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."
For the recording of Neon Bible, the Arcade Fire incorporated elements from boarding school, the army and church. They bought a nineteenth-century church in Montreal and put beds in the basement for barracks-style living during the year it took to record the album. "It's not the takes," says Neufeld of the extended recording process. "It's the overdubs." The resulting music sounds like a particularly vivid nightmare: It's lush and orchestrated, but still hard-edged. At various points, it evokes Brian Eno, Big Country and the E Street Band. "I may have the same influences as he does," Win says of the Bruce Springsteen comparison. "Two of my biggest influences are Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan."
So is having a large band an effort to orchestrate some anthemic sound, or is it an attempt at creating a community? "The band definitely is a community," Win says. "The bands that last are the ones that realize that and put that priority first. But it's the same principle with a two-piece band. In a large band, there's just more relationships to maintain."
The Arcade Fire are in a church basement — again. This one's in downtown Manhattan. Upstairs, there's a sold-out crowd, and an hour from now, the band will play an exuberant show, which will begin with the group members making a surprise entrance by walking through the audience. "Rock performance is one of the most sterile, formulaic modes of expression," Win observes. "It's fun fucking with it a little bit — it's a combination of punk rock and performance art."
Right now, the Arcade Fire are in their dressing room, eating vegetables, making hot toddies and politely milling about. They seem a bit subdued, but half of them are nursing bad colds and most of them are Canadian. "When I'm tired, I get really bad at English," Quebec native Chassagne says apologetically. "We have to kill the ambient light upstairs," Win says. "Last night, I spent my whole show watching the beer guy. He's doing a great job, selling a lot of beer during the quiet numbers."
They change into their stage clothes: formal gowns for the women, white shirts and suspenders for the men. They look like an old-fashioned tent-revival show. One side effect of dressing this way is that the Arcade Fire seem a step and a half outside modern culture. Even though Neon Bible debuted at Number Two on the Billboard pop charts, it feels jarring when Win sings about MTV. "The Victorian part of our image is very much not intended by us," Win insists, not entirely convincingly.
Parry says the wardrobe has another consequence: He can't dress up for a fancy occasion without feeling like he's getting ready to do a show. However, he has a solution: "I'll start wearing velvet and sweat pants."
A month later, I meet up with Win at Heathrow Airport in London. He's canceled several previous interviews, saying he's too sick to do anything other than perform; a few weeks later, he will undergo surgery to correct his persistent sinus problems. Today we're riding together from the airport to the band's hotel. Win folds his six-foot-five frame into the back seat of the car, wearing a blue hooded sweat shirt that's silk-screened with FBI files. Win is bright and well-read, able to converse intelligently about writers like George Orwell (his favorite) and Immanuel Kant. But when he doesn't like a line of questioning — queries about his wearing eyeliner during a Cure-fan phase as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, or about the band referring to the song "(Anti-christ Television Blues)" by its original creepy-father title, "Joe Simpson" — a blank look washes over Win's face and he affects ignorance.
Since Christian themes keep recurring with Arcade Fire, from the churches they frequent to the title Neon Bible, I ask him about his religious background. He grew up in the Houston suburbs. "My dad's side of the family is really nonreligious and my mom's side is really religious," he says. "Both of my mom's parents are Mormons, but they're musicians, so they were martini-drinking Mormons." Win went to Mormon Sunday school, but he also listened to his father's father, who would cheerfully undermine the church's dogma.
Now, Win says, "There are things about organized religion that I find interesting. I'd probably have a more interesting conversation with the pope than with Howard Stern. I think that people mistake describing something for understanding it — that happens in religion a lot. There's a lot of metaphorical language in the Bible, but I think that the human imagination isn't equipped to deal with the idea of eternal life."
Our conversation hopscotches from basketball (he tries to play at least once a week, even on tour) to his favorite film genre (science fiction) to the best place to hold band meetings (airports). We arrive at the hotel and continue talking in its cafe; Win orders a pizza. He discusses the reviews for Neon Bible, which have been less enraptured than those for Funeral. "We're definitely in a situation where people are judging us against ourselves," Win complains. "If Rolling Stone could give us the same review as Fall Out Boy [three and a half stars], give me a fucking break. It's definitely a dual standard."
After eating half his pizza, Win wraps up the remainder in a napkin. He has to head over to the BBC for a radio interview, but he agrees to continue our conversation in the car. The driver steers us past Hyde Park while we talk about the title track of Neon Bible. It has a lyric that feels like a manifesto: "You can't watch your own image/And also look yourself in the eye." Win explains, "A lot of art is trying to imitate people, to sell them back an image of themselves.
"Culture's really important," he continues. "People spend a lot of time thinking about nothing, and when there's something meaningful and important, it's hard for people to be engaged with it." He's interrupted by a ringing cell phone — it's Arcade Fire's manager on the line. Win asks the car's driver to pull over and tells me he needs to take the call. It takes a moment to realize what he means: He wants me to get out of the car and take a bus. "Can I catch you on the phone in a few days?" he asks, and his car pulls away, vanishing into the narrow London streets.