Arcade Fire: “Music is like children. Parents think they can lead them, but you can only try not to be wrong” | icon

Frank Black, leader of the Pixies, affirmed that there are no bad interviews, only bad interviewees: one day a journalist comes with the best questions in the world and, if you don’t feel like talking, you don’t open your mouth. But the next day, they say “hello” to the same individual and he recounts his entire life. Win Butler (California, 42 years old) and Régine Chassagne (Montreal, 45), the two leaders of Arcade Fire, confirm this theory.

This sentimental and professional couple doesn’t need much to get it all out. Although, sometimes, what they say is a bit confusing. Let’s take an example: this month, the group publishes Wow, their sixth album, their first since 2017. It’s a concept album, they say. But what is the concept? “There is a black hole in the middle of our solar system called Sagittarius A*. And it’s like… for me the idea was like… There’s a character who looks like…”, answers Win Butler, hesitantly, before launching. “At first that guy says, ‘Get me out of here, I want to get as fucking far away as possible, I want to get away from all this shit, where can I go to escape from myself, from the horror of this world?’ So he sees that black hole and thinks, ‘Well, if I get there, maybe that will do it. If I can get through that hole, I’ll be away from all this shit.’ And when he gets there, it turns out that this black hole is his eyeball. Is the same. It is the inner life of him. They are all the beings that he has loved. It’s all he’s ever done. It’s the good shit and the bad; it is the shadow, it is the light; everything. We spend a lot of time trying to escape from ourselves. Trying to run away from something that has no escape.”

Butler and Chassagne are a continuous stream of information that they release from memory and that, as usual when one relies on what one remembers, half the time is inaccurate: they say “solar system” instead of “galaxy”, they confuse poems of Mayakovsky, they quote Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest linked to liberation theology, and attribute a book to him that is an article… In spite of everything, what they mean is almost always understood.

Arcade Fire in a promotional image.

They are sitting next to each other in the recording studio they have at their home in New Orleans. “On the other side of the gate is our backyard. It is a very small study, in the 19th century it was the kitchen of the house, ”explains Butler, who takes the lead. “It’s tiny, look,” completes Chassagne, who stands up and extends his arms to show that he can almost touch both walls with his fingers. He speaks English with an accent Québécois, and she looks like a miniature next to her husband who has the body of an NBA player. They have fronted Arcade Fire since they founded the band in 2000, in Montreal; Butler, raised in Texas, had moved to the city to study at McGill University. The rest of the components were Will, Win’s brother (who has just announced that he is leaving the group), and three other college mates.

In 2004, Funeral, their first album, made them known worldwide. And they created a trend: their epic mix of folk, pop and rock has been imitated for almost two decades to the point of indigestion. all those groups pseudo-indies —why give names—, which use synthesizers like church organs, symphonically intense violins, accordions and drums like a military band, with several voices singing in unison like a congregation and have choirs full of uh uh uh Y Oh oh oh for thousands of people to sing at festivals, they’re copying Arcade Fire. Or pretending. It’s ridiculous to try to nail what is, for many, the best live rock band on the planet.

In 2005, David Bowie joined them onstage at an awards show to sing wake-up, a song that condenses everything that Arcade Fire is into five minutes and 50 seconds. The myth then grew to the unstoppable. “There was a portrait of Bowie on that wall,” says Butler, pointing to a wall in the studio. “A curious thing happened to us with this new album. We were here recording a song, Rabbit Hole where there is a verse that says: “Rabbit hole, plastic soul” (rabbit hole, plastic core): plastic soul is how Bowie described the music of the time he wrote Fame. And there I was, recording a voice take, which in the end was the final one, and quoting Bowie, suddenly a strange noise began to be heard. I asked: ‘What does it sound like?’ My engineer took off his headphones and started looking with me. In the other corner of the room, on my mobile, I don’t know how, a song from Low [disco de Bowie de 1977] which was in the same key as our song. Let’s see, I don’t believe in that shit, but it was amazing. That’s why one of the first people we thank on the album is Bowie. At the time, he… I don’t know, he felt a connection with us. He didn’t want anything from us. Just give us strength.”

“We are very tough on each other. There is no criticism anyone can make of us that we haven’t done ourselves before. And once you’ve survived that crusher…”

Arcade Fire’s romance with critics and audiences lasted until 2017. Each new release was hailed as a step forward, but EverythingNow, his album that year, the sticks rained down on him. That it was cold, some said, too pop, others. The group accused the criticism, although now they deny it: “We are very hard on each other. There is no criticism anyone can make of us that we haven’t done ourselves before. And once you’ve survived that crusher…” says Chassagne, before Butler speaks up. “Once, Neil Young, one of our idols, played in Montreal on Thanksgiving and hosted a little dinner at a restaurant. We were recording there and we passed. As Neil was leaving, he came up to us: ‘Are you recording? Okay, have a good time.’ And he walks away. But before leaving he turns and lets us go: ‘Or better yet, have a terrible time. This doesn’t have to be easy.’ Recording an album is not fun. It can give you pleasure, but also the most miserable moments of your life. And, for 20 years, you won’t know if it’s good or bad. You can get good reviews for shitty records and bad reviews for a great one. Time is the only judge you can trust.” Chassagne intervenes: “For us, music is not a hobby, it is a vocation. We would die for art, both of us.” Butler notes: “Some songs take 20 years to write, others take 20 minutes, and anything else you do is just going to screw them up. It’s like children. Some parents think they can lead them, but they are who they are, you can just try not to screw it up. You will not be able to make them smarter or more beautiful, the only thing you can do is love them and learn from them. And the music is similar. We are here to learn from the songs. We do not see ourselves as writing them: we are their servants. We actually translate them.”

Arcade Fire in a promo photo
Arcade Fire in a promo photo

Butler and Chassagne have a nine-year-old son named Edwin, just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. “We couldn’t have made the record without him. He was always with us. And, believe it or not, he has a pretty strong musical instinct, ”says Win. Another Butler going for musician? “Could be. My grandfather [Alvino Rey] He was the second jazz guitarist in history. There was one before him, only one. My mother [Liza Rey Butler], who sings on the album, is a professional harpist. My son can be whatever he wants. Music is a spirit that settles in you. Once he points at you and he’s in you you can’t get him out.”

Régine’s family is originally from Haiti, from where they fled to Canada to escape the Duvalier dictatorship. In We One of his childhood idols participates as a guest, veteran Peter Gabriel, 72 years old, first leader of the progressive rock group Genesis, and later an apostle of what was called worldmusic. “The kind of revolution that was born in the US with the hippies in the 1960s never reached Quebec. Everything was so controlled by the Catholic Church that the Summer of Love [1967] It happened in the seventies. So Genesis was to here what the Beatles were to America. It was all around me growing up. Later, Peter Gabriel opened up to world music, to drums. My family is from Haiti, which is Africa in many ways. But in Montreal everyone was very white and very normative and those drums were my only access to that other world. I remember being in the supermarket, listening to them and thinking: ‘Hey, I know this!’

It won’t be long before they go on tour. “If the world is still standing,” jokes Butler. “Every day I wake up expecting to read that the stock market has collapsed and that the system has collapsed. My grandfather was in New York when the crash 1929. He was 22 years old, he played jazz at night and by day he worked on the Empire State building. And even though everything went to shit, in 1931 they finished the building. Can you believe it? Everything was fucked and they continued. All art that matters is born from the worst moments. It comes from stress and it is during the bad times that it counts the most. That’s what music is about. When I listen to an album, not a song but an entire album, I see the world through different eyes. In the end, it’s about keeping in touch with humanity.”


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