Fifty thousand dollars in a paper bag.
The Arcade Fire's dark second album, Neon Bible, had many starting points: the war in Iraq, the church in Montreal that the seven-person band renovated and moved into, the sudden ascent that took the band from obscurity to performances with high-profile fans like David Byrne, David Bowie and U2. But, really, it all began one night in Boston, when Win Butler, the Arcade Fire's leader, had a paper bag filled with cash.
It was about two years ago, at the end of the Arcade Fire's first U.S. tour. Their debut album, Funeral, had received critical raves and become a surprise hit — selling more than 345,000 copies worldwide — and the group was in over its head. It didn't have a manager; drummer Jeremy Gara had been acting as tour manager but had left town without depositing the tour's receipts in a bank. Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, who write the band's songs together, spent hours in their hotel room, counting the Arcade Fire's money.
Late that night, Butler wrote a song. He hadn't written much on tour, but this one came easily, expressing the alienation he was feeling: the gap between his artistic ambitions and $50,000 in a paper bag, the confusion of being an American who had moved to Canada and now felt like a tourist in his homeland. "Don't want it faster, don't want it free," Butler wrote, and "don't want to fight in a holy war," and over and over, "don't want to live in my father's house no more."
The resulting song, "Windowsill," would become the centerpiece of Neon Bible: The album, swelling with strings, horns and anguished rock, is designed to shine a light on the black mirror of American culture (see sidebar, "Bible Studies"). Despite the line "I don't wanna live in America no more," Butler now insists, "I'm so American — definitely not Canadian by any stretch of the imagination. Everyone else in the band, if they get shitty food in a restaurant, they're almost embarrassed about it. Not me: The cornerstones of America are the Pledge of Allegiance and 'The customer is always right.'"
The Arcade Fire, ten or more people onstage, have seven official members. They swap instruments seemingly at will, and Butler says "hierarchy" like it's a dirty word; however, he's clearly the group's leader, despite the veneer of communal democracy. Or as his bandmate (and younger brother) Will Butler puts it, "We basically share the same general vision. It's not quite the Quakers, where you have to be unanimous. I guess we're a democratic republic, a federal system."
The parliamentary procedure can be obscure: Violinist Sarah Neufeld and bassist Tim Kingsbury were never told they were members of the band. "I just read it in an article somewhere," Kingsbury says. "Once it's in The New York Times, I think it's official."
"Sometimes I Google myself for my status," Neufeld adds.
Kingsbury laughs, then, slightly alarmed, says, "Not really?"
"No, that was a joke," Neufeld reassures him.
Asked what the group disagrees over, Will says, "It varies — 'I don't think we should play four nights in Phoenix.' 'I don't think we should have the saxophone in that part of the song.' 'I want to watch The Magnificent Seven.' 'I want to watch Alien vs. Predator.'"
One of the longest-running Arcade Fire arguments concerns whether they should do any publicity at all. Every time they have an interview request, it seems, they debate the issue from first principles. Multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry explains, "We're trying to navigate a culture where people manufacture a lot of garbage. The goal is not to sell the most records or be the most famous. I think everybody in our band thinks we're trying to do something that's real and has some lasting value to it."
This would all feel painfully earnest if the Arcade Fire didn't back it up with their work. Their songs, dense in both lyrics and sound, anthemic yet sorrowful, have made them one of the finest young rock bands around. If their ambition occasionally exceeds their ability, that's a tribute to the scope of their ambition.
Win's a big believer in community. "Boarding school, the army or church are the only places where people are forced to be in a community with people they wouldn't choose to be," he says. (He attended the elite Phillips Exeter prep school.) "I think it's valuable to be in a community with people you have nothing in common with."
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