Arcade Fire: ‘a goofy bunch of people’

by James Hadfield

They’re a funny bunch, Arcade Fire. Last year saw the Montreal-based band graduate from indie darlings to arena stars touring North America and sharing a stage with Bruce Springsteen and U2. Their second album, “Neon Bible,” entered the Billboard chart at No. 2 last March and has since sold upward of a million copies worldwide.

Time to start cracking open the champagne, then? Apparently not.

“We met some people at the Reading and Leeds music festivals in England after we finished the show and they wanted to get wasted,” says Jeremy Gara, the band’s drummer, by phone on tour from Australia. “And we were like, ‘Er . . . no, we’re gonna go back to the hotel and drink some tea, and go to bed.’ And they were like, ‘Wow, you guys are a bunch of snobby dicks.’ ”

A fair reaction, you might think.

“We’re definitely a nice, approachable bunch of people,” says Gara. “But we don’t live the life. We’re way more concerned about the longevity of things. We all want to do this pretty much as long as we possibly can. I don’t think you can sustain that if you start to fall into the lifestyle of drinking really hard after every show and partying all the time.”

Welcome to the straight-laced, distinctly unrock ‘n’ roll world of one of this decade’s more unorthodox musical success stories.

Arcade Fire began life in 2003, founded by married couple Win Butler — a Texan who had moved to Montreal to study at McGill University — and Regine Chassagne, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. Gara was a relative latecomer, joining as the band were preparing to tour their debut album “Funeral.”

Recorded on a modest budget and released in relative obscurity on the Merge Records label in September 2004, the album soon attracted wider interest. Indie-music Web sites warmed to its chamber-pop fusion of Talking Heads, Pixies and The Flaming Lips, while hailing its unashamedly emotive lyrics.

By the time they appeared at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York the following month, they were the hottest ticket in town. Of the scores of bands playing at the week-long festival, “none of them generated more excitement than this one,” said The New York Times.

As with other notable indie-crossover successes from recent years, expensive marketing campaigns and blanket media exposure didn’t play a major part.

“It felt pretty word of mouth,” Gara recalls. “Merge pressed maybe 10,000 copies and then we hit the road. The rest sort of snowballed from there.”

The label would later sell out its inventory and “Funeral” became the first album it had ever released to enter the Billboard 200 chart. Helped by the fact that they were able to get commercial radio airplay in the U.S. — hardly a given for indie artists — Arcade Fire eventually sold more than 300,000 copies there, and nearly a million worldwide.

The band’s stage shows were also causing a stir. Their number swelled to 10 with the addition of horn players and a violinist and they tackled each gig with a manic fervor — crowd surfing, swapping instruments, drumming on anything within reach and most of the members hollering along with each song as if it were the last show of their lives.

On more than a few occasions, the performances ended up outside in the street, with the band performing an encore through megaphones.

When they opened for U2 in Ottawa and Montreal in late 2005, Bono was so impressed that he tried to persuade them to come along for the rest of his band’s world tour — an offer they declined.

Gara still can’t quite put his finger on what makes their performances special.

“We’ve all gone to shows where the band just couldn’t care less about what they’re doing,” he says. “We put absolutely all of our physical energy into the show. It’s this funny thing that happened with the group of people that we are — we’re really good friends and family first, and so on stage it’s like this community feeling. We can all count on each other personally, and so you can get past that and focus on playing well.”

“Family” is meant literally. Along with the married couple at the heart of Arcade Fire, Butler’s younger brother Will (synths, bass, guitar) is also a member. Gara and fellow band-mates Richard Reed Parry and Tim Kingsbury (both multi-instrumentalists) and violinist Sarah Neufeld may not share any blood ties themselves, but they’ve played with each other in the past.

Gara thinks the group’s coziness has helped them navigate some of the crazier moments of the past few years.

“We don’t make any sacrifices that would hurt our relationships,” he says. “If anybody’s in disagreement with what we might be up to, then we don’t do it.”

In practice, this meant rejecting the advances of major labels, whose overtures made little sense to a band already doing fine on an independent.

When it came time to record the followup to “Funeral,” the group weren’t about to start to smooth away their rough edges. “Our sloppiness is kind of part of the charm,” says Gara.

“We had a lot more options financially and timing-wise,” he continues. “Like where to record, and who we could record with, and if we wanted a producer. And all of us value our home time way too much to make any sacrifices for (the album), so we made arrangements to record it at our own studio, to do it at home and bring engineers to us, and have no producers and just put it together ourselves.”

They took a year off from touring, converted a disused church in Montreal into a studio and set about recording the songs that would become “Neon Bible.”

It’s a denser, wordier and less accessible album than “Funeral.” While not quite falling prey to the Difficult Second Album syndrome, it’s got a weariness to it that’s at odds with the celebratory air of its predecessor. Portentous imagery abounds. Butler sings of “An ocean of violence/A world of empty streets” (“Ocean of Noise”) and of “Living in an age/That calls darkness light” (“My Body is a Cage”). Standard singalong material it ain’t.

The music itself retains the hallmarks of the band’s earlier material while adding splashes of Echo and the Bunnymen, Bruce Springsteen and a grandiloquence that went out of style with caped prog-rock wunderkind Rick Wakeman. The Budapest Symphony Orchestra and a gospel choir contribute on some songs, but the most bombastic touch comes courtesy of a 500-pipe organ, which lends a gargantuan wallop to the album’s centerpiece, “Intervention.”

Onward and upward, then, but it didn’t grab all critics. Gara can see why.

“When we were recording, I wasn’t convinced until long after, even well into the tour. There’s a few songs that I was like, ‘I don’t get it. They’re not good, they don’t sound finished.’ “

And when you’re singing about war, religion and spiritual decay over an orchestral and church-organ backing, you leave yourself open to other charges.

“I can totally see why somebody would think of it as pretentious,” Gara confesses. “We’re aware of how grandiose the record was made to be, and some of the themes are pretty far-reaching. I think part of that just comes from the fact that we don’t talk about it too much, so people can’t help but think that we take it with complete seriousness, which isn’t necessarily the case — we’re a pretty jokey, goofy bunch of people. But from the outside, there’s definitely this mystique about the band.”

Ultimately, some of the most stinging criticism of Arcade Fire is left to Gara himself. Take the band’s trip to karaoke the last time they were in Japan.

“I was shocked. I’ve been to karaoke in three different bands, and the Arcade Fire was by far the worst of the three,” Gara chortles. “I mean, we had fun, but it wasn’t . . . good. It was like, ‘I’m the best one here?’ I don’t even sing on stage. Who knows? We’ll have to try again this time.”

Arcade Fire play Feb. 7, 7 p.m. at Namba Hatch, Osaka (tel. [06] 6233-8888); Feb. 8, 7 p.m. at Club Diamond Hall, Nagoya (tel. [052] 265-2666); Feb. 11, 6 p.m. at Studio Coast, Tokyo (tel. [03] 3462-6969). Tickets are ¥6,500.

Sophomore slumps: four that flunked

It’s one of music journalism’s favorite cliches: that for every sizzling debut album, there’s a sophomore effort that has all the charm of a sack of dirty socks. With “Neon Bible,” Arcade Fire may have hurdled making the “difficult” second album, but the following bands weren’t so lucky.

Guns N’ Roses, “Use Your Illusion I & II” (1991): High on their own success (and a few other things), Axl Rose & co. followed hard-rock classic “Appetite for Destruction” with a pair of albums that all but collapsed under the weight of their own self-importance. A very long 2 1/2 hours.

The Stone Roses, “Second Coming” (1994): When their self-titled debut turned them into indie legends, the Roses spent five years trying to create a worthy successor. The bloated “Second Coming” was hardly what the world was waiting for; the band split not long after.

The Clash, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” (1978): Most fans tip-toe over this underwhelming effort on the way from the band’s eponymous debut to their even better third album, “London Calling.” You’d be advised to do the same.

The Vines, “Winning Days” (2004): Their first album, “Highly Evolved,” got people whispering about a new Nirvana. But it wasn’t to be — the followup was a lazy, tossed-off collection of old material and half-formed songs that consigned these Australians to the “where are they now?” file.