"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.)
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