Saturday 17 March 2018

Funereal Fire

It was June 2007 and, on the lava lamp-hued set of the Jonathan Ross show, Arcade Fire's Win Butler was having a bit of a meltdown. Finishing a performance of Keep the Car Running, the singer, wearing 19th-century sharecropper braces and hefting a rather scary mandolin, strode forward and -- ker-thwack -- smashed a TV camera lens. Captured for posterity on YouTube, the incident suggested a group struggling to hold it together in the glare of global fame.

"Win's an emotive guy and that was a really long day," says Arcade Fire's Jeremy Gara, speaking about the incident for the first time. "We played really intensely and it just sort of happened. It definitely wasn't a plan of attack. Things like that come from the bizarre feeling of playing for a TV camera with no audience, which is not what we are good at. The energy is totally wrong."

The rumour is that, fed up with being told what to do all evening by "clipboard-wielding studio Nazis", Butler had thrown an old-fashioned rock-star strop. "I don't think even he knows what happened," says Gara. "It's a long day, doing the Jonathan Ross show. I was scared he had broken a $200,000 camera, which, luckily for us, he did not."

We shall see whether Butler and company are better prepared for the pressures of life as a stadium rock band when they headline the first night of Oxegen next week. At Punchestown, they will premiere songs from third album The Suburbs, a project that finds them moving away from the somewhat clunky Springsteen-isms of 2007's Neon Bible. Instead, they've gone ... if not quite power-pop, then certainly more upbeat. Incorporating elements of punk, new wave and post-rock, The Suburbs feels closer in spirit to their extraordinary 2005 debut Funeral, an LP which will surely come to be regarded as one of the decade's defining records.

"Touring was so intense that, after we finished, we went home and basically stopped being a band," says Gara. "I mean, we still saw each other. We're a really good bunch of friends. We hung out, played basketball, went for coffee, had a normal life, until it felt like the right time. Eventually, we started to think: 'If I don't make music tomorrow, I'm going to lose my mind.' We would meet in Win's basement or at my house and try things out. And then, eventually, we started to press record."

The Suburbs refers to the sprawling Houston estate where Butler and his brother (Arcade Fire keyboardist) Will grew up. Though the Butlers had never tried to pass themselves off as working-class types made good, there was consternation when it emerged they were scions of a wealthy Texan oil family and had attended one of America's most prestigious -- which is to say expensive -- prep schools, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (annual tuition: $38,000). For some reason, people felt cheated.

"There is no problem with growing up middle class," says Gara. "We all grew up middle class. We all came from families with no divorce. We had comfortable childhoods. It's a strange thing to be criticised about. If people think we are denying our background, because they don't know our background -- I mean, come on. On the other hand, the fact that people would be surprised about something in our lives means they don't know everything about us, which is good. It's important bands should have some mystique."

Arcade Fire was formed by Butler, who moved to Montreal in 2000 to study at McGill University, part of Canada's equivalent of the Ivy League. There he met Régine Chassagne, a Haitian whose family had fled to Quebec from 70s dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier (Butler and Chassagne have since married). Recruiting Win's brother Will, cellist (and Napoleon Dynamite look-alike) Richard Reed Parry and guitarist Tim Kingsbury, they signed to esteemed indie label Merge and, in 2004, released their debut LP.

The timing was fortuitous. The internet made it possible to bypass mainstream media. Arcade Fire were one of the first to benefit (aided by a five-star review from the increasingly influential Pitchfork site). When Funeral was released in Ireland early in 2005, everyone from Jay-Z to U2 (who would invite Arcade Fire on the road) was already buzzing about this oddly turned-out but compelling group from Canada.

"I remember U2 coming on to our song, Wake Up, on their tour," says Gara. "They totally didn't have to do that. They did it because they loved the music. It's encouraging to see people like that who, no matter how huge they are, remain a real group. They're definitely an inspiration."

Still, for a band whose music has so many uplifting qualities, Arcade Fire have a strange habit of embroiling themselves in controversy. Last year, they became involved in a surreal 'feud' with The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, after Coyne (in what he maintains he understood to be an off-record remark) told a journalist that Butler and co were aloof and unpleasant to those around them.

"I'm a fan of them on one level, but on another level I get really tired of their pompousness," said Coyne. "We've played some shows with them and they really treat people like shit. Whenever I've been around them, I've found that they not only treated their crew like shit, they treated the audience like shit. They treated everybody in their vicinity like shit. I thought: 'Who do they think they are?'"

Arcade Fire's push-back was immediate and ferocious. In a statement on the band's website, Butler said: "Unless I was way more jet-lagged then I remember, I hope I was less of a 'prick' than telling Rolling Stone that a bunch of people I don't know at all are really a bunch of arses."

Speaking to this reporter in December, Arcade Fire string arranger Owen Pallett was even more critical: "I'm not the sort of person to escalate beefs, but they're the worst band [The Flaming Lips] I've ever heard in my life," he said. Later, in the same interview, he added: "When Arcade Fire were starting at the beginning of 2003, I remember Win telling me he saw Wayne do the bubble thing. It's f**king 2009 and I'm seeing them play Do You Realise? and do this thing in the bubble. It's like Arcade Fire's entire career existed while Wayne has been walking over crowds in a bubble."

At home in Montreal, Gara is anxious not to further ramp up hostilities. "It's unfortunate," he says. "I'm not really sure where that came from or why. It's just ... I don't know ... dramatic. People get excited about it. If there's a positive, I guess it's that it gave people something to follow for a while. For me, personally, I mean -- I know I'm a nice guy. That's all I need to know."

Assuming he was a fan to begin with, has the spat put him off The Flaming Lips? "I still like their music. I cherish the mystery around some of the art that I like. With the Flaming Lips, that is music that sounds to me as if it comes from outer space. I don't need to know the real life of any of the people in it. When all that stuff came up, my response was: 'Ah, I don't want to know about it.'"

But whichever side is right, the incident unquestionably tarnished Arcade Fire's image. No matter how inspirational the songs, who could deny their puritan grumpiness?

Gara acknowledges their image-management could be better. "It's weird -- sometimes we get bummed out that people think we're these serious, vampire types," he says. "Basically, we are only serious when we play. The rest of the time, it's very normal. People don't need to know us as individuals to enjoy our music. We are definitely not the most serious people on the face of the earth. That said, we take what we do very seriously. We should -- come on, we're professionals."

Arcade Fire have special memories of their first performance in Ireland, a goosebump-inducing turn at the 2005 Electric Picnic, culminating in Butler plunging head-first into the audience. "We definitely talk about that one a lot," says Gara. "The powers that be tell us that Ireland is our best market. That doesn't mean anything for us. The feeling of Electric Picnic and how excited we were and the people were, that's undeniable. It was like: 'Wow, something really special is happening here.'"

Which is why, perhaps against their better judgement, they're leaping back in active service with a Punchestown headline slot. "If you think about it, it's actually a little insane that we're playing Oxegen," says Gara. "We recently did a bunch of warm-up shows. We're actually jumping in a little of ahead of ourselves. But we couldn't not do it. It will be amazing to go back to Ireland and play to as many people as we can. We thought: 'You know what, we should do that.' It will be crazy and it will be awesome."

The Suburbs is released on August 2. Arcade Fire headline Oxegen main stage next Friday

Irish Independent

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