It starts on a stage in the backroom of the Rivoli, a venue on the edges of Toronto’s Chinatown. It was July 3rd, 2003. The videographer holds the camera steady as Arcade Fire, then a nascent project of Concordia College and McGill students, plays its first recorded images. The band had played shows before this one, but the digital document, the collective memory of Arcade Fire, begins with three songs: ‘Wake Up’, ‘No Cars Go’ and ‘Old Flame’. Surely they played more songs that night, but these 15 minutes and 25 seconds of digital film is all we will remember when we try to chase the band back to its roots.
The oral history exists somewhere else: singer Win Butler’s normative, sepia-toned childhood amidst the clover-leaf highway overpasses of Houston, Texas; his time at Phillips Exeter Academy; partner Régine Chassagne’s Haitian diaspora that led her parents to the suburbs outside of Montreal. For a moment, consider the digital layer of history: this preserved film is the beginning. It is the only thing we really know about the band’s creation myth: the back of the turtle, the Word, the Rivoli.
On September 14th, 2004, Arcade Fire released its debut full-length album, ‘Funeral’, to immediate critical and commercial acclaim. It became the first Merge Records album to ever chart in the Billboard top 200, peaking at 123 and outselling even the label’s previous best-performer, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’. Indie-rock just didn’t do things like this, but it was well on its way to meaning who knew what. It is perhaps this whipsaw of public opinion that makes the early days of Arcade Fire so important. Seemingly overnight, the band went from an obscure attraction to a major festival act, darlings of David Bowie and Bono.
‘Wake Up’, the seventh track on ‘Funeral’ and not remotely an obvious radio single, ultimately emerged as one of the most commercially licensed and imitated songs of the past decade. Though ‘Funeral’ only sold just over a half a million copies, millions more interacted with ‘Wake Up’, hearing it in advertisements and soundtracking montages for things like the NFL on CBS and the Super Bowl.
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Arcade Fire and David Bowie perform ‘Wake Up’
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Watching the band members wailing into the darkness at the Rivoli in Toronto in 2003 conjures images of the manifold imitators of this type of musical pathos: Edward Sharpe, The Lumineers, Of Monsters And Men, even Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ was in debt to this model. The faux-rustic quality, the pounding on a tom drum, the fist-raising group vocal, the revolutionary garb that intimated Paris 1789 or 1830: it was all part of a new movement that would complicate and then kill what had been known as indie-rock. ‘Funeral’ can even be considered the last true indie-rock record, representing the moment that the margins began marching toward the centre in earnest.
Unsurprisingly, Arcade Fire now routinely closes shows with ‘Wake Up’ – it’s still a call to arms, though perhaps the message has been lost in 10 years of retreading. Yet there can be no debate about the quality of ‘Funeral’. It was and remains a great record. The debate is about us: the denizens of the world built in the 10 years since. There is the origin myth and there are its adherents. The story of ‘Funeral’ is our long look in the culture mirror, concave, tipping us back towards a centre we had forgotten or one that never existed.
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I first read about Arcade Fire first in SPIN magazine, at that moment in December 2004 a source of great new music even in the face of the growing power of the internet. Arcade Fire was touted as one of the best bands of 2004, in the Year In Music issue. The band had just played New York’s CMJ, a festival I would come to know the following year when I moved to New York to do whatever it was when people moved to New York. These were the last small club shows Arcade Fire would ever play, by necessity rather than choice.
Buying ‘Funeral’ on CD for my then-girlfriend’s 22nd birthday, it arrived by mail. There is something plaintive about these memories, considering modern modalities that arose in the years since. We lay on the couch in her apartment and listened to it for the first time. I whispered, “I like this,” into her collarbone as she murmured her approval. We would graduate in the spring, the terminus looming exponentially like the growing popularity of ‘Funeral’. By the end of our senior year, Arcade Fire songs rang through dance parties at shoddy college apartments. We screamed, “I guess we’ll just have to adjust,” without fully grasping what it was Butler knew or into what form we might have to alter ourselves.
‘Funeral’ represented a series of generational marching orders, direction for uncertain spaces in ourselves. Dance and garage-rock surged back into popularity in the early-2000s, around The Strokes, The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads and Bloc Party. But none of these bands, for all their aesthetic fecundity, for their skinny jeans, described quite the fatalism of ‘Funeral’. Win Butler’s tweaking tenor pivoted through arrangements that described the type of pain in which we luxuriated. We wilted under too much choice and longed for a cultural thesis statement that wasn’t coming in quite the form we thought.
Listening to ‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’, ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ offered the illusion of a revolution beyond our capacity to imagine or execute. It is both indictment and compliment to say that the wordless first chorus of ‘Wake Up’, a series of non-descript “ohs”, said a great deal about the generation of teenagers and post-adolescents who came to worship its meaning. We stood passionately for something, we just weren’t sure what. The first lyrics of ‘Wake Up’ laid the case bare: “Something filled up my heart with nothing.” An unearned disillusionment filled us, and Butler seemed to know all about it.
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‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’
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There were other forces that predated ‘Funeral’, that informed its moment. It’s easy to underestimate with 10 years of hindsight, but independent rock and the whole of a marginal bourgeois culture transitioned to the centre. Arcade Fire’s first record has come to signify a larger social shift, one that brought farm-to-table restaurants into vogue, The Shins, Brooklyn, fancy cocktail joints and muddled mint, Kickstarter campaigns involving solar-powered cell-phones and something about the rainforest, tote bags, kale, Lakshmi Singh, bands that sounded as rustic and real as the struggling-actor-barkeep making your Old Fashioned in a bow-tie.
The question wasn’t whether this brand of upper-class liberalism represented a truer relationship with consumer goods and art: the mere desire for this authenticity, actual or imagined, drove marginal cultural trends to wider appeal. Feeling fraudulent, a generation of kids and young adults lurched toward anything that approximated a vision of the real. Like our obsession with escapism in top 40 pop music – that tonight will be the best night, a night to throw your hands in the air – we became obsessed with realness in our rock bands.
But this, too, was always a fiction. A surprising amount of the commercial discourse lies in the career of a band that isn’t Arcade Fire and didn’t emerge from McGill and the Montreal auger that grew Wolf Parade, The Unicorns, and Broken Social Scene.
Modest Mouse both predates and practically created the commercial fixation on indie-rock. If the first recorded images at the Rivoli represent what will be left when we search for the beginning of Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock’s decision to license the beautiful ‘Gravity Rides Everything’ for a Nissan commercial in 2003 marks the first steps of indie-rock as a wantonly commercial form.
Brock first licensed the song to a Miller Genuine Draft commercial that same year, a decision he reasoned as: “Am I compromising my music by doing this? I think not. I like keeping the lights on in my house,” before adding, “I like drinking MGD.” Later that year, the Nissan spot arrived; it was for a minivan, with the tagline “Moms have changed”. Brock returned to the “lights on” metaphor in his public comments: “If Nissan is willing to offer us a shit-ton of money, well, I don’t really make that much being on Epic, and I gotta keep the lights on.”
Modest Mouse and independent rock fans experienced a modern confusion. If you liked Brock’s music, shouldn’t he have more money to continue making it? Should it matter which soccer moms experienced 30 seconds of his music on their way to purchasing or not purchasing a Nissan minivan? But it grew into an “us” and “them” series of binary oppositions. Mouse fans knew themselves as edgy outsiders, people who didn’t buy minivans, people who appreciated Brock for writing lyrics like: “I’m trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.”
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‘Funeral’ came to define the final days of what anyone would comfortably call indie-rock…
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And yet the worst fear wasn’t that Brock “sold out” or that his next record would be crushingly commercial – though he did, and it was. The fear was that other people, the ‘wrong’ sort of people, might hear ‘Gravity Rides Everything’ and, instead of buying a Nissan minivan, might buy a Modest Mouse record.
Indie-rock as a descriptor fell apart. Even its own fans rooted for its failure, hoping to keep their bands exclusive, away from wider public appeal, a reverse form of patronage and patronisation. If you liked Brock’s art, it should reach as many people as possible, regardless of their credentials or virtue; art was art. But the discourse slid in another direction: Modest Mouse fans were troubled by new and undeserving arrivals to their secret, a Nissan minivan cast as a Trojan horse.
In the spring of 2004, Modest Mouse released their next LP, ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’, which was another way of saying, “Indie rock is dead, and we’re killing it.” It even featured a song called ‘The Good Times Are Killing Me’. Lead single ‘Float On’ went to number one on the Billboard rock charts that summer. The Garden State soundtrack arrived in stores on August 10th, just five days after ‘Good News…’ was certified platinum, having sold a million records in its first four months. Garden State had opened two weeks earlier as a limited release, and began changing the lives of a generation, whether they liked it or not. The Shins were in Natalie Portman’s oversized headphones; small independent bands headed for the hearts and wallets of mainstream culture. ‘Funeral’ was only a month away in the increasingly certain future.
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‘Neighborhood #2 (Laika)’
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Though ‘Good News…’ sold more records and held a radio single in its jewel case, or perhaps because of these factors, it was ‘Funeral’ that came to define the final days of what anyone would comfortably call indie-rock. It felt private and personal, even if our very listening fated it to be otherwise. ‘Wake Up’ never made radio, but followed an even more aggressive commercial licensing pathway than the Modest Mouse Miller and Nissan ads. By 2011 it was Microsoft ripping off the chord progression of ‘Wake Up’ for use in an advertisement for search engine Bing. However, pleasantly, though they appeared ubiquitous to fans of independent rock, when the band won the Grammy for Record Of The Year in 2010, social media exploded with cries of “Who the f*ck is Arcade Fire?”
Even as Arcade Fire ended the telecast playing ‘Month Of May’, the crowning moment of a decade as a creative enterprise, we could all go to sleep knowing that they still weren’t everyone’s band. Today, despite charting their last two records at number one on Billboard, the band has still never had a major radio single.
The cultural impact of ‘Funeral’, and band’s the three succeeding records released at precise three-year intervals, lies somewhere else than the memory of Arcade Fire’s cultural ascendance; they both are and aren’t wildly popular. It is a memory of ourselves, instead. The selling off of indie-rock happened piecemeal, thousands of bands and millions of listeners playing their small parts in shunting the margins to the middle. Artists don’t debate licensing their songs in 2014 – they actively pitch their music to companies and cable television shows – while fans discover bands at the checkout lines of Urban Outfitters and Starbucks. This mixture of democratisation and commercialisation of culture lies in the group vocals, the group pathos of ‘Funeral’. ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ can still, unironically, set off a house party in Brooklyn, a bunch of co-opted yuppies screaming and clapping: “Sleeping is giving in.” We are all still trying to wake up.
The revolution was everywhere and nowhere. It was in our hearts and our wallets. It was in the rooms of our lovers, in our stupid first jobs, in our confusing malaise, and in the spaces between our manifold, fraught tragedies; it was first onstage at the Rivoli. We screamed in the darkness too. None of us were clean this past decade, no matter who you voted for, the size of your carbon footprint or how free-range your chicken. We free fell in every direction. We were dying and also not dead. Arcade Fire granted a generational language for liminality on ‘Funeral’. They were everywhere and not. Indie-rock was dying and dead. We would all have to become something else. We would all have to adjust.
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Words: Geoff Nelson