Spontaneous combustion: The return of Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire's first album catapulted the unconventional Canadian outfit into the rock stratosphere, drawing eulogies from Springsteen, Bowie, Byrne and more. Six years later, their third album is awaited with bated breath. Andy Gill sets the scene for the release of the year

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:34

Next week sees the release of the most hotly-anticipated album of the year. A small, but not insignificant, measure of its importance is that Arcade Fire's The Suburbs will be available in eight different sleeves, the kind of grand presentational gesture usually reserved for only the first rank of rock'n'roll aristocracy. As such, it's not entirely out of place, despite the apparently modest accomplishments of a band whose two previous albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, have each yet to pass the million-sales mark, and whose members would still mostly pass unnoticed, towering frontman Win Butler excepted.

Almost from the moment their debut album appeared, Arcade Fire have been welcomed into rock's VIP club by common consent. So impressed was David Bowie that he bought Funeral in bulk, giving it as a gift to friends. Later on he would jam with the band onstage, as would David Byrne, and Bruce Springsteen – the latter even performing their "Keep The Car Running" at his own show. Their songs have been covered by Peter Gabriel, and by American soprano Renée Fleming. U2 have used the Arcade Fire's anthemic "Wake Up" as their preferred walk-on music for their stadium shows. Coldplay's Chris Martin has proclaimed the group "the greatest band in the history of music". Nobody, it seems, has a bad thing to say about the band.

Well, nobody except Flaming Lips' frontman Wayne Coyne, whose attack in a Rolling Stone article a year ago astonished both the band and their devoted fans. Coyne derided the band as pompous and arrogant, claiming that they treated both their crew and their audience "like shit". "I thought, 'Who do they think they are?'," he fumed. "I don't know why people put up with it."

An astonished Win Butler responded with bemusement: not only had they only once shared a bill with The Flaming Lips, he wrote, but they had hardly exchanged more than a word of greeting: "I can't imagine a reason why we would have been pompous towards The Flaming Lips, a band we have always loved, on that particular night, all those years ago. Unless I was way more jet-lagged than I remember." One thing was clear: Arcade Fire had now reached that level where their every move would be subject to the kind of scrutiny they had heretofore managed to avoid.

Some idea of the depth, or more accurately the breadth, of that scrutiny can be gleaned by simply googling "arcade fire": only two-thirds down the 22nd page will you come to a February 2009 news story about someone being arrested on suspicion of arson following an actual fire at a Blackpool amusement arcade. Every other reference is to the band, with dozens more pages following. That's an awful lot of attention for a band that has been frequently likened to a commune, and who spend much of their time well away from the public gaze, in their own studio-cum-home in a converted church out in the snow-covered Canadian countryside.

Like many of the better American indie performers of recent years, from Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes to Midlake, White Denim and, yes, The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire have opted to secrete themselves away from the major centres of the entertainment business, wood-shedding their songs out in reclusive small towns and backwoods cabins where their muses can breathe more freely, untainted by the demands of passing fashion and rapacious media. The opening song on Funeral, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", tells of two snowed-in lovers digging tunnels through the snow to reach each other, a potent metaphor for this sort of sealed-in-but-sharing approach to their art. When David Byrne first heard the song, he was enchanted by the notion: "I thought, this is such an unlikely subject, but emotionally it feels perfect".

Onstage, the lanky Win Butler occupies the eye of Arcade Fire's whirlwind of sound much like Byrne did when he was at the heart of Talking Heads' blue-eyed funk: part-ringmaster, part-preacher, part-disciple. And also like Byrne, Butler has a lyrical fascination with the deceptive formalities of life, and religion, and geography. Funeral was dominated by the four-part "Neighborhood" suite, just as The Suburbs, with a slight shift of perspective, is dominated by the reprised title-track bookends and the climactic tracks "Sprawl I (Flatland)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", which bring to mind Talking Heads songs such as "Cities" and "The Big Country".

All great bands require some indefinable synergy to propel them beyond the mere sum of their constituent contributions, a catalysing force which produces the unexpected, and for Arcade Fire, part of that comes from the mutual attraction between Win Butler and Régine Chassagne that forms the band's core, an alliance of outsider spirits from contrasting backgrounds.

Edwin Farnham Butler III was born in Houston, Texas, in 1980, scion of a rich geologist who worked for multinational oil giant Halliburton, and a mother who played the harp. She wasn't the only musical member of the family: Win's grandfather Alvino Rey was a swing musician who played banjo and pedal steel guitar, and invented the pick-up used on Gibson's first electric guitar, the ES-150. (A 1940 recording of Rey's song "My Buddy" was included on the B-side of Arcade Fire's single "Neighborhood #11 (Tunnels)"). Butler was schooled at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy and liberal-arts centre Sarah Lawrence College, before fetching up at Montreal's McGill University, alma mater of Leonard Cohen. It was an adolescence of privilege heavily leavened with the sobering influence of English new-wave rock by the likes of The Cure and Radiohead: one of Butler's most significant musical memories is of the day he bought Radiohead's The Bends. "I put it on the stereo. I pored over every page of the liner notes. It was this ceremony," he recalled later.

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Chassagne came from an entirely different source, her family having fled Haiti back in the deadly days of the "Papa Doc" Duvalier regime. Her great-uncle was a former Haitian ambassador, a doctor and a diplomat; but as part of the intellectual elite, the family posed a threat to the dictator, and in the purges that echoed those in communist China, and later in Cambodia, several were killed. The ambassador became an exile, training with Castro's men in Cuba to try to transform himself into a freedom fighter, and learn how to liberate his homeland.

Nothing ever came of the putative revolution, which was betrayed by a priest and crushed. In the song "Haiti", from Funeral, there is a French lyric which runs, "Mes cousins jamais nés hantent les nuits de Duvalier/ Rien n'arrête nos esprits" ("My unborn cousins haunt the nights of Duvalier/ Nothing stops our minds"). The song's English finale proclaims how "guns can't kill what soldiers can't see", a victory of the spirit that stresses the undying connection between heart and home.

This strange attraction between Butler's preppy, privileged post-modern angst and Chassagne's exotic, embattled refugee spirit, is represented musically in the way that his slightly dour, slightly formal, new-wave affinities are constantly roughed-up and smoothed-over by her eccentric, rustic early-music inclinations, as if there had been a mix-up at the equipment haulage company and Echo & The Bunnymen or Joy Division found themselves having to perform with instruments belonging to Fairport Convention and the Consort of Musicke, tackling their grand themes of faith, doubt and fear with fiddle and hurdy-gurdy.

Around this marital nucleus spin the other electrons in the band's cell: Butler's younger brother Will, the energised onstage will-o'-the-wisp often to be seen throwing drums high in the air, or clambering between a variety of instruments; further multi-instrumentalists Tim Kingsbury and Richard Reed Parry; violinist Sarah Neufeld; and drummer Jeremy Gara, who often shares percussive duties with several other band members.

For live shows, the seven are further augmented with two or three more musicians, a vast crew bustling around the stage like Oxford Circus at rush-hour, swapping instruments and goading each other into ever-more-energised performances. At a 2007 show in St John's, the church-turned-concert-hall in Smith Square, London, it was hard to keep track of who was playing what, as mandolin was swapped for bass, glockenspiel for guitar, accordion for hurdy-gurdy, keyboards for drums, and so on, with massed choral interjections of seven or eight voices bolstering the hooks. By the time they reached the highpoint of "No Cars Go", with all nine or ten of them hammering away at the riff on assorted mandolins, guitars and fiddles, it was like riding an unstoppable flow of sound, of a density and weight that would shame the most determined of heavy metal bands. Within its coursing flow could be discerned traces of all the influences feeding into their sound, from the glam and new-wave/indie rock pulses driving it all along, to the medieval tints of strings and keyboards, all interwoven with the subtle steeliness of a Radiohead anthem.

By a recent Hackney Empire show, things had been streamlined slightly, but they still wielded immense power, punctured a touch here and there by Win Butler's teasing between-songs banter about England's pathetic World Cup debacle. Alongside him, his wife darted about like Tinkerbell as each anthemic song became a huge community sing-song, a thousand throats barking back the hooks to songs which have rapidly become fixtures of the modern musical landscape, and inspired countless bands. Experiencing Arcade Fire live, it's easy to see how they've become the headline act that other headliners most want to see.

One reason Arcade Fire are arguably the most important band currently operating in rock music is the way that they have managed to retain the highest possible level of self-determination without jeopardising their ability to develop a global profile.

Right from the formation of the band in 2003, financial decisions were always aimed towards establishing an ongoing creative freedom. At first, this meant ploughing the revenues gained from live appearances in the Montreal area into the recording of their first releases. The performances not only financed the recordings, they also helped hone the material to a condition that was fit to record. Besides which, the band really dug playing live. Their initial, self-released Us Kids Know EP helped secure the band their album-by-album US licensing deal with the independent label Merge, with whom they share profits 50/50, whilst retaining all their own publishing rights and exercising complete creative control over product: an arrangement similar to that offered by Mute Records which enabled Depeche Mode to become very rich. For the band, it was simple moral logic. "The idea of someone else owning what we do is insane when we did all the work," as Win Butler put it.

The first product delivered to Merge was Arcade Fire's debut album Funeral, which was recorded slowly, bit by bit, at the band's own expense at Montreal's HotelTango Studio; costs were further reduced when the studio's co-owner/engineer, Howard Bilerman, became their drummer for the album. It was a sobering period in the band's history, however, marked by the deaths, in fairly swift succession, of Regine's grandmother Nancy, Win and Will's grandfather Alvino, and Richard Parry's Aunt Betsy; hence the album title, which rather belies the euphoric nature of much of the music.

When Funeral became the unexpected succès d'estime of 2004, vaulting up the American charts and selling half a million copies, the demand for live appearances increased proportionately, and the money which rolled in from all these revenue streams was again ploughed back into developing the band. Now earning rather more than an elementary-school teacher, Butler and his wife Regine Chassagne found a converted church, the Petite Eglise in Farnham, some 45 miles outside Montreal, which was bought for $200,000 Canadian dollars and, after renovation became the band's base and studio. From that point on, recording costs would be effectively zero as they worked on the follow-up, Neon Bible.

But, with the sudden success of Funeral, the demands on the band increased exponentially, and they found themselves spending more time fielding licensing deals, setting up shows and doing promotion and interviews. In the end, they brought in a manager to take care of business, but made sure it was somebody who understood the demands of the idiosyncratically creative: Björk's manager, Scott Rodger.

He was impressed by the band's approach. "What immediately put them into a different league was the fact that they controlled their own rights from day one," he told Billboard. "They very cost-effectively made their first album, and then made some strategic deals that would bring in some money for them to buy their own recording studio and be able to be self-sufficient and make their own recordings. They pay for everything themselves and deliver it to their licensees. No label will ever commission anything that they do. Their videos, their artwork, their photographs – they pay for everything. They have complete control."

This emphasis on control was fundamental to Arcade Fire's development, and was always directed first and foremost towards creative goals. When they wanted to have a six-foot neon sculpture of a book's fluttering pages made as a stage backdrop, there were no corporate bean-counters to protest. The sculpture also served as the sleeve image for the Neon Bible album, on which the band addressed the widespread unease about the political momentum of the times through a series of songs streaked with post-millennial dread. Butler, who was raised a Mormon, studied scriptural interpretation at university, where he became fascinated by the metaphysical questions concerning such notions as evil, death and love. "I think a lot of the human experience has to do with trying to understand what these things mean," he explained, "and there's not really any tools to do that unless you're thinking about it in a more spiritual or philosophical realm."

Accordingly, Neon Bible was an album forested with thorny questions of faith, love and fear, tackled from the position of someone who still believes religion has a value in the modern world. Which is not to suggest it's a pious work, or evangelical : rather than worshipped, God is taken to task about the disappointments of his Earthly representatives, while the air around the album is thick with the fear of looming apocalypse and deteriorating social values. "There are two kinds of fear," claims Butler. "The Bible talks a lot about fear of God: fear in the face of something awesome. That kind of fear that makes someone want to change. But a fear of other people makes you want to stay the same, to protect what you have. It's a stagnant fear, and it's paralysing."

In the face of this fear is the duty to act, whether it's actively promoting political change by, for instance, Butler's explicit early support for Barack Obama, which was followed up by benefit concerts during the Ohio primary; or by more direct involvement in social and political campaigns.

Régine Chassagne's Haitian background has provided the band with its most direct and vocal cause, their audiences being leafletted in support of the charitable organisation Partners in Health, whose Zanmi Lasante healthcare centres help relieve the country's pitiful medical needs. "The reason that we find Partners in Health so inspiring," explained the band in a statement, "is that their mission is not one based on simple charity or missionary goodwill, but on standing with the poorest people in Haiti where they live, and serving them as they would a loved one." It was a message reinforced during an appearance by Arcade Fire on the American TV show Saturday Night Live, when Butler taped to his guitar the legend "sak vide pa kanpe", a Haitian proverb meaning "the empty sack cannot stand up".

The empty sack, of course, has since received a further battering courtesy of the earthquake which occurred shortly before the band were due to visit Haiti to shoot a documentary with director Jonathan Demme. That was postponed, but their efforts to help have only been redoubled: in an extraordinary gesture, the band have promised to match public donations to a relief fund, dollar for dollar, up to a million dollars. Small beer for an established stadium act like U2 or Bon Jovi, perhaps, but an act of astonishing generosity for a group of Arcade Fire's status.

It confirms the band's determination to use their new-found success as a force for good. Over recent decades, the notion of showbiz charity has become somewhat tarnished by the way bandwagon-jumping celebrities are seen as aligning themselves with high-profile causes for dubious, self-serving ends, hoping to re-ignite dormant careers or establish a new media profile; but Butler, for one, still believes in the power of sincere, sustained action.

"My generation is desensitised," he has acknowledged. "I think every little bit of someone doing what they really care about combats that, it adds to the common good. That's the cool thing about working in a popular medium: you can connect with so many people. George Orwell is one of my biggest heroes, and he says that all art is politics, so there's no getting away from it."

The new album: Andy Gill's track by track guide


Barroom piano provides a surprisingly jaunty start to the album, with Win Butler's improbable falsetto refrain lending a suitably nostalgic air to his reflections on growing up and growing old: "Sometimes I can't believe it/I'm moving past the feeling."


Swaggering, articulate boogie reprises the churning euphoria of "No Cars Go" and "Keep the Car Running", and like them it's great to hit the open road with; though Butler's protagonist would "rather be alone than pretend to feel alright".


Familiar, fiery Arcadian unease, rendered with the melodic charm of Talking Heads, with yet another soul finding himself feeling out of place and out of time as he stands in line, alienated from those in the queue behind him.


An unusual alliance of harpsichord and synthesiser prancing sluggishly along, with a feral generation of illiterate modern kids treated as a carnival freak-show exhibit: "They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words that they don't understand."


Minor piece fronted by Régine Chassagne, a surging rocker heralded by furiously sawing string ostinatos – something indistinct about being oneself in an empty room (as if it were ever otherwise).


More mild disaffection, with Butler feeling like he's living in "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside a prison", over a languid handclap groove built around a monotonous guitar drone.


Sung by Régine and Win in sequence, this has the tentative manner of a Japanese girl-group pop song about alienation. The rigid guitar chording is bereft of swing or soul, but curtained with sheets of strings and keyboards.


With its electropop synths and a lyric about some unspecified other being "afraid to pay the cost for what we've lost", this strongly recalls Bright Eyes' ill-advised venture into electronic protest with 'Digital Ash in a Digital Urn'.


The electric 12-string is classic Byrds but the wheedling vocal delivery is more like Tom Petty, as Butler broods over the way we lose touch with old friends, our tastes and lives slipping out of sync: "Now the music divides us into tribes/Choose your side."


Berlin-era Bowie-esque rocker lashed to a stonking Neu!-beat motorik groove, with a self-referential lyric about how they're "gonna make a record in the month of May".


Sluggish backporch melancholia, its strummed acoustic guitar haunted by a quietly circling synth whine. Another song about not having much to do or anywhere worth going to, but feeling none the worse for it.


...and another. "Let the century pass me by/Standing under a night sky/Tomorrow means nothing," claims Butler, with his acoustic strumming punctuated by a portentous piano figure that lends a trenchant finality to the sentiment.


A return to the theme of drifting apart tackled in "Suburban War", with static, expectant piano figures underscoring the entropic mood as Butler broods about a more contemplative era when he used to write letters, and could sleep easily at night.


A failed attempt to seek out locations from his childhood results in "the loneliest day of my life", aptly adrift in a Sargasso Sea of shimmering strings and wan guitar flecks.


A bizarre leap into Gaga-esque synth-pop, with Régine coming over like some Euro-disco diva. But the bouncy manner is typically deceptive, as she relates how "these days, my life, I feel it has no purpose – but late at night, these feelings swim to the surface".


Back to the start for a brief reprise, with Butler unrepentant about those youthful years spent in the suburban wasteland: "If I could have it all back, all the time that we wasted, I'd only waste it again."

'The Suburbs' is out on 2 August on Sonovox. Arcade Fire play Leeds Festival on 27 August and Reading Festival on 28 August

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