Incoming: The Arcade Fire

How the Arcade Fire escaped the cold of Montreal, made fans out of David Bowie and David Byrne and became the hottest indie band in North America

Arcade Fire
Wendy Redfern/Redferns
Arcade Fire
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The Arcade Fire are running late – very late, though it turns out they have a pretty good excuse. When they finally take the stage at New York's Webster Hall at quarter to eleven on this Tuesday night, they seem more like a curiosity than the hottest ticket in the city. There are eight of them onstage, including two violinists, and their average song starts as a rock chorale with all eight singing whether they're near a microphone or not. Sometimes they sound like a folk-music orchestra playing Cure songs, sometimes like a rock band entertaining at a circus. The group rolls around the stage wildly. At the center – flanked by two guys in motorcycle helmets who wrestle with each other and play bass, keyboards and percussion – is a married couple, reining in the chaos.

Win Butler, 24, towers over his guitar and plants himself behind a microphone; his wife, Régine Chassagne, 28, plays accordion, keyboards and xylophone and sings gently, her French accent shoring up her husband's quavery upper register. David Bowie, who asked to meet the band backstage, sits enthralled. The next night, David Byrne shows up to meet the group and joins in for a cover of Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)."

The Arcade Fire started late tonight because, after several months of playing bigger and bigger venues across North America, they still don't have a manager or a road crew, and their gear arrived late from NBC Studios, where they taped a Conan O'Brien performance earlier in the afternoon. They set out last fall from Montreal with two vans, splitting the driving and sleeping two to a bed because their label, the North Carolina indie Merge, couldn't pay for the hotel. They watched in quiet awe as their debut, Funeral, became the most celebrated independent album of 2004.

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: Arcade Fire, Funeral

"There's a certain uninhibited passion in the Arcade Fire's huge, dense recording sound," says Bowie. "They meld everything from early Motown, French chanson and Talking Heads through to the Cure in a kaleidoscopic dizzy sort of rush. I bought a huge stack of the Funeral CD last September and gave them to all my friends. I made so many converts."

The title of Funeral refers to four band members losing two grandparents and an aunt in the months leading up to the album's release, but Funeral is by no means full of death and mourning. The album's real story is about a group of young people finding and expressing community in extraordinary music. It's also about a Texas boy who wandered from a loving, musical family at age fifteen, then wandered into a loving, musical family 2,000 miles away six years later.

Sometimes the Arcade Fire seem less a band than an arty collective: Backstage at Webster Hall, friends who assist the group in various ways – making artwork, carrying gear, selling merchandise – shuffle in and out of the room. Win's younger brother Will – who in addition to playing bass, keyboards and percussion with the Arcade Fire is also a fourth-year creative-writing student at Northwestern – sits typing on his laptop. He's working on a paper about the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, which he'll hand in a few days later when he gets back to Chicago after the tour ends. No one in the group ever had rock-star dreams. "I write songs as part of my life," Win says. "I don't write songs to put them on albums. I make albums out of necessity."

This is actually the third or fourth incarnation of the Arcade Fire, since Win has been leading musical projects under that name for seven years or so. (The name comes from a story Butler heard as a child about an arcade burning down, killing the kids inside.) Though he never thought of playing in a band until high school, Win was surrounded by music as a kid. Born Edwin Farnham Butler III, he grew up in an affluent suburb of Houston, where his geologist dad had a job with an oil company. Butler's grandfather, Alvino Rey, was a swing-era bandleader who all but invented the pedal steel guitar and led dozens of incarnations of the Alvino Rey Orchestra.

Rey died at age ninety-five in early 2004. Funeral's liner notes, in the guise of a funeral program, dedicate the album to him, among others. Butler also put out a limited seven-inch single featuring an old Alvino Rey Orchestra cut as the B side. "I was lucky, because he lived so long and he was so sharp in his old age," Win says. "I got a few years where we could talk as adults and appreciate each other's humor."

Butler's grandmother Luise was part of the King Sisters, a family of "martini-drinking Mormons" who sang with Alvino's orchestra in the Forties. Butler's mom, Liza, played harp and sang; when she was very young, she appeared on a Frank Sinatra single. In the late Sixties, Luise, Liza and Rey all starred in a weekly Lawrence Welk-esque variety program on ABC, The King Family Show. "It was a sweet gig," Win says. "There were sixteen kids and twelve adults, and they traveled on a private jet."

When Butler was fifteen, he left Houston for prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy, an hour north of Boston. Butler hung out with arty kids and fell in love with the Cure and the Smiths. But he also played varsity basketball, made wall-size photo collages, directed a version of Woody Allen's God at the school's theater and instituted something called Winter Thaw, a weekend in February when teachers were forbidden to assign homework.

And he taught himself guitar. "My friend and I would both be miserable and write songs," Butler says. "We'd make a twelve-song album in a weekend on a four-track. We'd weave in between joke songs and songs where, in an embarrassing way, we'd try to express something."

After graduation, Butler enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College to study photography but barely made it through a year. "I was just writing songs all day," he says. His high school friend Josh Deu went to Montreal to attend college, and Butler followed in early 2001. "I moved there in the fucking winter," he says. "It was like, 'Welcome to the coldest place of your life.'" Butler enrolled at McGill University, where he became a religion-studies major. At an art opening one day, he spied Chassagne singing jazz standards. The daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled François Duvalier's oppressive regime in the Sixties, Chassagne grew up in a poor French-speaking home in Montreal's suburbs. Her mother died in the late Nineties, and Chassagne had to help support her family, working with children and playing and singing in jazz bands while studying music at McGill.

Butler approached Chassagne about starting a band. Initially, she wasn't interested in more than a musical partnership. "I put on my ugliest jeans and white socks, and put my hair up so it looked like shit," she says. "I went to his apartment, and he played me songs. I had never seen someone play so maturely. He wasn't pretending to be who he wanted to be."

Their first date was a showing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They had agreed to meet in a large group, but both mysteriously forgot to invite their friends. Chassagne had also forgotten to mention that the movie was being shown with French subtitles, and the two of them ended up huddling in a corner of the theater, with Chassagne whispering translations in Butler's ear.

The pair soon discovered they were natural songwriting partners. Deprived of a CD player till she was eighteen, Chassagne had undergone an unconventional musical education. "We had all these weird, random records," she says. "Bach, Beethoven, opera, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf – grandmother music." Chassagne is a self-taught pianist and accordion player, and the influence of all that grandmother music is part of what makes the Arcade Fire's sound unique.

When Chassagne first joined the Arcade Fire, the band practiced in Butler's giant loft, above a bar in downtown Montreal. They played basements, art openings and club gigs. In the summer of 2002 they recorded their first EP in Maine, where Butler's parents had recently moved when his dad took a job at a land conservatory. A year and a half later, at a New Year's party, Butler pulled Chassagne aside and asked her to marry him. Not long after the group finished recording Funeral, the two were married at a maple-sugar farm an hour east of Montreal.

When the band's tour wraps up in Boston, Butler and Chassagne stay behind in the city for a few days before a press trip to Europe. They're surprisingly domestic for a couple of twentysomethings in a rock band, and they say they almost always prefer to cook dinner at home or play music with friends than go out. They'd like to return to Montreal for a long rest, but for now they remain homeless, having sublet Butler's loft. "I know there are some annoying things on the horizon," Butler says. "People are gonna try and tear us down. I'm totally prepared for that."

After downing oysters at a restaurant in Boston's financial district, Butler and Chassagne return to their hotel for a night of playing cards with one of Butler's Boston friends. Not long before turning in around midnight, Chassagne thinks back to the days when she and Butler first met. They were making music and contemplating marriage, but they were also worrying about how they'd survive as a family: She was working odd jobs and performing random gigs, and he worked part-time at a deli until he chopped off a piece of a finger. "Back then we were dreaming," she says. "'Wouldn't it be nice if we could actually live, pay our rent and play music?' It was a dream."

This story is from the March 10th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 969: March 10, 2005
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