On a mild January night, stood on the stairs of St John’s church in the heart of London’s Parliament and Government offices, Clash witnessed one of THE magical musical moments of 2007.
Montreal septet Arcade Fire had just marched off-stage after a tumultuous encore to the first in five low-key exclusive gigs that would initiate the launch of their long awaited second album ‘Neon Bible’, recorded in 2006 in a church of their own. The band marched straight past the assembled congregation and out the side entrance of the church to deliver a spine tingling acoustic version of their classic anthem ‘Wake Up’. As office workers and members of the public looked on in disbelief and the by now evangelical audience sang the chorus in unison, the seven members of Arcade Fire smiled as they sang, knowing they had instantly reignited their magical spark by doing what they do best, performing with spontaneous devotion and humorous disregard for protocol or procedure.
We’re not complicated in an attempt to look really intellectual, whilst adding in a whole bunch of crap that doesn’t mean anything to us.
I’d next experience them in March, as they kicked off a full 23-date European tour, with ten nights across Britain, including four at Brixton Academy. The two gigs at Glasgow’s legendary Barrowlands excited me most, the potential powder keg concoction of outstanding venue and acoustics, one of the best crowds in the world rejoicing potentially one of the best bands in the world proved too tempting to miss.
This was a band I’d first encountered two years previously as they blew Franz Ferdinand off their own homecoming stage under Edinburgh Castle, a band cited as one of the best alive by Bono, Chris Martin, David Byrne and David Bowie, whose debut ‘Funeral’ became the discerning fan’s choice as album of the year in 2005, and a band who, most importantly, when you witness them live, are one of the very few who truly make you feel like they are singing their souls out and playing their hearts out for you, the audience.
The first night in Glasgow was sensational. I am not lying when I say that the person next to me cried as the band jubilantly led a perfect segue of ‘Funeral’ anthems ‘Power Out’ and ‘Rebellion(Lies)’ into another great encore with the by now almost obligatory exultantly received rendition of ‘Wake Up’. I know it sounds pretentious and over the top, but it’s so easy to let fly with traits like these when describing Arcade Fire, for the fourth time I’d witnessed them convert every single person present at their gig by creating the most indeterminably potent feeling, the feeling of actual communion between band and crowd. Powerful songs of protest and spiritual songs of joy shared to a rapturous response and all with not one messiah complex in sight anywhere on stage.
The next morning I meet some of the band for breakfast in the restaurant of their hotel. Regine Chassagne, astoundingly talented multi-instrumentalist, founding member, co-writer and wife of front-man Win Butler, skips gaily up the few stairs leading to where I’m sitting, instantly displaying a delicate glee and engaging charm as she says hello and coos with delight, pondering what breakfast treats to nibble. She is followed by Will Butler, the bass, guitar, synth and percussion player, and Win’s affable and bright younger brother. He is apologetic. Win cannot join us because he is too ill. He’s carried a sinus infection for some time that was starting to take its toll. 12 hours previously you simply could not tell this was the case as Win’s voice soared, leading the way on-stage before he dove off-stage into his crowd complete with guitar. However, 12 hours later at the second Glasgow performance Win looked visibly drained as he battled through what only was a decent set at best when compared with the sky scraping standards I’d seen before.
The week before the Glasgow shows their second album ‘Neon Bible’ had been released to almost unanimous critical acclaim and increased public interest, falling only 460 copies short of outselling Kaiser Chiefs to become Number 1 UK album. However, as is almost inevitable when a ‘cult’ band are propelled into mainstream culture, it was received by some as missing a little of the innocent magic of their debut, and by others who’d never really understood them as simply over-rated. A small debate started as to whether Arcade Fire truly are that special band that fellow musicians, devoted fans and the more intelligent press all say they are. A BBC Newsnight programme featured a perfect example of this debate, with a panel of four supposed all-round written word experts, novelists, journalists and screenwriters, or combinations of these, calling the new album ordinary, with tired subject matter. You could tell three of the panel had not really ingested nor understood ‘Neon Bible’. The only one who did was almost aghast with disbelief at his co-panellists’ opinions and was more than confident in his knowledge of Arcade Fire’s potential. “It’ll sell a million copies,” he defiantly predicted.
I put this to Regine, trying to be mindful of the fact that it is first thing on a Monday morning and tackling bleak subject matter or controversial criticism may be inappropriate. “It doesn’t really matter to me [what other people think],” Regine calmly muses as she sips a coffee. “If I was to listen to every voice that has an opinion about us it would maybe affect how I approach what I do, and I don’t want that, so I try not to listen. I think that you have to have a real problem if all of your life is obsessed with your image of yourself.”
“So far we’ve only sold thousands of records, not millions,” adds Will. “I think that’s when the pressure increases.” I remind him that’s exactly what a lot of people are predicting. “I think we’d be fine, but we’ll need to see if we ever sell millions of records if that pressure increases. Right now we’re just lucky we don’t have to pay attention to it.”
‘Neon Bible’ is an album that deals with some fairly weighty subject matter. Where ‘Funeral’ was made in the throes of experiencing death in the family and portrayed more personal, innocent subjects, ‘Neon Bible’ speaks of death itself, self-destruction and possible impending destruction of the world. It laments falling bombs and rising seas, and expresses disgust at post 9/11 American culture and worldwide religious divisions and hypocrisy. It may sound clichéd, and as if these subjects have been covered before, but rarely have these messages been delivered with such eloquence and fervent dedication. Win Butler is on record as saying that never before in history has there been a more ripe time for protest. The Arcade Fire we have in front of us now is his way of doing exactly that, and he is fast becoming one of the truly brilliant poetic songwriters of our time. Together with Regine they form a formidable partnership, his earnest sternness perfectly complementing her sanguine energy.
I think that you have to have a real problem if all of your life is obsessed with your image of yourself.
This balance comes across clearly in their music. For sure, on ‘Neon Bible’ they are writing about some of the darkest subjects we as humans face today, but their triumphant musical delivery of these messages leaves you feeling hope and elation in equal measures alongside the fear and anger of being reminded that the world we live in is pretty fucked up. Like in the best films, where the truly great writers and directors can paint complex pictures that grip and tug your emotions in various directions, Arcade Fire go that little way further in painting their own sonic landscape. “We’re not complicated in an attempt to look really intellectual, whilst adding in a whole bunch of crap that doesn’t mean anything to us,” Regine says in a playful snooty accent, before explaining just how much they put into balancing and perfecting their ideas. “An idea can often come to me or Will immediately and we can see it or hear it clearly within ourselves almost instantly, but there’s a lot of intricacy and effort in actually making that idea come to life. For example, if a painter wants to paint a specific colour, not lime green, not mint green, not aqua green, but THIS green, a colour you have clearly defined in your head, it can take a lot to perfect and realise the initial colour if it does not yet exist anywhere other than in your head.”
That is one major part of the beauty of Arcade Fire, their interpretations of modern culture through contemporary music, delivered on a multitude of instruments, are completely unique. Texas-born Win, grandson of jazz musician and inventor of the pedal steel guitar Alvino Rey, will come up with most basic song ideas with Regine, a Haitian who fled her country with her family during the Duvalier (Baby Doc) dictatorship. In the democracy that is Arcade Fire, Will and bandmates Richard Reed Parry, Sarah Neufield, Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara will draw from a musical palette including upright bass, guitars, violins, drums, mandolin, celeste, French horns, keyboards, accordion and even a hurdy gurdy and some megaphones to breathe their collective energies into the idea. But their intricate and immense sound is only truly completed when they sing together, with vocals delivered as if they are staring the apocalypse right in the face but trying to sing their way to salvation.
At a time when it is fashionable to talk about what it’s like to be young or what it’s like to be in a band, tales of Saturday night encounters, taxi queue brawls and lost teenage romances have been expertly penned by equally significant bands, none better than our cover stars this issue. But this is not the route Arcade Fire want to take, as is testified by Will. “I’d rather talk about what everyone else isn’t talking about – everyone always says counterculture is cool, take religion for example, it’s more counterculture to talk about religion than not to. We’d always rather go against the trend – and it’s also more fun that way!” Regine points out that sometimes people try to read too much into what songs actually mean, they should sometimes also just enjoy the art and take what they personally want from it. “Music is about connecting a song with your own life, whether it’s a wide issue we all share or a personal thing you feel you can relate a song to. Art is about meaning different things to different people and should be enjoyed for what it means to you and how it feels inside you. That can be the true beauty of music and people should be accepting of it for what it is.”
I think that’s the point. Music is not all about who is the best at any one time. It is a subjective art form and now is one of the healthiest times in memory for all true exponents of that art form to exist. Yes, true brilliance will shine through and inevitably become popular, therefore becoming subject to public expectation, over-scrutiny and misjudgement. And just like the BBC Newsnight team, there will always be misguided or uninformed critics of a band like Arcade Fire who do what they do with scant regard for fashion, fad or media opinion. They say familiarity breeds contempt but all too often it’s the opposite that’s true.
By the end of 2007, the ‘difficult’ second album that is ‘Neon Bible’ WILL rightly be revered as one of the year’s best, alongside some of the other ‘difficult’ second albums coming out now, most notably that of Arctic Monkeys. The world needs Arctic Monkeys like the world needs Arcade Fire. Give me the acerbic tale of partying all night right after the ominous ode about turning the world’s dark into light. We should be thankful we’ve got this range of talent before us.
As I leave Win and Regine I ask them their big hope for 2007; they both answer instantly, almost prophetically, “To stay healthy!” One week later the European tour has to be cut short nine dates early as Win’s illness had literally robbed him of his voice. As I write this he is in hospital recovering from a throat operation but we’re assured they’ll be back on top form in the summer for a string of triumphant festival shows, capped by a headline slot on The Other Stage at Glastonbury. I look forward to yet another ‘Wake Up’ moment!