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The Unstoppable Ambition of Arcade Fire

From Day One, the Montreal indie heroes wanted to conquer the world. David Fricke spoke to the band last August as their third album was about to top the charts

February 14, 2011 11:28 AM ET
The Unstoppable Ambition of Arcade Fire
Photograph by Danny Clinch

Twenty-four hours before Arcade Fire play one of the biggest headlining shows of their career, for 45,000 people in a sprawling park in Quebec City, Canada, the band's leader, Win Butler, is sitting at a dining-room table in a hotel in the colonial-waterfront part of town, describing the exact moment when he knew he was in a great rock band, destined for star time.

Photos: Arcade Fire's Greatest Performances

It was in 2003. Butler, who grew up in Texas, was a religious-studies major at Montreal's McGill University when he started Arcade Fire with a local jazz singer, Ré
gine Chassagne. The couple married that year, and an early version of the group put out a homemade EP, Arcade Fire. One day, shortly after its release, Butler was driving up to La Sala Rossa, a hip Montreal venue where Arcade Fire had a gig. "There was a line around the block," Butler, 30, recalls. "That was a real shell shock: 'There's enough people who want to hear our music and see us. We can do this.' Everything that's happened since then is an extension of that scene and feeling."

This article appears in the August 19, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now in the online archive.

A tall, broad-shouldered man, Butler looks down at his hands, crossed as if in prayer, as he speaks. There is obvious gratitude in his deep, resonant voice. There is zeal, too, and a formidable confidence, as if he never expected less than the best. Seven years after that revelation in Montreal, Arcade Fire are the biggest mainstream success to emerge from the indie-rock world this decade, a North American equivalent of Radiohead in critical respect and mounting commercial clout. Arcade Fire's first two albums, 2004's Funeral and 2007's Neon Bible, have sold nearly a million copies combined in the U.S. There has been public superstar approval: David Byrne and David Bowie have both made guest appearances onstage with the band. Bruce Springsteen brought Butler and Chassagne out for his encore at a 2007 show in Ottawa. And U2 used "Wake Up," from Funeral, as the entrance music on their Vertigo Tour.

The 30 Best Albums of 2010: 'The Suburbs'

Arcade Fire have also enjoyed a steady ascent on the road, from early club dates in northeast Canada for as few as 20 people to a current summer tour that is all festival, amphitheater and arena dates, including two shows at the top of the bill at New York's Madison Square Garden. Butler points out that the last time he was in that building, he was a student — spending a year upstate at Sarah Lawrence College — and he was there to see Depeche Mode.

"I always expected to make a living doing music," he claims. "In my family, it's like being an accountant — the most normal career path I could have chosen." Butler's grandfather Alvino Rey was a popular steel guitarist and big-band leader; Rey's wife, Luise, was a member of the singing troupe the King Sisters. Before that, Butler goes on, his great-grandfather was a musician, "passing the hat in the Great Depression. For a lot of people, it's something to be overcome as an idea: 'How can you be a musician?' I did not have that."

Photos: Arcade Fire Rock Madison Square Garden

But with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire — Butler, Chassagne, guitarist Richard Parry, bassist Tim Kingsbury, drummer Jeremy Gara, violinist Sarah Neufeld and Butler's younger brother Will on keyboards — have made their best album, a definitive goodbye-to-indie fusion of believable angst and mass-appeal poise. Sixteen tracks of pop guile with the big-echo suspense of Win's favorite British cold-wave bands (the Cure, Radiohead, Echo and the Bunnymen), The Suburbs is a compelling immersion in Butler's mixed feelings about adolescence and escape, partly based on his and Will's teenage years in the Woodlands, a corporate-owned and manicured neighborhood north of Houston. (Except for the Butlers, Arcade Fire are all Canada natives.) Both boys left to attend boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Will, who is two years younger, says he can see "a lot of that in the songs — your first experience with hipsters and rich kids, then coming back to the kids with the thicker Southern accents. I recognize that disconnection, of looking at the suburbs from afar."

The 50 Best Songs of 2010: 'We Used to Wait'

Win says that The Suburbs is not much different from Funeral — a record inspired by recent deaths in his and Chassagne's families — in that "the place is the setting. I saw the idea of a funeral conceptually, where everyone was meeting. The idea of the suburbs is like that." But The Suburbs is a big leap past Neon Bible in arena-rock force and vocal clarity — the lyrics and portraiture bust through the rich reverb. During the Quebec City show, when Arcade Fire bolt into "Month of May" and "Modern Man," the effect is like the pneumatic surge of Joy Division played by an art-school version of Springsteen's E Street Band: an eccentric blur of energies and tonal colors — strings, chanted group vocals and drum-army percussion with band members switching instruments in midtune — bonded with ecstatic drive.

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