Monday 20 November 2017

The unforgettable fire of Win Butler

With an album in the offing and a summer gig at Malahide Castle, Canadian septet Arcade Fire aren't past "the feeling"

Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The 6ft 4in colossus, both creatively and physically, Win Butler doesn't mince his words. Given that he and his band Arcade Fire make such volatile, excitingly esoteric, complex, transcendent, beautiful music, you wouldn't expect him to soften his opinions for anyone, or any country.

Not even Switzerland.

I love the story of Arcade Fire on their Suburbs tour in 2010. The Montreal septet that were taking the world by a savage sonic storm had been booked at the 2011 Montreux Jazz Festival in the aforesaid Switzerland. "We'd already played Switzerland a couple times, and we'd made a rule we were never gonna do it again. The shows were so awful, and the people were just so rich and spoiled," recalled Win. "So we showed up at Montreux, which we didn't realise was in Switzerland. And it was the worst fucking audience we've ever played for. People were giving nothing. Just a black hole. So I started pushing. Before every song, I was like, ' . . . and this is the last time we'll play this song in Switzerland!' Just trying to get a rise."

Arcade Fire have been getting a rise out of the planet pretty much since the band's inception in 2001 with their alt.symphonic indie ennui. Their 2004 debut Funeral - followed three years later by Neon Bible - injected Arcade Fire deep into the mainline of popular culture. Their songs were at the top of hipster critics' end-of-year lists. Neon Bible was almost universally acclaimed as the album of 2007.

The follow-up, The Suburbs, was, surprisingly, an even better record. Indeed when it won the Grammy for best album of 2011 and Barbra Streisand announced Arcade Fire as the winners, Win's reaction summed it up: "What the hell?"

This was the same reaction most of us had listening to the album, not least when Win sang "Hope that something pure can last" on Merge; or "Sometimes I can't believe it/I'm moving past the feeling" on the album's title track, and, not forgetting, those lines from Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains): "These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose/ But late at night the feelings swim to the surface." It wasn't exactly the cheeriest moods, or tunes, of that era, but there was something paradoxically uplifting about the big statements Arcade Fire were making without coming across like they were pious worthies with the weight of the world on their shoulders, even though The Daily Telegraph did theorise that the sense of dread on The Suburbs came from "living in today's decaying, centre-less, post-9/11 North American cities".

Asked why he chose to make a record loosely about suburbia, Win said he received a letter from an old friend and it had a picture of him and his daughter at the mall near where Win and his brother grew up [in Houston, Texas].

"It was unpredictably moving and it brought back a lot of memories. Montreal is the place I've lived longest besides Texas. I've been there for almost 10 years now. It feels like home. Even though Houston is the place I've lived longest in my life, it's the place I feel least connected to, so even though it's not all literal and not all about me, I wanted to make a record about that feeling."

2013's Reflektor album had a different feel to it: a giant melting pot that had The Clash, Talking Heads, electro, dub reggae and Haitian dance all bubbling away inside it. After a relatively longish wait, Arcade Fire seem finally to be ready to release a new album, their fifth. "I know we're a popular band," said the band's drummer Jeremy Gara, of maybe the most anticipated record of 2017, "but we always stick to the same rule; we record until we feel that the music is ready."

Arcade Fire play Malahide Castle in Dublin on June 15

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