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.
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