nuits des Duvalier” (“My never-born cousins haunt the nights of the Duvaliers”). There were full tilt anthems like ‘Rebellion’ and ‘Wake Up’ that harnessed alt-rock to Motown-style pocket symphonies (the latter song would later be used by U2 as the intro music on their Vertigo tour).
But there were other, more specifically Canadian elements to the sound. Funeral was underscored by the kind of wintry end-of-the-world drones pioneered by Constellation and Kranky label acts such as Godspeed You Black Emperor and A Silver Mt Zion, outlaw collectives who embellished their hardcore DIY ethos and oceanic dynamism with panoramic brass, strings and field recordings of conspiracy theorists and end-is-nigh ranters, providing a spellbinding alternative to the prevailing pre-millennial soundtrack of spiritually bankrupt nu-metal and overcooked hip-hop.
In fact, most of Funeral was recorded at Godspeed’s former HQ Hotel2Tango in Montreal’s Mile End, and utilized several of their string personnel. Consequently, Arcade Fire often sound like the reverse negative image of Godspeed’s catastrophic soundscapes, the redemptive response to the Emperor’s Armageddon blues.
Régine: “Yeah, we’re a little more open maybe. A couple of those girls played on one song on Funeral, ‘Wake Up’. I mean, it’s a community in that we are from the same area and interact in some ways, but it’s not like a real musical family, I don’t think.”
Tim Kingsbury: “We recorded our record with Howard (Bilerman) who runs Hotel2Tango with Efrim (Menuck) and Thierry (Amar) from Godspeed. I mean we all kind of lived in the same neighbourhood and went to each other’s shows and stuff around town. And they played on ‘Wake Up’, so there’s a bit of a crossover there. We did a bit at Win’s place, but most of the record was analogue – it’s an all-analogue studio. It’s like an auto-mechanic lot; it’s dark in there, the tracking room, the main space on the lot, is a huge dark cavern. Godspeed used to play shows there a long time ago. It definitely has a certain feeling.”
Funeral was, alongside the Arctic Monkeys debut, one of the first word-of-internet/blog driven hits. When the influential Pitchforkmedia.com site awarded the band a 9.7/10 rating (the latter day equivalent of Jon Landau’s famous “I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” proclamation) Merge Records gained their first Billboard entry. Following an incendiary performance at the South By Southwest Festival, plus airplay on KROQ and many of the commercial US stations, the band’s club tours necessitated frequent upgrades to bigger venues. They appeared on the cover of Time’s Canadian edition in April 05, spearheading a cadre of like-minded northerners such as Stars, Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade. Yet despite the apparent overnight success stuff, the band managed to maintain a somewhat elusive profile, conspicuous as a collective but unrecognizable as individuals.
Tim Kingsbury: “We’re pretty boring people. (The success of the record) was a gradual thing. As soon as we finished recording the record, before it came out, we went out on tour with this band called The Unicorns, we were opening up for them and we toured down into the US with them, and the response to the shows was so good, we were playing all this stuff that no-one had ever heard before and it felt really good, like there was a reaction to the record.”
That summer, Arcade Fire were the jewel in any festival line-up, performing at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Reading and the Electric Picnic. By November of 05, Funeral, recorded for $10,000, had sold over half a million copies worldwide, with a minimum of mainstream television or radio exposure. (The band, incidentally, still own the masters.) The album also topped numerous end-of-year polls and secured Grammy and Brit nominations.
They wisely resisted extending the tour into 2006 and instead returned home to begin work on the follow up, buying a 19th century redbrick church in a small farm town an hour’s drive from Montreal, and converting it into a studio big enough to house and accommodate the band’s sprawling personnel.
The circumstances of the Neon Bible recording sessions recall another key Canadian album recorded on consecrated ground, Cowboy Junkies’ 1988 debut Trinity Sessions. All the basic tracks bar ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’ were recorded with the full ensemble playing live to analogue tape on the church stage, overseen by engineer Markus Dravs, who’d previously worked with Eno and Bjork. For a couple of songs, they rented the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church in Montreal in order to avail of its 500-pipe organ. Win and Régine also decamped to Budapest to record string and vocal parts with a 60-piece orchestra and military choir.
Late last year, the ensemble made a tentative return to live duties with selected secret shows in high schools and churches in Montreal and London. Preview copies of Neon Bible began to circulate, and it became clear that if Funeral demanded an epic follow up, Arcade Fire hadn’t backed away from the challenge.
Neon Bible (the title derives from an early John Kennedy Toole novel) is nothing less than a state of the nation address, an expansion on that strange and singular debut, without reneging on the ineffable strangeness of Funeral. More than anything, it’s a sprawling document of what it feels like to live under the worst shadow-of-the-bomb anxiety since the Bay Of Pigs infected Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’ with phantasm visions.
The opening ‘Black Mirror’, Roy Orbison meets the Velvets on some lost, strobe-lit highway, evokes Springsteen’s descriptions of his Darkness era, a period of disillusionment and legal entanglements when he tasted the fruits of his long fought for fame and found them bitter. It was a reality check that resulted in the wide-eyed protagonist of Born To Run donning Ray-Bans and trading his motorcycle for a cadillac, becalmed on an eight-lane turnpike where all the other drivers were masked by tinted windows. The American Dream, he discovered, is isolationist in nature.
‘Black Mirror’, like most of the songs on Neon Bible, is shot through with Revelatory couplets and nightmare hangovers: “I walk down to the ocean/After waking from a nightmare/No moon no pale reflection/Shot by a security camera…I know a time is coming/All words will lose their meaning…”
Similarly, the nervy rockabilly of ‘Keep The Car Running’ is no Jim Thompson getaway, but a frenzied escape from a burning necropolis. The terrifying tsunami of ‘Black Wave’ is a straight-faced answer to The Pixies’ surf arrangement of ‘Wave Of Mutilation’; ‘Windowsill’ a quietly stubborn pledge of non-allegience that harks back to Whitman and Thoreau’s codes of civil disobedience.
Indeed, tunes such as ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ revolve centrifugally around Biblical Americana. One thinks of the Okie migrants of Grapes Of Wrath seeking the redemption in the Promised Land of California; or a remake of Poe’s ‘Masque Of The Red Death’, where the intruder at the end of millennium party comes bearing a platter of coke cut with anthrax; or the locusts laying waste to Sam Shepard’s crop in Days Of Heaven; or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the Salem witch hunts no longer serving as an allegory for McCarthyism, but Homelands security heavies and Patriot Act hysteria.
More than anything, Neon Bible is an unrepentantly spiritual body of songs, an album full of seeds and harvests and reckonings and blight and days of judgment and jammed highways. If the American empire was founded by apocalypse cults exiled from the old world, then Neon Bible sounds like a klaxon alarm summoning up their ghosts in a climate of mass panic and paranoia, people trampling their neighbours as they race for a place on the ark. In an era when artists and writers seem unable to resist translating never-ending End Times emergency network bulletins – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men – Arcade Fire are providing the soundtrack.
In this regard, they’re of the times, but also at odds with them. The current crop of American musicians, from The Killers to The Fray, seem to have adopted their parents’ broad church Christian beliefs unhindered by youth revolt or generation gap, and translated it into a rather bland altruism. Win Butler, like 16 Horsepower’s David Eugene Edwards, seems to pendulum swing between Old Testament prophet, questioning heretic and Gnostic humanist (“Working for the church while your family dies…”). It comes as no surprise to learn that he studied scriptural interpretation at McGill University, or that the liturgical elements of the band’s sound can be attributed to many of their members’ upbringings.
Tim Kingsbury: “I actually grew up going to church a lot; I grew up making church music. But as I got older I became aware of pop music in the early 90s, the whole grunge thing was going on.”
The uncanny thing is that Neon Bible sounds so uplifting. It evokes old gospel tunes like Sister Mary Nelson’s ‘Judgement’, almost drunk on its own rapture, hell- (or heaven-)bent on dancing through the Great Tribulation. The musical scope is pan-historical, from Woody Guthrie protest to slicked-back rockabilly; from London Calling to Closer to Nebraska to Ocean Rain to This Is The Sea to The Pixies to Godspeed. It’s paradoxically thrilling to hear the spooked, distressed tone of Régine’s voice as she sings “taste your fear” on ‘Intervention’ (if Win drives this album, she’s the navigator, her counter-melodies as integral to the sound as the multi-layered orchestrations and exquisite overdubs). It’s in the looped echo of “what you fear” (again with the fear) in ‘The Well & The Lighthouse’. It’s in the majestic Mariachi brass coda of ‘Ocean Of Noise’. It’s in the churchy soul of ‘My Body Is A Cage’, a spiritual in the true sense, a yearn for release from the corporeal.
Neon Bible is one of the few records that operates on a scale commensurate with, demanded by, the times. It’s the kind of record many people were crying out for throughout the winter of 2001: scared, fatalistic, yet strangely healing. A record full of dreams and nightmares, prophesies and portents.
The response has been broadly evangelical, although hardly consensual. There were grumbles in anorak corners about the record’s high production values, echoing Pixies aficionados’ gripes about the relatively refined nature of Doolittle after the brutalism of Surfer Rosa. But for the most part, the record seemed to unite Generations X and Y, MySpacers and boomers. Grumpy old men and women who’d all but given up on rock ‘n’ roll as anything other than an adjunct to the leisure and advertising industries found themselves sucked back in. Veteran pop theorist Paul Morley wrote a lengthy, swooning profile of the band in the Observer’s monthly music magazine that recalled his earliest snapshots of U2 and Joy Division. If Oasis were willed to power simply because people needed a new Beatles or Pistols, regardless of the derivative nature of the music, then Arcade Fire appear to have blundered on a to a parched landscape and unwittingly reanimated it.
Speaking on the day of the album’s release, Régine and Richard have the air of reluctant, perhaps even bewildered messiahs.
Régine: “I haven’t read anything so I don’t even know what people are saying right now. I just want to do what I intended to, and I don’t want to be…”
Richard: “We definitely don’t give ourselves any weight. Whatever weight people are putting on the band is what people are putting on the band, but you can’t think about that. But, of anything you can control, there’s a definite conscious feeling of: ‘We’re making an album, we’re not making i-tunes singles. This is supposed to be listened to as an album.’ Both records. Of anything you can control creatively, there’s definitely a push to do that.”
Régine: “I always have difficulty describing inspiration. It’s not something you control that much at all, you don’t decide what to be inspired by. Maybe when I’m like 50 or 65 I’ll be able to see a lot more where I was at, but right now I’m in it, and I’m doing it, so it’s hard to analyze myself. For me it’s kind of destructive to do that, because I don’t go anywhere. It’s like running in circles. If you’re always thinking about, ‘I’m doing this’, you’re not doing it anymore, you’re just thinking about it. It’s like driving a boat or something, and instead of looking forward, you’re analyzing what you’re doing. You’re lost. You have to keep looking forward.”
So are Arcade Fire prepared to become as big as so many people want them to be? Will they keep their election promises? Can they accept the stadium crown without losing their souls?
Richard: “I can’t think about that. It makes me panic!”
Régine: “I don’t reject things just because. I wouldn’t say I don’t want to play stadiums ever because of political reasons, or because it’s not indie or whatever, it just has to sit right. We’re really sensitive to if it feels right or not. And if it feels right, we do it, but music, for me, it’s really important the way I live my life and everything I do, my everyday actions…it’s hard to know what will happen. Maybe we won’t be here next year. Who knows?”
Régine could’ve sung that if she put a tune to it. Barely three weeks after Arcade Fire’s European tour kicked off, it ground to an unceremonious halt. Win Butler distributed to following communique by way of explanation:
“I am backstage at the venue in Oslo and I just had to make the very sad decision to cancel the rest of the European tour. I have been suffering from a sinus and bronchial infection for the last 3 months, and last night in Stockholm I finally pushed my voice and body farther than they are able to go. Last night I kept yelling at the monitor guy because I didn’t recognize the sound that was coming out of the monitor as my own voice, and it took me until the second song to realize that the sound was coming from me. Today I can barely speak, or make any sound, so finishing the shows is no longer possible.
“I have had several doctors advise me to cancel shows weeks ago, and I have been trying to push through, but for my own health and safety I need to have sinus surgery so I can get better and start the recovery process. We are all very sad, because we were very much looking forward to playing these shows, and we could not imagine canceling a show unless it was physically impossible to do. We apologize to the fans that have been waiting to see us, and we promise to try and come back as soon as it is humanly possible...
“We would like to thank everyone who has been coming to the shows, and the outpouring of love and support for our music that we have felt. Wish me luck with the doctors,
“And see you soon
Neon Bible is out now, distributed by Universal. Arcade Fire are scheduled to play this year’s Oxegen Festival on Sunday July 8.
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Joyous news! The Arcade Fire have confirmed their first non-festival Irish shows.Read More
Annaul article: The best albums and singles according to Hot Press' critics.Read More
You can count on it happening at least once a year – an album so singular it cuts through arbitrary notions of taste and unites disparate audiences in a brief consensus.Read More
Laika’ seems a peculiar choice for single, being the track where Arcade Fire’s debt to Talking Heads is at its most blatantly obvious. Better is the b-side, ‘My Buddy’, a cover of 1940 big band number by Alvimo Rey, great grandfather of AC frontman Win Butler.Read More
Funeral is a diverse collection of absorbing songs, each rich in both its thematic and sonic content. Colours of death, love, life, youth and family are splashed across a lush soundscape that seamlessly blends searing violin and subdued cello with indie riffs and disco beats.Read More