In SERVICE of the SONG
On the eve of Arcade Fire’s Australian tour, lead singer Win Butler talks exclusively to Iain Shedden
WHEN you’ve got Bono, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie pawing the hem of your garment, there’s nothing like a boot in the face to deliver perspective. Not that singer Win Butler has any overly lofty notions about his band, Arcade Fire. You could forgive him a little if he did.
In the space of just a few years the multifaceted ensemble from Montreal has taken its unorthodox rock stylings to extraordinary heights. And it’s not just rock luminaries who are singing the band’s praises.
Reviews in Australia of their two albums, this year’s Neon Bible and Funeral ( 2005), have dripped with superlatives, but it’s only now, or at least during the touring Big Day Out festival beginning in January, that the band will make its Australian debut.
Anyway, it wasn’t a boot in the face; it was a shoe, lobbed by a trainee soccer hooligan at a show in Nottingham, England, a few weeks ago. Perhaps the offender, in a delusional moment, thought Butler and his colleagues were losing control of the midfield or weren’t playing to their full potential in the second half.
Whatever the motivation, the deed was enough to upset, if not seriously hurt, Butler to the point that the band has boycotted Nottingham from its schedule for the foreseeable future.
It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever had anything thrown at me,’’ says Butler, who was hit by another flying object during the same show. I’ve played some divey punk bars in my time without that. It’s a bizarre experience when you’re out there in front of 10,000 fans and a shoe hits you. It’s surreal. All of a sudden you feel like a tap dancer up there.
I thought, f . . k this, I don’t need to be here. Ninety per cent of the people probably didn’t know what was happening. Did he just lose his mind or something?’ It’s not like the attitude of the crowd was hostile, quite the opposite. I wasn’t badly hurt, it just felt really horrible and disrupted the whole flow of the set.’’
The Arcade Fire set is one of the things that separates them form the standard rock n’ roll touring circus. Strings, guitars, keyboards, brass and vocals are often embellished by less traditional rock implements such as hurdy- gurdy, harpsichord and harp.
Their sound embraces everything from Elvis Presley to Echo and the Bunnymen, from the Velvet Underground to U2, without really sounding like any of them. To keep it even more interesting, there’s some swapping of duties during performance.
It’s a seven- piece line- up, although players have come and gone since the release of Funeral and the ensemble can stretch to as many as 10 on stage. Neon Bible has consolidated the group’s position as one of the most exciting and original rock acts on the planet.
Springsteen certainly thinks highly of them. Two weeks before Arcade Fire’s Nottingham experience, the Boss invited Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne, also a founding member of the band, to perform with him at his Ottawa show, part of his present world tour with the E Street Band. Springsteen led the way on one of the best tracks from Neon Bible , the vaguely Springsteenian Keep the Car Running , while the Canadian couple fronted the first E Street Band performance of Springsteen’s State Trooper , from his 1982 acoustic album, Nebraska . That was wild,’’ Butler says, although calmly. We had met him a few days earlier in New Jersey and he said he was coming up to Ottawa and would we do it. I said: Sure, Boss. You’re the Boss.’
The invitation was the latest in a string of compliments from high- profile rockers that have done Arcade Fire’s short career a power of good, although clearly not enough to inflate their egos.
Bowie got the ball rolling after seeing an early show, recommending them to some record labels. He later joined them on stage during a New York gig and on a television performance. Talking Heads’ David Byrne saw them early, too, and was equally impressed. Then, as Funeral gathered momentum, U2 used one of the songs from it, the single Wake Up, as the intro music for their Vertigo world tour. The group played three shows with U2 on that tour, joining them for an encore of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart on one of them.
This is all heady stuff for a band that, as Butler says, doesn’t like playing the celebrity game.
It’s cool to be part of that world for a minute and I really admire and respect those guys, but I don’t totally see that path for our band,’’ he says. I don’t look at the E Street Band and say: That’s going to be us in 30 years.’ I don’t fully relate to that. I honestly don’t think we are professional enough to put up with the personal sacrifice it takes to tour that way.
Doing that you might feel a responsibility to sound a certain way . . . stop being able to do what you need to do artistically.’’ THAT unwillingness to compromise may stem from Butler’s roots. There’s a long history of music in the Butler family and Win’s younger brother William is also in the band. Butler knew from an early age what he wanted to do and that he would do it in his own way.
My mum’s mum, during the Great Depression, would go around with the family from town to town, drop the hat and play songs,’’ he recalls.
In my family, playing music was the most normal thing I could have done with my life. It felt like a really natural thing to do. It’s something that happens every day.’’
From the beginning of Arcade Fire, when Butler and Chassagne formed a band around them in 2003, it was clear that their modus operandi wasn’t going to be four- on- the- floor rock n’ roll. Funeral , so named because of the deaths several friends and family members just before recording, including Butler’s grandfather and Chassagne’s grandmother, revealed an eagerness to push the boundaries rock or even sidestep them altogether. Songs such as Une Annee Sans Lumiere , Neighborhood # 3 and the epic ballad Crown of Love ache with a kind of folkie gloom, empowered in places by elegant strings or bold percussion. It’s the kind of emotional music that can make you cry and smile almost simultaneously.
Butler describes their work as an everevolving experiment’’, one that, judging by their live performances, is never conducted the same way twice.
That’s the goal, anyway,’’ he says. We’re really trying to play for each other and project to the audience through the songs, rather than just everybody raise your hands’. We really like playing live, but I feel like we’re in service of the songs. That’s definitely how we relate to it.’’
My experience of them as a stage presence came at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California in 2005.
Playing their first festival in the middle of the desert as the sun went down made their performance surreal enough, but the breadth and depth of it, the emotional pull and the irresistible intensity of the playing ( they looked a bit mad, not least when Butler leaped off the stage) lent it the importance of a happening. Then again, the air was somewhat pungent in every direction.
If Arcade Fire have provoked admiration on an almost religious scale, they have played up to it a little on Neon Bible . The title aside, the album features a grand pipe organ, most notably on the epic Intervention . After the album’s release the band, having discovered the instrument’s rock potential, played in several churches across Europe, the US and Canada.
The organ was a great discovery, Butler says. It brings a shade of ethereal grandeur to their broad canvas.
A friend of Regine’s was housesitting a church before they turned it into condominiums,’’ Butler explains. We’d go in and play at midnight. I’d never been allowed to f . . k around with an organ before. When we opened it up all the way . . . it’s such a powerful sound, like the whole church becomes an instrument. When we first started work on that song ( Intervention) I knew I wanted to find that sound for it.’’
The couple do the bulk of the songwriting together, most of it at home. Some of the recording of Neon Bible was done in their living room. There is no set routine to how they work, however, but they do have a comfort zone.
There’s always inspiration, a lightning bolt moment, but a lot of it has to do with the space you work in,’’ Butler says.
We try to do a lot of location recording. I like to do a lot of the singing outside of the studio. But as we’ve gotten more used to our new home, me and Regine, we’re just used to coming home and writing in the kitchen and that just being part of the same domestic experience. We uprooted a bit after the experience of making Funeral so it’s just a process of finding that space again.’’ ARCADE Fire’s success hasn’t allowed them much time to stop and think about the reasons
for it. Only when Butler burned out with a sinus infection in March, forcing them to postpone a string of European dates, did the group have a month off to take stock.
Even now Butler can’t easily assess why they have come this far or even what it is they do.
I don’t think you can prepare for what has happened,’’ he says after a pause for thought.
It was an intense experience, but we just wrapped our heads around it every step of the way. We’ve learned over the years to trust our instincts. I feel it’s really down to the songs.
The band doesn’t have a lot of ego. As a band we push ourselves quite hard and we care a lot about music.
We really try ( to) only do things that we want to be doing and I think that probably comes across.’’ He acknowledges, too, that having rock stars singing their praises has helped.
It makes it sound like we’re in LA and there are all these celebrities backstage all the time,’’ he says. It’s like a fairytale for us. We go to the odd party that is in that world, but to us it’s just really sad.
We’ve been so lucky from the get- go. David Bowie and David Byrne were at our first shows in New York. For us it has been really cool to meet musicians who have had long careers, to pick their brains, observe and just learn a little bit of how they do things.’’
This month Butler and Chassagne will be applying those learning techniques in another way during a visit to Haiti, where Chassagne has family roots.
Showing that they have more in common with Bono than music, Arcade Fire have used their fame to help raise funds for aid organisation Partners in Health in Haiti. The group has been donating a percentage of their concert ticket prices to the cause. Butler writes passionately about the plight of the poor in Haiti on the band’s website and is just as forthright when talking about it.
Haiti is a country that from the get- go has been shut down by the outside world,’’ he says.
When we first started making money we wanted to do some shows in Montreal to raise money for the campaign. We didn’t know then what was happening on the ground so we started learning more about that.’’
While there, the couple will visit clinics across the country to learn exactly how money is being spent. Ninety- five per cent of the money goes into actual practical use in the field,’’ Butler says.
Our support is just giving them a bit more of a platform for other people to find out about it. For me it just feels good and it’s an important part of what we are doing.’’
Rock stars doing good deeds is sometimes met with cynicism, as Bono could easily attest, but Butler has nothing but praise for what the U2 singer has achieved with his fame.
I know that people give Bono a lot of shit, but there are a lot of people better off because he is right in people’s faces all the time,’’ he says.
He’s already a cartoon anyway because his band is so successful, so you may as well use that status to siphon a little bit of the money off.’’
After a few weeks at home during Christmas, Arcade Fire head to Australia and New Zealand. The trip is long overdue. There had been rumours of them arriving several times during the past two years, in particular for August’s Splendour in the Grass festival at Byron Bay in northern NSW. Butler says the timing was always wrong. We’re really excited about finally coming,’’ he says. We’ll be there after a few months off, so we’re going to be in such a good mood and so excited to play.
Last time we had the opportunity to come was right after we’d already been on tour for a year and a half. We thought: Why fly halfway around the world and be miserable?’ It’s not fair to do that. We want to be there at our best.’’ The Big Day Out Festival begins in Auckland on January 18 and travels to the Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
Now with added organ: Arcade Fire from left, Regine Chassagne, Tim Kingsbury, Win Butler, Richard Reed Parry, Will Butler, Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara