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
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

“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.”

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.

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