Arcade Fire: View At The Top

On the fast track to indie-cult status, Arcade Fire slows down just long enough to survey its own sensible outlook and spiritual effect.

By Fred Mills

Photos by James Partick Dawson

“Have a seat and start folding.”

It’s been barely five minutes since I was introduced to Montreal’s Arcade Fire, and I’ve already been deputized. While audio and lighting techs for Asheville, N.C., club The Orange Peel scurry around preparing for soundcheck, I squat on the floor next to the merchandise kiosk where the band members have formed an assembly line to put together CDs.

I’m here, obviously, to work up an Arcade Fire profile. For now, though, my immediate assignment is to fold lyric sheets and booklets. With luck, we’ll have plenty of copies of the band’s self-titled 2003 EP—which slipped out of print a short while back but is now available again thanks to a timely FedEx shipment—ready for sale at tonight’s show.

“Did you guys know this has been going for as much as 75 bucks on eBay?” I ask.

The groans that greet my query tell me they know.

“That’s just insane,” scowls Win Butler, the group’s guitarist and vocalist.

Well, business is business. And right now, Arcade Fire is doing—by indie standards—huge business. Every date on the band’s American tour has sold out, and its full-length debut, Funeral, released in September by Merge Records, is moving nearly 6,500 copies a week. Demand for interviews is extraordinarily high; knowing that a few days after my encounter the band will endure a Rolling Stone writer riding with them from Philly to New York, followed by a New York Times reporter doing likewise for the NYC-to-Boston trip, I almost feel guilty for intruding. That’s OK. I’ll make it up to them by being the best goddamn booklet folder in Asheville.

Looking around, I take stock of my hosts. Butler, with his strapping 6’5” frame and slightly imperious, Christopher Walkenesque looks, is clearly the leader. Next to him is his wife, vocalist/keyboardist Régine Chassagne, resplendent with dark hair curling around her exotic features. Equally fetching is violinist Sarah Neufeld, who’s frequently chatting with the band’s other violinist, Owen Pallett; both played on Funeral, although Pallett only recently signed on as a touring member. (He’s also the opening act, Final Fantasy, a one-man manipulator of strings, loops and samplers.)

Another new addition to the group is Jeremy Gara, replacing Funeral drummer Howard Bilerman, who’s busy back in Montreal running Hotel 2 Tango, the studio where Funeral was recorded. Gara is pulling double duty on this tour, too, as road manager; in apparent confirmation, his cell phone rings every few minutes.

Bassist Tim Kingsbury seems unusually quiet at first but turns out to be quick-witted and personable as he instructs me in the “proper” way to fold an Arcade Fire lyric sheet. Lastly there’s Richard Parry, who’s as tall as Butler and—with his thick mop of orange hair and black horn-rimmed glasses—is sometimes referred to by Internet wags as “that Napoleon Dynamite-type dude.” Up close, though, he’s anything but nerdish. (In fact, sometime later tonight a young woman will notice me coming out of the dressing room and ask if I’ll slip Parry a note for her.)

Missing in action is Butler’s younger brother Will, who played on both records and performs with Arcade Fire whenever his schedule permits. He was on hand for five West Coast dates at the beginning of this tour but had to return to Chicago, where he’s majoring in poetry and Slavic studies at Northwestern. Reached by phone, he confirms his status as a member of Arcade Fire.

“But I do feel like a bit of a fan, too,”he says. “That’s partly because I’m the only one who’s actually ‘out in the world,’ while everyone else is in the van all day. But when I am there, it’s like, ‘Will’s here! Now we’re a family again!’”

It’s tempting to employ the family metaphor when discussing Arcade Fire. For one thing, Funeral is rife with lyrics invoking familial relationships and the bonds of community. Also, Win Butler clearly has a paternal stake in the band, which maybe makes Chassagne the mother hen. But in the time I spend with the band, I don’t detect any pecking order.

Parry implicitly addresses this when, asked about the pressures of being on the road, he says, “We would hear about bands that had broken up and go, ‘What was that band’s story?’ And you’d see how the touring had done it. Being aware of that plays a big role for us. And in the absence of what would be really terrible habits in a band, like drug habits or being really abusive, we’re pretty lucky.”

“We started playing out of mutual friendship and liking each other’s music,” says Win Butler. “I think we all realize it could get pretty ugly really fast. [Laughs] Although if we’d had another three weeks of the last tour, I think we would have killed each other.”

After soundcheck, everyone heads to a nearby Mexican restaurant, where we cram into a couple of booths and start gabbing away—just like at the family dinner table. We soon notice there are people peering through the front windows of the place and pointing. Sure enough, after he finishes his meal and goes outside, Win Butler is greeted by a small gaggle of fans clutching posters and CDs. Walking back to the club, he expresses a kind of pleased incredulity.

“That’s definitely new,” he says. “I mean, sure, on this tour we’re starting to see more people recognizing us and wanting autographs at the shows. But that … “ He shakes his head. “That wasn’t happening before.”

How will he feel if a hefty chunk of his audience is eventually made up of people who only know “Power Out,” the Funeral focus track that commercial radio has been steadily warming to?

“I’m fine with people having just heard our song on the radio,” he replies. “When I went to see Magnetic Fields, I’d heard one song on college radio and said, ‘I’m going to their show,’ even though I hadn’t heard any more of their songs. That’s how people get exposed to music, you know? We’re not going to have a sign at our shows saying, ‘No Jocks Allowed.’”

Two jocks of another sort, from local radio station WNCW-FM, have set up gear in the Orange Peel dressing room to tape an interview with Butler, Chassagne and Parry. The spouses cuddle on an overstuffed couch, crack jokes and complete each other’s sentences. Parry holds a laptop and eyes his e-mail while interjecting an occasional comment. Apparently recalling the earlier scene outside the restaurant, Butler deadpans, regarding the vicissitudes of rising fame, “Yeah, after we did the Sullivan show it’s been crazy.” Butler and Parry neatly preempt any possible questions about an Arcade Fire backlash by riffing, in pompous faux-fanboy style, on the Beethoven backlash.

Butler: “If I have to read another article about him being deaf and composing music … Now, the early stuff, when he could hear? That was amazing.”

Parry: “Dude! I really thought he sold out once he got syphilis. You can just hear it once the syphilis got to his brain. He just kind of falls apart.”

Arcade Fire takes the stage in anthemic fashion with the appropriately titled “Wake Up.” All of Funeral and a few tunes from the EP are performed, and it’s pretty safe to say the audience is with the band all the way to the finish. Following the encore, the seven musicians march offstage and weave through the audience, beating percussion and chanting, New Orleans second-line style.

In between, Asheville is treated to no less than a rock ‘n’ roll tent revival. The volume and intensity pouring off the stage steadily rises as band members dart around and swap instruments while singing en masse like some stripped-down Polyphonic Spree. Arms in the crowd thrust skyward. A circle of kids pogos madly. Couples smooch like it’s Times Square on V-E Day in 1945. And with everyone singing along, you could swear they’ve succumbed to the spirit and are speaking in tongues.

Even Butler gets caught up in the moment. During “Power Out,” he abruptly jumps into the crowd. Not the punk-rock, catch-me-so-I-can-body-surf kind of jump, just a leap off the stage. When he climbs back onstage to finish the song, blood is streaming from the left side of his mouth.

“Chaotic, powerful, a spectacle, on the brink of collapse, all the things that made me get into punk rock in the first place—and it was energy supported by resonant and captivating songs.” Merge co-owner Mac McCaughan is describing Arcade Fire’s performance at Merge Fest last July. By the end of that show, he says, “the entire club was dancing—that rarest of indie-rock activities, especially in a situation where no one knew these songs before hearing them that night.”

As of this writing, Funeral, poised near the top of Billboard’s “Heatseekers” and “Top Independent Albums” charts and at number 151 on the “Top 200,” has registered more than 90,000 in SoundScan-tallied sales. Merge has already shipped 156,000 copies to stores and expects the album to do in seven months what it took the label’s best seller to date, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, seven years to do. Commercial radio has joined college stations in singing the praises of Arcade Fire, and MTV has requested that Merge submit a video for consideration.

Though it no doubt gets tedious reading the same press accounts over and over, Will Butler admits that “it is kind of awesome if someone like the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times does something on the band: ‘Hey, something to send home to mama!’ After the first New York Times article, it was a whole new world, even more real than Rolling Stone or other music magazines: ‘OK, the band is legit now. We’re news. We’re fit to print.’”

“I’ll tell you when I realized this thing had taken on a life of its own,” says Martin Hall, Merge’s national media coordinator. “We were sitting in a sports bar on New Year’s Day and playing one of those trivia games they have for the TVs. A clue came up: ‘Win Butler is the lead singer of this Montreal-based band.’ The choices were Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, Arcade Fire. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my fucking god. This is a whole new dimension.’”

There’s nothing in Arcade Fire’s biography that would’ve predicted such an out-of-the-blue vault to the top of the indie heap. A bare-bones capsule bio of the band might go something like this:

Arcade Fire forms in Montreal not long after Texas/New Hampshire expatriate Win Butler migrates there in 1999 to study religion at McGill University. Butler goes through several versions of the band before meeting Régine Chassagne, a jazz vocalist who’s been performing with a medieval-music troupe. Love blossoms, as does a creative partnership, and after putting together a new lineup, they self-release the Arcade Fire EP in 2003. That winter, the band records Funeral, a mélange of edgy new wave (think Talking Heads meets the Cure) and soulful, symphonic pop (shades of Neutral Milk Hotel) with subtle world-beat elements lining the edges. A summer tour with the Unicorns introduces Arcade Fire to American audiences, and following the release of Funeral in September and an incendiary performance the next month at the CMJ festival in New York, the whole fucking blogosphere lights up. The rest is history. By the time the Funeral tour reaches North Carolina, eBay scalpers are listing tickets for the group’s upcoming NYC shows at $200 a pair.

This is basically where things stand the morning after the gig at The Orange Peel when I steer the Arcade Fire entourage—counting roadies and merch folks, it’s a solid dozen—into an Asheville restaurant for lunch. (We were actually refused service at one spot, which claimed the size of the party was too large.)

“Do you do that often at shows?” I ask Butler, eyeing his swollen mouth. Perhaps he should’ve done the catch-me-so-I-can-body-surf thing last night. In the leap’s awkwardness—he was still clutching his guitar—he came down off-balance and smacked his face on someone’s head.

“Oh, jeez.” Butler gingerly fingers the injury while Chassagne looks on sympathetically. “No, I only do that sort of thing once in a blue moon.”

Over soup and sandwiches, Butler and Chassagne talk about their background. Butler grew up on a diet of Cure, Smiths, New Order and Midnight Oil, and with music already in his blood (his grandfather was pedal-steel guitar legend Alvino Rey, while his mother is an accomplished harpist), he took to songwriting naturally. Chassagne, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, was a fan of Billie Holiday, big-band jazz and contemporary classical composer Arvo Pärt. The two wanted to make Arcade Fire more than just a rock band, to put some physical (and maybe even some metaphysical) muscle behind the sonic release. An Arcade Fire show isn’t the indie-rock equivalent of Up With People and isn’t traditionally theatrical, either. But there’s definitely a lot to take in, from the snappy stage attire (Chassagne, notably, in vintage dresses and gloves) to onstage instrument-swapping.

“I think half of a concert, what’s exciting, is what you see,” says Butler. “Not like laser beams, but when Pete Townshend will do the windmill with his arm. The way Jimi Hendrix moved when he played guitar. David Byrne’s dancing style. Even the way Elvis moved. That’s what separates a record from the performance, right?”

“I remember when I was around 12 and saw Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger on TV,” adds Chassagne. “I was watching and thinking, ‘What is in these people so they are just doing that? What makes you cool like that?’”

“You can feel self-conscious,” says Butler. “But this is a pretty direct medium. It has a lot to do with emotion and feeling. There’s a big difference between a good poem and a good song lyric, and a lot of that has to do with the music and the performance of those words. It’s actually something more than physical.”

When I compare the previous night’s show to a tent revival, Butler looks startled.

“I was having a conversation with a friend of mine’s dad, who’s really religious,” he says. “They came to our show and didn’t quite get it. They couldn’t hear the words and were trying to decide if it was good or evil. You do see people getting into it, and it does almost look like someone speaking in tongues. I’ve only been to one of those churches once, and it was this really creepy thing. I guess there is somewhat of a spiritual component to what we do. But it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the spirits. People are just really into it, and what we’re trying to give them is something good that we care about.”

Win Butler is at a potentially precarious stage of his career. He’s been amiably handling the bulk of the interview chores when he’d probably prefer to be writing songs or spending quality time with his wife. (“We spend all our time together but somehow never have any time together,” says Chassagne.) But with Funeral about to be released in the U.K. and Europe and a tour to follow, plus the remainder of the 2005 calendar already being penciled in, the demands are only going to increase.

“We get to explain to everyone how Régine and I met, how the band formed and what the name Arcade Fire means all over again,” says Butler. “But one thing we’re all interested in is having good lives, and even though it’s been a pain in the ass touring, I feel happy to be doing this. That there’s a purpose to what we’re doing.”

Some of the rewards are tangible, from record sales to box-office receipts to nightly merchandising revenue. (Remember those CDs I was helping assemble? Nearly 200 were sold at the Asheville show.) Other dividends aren’t directly bankable but in the long run may be even more gratifying. David Byrne watched the group perform last year and struck up an e-mail correspondence that culminated in him joining Arcade Fire onstage in New York in February for a cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” and inviting the band to open some dates for him this summer.

Byrne hasn’t offered any fatherly counsel to Arcade Fire, but he did post some advice to his online journal. Musing on what direction the band might take after its two-album deal with Merge is up, Byrne noted that the majors can provide larger advances, bigger recording budgets and greater marketing muscle than a label of Merge’s size.

“You know what?” says Butler. “We didn’t want Merge to market us heavily. That turns me off. Ashlee Simpson’s record sells a million copies in a week, and not because it’s an awesome record. They sold it really well because they marketed it, and I think that approach has negative implications on the culture. For us, ideally, if someone buys our record, they’ve heard about us from a couple of different places. If my friend tells me something’s good, then maybe I hear a song, then I read something about it, then I’m actually getting information about something—not just responding to an ad—and can then find out if I like it.”

If the whole “Arcade Fire phenomenon,” for lack of a better term, took off in exactly that fashion—through word of mouth, well before the media noticed—does that say anything about what music fans are looking for right now?

“They’re looking for the same thing in 2005 they were looking for in 1905,” says Butler. “Things haven’t changed that much. Stylistically, things are different. But when music connects with people, it’s always for the same reason. I just think there’s a lot of joy to what we’re doing. That gets translated, you know?”