The Arcade Fire: Interview
Burning the Midnight Oil
Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, indie-rock's latest power couple, have been the
driving force behind The Arcade Fire, who have just released Funeral, a finely
crafted debut album that showcases a range of emotion and reveals a depth unseen
in rock music today. Music lovers (including critics) have latched onto
Funeral like leeches, and in the wake of the band's live show, have been
making converts faster than Al Qaeda.
I had the opportunity to talk to Win and Régine at one of the first few shows of
their first headlining tour, in Kingston, Ontario. The show was booked in a tiny
bar on the Queen's University campus, weeks before "Funeral" had been released.
When the band finally made it to the gig after a long drive from Montreal,
enough fans were lined up outside the gig to fill the venue three times over.
The hype behind The Arcade Fire had been underestimated.
We had a chance to talk about the band's influences, comparisons that have been
made to the band, and their signing to Merge records, among other things. Win is
the tallest, coolest and down to earth Texan I have ever met. He is blessed to
be married to Régine, who was so sweet and intelligent, and had an obvious
passion for music and life.
TMT: So the last time you talked to Tiny Mix Tapes, it was in January 2004. You
said you were still shopping around for labels, and you said you didn't want to
be "art-for-hire" and then you ended up signing with Merge. Is there a story
behind that, or a reason why you chose Merge?
Win: Well, we met everyone involved with the label and were
talking to them seriously; and when we drove down to North Carolina to meet Mac McCaughan it was
kinda instantly clear when we went down there. It had been
very stressful -- people on both sides talking about it and trying to decide
quite a bit. But when we went down there, it was really clear and comfortable,
and not. It was just the one place where we sent them rough mixes of the record and they really liked it. They
didn't know anything about the people or the live shows; they just genuinely
liked the thing we have made. On that level it was very nice, and it was low
pressure. They said if you guys sell a thousand records then that's
great and we've broke even, and anything beyond that we'll split the money on.
I don't think they put anything on a pedestal that they put out; it's
all on the same footing, with all the stuff they work with. It's very "not music
industry." It's just people who really care about each other and the
label. Everyone who worked there wanted to work at Merge and loved Superchunk
and Mac McCaughan and wanted to be there.
TMT: So you guys got to play at Mergefest a little while ago? How was the drive
from Montreal to North Carolina?
Win: The drive was a little bit insane, but it was great. I mean, it was great
to play in, and it's cool cause they're all in this little town that they play
in, and the scene down there. And the Cat's Cradle is a pretty damn big
venue for such a little town. So it was good just to meet other people on the
label and go to Merge Karaoke, and everyone at Merge singing all these people's
Régine: They knew all the words to everyone
Seriously, before I met Win four
years ago, I had no idea about indie-rock. I started hearing it and I was like
"what is this?" -Régine
TMT: So are there any Merge bands you want to meet now, now that you're on the
Win: Lou Barlow is really nice, and we got to play with him at the show. I
remember when I met him, it didn't have anything to do with the label, and he
was so down to earth. And Dan from Destroyer is from the west coast, and he's a
really awesome guy and we love to hang out with him when we're down there. I
don't know, pretty much everyone I've met down there is doing it for the right
TMT: So what do you guys think of all the comparisons that people make to you
band, like Broken Social Scene and The Polyphonic Spree, things like that? Do
you hear that yourself?
Win: I've never heard a Polyphone Spree
song, so I can't say. Well, I saw, like, half of one of their songs on TV. The
Broken Social Scene comparison is kind of retarded, I mean there's a
song on our EP that I admit sounds very much like a Broken Social Scene song;
the song "Headlights" has the same guitar lick as one of the songs on that
Broken Social Scene record. But it isn't... I wrote that song in '99 and I have
tapes of recordings I made in my Grandpa's basement. It's completely unrelated,
and it's just coincidence; it's just a simple kind of guitar lick. And I think
that maybe just based on that song, and we're a bunch of people in a band, and
we're from Canada, that we sound like Broken Social Scene. We've played with
them, and we like the people in the band, and there's nothing personal. Like
"Haiti," do you think that sounds like Broken Social Scene?
TMT: Some people would say that "Haiti" does sound like a BSS song, just because
of the whole vibe of the track; that's something really hard to pin down.
Win: See, to me it's not similar at all. Yeah it's pop music, and we're
from Canada, but I just don't hear it. I can sometimes hear it when people say Régine sounds like Bjork when she sings.
Fair enough, I can hear a certain resemblance. Or it's like Neil Young in our
early stuff; I sing high and it's kinda out of left field
to hear that. I mean, it's just weird. Like Crosby, Stills and Nash sounds like The Byrds, and "what the hell, what a rip-off" or like, "oh Jimi Hendrix is ripping off Cream, they use the same distortion sound that Cream
uses," and it's like every Motown song sounds the same in the
production and backing musicians. The only thing that differentiates it is the
personality of the singer and the song. That's it. It's the same with Stax
versus Motown. Like is "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" on Stax or Motown? I
don't frickin' know; it's probably the same people, and it's all about the song.
The song is different, the song is what has life, the vocal performances is what
makes it special, and I kind of relate to music in that way. I like listening to
a song for a good vocal melody, but I don't think people all listen to the music
in the same way. I don't think this band is super focused on being innovative
for innovation's sake. Our sound comes from us playing together, and our songs
that we write are about things we care about, and when we're making a record we
try to add stuff until it doesn't make us sick to hear it and we're happy with
the way it sounds. You don't choose your influences; I know I haven't chosen my
influences. It doesn't really work that way in the creation process. When people
focus on the comparison aspect of things, I think that misses the point of
things a little bit. It's fair enough if people don't like songs, or think the
sound is corny or something like that, that's fine. But for me, it's totally
about the songs.
TMT: Do you personally hear influences that come out in the music that people
haven't picked up on?
Régine: Well for me, it's a million things.
For me, all the comparisons that I hear I don't even know that music
at all. It's just something where I'm not coming from. Like, who are these
people they are talking about? I don't even know them. I'm sure they're
good. It all depends on who you listen to and the person who makes the
comparison. It's all who analyzes it. But you could compare anything with
anything and find a matching point, you know.
TMT: Some people have said that you sound like Neutral Milk Hotel, and I...
Win: I think that lyrically we relate to somewhat similar things. I don't know, I've never talked to the guy. I like the records that he's made.
I wouldn't say that they're the same way as like John Lennon was influenced by
Buddy Holly, or when you listen to the early Beatles stuff, and yeah they were
influenced by that. They're purpose was "Let's play these Buddy Holly songs so
we can learn our instruments," you know? I think those kind of comparisons are a
lot more clear.
TMT: So what do you think, then, might a band influenced by The Arcade Fire
Win: Pretty bad. (laughs). But, I don't know,
TMT: Like, what's that essential sound that people are doing to latch onto?
Win: I don't know. I think that's too bizarre.
Régine: I think you can't think about
these things, its just like...
Win: For me, the way influence works... I heard Magnetic Fields songs, and I don't
like a lot of "indie" music. But when 69 Love Songs came out, it really just
gave me these ideas about vocal melody. Not that there's an Arcade Fire
song that takes a melody, but it's how you can do a vocal melody that's
simple. I think that when a lot of people are influenced by things, it makes
people want to do something else with it. A lot of the times, the sound isn't
I don't think you can control this at all. It's like if you have a kid, you
want to try your best to make it be something, but usually it doesn't work. You
can give, and let it grow, but to a certain point... It's really hard to think
about it. I mean, I don't like thinking about these things because it
distracts me from this creative process, because then I feel like I'm removed
Win: I think in the context of us and our music, we'd give some people some
ideas about trying to perform in a little different way, that you can
communicate with people in a more direct way. I think we do really try to
connect with people, you know, don't pretend like people aren't there. I just
hope some band would give it a try.
"When people focus on the
comparison aspect of things, I think that misses the point of things a little
bit. It's fair enough if people don't like songs, or think the sound is corny or
something like that, that's fine. But for me, it's totally about the songs." -
TMT: Maybe it's this new sound where people no longer feel hindered by just
guitar, bass and drums, and use new instruments and new sounds in "indie" music.
Some Arcade Fire songs are led by these non-traditional "rock" instruments, like
accordion and violin.
Win: Yeah, maybe.
Régine: I think with our instruments...
Win: Régine hates playing the accordion, but somehow we felt like we had to work
it in. It's like "how about an accordion sound it here?" Cause, if you can play
accordion, you might as well do something with it.
Régine: Yah, and it's also like I hear
strings in my head, and so I usually use the accordion to work that out. But
it's really important that it's about the music, and not to have like, a tuba or
something. Oh she plays the mandolin? It has to have a musical purpose.
TMT: Régine, how does it feel to be in this "indie-rock" band, without ever
really listened to "indie rock" at all?
Régine: Well, I think it's funny. Seriously, before I met Win four years ago, I had no idea about indie-rock. I
started hearing it and I was like "what is this?" At first, I didn't really
like it. From what I heard, I didn't even know what it was. But now I've heard
much more from hanging out with these guys, and I really appreciate it. I don't
know, it's like I'm the reject. It's okay if you don't like me, because I don't
belong; it doesn't matter. I like playing music. It's not like I don't
understand what we're doing. I was just surprised, like, "Oh, what is all this?"
I'm sure I'm not the only one. But once you get into a movement, it's like
everyone knows about it, and "of course!" At one time, I was like "who are these
bands?" I don't know, how am I supposed to know? I'm sure a lot of people
don't know. But it's great; I definitely get to know more now.
TMT: So when you do your first post-Arcade Fire solo album, how are you going to
make it sound?
Régine: I don't know, but what I like. I
like being able to do it all ourselves. So we learn of course, and
there's something raw to it that's not allowed in classical or jazz. But I
really am impressed by classical and jazz for their discipline, and I have the
same drive for that, but with a rock band. You know, not half-assed. It's
all about the musicality of every single second...
[Régine makes a thrusting fist motion]
TMT: I'll note that you were making a thrusting fist motion. So, you've lived in
Montreal longer than everybody else.
Régine: Yeah, I grew up in the south shore.
Well, it's weird hanging out with these guys; all of a sudden I was
suddenly surrounded by Anglophones! And all these people I met were
from different parts of the world, and I thought it was like meeting all these
different people without even moving!
TMT: Well, my fiancé was in Toronto picking up the new record for me when it
came out, and the guy at Rotate This told her that "this is the greatest band in
Canada right now." And supposedly, these guys have discerning taste.
Régine: What is that?
TMT: Discerning taste?
Régine: I think stuff like that just goes
over my head. Well, since the album came out, it's been really weird. Maybe it's the internet, and it's like... I don't know. We're just starting out,
and we're just starting out on a new tour.
TMT: So with the album called Funeral, have you thought about what your own
funeral would be like?
Régine: Um. No.
TMT: I don't know. I've thought about it.
Régine: Well, the music will be pretty damn
Win: I have faith in my family and friends that it will be pretty awesome. Every
funeral I've ever been to on my mom's side of the family has been really fun
and totally great. Yeah, I'm sure it would be good.
TMT: If you could have just one song then...
Win: "More than a Feeling"!
Will (Win's brother): Yes! "More than a Feeling"! By Boston!
Win: Actually, I insist that "More than a Feeling" not be played at my funeral.
I don't know, I honestly haven't thought about it
Régine: Probably just something classical.
Because a lot of it is really unbelievable.
TMT: I'm sorry to ask you such a heavy question.
Win: Yeah man, I mean what the hell! You're ruining my buzz!