The year’s best album was a love letter to the provinces. Arcade Fire tell its story...
Three years after they released ‘Neon Bible’, Arcade Fire returned in August with a new album, ‘The Suburbs’. As the title suggests, it’s about those grey zones between the city and the countryside. It also heralds a new, more stripped down sound that embraces synths, post-punk and a more direct lyrical aesthetic. Suburban life and the frustrations it breeds have been the inspiration for many great albums, but it’s normally a band’s first, not their third. The Montreal seven-piece’s frontman Win Butler, his wife and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne and drummer Jeremy Gara talk to Clash about taking a year-long break, why they wanted to make a record about their teenage upbringings now and how the search for a simpler sound led to an unusual mix, on some tracks, if not the whole album, of Neil Young and Depeche Mode...
Why did you want to make a record about the suburbs?
Win: In my experience, it’s not a conscious decision, you just get inspired by what you get inspired by. I got a letter from an old friend and it had a picture of him and his daughter at the mall near where my brother and I grew up [in Houston, Texas]. It was unforeseeably moving and it brought back a lot of memories. This combination of someone that I hadn’t seen for a long time and his daughter who I’d never met and a totally generic but familiar place. It was this conflicted but very deep feeling.
Why did it affect you so deeply?
Win: I don’t know. I try not to psychoanalyse myself too much. Montreal is the place I’ve lived longest besides Texas. I’ve been there for almost ten years now. Next year I will have lived in Montreal longer than I’ve lived anywhere. It feels like home. Even though Houston is currently the place I’ve lived longest in my life it’s the place I feel least connected to, so even though it’s not all literal and not all about me, I wanted to make a record about that feeling.
Régine, you didn’t grow up in Houston. How did you identify with the subject matter of ‘The Suburbs’?
Régine: No, it’s not about just Houston, but both Win and I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up in Quebec, he grew up in Houston. What was interesting to me is that even though the places we grew up in were very different there were feelings and emotions attached to our surroundings that transcended the culture. We could both relate to the same sentiments even though we were in different countries. That’s why this album has fifteen songs. I think it was interesting to describe all those feelings. For example, the feeling when you’re very young that suburbs are kind of nice because there’s a little park to go to and it’s safe, but then you grow up and as a teenager it seems kind of dead and you feel like you want to get out of there. The image of the suburbs is not very glamorous and it’s not something people are very passionate about, but there are still dramatic stories that happen there. Everyone has their own little suburb story.
A lot of great music is rooted in teenage frustration at living in the suburbs, but it’s usually the first album people make. Why did it chime with you now?
Win: I think a lot of artists spend their whole career writing about the same ideas. Francis Ford Coppola keeps looking at the same things in every movie he makes. Bruce Springsteen is singing about the same thing in every record he makes. I don’t know why that is. I think you’re drawn to the subject matter you’re drawn to. A lot of times, as you change, you approach it from a different perspective and get different insights. I think that’s what we’ve done here.
Régine: I don’t know. I don’t analyse things. It just came out like that. It’s not something that you plan. The album is not one judgement on the suburbs. It’s more cinematic, like scenes around the suburbs. Do I think it would have been a different album if we’d made it when we were teenagers? Of course, but you could go on and on like that. What if I had blonde hair or lived in Paris?
Was it a difficult or easy record make?
Jeremy: It was both. When we were in the middle of recording it late last year I felt awful. It felt like the hardest process of all time. Just because it’s more material than we’ve ever recorded. It became clear how long the record was going to be. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so much material’. We were working on twice as much material as ‘Neon Bible’ and trying to do it in the same time frame and it felt awful at times. But we always do that. We record until we’re sick of the process. The albums are better for it because we’ve put in all the energy we can muster.
Win: Some of the stuff was the easiest we’ve ever done and some it was the hardest. There are six more songs than on our previous two records, so we were recording a lot more material. This record is really like a double LP: it barely fits on a CD. It was that much more work.
Which tracks were hardest?
Win: A song like ‘Deep Blue’ we tried many different ways. We finished it as this total synth song and it kind of left us cold. Me and my brother were playing around with some stuff at home and we found this balance between this almost demo quality and the synth stuff. While making this record I re-read Ed O’Brien’s diary about making ‘Kid A’. There were a couple of songs where he says, ‘We started this a year-and-a-half ago and it’s the simplest song on the album. We’ve just mixed it and it sounds like how it did on day one. It took us a year to finish.’ I think sometimes the simplest stuff takes the longest. The two ‘Half Light’ songs we recorded on this tape machine at home. There was something that we really loved about the demo and we were trying to make it a band song and trying to find this balance between what made it exciting in the first place and making it a song for the whole band. In my experience there are certain songs that the first time you play them they are never better and you spend the whole rest of your career trying to get back to the time you first played it. Then there are other songs that you’ve toured for two years and they sound great. When you try to have both of those kind of songs on a record it’s a real juggling act.
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The new album sounds more upbeat than its predecessors. Are you happier?
Win: Music is always reflective of the time in which it was created. It’s something that you can hear in music no matter what it’s about. To me that’s one of the things that’s interesting. It’s not like making psychedelic music is the most genius idea of all time, but there’s something that really dates it to its own time. That’s what makes it interesting, not talking about giant mushrooms. This sense of something being in a time.
Régine: After ‘Neon Bible’ we took a year off, just staying at home and writing songs and doing regular things. That was a very happy time. ‘The Suburbs’ reflects that, yes.
Jeremy: The time off really made a massive difference in terms of feeling creative. We really went into this wanting to do it, which is a positive way to be feeling. When we recorded ‘Neon Bible’ we hadn’t taken a break and we had just come off an extended tour for ‘Funeral’ and the world at large felt tense. I think that can’t help but have infiltrated the sound of the record a little bit. Also, ‘Neon Bible’ dealt with global anxieties.
I guess it’s hard to write an upbeat song about environmental apocalypse.
Jeremy: Or not wanting to live in the States. And musically it feels like a darker record because it was super ornate with strings and lush, emotional instrumentation. This one, there’s still emotion in it, but the subject matter demanded a little less ornamentation. There’s not as much orchestral elements on this record. It’s replaced with synths and it’s a little more percussive and a little more rock’n’roll. One of the reasons it sounds lighter is that the arrangements are not as overblown as we’ve been in the past because the material didn’t demand it.
Words by Chris Cottingham