The Canadian band that spoke for a generation. Arcade Fire are our feature band this month.
I can't quite pin point the exact moment I first heard them but I do remember the first time I played Funeral front to back and lapping it up. Driving down to Big Day Out years later, playing that record on repeat, anticipating their set later in the afternoon which by no means disappointed. In fact, it is still to this day one of the most exhilarating sets I've ever seen.
Years ago on a personal blog I wrote a post about why Arcade Fire's 2004 album Funeral is one of the most relevant albums of our generation and I stand by everything I said. Despite the fact it was a pretty terribly scribed post, the sentiment remains the same. They really tapped into a new wave of indie, leapt out on their own at the same time, spoke to a generation of people unsure of the future, torn between angst and the need to do something. They just got it. They weren't singing about spotting strangers at bars or dancing in 'da club', they were talking about the state of the world, the pressures, the anxieties, the basic nature of humanity and what it felt like growing up in a time of uncertainty and financial crises. They were indie kids, defying the mainstream music system with anthem worthy hits. All while looking like they were having the most fun any band could playing music together.
Win Butler and Josh Deu formed the original incarnation of Arcade Fire around 2001 while at University. Butler comes from a family of musicians with his Grandmother a member of the all female swing band 'The King Sisters' who used to perform of a weekly variety show called The King Family Show and his Grandfather, the self styled "king of guitar", Alvino Ray. Butler and Deu rehearsed at McGill University in Montreal where Win was studying and that's where they met Régine Chassagne whom they asked to join them soon after. At the time she said she was doing all sorts of work including singing in jazz bands and doing performances at local shopping centres. Win and Régine started dating and rented an apartment above a bar, figuring they could make as much noise as they wanted there with the band. The pair are the main song writers for the band and after a two year relationship, went on to marry in 2003 and now have a son together. The band had a few ups and downs with members joining in the early stages and dropping out for studies or, as one member did, quitting mid act. Finally Richard Reed, who had been enlisted to help the band record some early work, began to collaborate with them on a permanent basis and Win's younger brother, William Butler, and Tim Kingsbury also came on to form the full time line up. (Fun fact the Butler brothers were raised as Mormons).
So what's with the name? When asked by Rolling Stone Magazine about the rumour of an arcade on fire killing a bunch of children being the reference to the name, Win Butler replied: "It's not a rumour, it's based on a story that someone told me. It's not an actual event, but one that I took to be real. I would say that it's probably something that the kid made up, but at the time I believed him."
Sometimes described as a ramshakle of sound, the band signed a recording contract and went on to make that groundbreaking first album released in September 2004. Funeral, the title, was a reference to a number of deaths of relatives to the band during its recording. Pitchfork ranked the album No. 2 in their list of the top 200 albums of the 2000s, behind Radiohead's Kid A. It was songs like anthem styled "Wake Up" with its jaw dropping grunt, and belter "Rebellion (Lies)" that got not just the kids hooked. The force and power in the album gave a surge of energy the industry needed and the time and yet matched with that solemn feeling in the band during the recording which comes out in songs like "Une Annee Sans Lumiere", the album became a holistic stream of consciousness.
They reached peak indie status when they purchased a defunct church in the small Quebec town of Farnham (approximately 70 kilometers southeast of Montreal) in their downtime between Funeral and the follow up Neon Bible. They spent the early part of 2006 converting it into a recording studio and went on to make what would become their second album between there, Budapest, New York and London. Jeremy Gara joined on drums, and Sarah Nuefield on violin, during the recording of Neon Bible which was no disappointing follow up album. Having become known for their eclectic mix of instruments, sounds and multi-instrumental players, the band continued to come out with some bangers. Unfortunately for them it got leaked before its official March 2007 release date but regardless went on to receive rave ratings.
Win Butler's vocal support of Barack Obama was evident throughout Obama's election campaigning and terms. The band performed some free concerts during the election trail and, along with Jay-Z, they were the musical guests at the Obama Campaign Staff Ball at the DC Armory, at Obama's request. Butler thanked President Obama for his stated intent to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and repeatedly thanked the Obama staffers for their work during the election.
In May 2010 the band dropped news of their forthcoming third album which was released in August that year. The Suburbs was produced by Markus Dravs (who worked on Neon Bible) and engineered by Marcus Paquin, who has also previously worked with the band. The album is said to be inspired by a letter written to Win by a childhood friend from his hometown, Huston, Texas. The cover was done up in 8 different versions and songs like the title track "The Suburbs", "Ready To Start" and "Month of May" were huge hits for the band. Arcade Fire and Google released an interactive music video for the track "We Used to Wait" which allowed the viewer to enter the address where they grew up so the video could then "geopersonalised". Spike Jones also directed a 30 minute short film for the album, with scenes debuting at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011 and the official film being screened at SXSW Film Festival the same year. It was described by Nick Patch, journalist for the Canadian Press, as "a sci-fi puzzler that seems to blend the paranoia of Terry Gilliam films with the nostalgia of classic Steven Spielberg flicks".
The bands fifth album was confirmed in December 2012 by their manager. They worked again with regular producer Markus Dravs and brought in James Murphy, front man of LCD Soundsystem. During this time they also had to sell the church they had been using as a studio due to a collapsed roof. In effect they worked in several different recording studios for the new album, including Murphy's DFA Records studio in New York City. The album, Reflektor, was released October 2013 and said to be inspired by a trip Win and Régine did to her home country of Haiti, "Going to Haiti for the first time with Régine was the beginning of a major change in the way that I thought about the world. Usually, I think you have most of your musical influences locked down by the time you're 16. There was a band I [feel] changed me musically, just really opened me up to this huge, vast amount of culture and influence I hadn't been exposed to before, which was really life-changing." (Rolling Stone Magazine, 2013). Bowie added vocals to the title song, "Reflektor", having previously done some live performances with the band. The Reflector tour made a mandatory dress code of "formal dress or costume" for a few locations and generated some controversy with negative reactions from some fans. At the time of the album, members William Butler and Owen Pallett were also busy on the score for Spike Jonze's 2013 science-fiction romance film Her in which they got a Oscar-nom nod for. The Reflektor Tapes, a documentary film directed by Kahlil Joseph about the making of the album, was released in September 2015 and was shown at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival.
Over the years they've done a bunch of well watched Saturday Night Live performances including one with The Rolling Stones frontman, Mick Jagger, during the Reflektor era. They've been nominated, and won, countless awards globally and certainly been given the praise they deserved. Nothing was more noteworthy probably than their Grammy award win in February 2011 for Album of The Year for The Suburbs, beating Lady Gaga, Eminem and Katy Perry (a no brainer if you ask me) and sparking the internet to go into a frenzy with twitter accounts such as 'whoisarcadefire' being created. Within no time, The Suburbs continued to win Best International Album, and Arcade Fire won the Best International Group Award at the BRIT Awards in 2011.
They are big on activism with a number of proceeds from various songs and concert sales over the years going to charities and special causes. They have a strong affiliation with Haiti, evident in the song "Haïti", Régine's homage to her homeland. Régine founded the Kanpe (Creole for "to stand up") which is a foundation to "bring together Haitians members of the diaspora, friends of Haiti, and partners on the ground to develop customized solutions to enable these families to escape the cycle of poverty and stand on their own". Over the years they've done a lot of work raising awareness of the struggles of the country including awareness after the earthquake in 2010.
While I'm at it, talk about girl crush! Régine is one of the most fascinating and talented musicians I've come across. I've trawled the internet for hours watching interviews with her describing how she listens, learns and forms songs in her head. Growing up, she has often described hearing sounds so few and far between because music was not always around. She learnt to just remember everything, how it was formed, and now, she just has music playing in her head all the time. She retells the story of when she woke up once during the recording of Neon Bible with a splitting headache because she was learning in her head how to play "Black Mirror" backwards - melody, beat and all. Talk about impressive.
In June 2016, lead man Butler hosted a Reddit AMA, where he took the time to answer some fan questions about the next Arcade Fire album. He stated that the new record may be released in spring 2017 and that the band had 'no definite schedule. It'll be done when it's done.' In July 2016, the band then played their first complete full-band concert in two years in Barcelona and then in January 2017, the band released single "I Give You Power" with guest vocals from singer Mavis Staples, to coincide with Donald Trump's presidential inauguration. The proceeds from the song were donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In May this year, the band signed a two album recording contract with Columbia Records and at the end of the 'Month of May' (as they'd have it) the band released single "Everything Now" on a limited edition 12' vinyl at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona. They followed this with an announcement that their fifth studio album Everything Now, which is due for release on July 28. They've dropped "Creature Comfort" and "Signs Of Life" following that and now prep for the release of the summer - a much anticipated drop across the globe.