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

Photograph by Danny Clinch
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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.

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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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

"I recognize that there's something to our sound that you could describe as indie rock, something ramshackle, homemade in a way," Win concedes. "But that wasn't my upbringing." His first big rock show was in 1997: U2 at Houston's Astrodome "on their most made-fun-of tour," PopMart. The lunatic spectacle "was not a drawback," he insists. "To me, if a song is really good and something else is happening, then this thing happens with them together that is amazing — something that makes you feel cool."

Chassagne, 33, says that when she and Butler started Arcade Fire, "I didn't even know what indie rock meant." She had never sung in a rock band before. Her first passions were Billie Holiday, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and medieval music (she plays hurdy-gurdy as well as drums and keyboards in the band). In the beginning, she admits, "We did a lot ourselves" — management, booking, accounting. During the breakout tours for Funeral, Gara doubled as road manager, drawing an extra per diem for his labors.

"But being in an indie band means you just become a secretary," Chassagne adds. "You count T-shirts. You're not in a band anymore. I wanted to be a musician."

"We got to make this record exactly how we wanted to," Win says of The Suburbs, which the band wrote and recorded over two years, mostly in its own studio, a converted church near Montreal. "That's the measure of success to me. We barely skidded in there in terms of the money side of things" — he professes not to know the original budget or final tally — "but there was no compromise. We didn't have to ask ourselves, 'Maybe we shouldn't use this microphone' because it was too expensive.

"There is so much music, and so much of it is just ornamental," he contends with an irritated shake of his head. "I like to feel there's work being done. When you don't feel like you're doing work, you're just up there entertaining. And that's a less appealing thing to do with your life."

Butler and Chassagne are an odd but perfectly matched couple, opposites that instantly meshed. On their first date, at his apartment, they wrote "Headlights Look Like Diamonds," one of the seven songs that would appear on Arcade Fire. She fondly remembers her surprise: "I thought, 'He's for real, a real songwriter, not just doodling stuff and dreaming he's going to be a great guitar hero.' "

Butler is six and a half feet tall, with a stocky athlete's build; at Exeter, he played varsity basketball. When he and Chassagne walk down a Quebec City street, side by side after dinner the night before the concert, she barely comes up to his shoulders, and that includes the extra inches from her thick, bouncing curls of black hair. In conversation, Butler is a mix of pensive, guarded and open, his manner sometimes switching in midsentence as he considers, briefly skirts, then confronts a subject. His light-brown hair is cut close on the sides, giving him a rakish rock & roll soldier look, and he can abruptly fix you with a laserlike stare as he makes a point, as when he talks about leadership in Arcade Fire.

"I feel directorial," he says, "but there are qualified people in the band who have strong opinions and put their mark on everything we do." True: The songs are written, at first, by Butler and Chassagne, but production and composition are credited on the records to the band. "I have no desire to be a solo artist," Butler adds, as if taking a pledge. But when pressed on how strong a hand he wields, he fires away. "I really care about the work. I can be an asshole. But I'm not a shithead." Will describes that quality more gently: "He's very good at not taking the easy way out."

Sitting at that hotel table for an hour before Win arrives, Chassagne is as springy as her hair, throwing her arms in the air excitedly as she searches for the right English word in her musically French accent. Like Butler, she grew up in a suburb. But it was a modest neighborhood outside Montreal, and her parents, Haitian immigrants who left the island in the Sixties to escape the Duvalier dictatorship, struggled financially. (Chassagne recently announced the launch of KANPE, a charity to assist families and community services in Haiti; Arcade Fire have pledged to match all donations up to $1 million.)

Still, Chassagne laughs brightly as she describes her early self-education in music. With little money for luxuries like records or a stereo, "I listened to my neighbor's music, the sounds coming through the walls," she says, "and tried to play them on the piano. I trained my brain to remember — 'because you're not going to hear it again.' "

Chassagne is blunt about what attracted her to Butler, after they met in 2001 at a Montreal art gallery where she was singing: "It was the focus. He seemed very focused on music, instead of trying to seduce me." Even now, on a normal day at their home in Montreal, "we hear each other's musical thoughts all day long. Win plays piano while I'm in the kitchen. Or I'm singing something, and he picks it up later."

"It's jumbled," Butler says, trying to explain the couple's work together. "I write a lot of the things she sings. She's written chords to a lot of things I sing." He cites "Wake Up," an elegiac thing she did on piano that got Arcade Fire-ized. One of us is always in the other room when the other is working on something, so we're always the first to hear anything and make suggestions. We write as it's happening."

In a backstage dressing trailer before the Quebec City show, Will suggests his brother's focus is closer to "tunnel vision. If 'a' is in front of him and he is passionate about it, 'x, y and z' do not exist to him. In high school, he was always bad at history. But he took one class on Communist China that triggered him. He got an A, because it was within the circle of light."

"You want to get basic?" Gara says, laughing and turning to Will. "If you're focused on something, you still remember to take the garbage out. Win will not. You play ping-pong more defensively. Win plays aggressively, just slamming the ball at you."

Parry and Kingsbury tell a story about Win attending a show they played with a band before they were in Arcade Fire. "He came up after the show and said, 'Oh, that was great,' " Kingsbury says, adding that Win also told them one song was too long and the group vocals didn't work.

"He was just trying to help," Parry adds with a shot of wry in his laugh. But Parry is quick to refute "that clichéd thing: 'The singer is the band.' The singer is not the band. He has a lot to say, but that's not how it works." "If it did turn into the Win and Ré
gine Show, I'm pretty sure the band would fall apart," Kingsbury adds.

At the same time, Win's unique relationship with Chassagne is Arcade Fire's precious engine. "When our inner relationship starts to go, everything will start to go," Win admits. "It's an important part of everything." For now, he looks at his band's trajectory, since that 2003 show in Montreal, with realistic calm. "It's not like we're at the level where it actually gets scary, where it's crazy la-la land," Win says.

Besides, he notes, "one of the great things about having a big band is you can hang out with different people at different times." When the pressure is too great, "you can lose yourself in the crowd."

From The Archives Issue 1111: August 19, 2010
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