By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Hilary Leftick
Q: If you had to summarize your outlook on life in 11 words or less, what would it be?
A: Death is real.
The Arcade Fire are a Montreal-based groupwith a dangerous buzz, the type of buzz that could serve as the central plot point in a film called Scenes From a Backlash. To wit, in October, The New York Times ran a wrap-up of the annual CMJ festival that amounted to little more than a short-form canonization; a month previous the influential Web zine PitchforkMedia.com awarded the Arcade Fire’s debut record, Funeral, a rare 9.7 rating, and that album is now selling at an astonishing 2,500-a-week clip, despite the fact that it was released by Merge, a small independent label from North Carolina. The album has aroused such instant enthusiasm among both listeners and larger labels that Win Butler, the band’s laconic, 6-foot-5 giant of a front man, has recently begun opening shows with variations on the introduction he offered during CMJ: "Hi, we’re the flavor of the month."
The group’s appeal is hard to explain by simple reference to its sound. They’re a six- or seven-piece, depending on when Win’s brother Will gets time off from Northwestern. The lineup consists of accordion, guitar, bass, xylophone and violin, and they switch instruments freely. In theory, the music they make could be written off as swelling, standard-issue indie rock — part of the new-wave glut filling up the shelves of independent record shops. In terms of genre, they fit in the same bag that contains the disposable pop of Stellastarr and Elefant, and the headier, concept-driven music of Franz Ferdinand (who famously came together to "make music that girls could dance to") and Interpol (whose revelation was that Joy Division could have fended off suicidal urges with Zoloft and some nicer clothes).
Like those bands, the Arcade Fire draw their herky-jerky rhythms from post-punk, and their arrangements offset tightly wound introductions against choruses and finales that are more jangly, celebratory and chaotic. Unlike those bands, the Arcade Fire’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics come across as — dare I say it? — emo. Jaded hipsters they are not. Rather, they seem caught in the rush of disillusionment that accompanies youth’s slow-then-fast transition into adulthood. Because the source of that disillusionment is usually petty — breakups, drunken mistakes, unreturned phone calls — this sort of subject matter rarely appeals to anyone outside of the 16-to-21 demographic. Personal revelation can be much more irritating than new wave’s chilly, image-first pose. What makes the Arcade Fire special, though, is that they’ve tapped into a profound source of inspiration that transcends the limitations of both emo and new wave.
In their biographical materials, much is made of the fact that three members had close relatives die in the year leading up to Funeral’s release. (That’s where the title comes from.) These weren’t surprising deaths. First, came the death of Régine Chassagne’s grandmother. (Régine doubles as Win’s chief collaborator and occasional co–lead vocalist.) Then Win and Will’s grandfather died. (He was a fellow musician named Alvino Rey.) Amid these tragedies, Win married Régine, and it’s this kind of emotional whiplash — sad, then happy, then sad again — that lends emotional heft to songs like "Wake Up," in which Win laments: "Somethin’s filling up my head with nothin’/Someone told me not to cry./But now that I’m older/My heart’s colder/And I can see that it’s a lie."
To put it in starker terms, these events happened in quick succession to a band whose average age is 26. What occurs onstage seems like a group celebration of life and living and being young. The first time I saw the band, every member sang in unison for the first half of the set, not because the song called for it, or to any great effect (most of them were un-miked) but for the sheer joy of singing along. It was a privilege that the audience, yet unfamiliar with the lyrics, was clearly jealous of. And, most notably on "Wake Up," which I later discovered was the album’s centerpiece, they deployed two members to play "percussion" against the stage monitors, the other instruments, a giant piece of cardboard wrapped with aluminum and, finally, against Win’s head.
"That started as an angry thing," Win explained, after a more recent concert in New York. "My brother had just come to Montreal to play with us, and the band was in turmoil. We had just re-formed, and I remember we wrote ‘Wake Up’ because we wanted the first thing we wrote to have a totally different energy from the stuff we played before. My brother and I were fighting. Not really, but the first couple of times it definitely had that kind of energy — being angry with each other, a violent kind of performing, like when the crowd heckles you and you just want to say ‘fuck you.’ Lyrically, we were trying to write words that had the same kind of synergy, a punk rock kind of ideal."