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The Unforgettable Fire: Can Arcade Fire Be the World's Biggest Band?

Win Butler is on a mission to make Arcade Fire the biggest band in the world - whether the rest of the band likes it or not.

Arcade Fire
Mark Seliger
January 16, 2014 11:10 AM ET

Win Butler is always up for a fight – even if it's with his audience. "I remember we were on the Suburbs tour," Butler is saying one afternoon in New York, "and we got booked at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. We'd already played Switzerland a couple times, and we'd made a rule we were never gonna do it again. The shows were so awful, and the people were just so rich and spoiled.

Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor'

"So we showed up at Montreux, which we didn't realize was in Switzerland. And it was the worst fucking audience we've ever played for. People were giving nothing. Just a black hole. So I started pushing. Before every song, I was like, ' . . . and this is the last time we'll play this song in Switzerland!' Just trying to get a rise."

Onstage, Arcade Fire have a reputation for feel-good positivity. But Butler often describes their shows as a confrontation. Even "Wake Up," the triumphant, show-closing number that helped make them heroes to a generation of indie-rock fans, started out as what Butler has called a "fuck-you song" – it was meant to grab the audience by the throat and force them to pay attention.

Tonight, Arcade Fire don't have to work at getting anybody's attention. It's just after 5 p.m., four hours until showtime, but kids are already lined up around the block for the band's gig, under the alias the Reflektors, at a dilapidated warehouse in industrial Brooklyn. Butler – wearing a black Public Enemy T-shirt and an old-timey Pittsburgh Pirates cap – is gigantic in person: A few months ago, when he played with the Rolling Stones at a concert in Montreal, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards came up roughly to his sternum, and when Arcade Fire performed on SNL in September, host Tina Fey jokingly compared him to "a Serbian basketball player" and "some kind of hipster Paul Bunyan."

Go Inside Arcade Fire's Punk-Funk Odyssey

Arcade Fire are kicking off a series of appearances in support of their fourth album, Reflektor, which will be released 10 days later. Over the next two and a half weeks they'll appear on the YouTube Music Awards, The Colbert Report and at five shows at the kind of undersize clubs and warehouses that they outgrew nearly a decade ago. "The idea was to play these like they were our first shows ever," Butler says. To get back to basics – a tempting possibility for a band that's much bigger than it ever thought it would be. In 2014, Arcade Fire have fully assumed their place in the pantheon, welcomed by some of rock's all-time greats. Bono is a friend, and he appears in one of their videos. Bruce Springsteen gives them personalized advice. (Butler: "One of the things he told us was 'Play Italy.'") David Bowie appears on their single "Reflektor." This spring, the band will embark on a nationwide arena tour that will find the six-piece Canadian crew bringing its grandiose art project to the likes of the KFC Yum! Center.

Such are the spoils of being one of the most successful bands on the planet, which Arcade Fire have been since at least February 2011, when their third album, The Suburbs, won a Grammy for Album of the Year, beating out favorites Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. A befuddled Barbra Streisand, presenting the award, thought "The Suburbs" was the name of the band; Butler seemed to express the confusion of most of America when he stepped to the mic and said, "What the hell?"

 

The next day, Butler is downstairs at the band's hotel, pushing his infant son around in a stroller. The boy – whose name Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, would rather not make public – is only six months old, but he already weighs as much as a baby twice his age. "We're hoping he'll be a point guard," the basketball-loving Butler says. "Here, let me show you my favorite gag. I call it the iBaby."

Check Out Arcade Fire's Greatest Performances

He plucks his son out of the stroller and starts pushing on his belly like it's a keypad. "Beep boop boop beep boop," he says. He holds the baby up to his ear. "Yes, I'd like to order a large pizza, please. OK, I can wait. I'll just check my e-mail real quick."

Butler takes the baby away from his ear and starts scrolling down his belly – swiping e-mails and deleting them. The baby laughs. "He loves it!" Butler says. Then one of the nannies takes him outside for a walk. (Chassagne, Arcade Fire's co-bandleader, isn't quite as doting in public, but it might be because she's been keeping the baby with her all night, sharing her hotel bed with him so Butler can get a full night's sleep in a separate room.)

This is the kind of thing Butler has dreamed of ever since he thought about starting a band: His wife and his kid, all playing together on the road. Butler's maternal grandfather, Alvino Rey, a big-band leader and pedal steel virtuoso who backed Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, often performed with Butler's grandmother, Luise Rey, who sang in a group called the King Sisters. Sometimes Butler's mother, Liza, would sing too. They all performed on a Lawrence Welk-style variety show on ABC and flew around on a private jet. "It's kind of part of our heritage," says Butler's younger brother, Will, one of Arcade Fire's guitarists. "The family band."

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