By Mark Guarino
What a difference a season makes. Last spring, the Montreal band the Arcade Fire was hardly known outside tight indie rock circles. They had recorded only a handful of songs on an EP and not toured much and never as headliners. Times were, as bassist Tim Kingsbury recalls, “pretty quiet” with their productivity “staggered.”
Not anymore. After a well-received series of shows this fall at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, a rave write-up in the New York Times, endorsements from celebrity fans like David Byrne and passionate internet blog entries cheering their debut album, “Funeral” (Merge), released this fall, the Arcade Fire is, well, on fire. Which translates to touring at breakneck speed across the U.S. and Europe and fielding offers, already, from not just one major label, but “pretty much all of them,” Kingsbury said.
The overload of attention caught even the band by surprise. “I really wasn’t expecting it at all,” said singer and keyboardist Regine Chassagne. “And I’m not really understanding why.”
Why is a direct result of the ten songs on “Funeral,” one of the most exciting underground albums of the year. A physical assault but also emotionally daunting, the album has its share of transcendent moments using death as a twin conduit to redemptive love. Like mid-career Talking Heads and lately, Modest Mouse, the band treats chaos as catharsis, unleashing tribal, danceable rhythms with deceptively simple pop instrumentation, anthemic group choruses and swirling melody lines. It’s an intensely beautiful album that is never what it seems to be in one listen.
The music is a product of slowly intersecting regionalism coming together in Montreal. At its core is Win Butler and Chassagne, a husband-and-wife songwriting team that met after Butler moved to Montreal to attend school in 1999. Their chemistry, musical and otherwise, was apparent to both from the very start.
“I remember walking around Montreal singing, just like singing nonsense,” said Butler, 24. “It was never anything we had to work on.”
Chassagne, a multi-instrumentalist who played jazz and was in a group that performed medieval music before she joined forces with Butler, did not have much exposure to rock. She said the band’s jagged style is a result of their opposites coming together. “Now we influence each other,” she said.
“I think some bands start out with a sound or a direction they want to take things and they build songs from there,” said Butler. “Our approach is from the songs and to see what the songs need as if they’re external from the band. If there’s an emotional quality, if there’s something the song needs to be asking for, then we do it.”
The band suffered through many incarnations before arriving on the one that recorded “Funeral” last year. Rounding out the band is Richard Parry, a multi-instrumentalist, drummer Howard Bilerman and violinist Sarah Neufeld. Like the organic nature of the band’s line-up, the album’s thread of death-versus-life and striking images of lightning, storms and fire developed naturally, without preconception. Not to be ignored, three bandmembers — Butler, Parry and Chassagne — experienced deaths in their family before and during the recording process. “We had no idea,” she said. “I only realized (there was a theme) when I typed the lyrics for the (CD) insert. There was definitely no plan for any specific thread between the songs, so much so that we were scared they would sound disconnected.”
Butler similarly refuses to place much value on any themes, instead insisting it is the result of the songs’ characters. It’s a mystery, much like the band’s name, a blurry memory of a story he recalls being told as a child in Houston about a town arcade burning to the ground, killing all the children inside. “I kind of believed (it), although now, I’m not sure,” he said.
What is certain is that the band is booked for the majority of next year with touring in Europe and Australia. It is the dominant change of pace for them, which they’re trying to take in stride. “We don’t have time to write which is sort of annoying because that’s really one of the inspiring things (about this band),” said Chassagne.
Butler admits “there’s a lot more distraction now” which they’ll “have to take time and overcome it.” But, depending on how their first headlining tour goes, he says dryly, he’s ready for more: “then the stadium tour starts.”