In SER­VICE of the SONG

On the eve of Ar­cade Fire’s Aus­tralian tour, lead singer Win But­ler talks ex­clu­sively to Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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