Up until now, Montreal's Arcade Fire have honed a shock-and-awe tactic in their live show that has sent scenesters scrambling for superlatives, and set the bloggers all abuzz. "This is the most beautiful thing about this time for the band, and it's a time that will come to an end when the record comes out," muses drummer Howard Bilerman, voicing a sentiment shared by all the band members.
By the time their debut full-length Funeral comes out on Merge Records this month, that grassroots word-of-mouth will undoubtedly escalate into full-blown hype, thanks to cover stories like these. But this isn't about trends or commercial viability. The Arcade Fire aren't the next big thing. They're a big thing, period. They harness a larger-than-life sound into five-minute pop symphonies filled with crashing crescendos, new wave dance beats, folk simplicity and operatic grandeur, all delivered with cathartic aggression and delicate tenderness.
It makes quite a first impression. "When we toured [the U.S.] with the Unicorns or do one-off shows, 95 percent of the audience has never heard an Arcade Fire song, let alone seen us, so there's no expectation," Bilerman says. "By the end of the set, it's beautiful to know that you've won over some people. Even when we play Toronto or Montreal now, it's all expectation and anticipation and there's a bar that's been set that we have to live up to."
Not that they have any trouble living up to it, under any circumstances. In late July, the Arcade Fire drove from Montreal to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a one-off gig mind you, they were invited by their new label Merge to headline the opening night of the label's 15th anniversary weekend, with no less than Sebadoh's Lou Barlow opening the show. (He gushed from stage about the band's sound check.) Although the Arcade Fire had played Chapel Hill once before, in June, most of the band was ill at the time, and for this command performance in front of the extended Merge family, they were determined to justify the love.
The club is packed with locals and continental rock tourists, with the stifling heat only adding to the bated breath for what will be most people's first time seeing the Arcade Fire. As expected, the band launches into the anthemic "Wake Up," a tidal wave of an opening number that begins with a chorded bass riff before exploding into a screaming chorale with the entire band operating at full throttle over a sparse beat and '50s-style classic chord structure, concluding with a coda that shifts into a driving Motown dance beat.
But after eight bars of the opening riff, bassist Tim Kingsbury breaks a bass string, stopping the song cold. Singer Win Butler immediately steps to the mic and announces, "Thank you, good night," prompting the band to exit the stage. Multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry promises, "Up next, the Arcade Fire!"
It is deflating, to say the least. Yet within minutes, the band takes the stage as if nothing happened, and once again launches into the song that routinely sends jaws dropping and sets eyes aglow. The rapt capacity crowd is pressed against the stage the entire time, their enthusiasm even prompting the odd heckle, "Are you really Canadian?" By the time singer/ keyboardist/drummer Régine Chassagne hits the stratospheric high note at the end of the emotionally wrenching epic encore "In the Backseat," everyone knows that they've witnessed their new favourite band.
It says a lot that despite a weekend stuffed with stellar performances by Superchunk, Spoon, Destroyer, Crooked Fingers and Lambchop people are still raving about the new Montreal band on Sunday night.
Lest you think this band arrived from nowhere on a gravy train, the road to these raves was far from easy. As recently as April 2003, the Arcade Fire had officially been dissolved, mere weeks after the release of their debut EP. Within a year, a new line-up proved to be a passionate and inspiring band, and somehow managed to harness that energy during a meticulous recording process that resulted in Funeral.
Despite the title, Funeral is more like a baptism: an arrival, an affirmation of faith, a statement of purpose. It was recorded during a time when family members were dying; in the liner notes, the Arcade Fire dedicates the album to no less than nine dearly departed, including Régine's mother and grandmother, and Win's famous grandfather, pedal steel pioneer and big bandleader Alvino Rey. In the middle of all that, Win and Régine were married last August. This is a band that has seen its share of drama, and its intensity bleeds through every note.
The template is laid out in the opening track, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," where a sonic curtain opens to reveal an old world piano introducing the song's hook over a pulse that slowly develops into a disco beat, while the vocal melody gradually climbs higher and higher until the song eventually erupts into an ecstatic dance party with a pounding piano, synths that sound like steel drums, and apocalyptic guitars ringing like Godspeed trying to be a pop band, all wrapped around the opening hook as sung by an ooo-ing chorus of angels.
That's just the first five minutes. The rest of the album is much more predictable: you know, exactly what you would expect a band to sound like if its members were collectively raised on early rock'n'roll, Motown, Bob Dylan, the Cure, the Pixies, New Order, Talking Heads, Brian Eno and the Sugarcubes, with informal educations in pre-Renaissance medieval music, Canadian folk, and Texan big band while studying electro-acoustic music and recording the entire Constellation Records roster. As Howard Bilerman puts it mildly, "The Arcade Fire are not five kids who listened to the same ten indie rock records."
The Arcade Fire began with Win Butler, a 24-year-old 6-foot-5 giant who was raised in suburban Houston and educated in New Hampshire before making his way to McGill in Montreal for religious studies in 1999. Knowing this about him explains the zeal with which he approaches his musical calling. There's even a moment of revelation involved.
"I was in school in New York and was really depressed," Butler explains. "I didn't have many close friends and didn't know what I was doing. I was going to this really expensive liberal arts school, but I spent all day skipping class and writing songs on a four-track. I thought, What the hell am I doing?' I thought I should play in a band with Justin, who was my best friend from boarding school and who influenced me a lot. He had this mythical friend Josh, who was even bigger than me and a really talented songwriter. I called Justin and told him, You guys are moving to Maine this summer. My parents won't be there and we're going to start a band.' From that moment on, I committed to playing music in a band. It was really clear all of a sudden that it was what I wanted to do."
That band became the Arcade Fire, although it was more conceptual than real. Josh Deu moved to Montreal to go to Concordia, and Win soon followed. Richard Reed Parry remembers, "Josh was in my electronic art class, and he, Win and another friend were supposed to be doing an interactive art presentation. Instead, Josh called in his buddies to sing a folk song on acoustic guitars. The electronic' portion was that they had these Christmas lights that blinked at a certain part of the song. I thought, Who are these American assholes?' I was really unimpressed!"
Win began looking for a drummer. He stumbled across Régine Chassagne singing jazz at an art opening and was completely smitten; he immediately set out to convince her to join his band, even though she didn't yet play drums. "Régine didn't know what to do in the band at first," says Win, "because there were three guitar players playing all the time and there wasn't space to do anything. But we knew she had to play and we had to play together."
As the original trio splintered, Win and Régine formed the new core of the Arcade Fire. "At first it was really clashing," Régine explains, "but then we started being influenced by each other and knew what the other one was going to do. It was very intense, because we were falling in love at the same time."
Before she met Win, Régine was singing jazz and playing recorder in a pre-Renaissance medieval band something she only quit last year. Playing in a rock band was the last thing on her mind, although she had been fascinated by the musician's lifestyle as a child. "I didn't know any musicians around me," she recalls. "For me it was such a privilege to meet a musician, and I would grill them: You play drums? You play music? Tell me everything!' I always took music very seriously, because it was not something that was obvious." As a kid, her piano was her best friend, and she'd spend hours learning by ear: pop, jazz, classical, video game theme songs. She still breaks into the latter if there's a string-breaking lull during an Arcade Fire set.
The second incarnation of the Arcade Fire featured Dane Mills and Brendan Reed, two active Montreal musicians who usually have several bands on the go. This version of the band made a considerably stronger impression on the sceptical Richard Parry. "I saw the Arcade Fire at a loft show," he recalls, "and it was great really great. Actually, it kind of freaked me out. I was sick for a few days after that."
At the time, Richard was playing in the New International Standards with Tim Kingsbury, who had the same reaction. "I was totally shocked at how much I liked it," says Tim. "It was way quieter than it is now, and there was no real P.A. at this loft. Brendan was really striking to me; he and Régine were really fun to watch. Win was hard to ignore. And I had the songs in my head afterwards, which doesn't happen often."
Richard was recruited to record the Arcade Fire in a barn at Win's parents' place in Maine, where the entire band shacked up for a month in the summer of 2002. Rather than being an idyllic retreat, Richard recalls, "The band was a mess in Maine, it was a total disaster. There were two halves of the band that weren't talking to each other, and I was the only one talking to both. It was too intense for me, and it wasn't what I was expecting. But we didn't really have a plan, either. We cobbled together some gear but it wasn't functional at all, like we didn't have speakers to listen to what we were recording, so we ran it through guitar amps. It was technically half-assed, and the relationships were skewed and not healthy. Compared to how productive it could have been, it wasn't that productive at all."
Surprisingly, this line-up survived another six months, long enough to play the CD release show at Montreal's Casa del Popolo on March 29, 2003 along with a string section and a harp player. But barely. Internal tensions had reached the boiling point, resulting in an on-stage meltdown and destructive tantrum in the middle of the closing song. For anyone who's witnessed the positive energy created by the Arcade Fire's intense performances, it ain't pretty when things turn sour.
Even more surprising, that line-up played a couple more shows booked that month, until one gig where Win and Régine were the only ones who showed up. "We figured we'd play anyway," says Win. "There weren't many people there and we just thought, What has this come to?' But we're just going to keep going. Not playing is not an option. It always swings back and forth between being hopeful and being hopeless. Being in a band is hard. I don't know how to do it yet. It's hard to keep it together."
Régine adds, "It's hard to get everyone on the same page about what we're doing and why we do it. Everyone has to have the same motivation."
"But at the same time everyone has to be coming from a different place creatively or it will be really stale," Win continues. "It's impossible to balance. You just have to balance it for as long as you can. Almost no bands stay together unless huge sums of money come into play. It is possible, but the overwhelming number of bands break up unless a big cheque brings the Pixies back together to tour!"
A new line-up solidified with Richard Parry, Tim Kingsbury, and Win's brother Will, who took a semester off from school in Chicago to devote to the band before returning last September. All three are versatile musicians trading guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion and possess a striking stage presence, especially when decked out in the band uniform of Russian army shirts and ties.
"The band definitely has a unique physical presence," says Tim. "There's the tall red-headed kid with the wide open mouth beating his drum [Richard]; the tall blonde Texan who is scaring the hell out of everyone in the room [Win]; the shorter Haitian-French girl who's dancing around and being really intense [Régine]. I don't even think I stand out very much."
Tim Kingsbury grew up in Guelph, Ontario, where he played with Unicorns drummer Jamie Thompson in Gentleman Reg's first band while still in high school. Tim's Guelph connections to the rest of the Three Gut roster led to the Arcade Fire's early breakthrough Toronto shows, opening for Jim Guthrie, Nathan Lawr and the Constantines. He's also toured Canada as a member of Snailhouse and Aaron Booth's band.
Richard Parry came from a folk family: his late father founded the Friends of Fiddlers Green, a '70s group dedicated to 19th century folk songs, his mother is a writer and musician, his sister Evalyn is a singer-songwriter and spoken word performer. Chances are you've heard both Evalyn and Richard sing before they both appear on children's albums by Sharon Lois & Bram and Fred Penner, who were part of their parents' Mariposa folk circles.
When he joined the Arcade Fire, Richard was already leading his own equally impressive band, the instrumental Belle Orchestre, which he co-founded with violinist Sarah Neufeld to score dance pieces; they're currently finishing their debut album. Neufeld is now the newest Arcade Fire recruit, and in a band already brimming with personality, she strikes a serious pose, even when sporting a Viking helmet.
Emboldened by their new collaborators, Win and Régine wrote "Wake Up," which has begun almost every live set since. "It was written as an opening song, and in reaction to the band breaking up," says Win. "We wanted to do something that was louder than anything we'd done before. We wanted the first song we played after getting going again to be very bombastic." Richard jokes that "Wake Up" is "kinda like We Will Rock You,' really." Tim admits that the song's intensity can be demanding: "When we start that song and I know Win feels this way all the way through the set sometimes but I feel like I'm gonna barf."
"Wake Up" was the song that made Howard Bilerman fall in love with the band; a month after he heard it, he was their new drummer. Howard is a Montreal veteran who is best known as a recording engineer; he co-runs the Hotel 2 Tango studio with Godspeed's Efrim Menuck, and between the two of them they've recorded the entire Constellation roster and more than a fair share of other Montreal acts.
Howard recalls, "When I was recording Molasses, [that band's] Scott Chernoff, who works with Tim, passed me their EP and said, Do you want to hear the next greatest band in the world?' I listened to it, and it didn't really grab me so much. I thought it was a band who had more of an identity than others, but that hadn't really found their sound yet. A few weeks later I got an email saying that they wanted to come to the studio to record two songs. I told them I'd like to see them play beforehand, so I went to Win and Régine's kitchen and the band played Wake Up.' I was just knocked on my ass. It was such a huge leap from anything on the EP."
The band still didn't have a drummer at the time; Régine was learning quickly, but didn't want to make a permanent move behind the kit. Although he was active in the early '90s, Howard hadn't played drums in years, and only recently had picked up his sticks for a Silver Mt. Zion record. After he recorded two Arcade Fire songs, Win emailed Howard asking him if he knew any drummers. "I told Win that the only person I could think of was me that was available, anyway," says Howard. "I know tons of great drummers, but they're all in 19 bands. I didn't hear anything for a week, and we were recording the whole time. I didn't say anything, because it was like asking someone to the prom and having them tell you, Hmmm, I'll get back to you.' At the end of the recording session, they asked me if I was serious about my offer, and I said, absolutely."
Howard, who is the band elder and is ten years older than Win, was as drawn to their passion as people as he was the music. This is what drew him out of drumming retirement. "I saw it instantly in Win that music is in his blood," he says. "It's refreshing to see a band and I'm talking about all of them who care more about making music than being successful at making music, and who work on music and live up to the responsibility that I think should be involved in putting out a record. I also saw some impatience. Sometimes Win gets very obsessed over wanting things to happen right away, and I don't think it's a negative thing as much as it is he's young and eager."
In the song "Rebellion," Win sings, "Sleeping is giving in, no matter what the time is / Sleeping is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids." In one fanzine article, he was asked to summarise his outlook on life in 11 words or less, to which he responded simply: "Death is real."
This is the philosophy of the Arcade Fire, one of carpe diem, of living life to the fullest during our short time on this earth. No doubt the funerals that inspired the album title play specifically into this, but it's also something every member of the band shares. Tim says, "From talking to Win about death, one thing that he feels strongly is that death is very real. He's pretty scared of the idea of sitting around and not doing anything, of following a spirit that will lead to nothing. It's easy to get stuck in a routine or a habit. Part of what this band is about is actively avoiding that state."
"I know that's a big idea for Win, but it's a huge idea for me," adds Richard. "That is part of the reason I'm in this band. There was a specific point for me where you're really engaged with the idea that you're going to die, and now what are you going to do? It's easy to go through life and not engage with that."
With those kind of stakes, the Arcade Fire set unusually high standards for themselves to match, both on stage and in the studio. It's not a hobby, it's a spiritual calling. "Everyone in this band has been profoundly inspired by a musical moment or another, enough that they have to make something special happen themselves," says Richard. "That's the nature of any quasi-spiritual or inspirational moment. It doesn't really let go of you. You have to put some of that back into the world. Everybody in this band is not just there to play rock shows for the sake of playing rock shows. Everyone truly wants to do something really special."
That's why even after a performance like the one in Chapel Hill, the band comes off stage still believing they can do better. That's why when asked if they're happy with the album, Win simply replies with mere modesty, "I think the record is an improvement over the EP. The singing is a lot better, for both of us. I definitely think there's progress, and that's what keeps me moving. We're figuring some things out. I don't know if it ever feels like, Oh, sweet, we've done something really awesome.'"
Régine concurs, "Oh no, I'm never content. For me, I'm always at zero trying to get to square one. For me, I haven't achieved anything yet. This is a start."