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.
�Web-zine interview with the Arcade Fire�s Win Butler
The Arcade Fire are a Montreal-based group with 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 R�gine Chassagne�s grandmother. (R�gine 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 R�gine, 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."
As you dig deeper into the band�s sound, other things start to stick out alongside the youthful energy. Win and R�gine have a vocal poise beyond their years. Win�s voice is familiar, reminiscent of Bright Eyes� Conor Oberst (only less petulant) or the Violent Femmes� Gordon Gano (only less neurotic). It�s a choked-up sound that�s hard to distinguish. Is it confessional or an ornate emotional mask? R�gine�s voice, by contrast, sounds more exotic, and reminds me of Bj�rk, which you can chalk up to her exotic Qu�becois-Haitian upbringing and her background in jazz cabaret and Medieval song. She attempts things, melodically and lyrically, that will strike pop-trained listeners as unnatural, intriguing and, perhaps, off-key. In "Haiti" � her star turn � she announces that "Mes cousins jamais nes hantent les nuits des Duvalier," which roughly translates to, "My cousins never haunt the nights of Duvalier."
This is not your average indie rock.
The band�s most recent stand in New York best displayed what makes the Arcade Fire so special. The shows were at the Bowery Ballroom, a room comparable to L.A.�s El Rey Theater. When the band members took the stage their demeanor was unprofessional, their dress the opposite. They wore scrappy, faux-institutional clothes. It�s been labeled Russian military garb � black ties, vintage white shirts � but it�s mussed up with human touches like the skeletal rib cage silk-screened on the back of Win�s suit jacket. They look much younger than their years, and seem to chaff at their semiformal dress, like kids attending a wedding, bar mitzvah, or funeral against their will. (Utility man Richard Reed Parry, with his curly red hair and thick black glasses, bears a striking resemblance to the protagonist of Napoleon Dynamite.)
"This is the first time we�ve been to New York," announced Win, coyly. It was a line he repeated at what were, respectively, the band�s fifth, sixth and seventh gigs in New York, and it was a lie about which the crowds for each performance were certainly aware. The last three of those shows were all sellouts, and for weeks those slow on the uptake and/or desperate to partake in the hype had been floating offers for tickets on Craigslist that went from unreasonable ($130 a pair) to ludicrous ("I am forced to sell a date with my g/f to see Arcade Fire at Bowery . . . she has said that she likes tall guys etc. etc. but I personally think that she�d be a cute half of a lesbian couple").
By the time the Arcade Fire�s set kicked off, lesbian couples were few and far between, but among the indie faithful were David Bowie and David Byrne, the latter of whom stuck around just long enough to see the band launch into a faithful cover of the Talking Heads� "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)."
I can only imagine that the Arcade Fire launched into this rendition with some trepidation. For most of their peers, playing a Talking Heads song � with Byrne in the audience, no less � would have been tantamount to an admission of stylistic theft. The key to the success of Interpol and Franz Ferdinand, for example, is that no one�s quite been able to place the �80s new-wave songs they�re ripping off. The Arcade Fire, however, were taking on their idol head-on. Thankfully, they had been dropping this particular Talking Heads cover into their set lists with some regularity, and this time they nailed it. "This Must Be the Place," a song about nostalgia of home and the bittersweet feel of leaving, sounded less like a cover than a natural extension of Funeral, an album punctuated by a suite of four songs titled "Neighborhood."
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And about halfway through the cover, something odd happened. Audience members scanning the crowd for a reaction shot from Byrne discovered that the now white-haired singer had left the building midsong. Perhaps he was beset by drunks, perhaps by memories of his own past. I can only imagine that Byrne was thinking about the arias he�s recorded of late for the adult contemporary label Nonesuch, and he dreamed a little nightmare that goes like this:
As the years have piled up, Byrne�s grown even more entrenched in the art-song tradition, thinking that�s what made him famous. But here was the younger generation, in the guise of the Arcade Fire, reminding him that what so many people valued about the Talking Heads wasn�t Byrne�s intellectual games, but the barely restrained sweetness and heart lurking inside the songs. What people loved was how Byrne�s bandmates used a groove to create cracks in his intellectual pretensions. He realizes it wasn�t his mind they wanted, it was all the bliss running wild underneath.
In short, the Arcade Fire made David Byrne feel young again, and it scared him. I bet they�ll make you feel the same way. And it won�t.
The Arcade Fire play at Spaceland Tuesday, December 7, and at the Troubadour Saturday, January 15.