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
Arcade Fire
By |

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."

Both of the Butler boys were born in Truckee, California, near where their dad worked as a geologist in Reno, Nevada. But when it became apparent that there was no gold left in Reno, he switched to oil, which meant either Alberta or Texas. They chose Texas.

Win was five. "I never really felt super-Texan," he says. "It wasn't like I was unhappy, but I wasn't superhappy." So when his dad floated the possibility of boarding school at his alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Win took it. He moved into a dorm called Abbot Hall ("I was really lucky, because there were much douchier dorms") and met kids from Hong Kong, Africa and "all different parts of New England." "It was way more diverse and intellectually stimulating," he says, "so it was kind of hard to turn back after that."

After Exeter, Butler enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College to study photography. But soon he realized that he hated it. "The idea of peer critique, of talking about each other's art – I just found it so useless," he says. "I don't want to talk about someone else's shitty photo, and have someone I don't respect tell me what they think about mine." He quit after one year and moved to Boston with a friend, then moved with that same friend to Montreal, where they started in earnest the band that became Arcade Fire.

"The first time I saw Arcade Fire, it was in a loft in Montreal," recalls Tim Kingsbury, the band's guitarist and bassist. "It was Win and Régine, two drummers, this guy Myles playing guitar, and this girl Anita playing the harp. I just remember 30 people sitting on the floor, and Win being supertall and imposing and standing over everyone. The first time I actually talked to him was when he and Régine came to one of my band's shows. Afterward he came up to me, like, 'I really liked that second song – but you should probably cut the last verse.' Just immediately coaching us. I was like, 'Who is this asshole?'"

There was a lot of turnover in the early days. At one show, their previous drummer messed up one of his parts, and Butler started screaming "No! No! No! No!" at him in time to the beat – prompting the drummer to hurl his kit across the stage. (He left, too.) The cast of characters changed throughout the first half of the 2000s, with Chassagne and Butler at the core. But after the addition of Kingsbury, drummer Jeremy Gara and keyboard/guitar player Richard Reed Parry, the lineup seemed to solidify.

Butler runs the band as a kind of dicta-democracy, in which all members are equal, but one is more equal than others. "Win has the loudest mouth for sure," Parry says. "There's no question he's the leader of this band. Which is fine by me. I'm a Quaker, and consensus is fucking slow and hard. And at the end of the day, the fact that we can all get behind any idea and move forward is a small miracle."

Butler is unapologetic about his managerial style. He half-jokingly refers to the crew as his "staff," and compares his role to that of a director on a film set. "When you make Lord of the Rings, maybe there's 500 people building an Orc village that costs $10 million, and it ends up on the editing floor," he says. "That fucking sucks if you were working on that village for six months – but I'm still cutting the Orc village." That said, he adds, "I don't think for a second that I could do this without everyone else. Because it's so much bigger than the sum of its parts."

Butler and Chassagne sit down to lunch at their favorite Miami restaurant, a Haitian place in South Beach called Tap Tap. Chassagne grew up poor in a suburb of Montreal, the daughter of two Haitian immigrants, and the band has made Haiti its cause. Chassagne co-founded a non­profit called Kanpe – Creole for "Stand Up" – that helps rural Haitians access education and medical care. One dollar/euro/pound from every ticket the group sells goes to a Haitian-aid organization called Partners in Health.

Chassagne digs into the feast on the table: pork fritters, roasted goat, sole fillet, rice, beans and corn bread. She clearly doesn't like to be interviewed, as if explaining things about herself or her music will ruin the magic. As a girl, Chassagne was a music prodigy who taught herself to play part of a Mozart symphony by ear on an old electric organ she found in the family's basement. But when she studied music in college (it was her second degree, after one in communications), she quit for reasons oddly similar to Butler's.

"Class was driving me crazy," Chassagne says. "You have to write all these assignments, but what are you supposed to do with this piece of shit music you composed just for the assignment? In my third year the teacher was like, 'OK, for next Thursday write me a 12-bar blues,' and I was like, 'I'm done!' There's enough 12-bar blues in the world. I've got other things to do."

Chassagne and Butler met at McGill University in 2001. Around the same time, he saw her sing jazz at an art gallery and asked her to play with him; thinking he was just hitting on her, she blew him off. She says he called her five times before finally talking her into coming to play with him, at which point she put on her ugliest jeans and made sure her hair was a mess. But they wrote a song together that night, went on their first real date soon after (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), got engaged at a New Year's Eve party, and were married in the summer of 2003 at a maple farm near Montreal. The following year, Arcade Fire's first album came out.

Chassagne's parents fled Haiti during the violence of the 1960s, when Papa Doc Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes death squads were eliminating political enemies. Her family came from Jérémie, where a lot of light-skinned, upper-class Haitians lived, and which was a particular Duvalier target. Chassagne's great-uncle was a doctor and diplomat who helped lead an attempted coup; Chassagne says many of her relatives were rounded up during that period. Her uncle Albert wrote a book about those days, called Bain de Sang en Haïti, or Blood Bath in Haiti. Her father escaped as a teenager, moved to the U.S., got a green card – and was promptly drafted and sent to Vietnam. ("He's incredibly not bitter about it," says Butler.) Her parents met at an Army dance; her mother died in the late Nineties, and her dad now lives near Bakersfield, California.

Chassagne says she's of mixed racial descent. Her parents were both darker than her, she says, "But somehow I just came out like this." For the band's new album, she wanted to capture some of the island's energy – to blend Arcade Fire's trademark orchestral uplift with some earthier Caribbean grooves. "I had this idea about hybrid beats," she says. The band members would spend hours workshopping songs, trying to get Chassagne's hips to move. Once she started dancing, they'd know they were on the right track. "I was driving everyone crazy," she says. ("There's no driving crazy," says Gara diplomatically. "Régine's just like, 'I really have this strong idea, let's chase it.'") Chassagne smiles. "I just need to dance, OK?"

That Saturday, the band flies to California to perform at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit. Backstage at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, the vibe is one of post-hippieish utopia. Graham Nash chats with the dudes from My Morning Jacket, and David Crosby – dressed in a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young T-shirt – chats with Butler and Tim Robbins. "I feel so short next to you guys!" Crosby says. Butler looks at Robbins and they both playfully take a knee.

After soundcheck, Butler spends a while playing ping-pong with his guitar tech, Tyler Messick. Butler, a fierce competitor with a wicked serve, tells him frequently to "get that shit out of here." During one game, he lunges so hard that he splits his pants. Messick says Butler really hates to lose: "He'll cheat, he'll change the score. He'll even flip over the table."

Messick and Butler met five or six years ago, playing hoops at the Montreal YMCA. "He gets in fights almost every time we play," Messick says. "He's an instigator – I have to hold guys back every time. He gets his aggression out on the court. He doesn't take criticism very well. But he can dominate a room like no one else."

Also hanging out backstage is Scott Rodger, the band's manager. If Arcade Fire have become unlikely rock gods, Rodger, who also manages Paul McCartney, deserves a big part of the credit. He came on board a few months after the release of the band's debut LP, Funeral, and immediately set about negotiating better deals. As a result, Arcade Fire is a business that's been profitable almost since Day One. They paid for their first EP with money from their shows, and insisted on keeping their publishing rights when they signed their first label deal. And after Funeral became a smash, it ensured they would never need to take money from a record label again.

Unlike, say, U2 – who might receive a $50 million advance but never see another penny from record sales – Arcade Fire pay for everything upfront. Reflektor, for instance, cost $1.6 million to make, according to Rodger – a hefty increase over the $500,000 they spent on The Suburbs. But because the band doesn't outsource much to its record company – the tiny indie label Merge – it also gets a much bigger cut of the profits. As Rodger says, "We wanted to figure out a way to sell a million records, but get paid like we sold 4 million. And we did."

Frustrated by what they thought was a failure to capitalize on their Grammy win, Arcade Fire also brought in some muscle for this album. Reflektor is being distributed through the giant Universal Music Group. When The Suburbs debuted at Number One, Laura Ballance – the co-founder of Merge – laughed it off. "The whole chart thing is kind of like sports," she told the Los Angeles Times. But here's the thing: Butler really likes sports.

"You can get bigger or get smaller," Butler says, "and it feels better that it's getting bigger." Not everyone in the band agrees. "Personally, I don't feel like we need to become any more popular," says Parry, who says he'd be happy playing club shows if the band could afford to. "It's kind of absurd. We're two months behind on band meetings right now, because the last two months have been so bonkers."

I ask him what kinds of things they need to talk about. "Actually, part of it is the publicity," he says. "Right now it's dangerously close to being all Win and Régine, all the time. Which is new, and sort of dangerous." He says he's always on guard against the narrative that he calls "the royal couple." Parry doesn't say any of this bitterly. Mostly he just seems genuinely concerned about what's best for the band.

That night in Mountain View, Butler is in the dressing room making a joke about "white-people problems" when suddenly there's a knock at the door. "Speaking of white people," Butler says, grinning. "Neil Young!"

Young has stopped by to rehearse an unreleased Arcade Fire song that he's going to perform with them tonight. The song came to Butler in a dream: He woke up, sang it into a recorder, and when he played it back the next morning, he realized it sounded exactly like a Neil Young song. He, Chassagne and Young run through it a few times, Butler strumming an acoustic guitar, Chassagne drumming her hands on a violin case, Young wailing on his harmonica as his harmonica roadie stands nearby. "Cool!" Young exclaims after they're finished. "You guys got a great sound, man. You guys are great."

Arcade Fire take the stage a few minutes later, dressed in matching black-and-white-sequined mariachi suits. When Young joins them for their special number, Butler introduces it to the crowd under the title "I Dreamed a Neil Young Song." But really, the name of the song is "A Band With My Friends."

They start to play it, a slow, melancholy number with a simple minor-key structure. It really does sound like a Neil Young song:

I had a dream and I woke up singing
I was playing in a band with my friends
Since I was young, I always dreamed about
Playing in a band with my friends

These days the band members all still live within about 10 minutes of one another in Montreal. They live pretty modestly: Butler and Chassagne are in the same house they bought after Funeral, driving the same old Volvo. Until very recently, Parry still drove a 1989 Camry – a hatchback, so he could fit his bass in it. (Once he got stopped at the border on his way back from New York with a bunch of platinum plaques, and the customs officers made fun of him for being in Arcade Fire and driving a Toyota.)

"The longer we're a band, the more painfully obvious it becomes why most bands don't last," Parry says backstage. "It's probably the nature of anything that starts out small and self-directed, and becomes larger and in danger of not being self-directed."

Back onstage, Butler sings the last verse:

Late at night, when the house is quiet
Sometimes I think about the end
What will I remember from the years
I was playing in a band with my friends?

The next day, the band flies to Los Angeles, and Butler decides he wants to play basketball. Together we drive from his hotel in West Hollywood to the east side, where a friend of a friend supposedly has a regular pickup game. Butler is dressed in size 15 Nikes and a throwback purple Utah Jazz jersey (No. 7 – "Pistol" Pete Maravich). He played center on the basketball team at Exeter, although he wasn't a starter until the end of his senior year. "I'm way better now," he says. "I was always treated as a post player, because I'm tall, but in my twenties I realized that I could actually shoot. So I'm much more of a scorer now." (There seems to be a metaphor in there somewhere.) He says, only half-jokingly, he's hoping to get to play in the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game this year.

We pull up to the gym, a dingy-looking rec center in the heart of Chinatown. Out front, some old ladies in sweatpants are doing tai chi. Inside, Butler is one of only two non-Asians, and also the only person taller than five feet 10. He says hi to his friend's friend, but nobody else seems to recognize him.

The teams are set, lights against darks, and everybody takes their places on the court. On the first possession, Butler pulls up at the top of the key and drains a three-pointer. The next possession, he does it again. The next one he brings the ball downcourt and dishes a nifty behind-the-back pass to a teammate, who goes in for an easy layup, and then Butler pulls up and sinks another three. Just like that, Butler's team is up 11-0, and he's responsible for all 11 points.

By the second game, the other team starts double-teaming him, but Butler keeps attacking, ignoring an open man and driving into the paint for another bucket. Then they begin triple-teaming, and Butler gets frustrated. "Come on, guys – we gotta box out better!" he shouts. "They're killing us on the rebounds!" Still, thanks to some strong post play, his team ekes out another victory.

The next game Butler sits. Then, back in for game four, he opens with another three-pointer. But pretty soon the frustration is back. On one early possession, his team turns it over and the other team scores. Butler punches a blue mat on the wall, hard. A few minutes later, he tussles for a loose ball and jams his finger. "Motherfucker!" he screams, coming to the sideline to tape it up. "Ow! Fuck! I need this thing for work!"

When Butler goes back in, he's full-on pissed. "Grab that fucking ball!" he shouts as his team loses another rebound. "How many are they gonna fucking get? Fuck!" A minute later it happens again, and the other team drives down and scores. Butler screams again. "That's six in a row! It's fucking pathetic!" "Dude, calm down," one of his teammates says finally. "Everyone's on the same team."

"But they're getting every fucking rebound!" protests Butler.

The guy smiles. "Dude, you're six inches taller than everyone else. If you can't get them, no one is going to."

The joke seems to calm him down a bit. For the rest of the game, Butler switches to cheerleader mode. "Come on, guys! We're in this! Play hard!" They still lose, 21-19, but afterward, Butler is in better spirits. "Thanks, guys," he says as he peels off his jersey and dons a tie-dyed Ramones tee. "I'm sorry I'm so mouthy. I don't mean anything by it. I don't know how else to play."

One of the guys asks him to stick around for one more game. Butler says he can't, but they're welcome on the court in Montreal anytime. He says goodbye and turns to leave, but then stops just short of the door.

"Seriously, though," he says with a grin. "Twelve points from rebounds."

A day later, the band plays a big record-release concert in front of the Capitol Records building that's broadcast on MTV and ABC. Traffic on Vine Street is shut down, and hundreds of fans spill out into the roadway. The group seems energized playing for a big crowd after so many small shows. But before one song, Butler goes on a funny little riff. "Sometimes you're in a band," he says, "and you put out an album, and you just want to play songs, you know? But sometimes things get so . . . complicated."

On Arcade Fire's final night in Los Angeles, they play a show at the Hollywood Palladium, an Art Deco theater on Sunset Boulevard. Several of their Hollywood friends are here; Chassagne's dad drove in too. Butler also has a personal reason to be excited. "My grandpa used to play here," he says backstage. "Multiple times."

Reflektor had come out two days earlier, and most of the reviews were positive. But the one that got the most attention, in The Washington Post, was definitely not. "Look, I'm sure they're very nice people," the review began, "but on their fourth album . . . Arcade Fire still sound like gigantic dorks with boring sex lives."

"Yeah, I read it," Butler says, frowning. "I don't want to say it was racist – but it was mildly uneducated." He was particularly annoyed by the three jokes about the band's new bongos, pointing out (rightly) that a professional music critic should know they were congas. He also says, not unfairly, that there may be some sour grapes: "The guy who wrote it played in a band that we used to open for. It seems like a little bit of a conflict of interest."

But when I jokingly ask if he wants to confirm or deny that he's a gigantic dork, Butler rolls his eyes. "Whatever," he says, his voice dripping sarcasm. "I'm a superdork because I play with David Bowie. Bruce Springsteen wants to cover my songs because I'm such a dork. I'm not a dork," he says earnestly. "I'm a fucking rock star.

This story is from the January 16th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1200: January 16, 2014
x