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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
March 10, 2005

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."

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