Picking at his frog risotto with the casual air of a man who eats amphibians most evenings, Arcade Fire’s drummer Jeremy Gara floats the idea that the new Rocky movie might make passable tour bus entertainment. “I mean, I’ve heard it’s not as bad as you would expect. That’s what people are saying.”
As befits the patriarch of this de facto family, Win Butler is sat at the centre of the table, gazing out onto an Italian thunderstorm. He ponders that “not as bad as you would think” is no basis upon which to start watching a movie. “I would like to think that in ten years time, if people were to greet a new Arcade Fire album with that sort of build-up, we would have long since called it a day.”
It’s the sort of pronouncement easily made when you’re the discerning rock fan’s favourite band since Radiohead. By the same token, first impressions of Win Butler dovetail tidily with the things that the Montreal collective’s two albums of apocalyptic indie hymns have already told us about him. His body language is restless. Eye contact, when made, is of the glance-and-flinch variety. Three years into their life as a recording band, Arcade Fire should be having the time of their lives. But the summer has brought its own stresses. That much, in any case, seemed apparent to anyone who saw them perform new single Keep The Car Running on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross earlier this month. As the song reached its conclusion, Butler administered a stern blow to a BBC camera with the sharp end of his mandolin. Through cracked glass, a few million viewers saw the 27 year-old singer storm off. Though there was no intention to cause damage, his explanation for his actions still sounds like an apology. “You spend all day waiting in a studio. Which is fine, but we had a friend in London who was getting married that day, so we figured we might at least sneak out and say hello – but it turned out we had to wait in that fake green room with the other guests.”
In isolation, it probably would have been fine – but, for a touring ten-piece, a summer of festival appearances can have a deleterious effect on morale, especially when your accommodation is still being built around you. “Norway was interesting,” smiles Butler, “The hotel was a construction zone. Our luggage was wheeled down the corridor by a guy wearing a dust mask, past walls which had wires hanging out. We tried to get into the elevator and there was a guy in there with a wheelbarrow full of rocks. I was like, ‘Right, I think I might have a freak out here, because this doesn’t work at all. I like to think I’m pretty good at being angry with people. I come away thinking, ‘I really let them have it!’ But I still don’t end up getting my way.”
When talk turns to Glastonbury, Butler attempts to summon all his reserves of diplomacy. He’s all too aware of the place it holds in British popular culture. “I get the charm of it,” he says, in a manner which suggests that, prior to this point, he has been more charmed by the sight of vomit in his luggage, “You could see kids stuck in muddy strollers; people on drugs. People were hitting our car. Our driver was from Calcutta – and he was saying, ‘This is way worse than Calcutta. Over there, if you honk, people get out of your way.’”
For the group’s multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, the lesson learned by this long wet summer has been that Arcade Fire are not a festival band. It’s a conclusion that may surprise those who remember how dramatically they deployed that pipe organ on songs like My Body Is A Cage and Intervention before a Glastonbury sunset. “I feel far less personally connected to do that than when we play in an alleyway in Paris or something,” explains Parry. Whatever the travails of the last few weeks, Parry promises that tomorrow’s non-festival show – in beside the moated Castello Estense castle in the 14th century city of Ferrara – is going to be “amazing. It’s in an aesthetically inspiring space – and that’s when we’re at our best.”
Success, however, means that those are precisely the sort of shows they are leaving behind. Whether that’s a sacrifice worth making depends on who you speak to in the band. In time, the creative and cultural tension in Arcade Fire may conceivably yield irreparable fissures. But it’s also what distinguishes many of the songs on Neon Bible. Strip away the febrile, esoteric instrumentation from Black Mirror and No Cars Go, and you’re left with the everyman appeal of Butler’s politically engaged paeans to spiritual betterment. However, excise Butler from Arcade Fire’s sonic make-up and what’s left is something closer to the arty, improvisational uplift of Parry’s own collective Bell Orchestre.
The thriving Montreal indie scene – home also to outfits such as Broken Social Scene and Stars – might have thrown Arcade Fire together, but Parry will smilingly set you straight if you suggest that the Texas-raided Butler is now a Montreal person. As Quebecois Canadians, Montreal people “embrace art and the good life with this sort of… intensity.” The difference, says Parry is also represented on the two albums that Arcade Fire have made. Released late in 2004, the word-of-mouth sensation Funeral was made in what Parry calls “a young Montreal way.” That was less the case with Neon Bible, which saw the group forsaking a small local studio for their own renovated church. Revealingly, Parry says that if he had his way, the next album would see the group “go out on the streets and have wooden blocks and all these metal acoustic instruments and do shows in the streets, using megaphones and insane percussion.” A very Montreal-sounding idea.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Funeral saw Butler surrender himself entirely to the sensibilities of his new compadres. Before Montreal, Butler couldn’t even get a gig. In his determination to find an outlet for his songs, he had followed his Texan schoolchum Josh to Boston where the two attempted to find a platform for their earliest musical experiments. But after a year there, Butler decided that “it was a lousy town to try and play music… if you weren’t already well-known.”
Montreal couldn’t have been more different. Shortly after arriving there to study scriptural interpretation at McGill University, Butler landed his first gig. In the audience was an under-awed Parry. “It took a while to realise how good his songs were. It was, like, three American dudes with acoustic guitars. Their set was for Josh’s electronic interactive art project – except that hadn’t done a real project, and instead, he brought in his friends to play a song, and plug in some Christmas lights. I was like, ‘This is lame.’”
Within days though, Butler had met fallen in love with his chief musical co-conspirator Regine Chassagne. Though all their days are spent in shared space, their closeness is readily apparent. Butler displays the $15 gold ring (“it’s just ten carats”) that has stayed on his left hand since their wedding day three years ago. He even speculates about the children they will one day have. “I see myself being father to these eight year-old, drug-taking hellraisers,” he says, with mock resignation, “and they deliberately speak French, so I don’t understand what they’re saying about me. I’ll be like, ‘What did you say?! I speak French now, like… kinda… but what the hell was that you were saying?”
On the first day the couple met, Butler happened to mention that he came from a musical family – in fact a showbusiness family. His mother played with The King Family, who in the 50s and 60s, fronted a Saturday night mainstream variety show. His grandfather Alvino Rey staked a claim in rock’n’roll history by building the first ever prototype of the electric guitar. Citing him as the single biggest musical inspiration of his life, Butler recounts the day he took Chassagne back to meet Rey. “He was amazing,” says Chassagne, “You would talk to him about music and it was like talking to a 25 year-old. His basement looked like our loft. He used state-of-the-art software, like Protools. And this was in his 90s.”
Though the songs on Funeral had been inspired by family bereavements on both sides, it was only in the mastering stages – when Rey died – that Butler and Chassagne gave the album its name. Butler says his grandfather “might have appreciated the energy” of the finished album, “but as an art form, he didn’t care much for rock’n’roll. Then again, he was friends with Louis Armstrong. By all objective standards, music probably isn’t as exciting as it was then.”
It was amid the upheaval of bereavement that Butler and Chassagne’s early courtship was played out. She was teaching arts and crafts to children in an after-school group. At the weekends she would play medieval music on a variety of instruments at weddings. “Our first conversation had been about music,” says Butler. Whilst transfixed by Chassagne’s command of exotic pre- and post-renaissance instruments, Butler also noticed that the modal music of that period wasn’t really so different to one of his favourite records of all time. “To me, Love Will Tear Us Apart sounds like modal music. There’s no real chord structure to it. It’s just a couple of melodies on top of each other.”
If one single idea can be said to have formed the germ of Arcade Fire’s actual sound, it’s arguably this: post-punk miserabilism tries to get comfortable in a room full of zithers, pipe organs, accordions and cellos. But stirring as Arcade Fire’s sonic upswell is, it can’t solely account for the way 300-odd Italian fans patiently stand in the beating sun of the town square, applauding every complete and half-finished song in their hour-long sound-check, singing bits of their favourite Arcade Fire songs during some of the longer pauses. When I recently interviewed Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, he went some way to nailing their appeal when he likened Butler to Dexys Midnight Runners’ frontman Kevin Rowland. As with Rowland at his apex, Butler’s desire to transcend bodily limitations and reach some level of spiritual purity seems to elicit total devotion in his fans.
Unlike Rowland, Butler isn’t afraid to take this outlook right into the heart of his constituency. It’s a point borne out by the extraordinary YouTube footage of Arcade Fire’s Porchester Hall show this Februrary. Closing their set with Funeral’s signature tune Wake Up, you can see the group marching off the venue’s stage and bringing the song to an epiphanic climax in the lobby as worried security staff look on. Amid the mellee, a euphoric Chris Martin is also clearly visible. Suddenly, Arcade Fire’s cult following looks like well… a cult, following. I suggest to Butler and Chassagne that, had you seen footage of David Koresh doing something similar with his Heaven’s Gate chums, it wouldn’t strike you as surprising.
His response? “I don’t really know what you mean.” Not even a bit? “Um, not really,” he says.” But when you put the same question to Richard Reed Parry, no explanation is required. “You think he’s some kind of sociopath?” laughs Parry. “I understand why you would think that – but that’s all I’m gonna say! Hahaha!” Half an hour after affectionately poking fun at Win Butler’s on-stage persona, Parry is standing two feet away from him, singing his lungs out. In one hand is a crash helmet; in the other, the stick with which he is attempting to bash any useful life out of it. That’s the thing about Arcade Fire. However blithely you care to deconstruct their music, you’re no less resistant once immersed in it.