The unforgettable Fire

Fri, Jul 2, 2010, 01:00

I AM HOLDING a gun to Arcade Fire’s head. Which do you prefer: Oxegen or Electric Picnic? “Don’t ask me to do this,” says drummer Jeremy Gara. “Please don’t ask me to do this.”

I’m not going away until you do. “We’ve done both festivals but you’re asking me to compare them and make a choice, and that would only lead to slagging off promoters.”

Because he’s such a please-all fence-sitter, I make a big huff of crossing the next two questions off my list. And they were zingers: 2. Daddy or chips? 3. Blur or Oasis?

“What I can tell you is that playing Oxegen on the Friday night, which is our first big gig back since the Neon Bibletour, is still difficult for us to understand,” he says. “We’re all going: ‘We’re on after Jay-Z?’ – and we really still can’t believe that. We find that difficult to relate to, but then we still find it hard to relate to the whole rock-band life.”

The we’re-not-worthy tone is typical of the seven-strong Montreal art-rockers (“don’t call us art-rock whatever you do,” he says). Since the release of Funeralback in 2004, Arcade Fire have had an inimical relationship with fame and acclaim. Genuinely humbled by a success that combined a fawning critical response and wide commercial appeal, they were approaching celebrity psychosis towards the end of their last globe-spanning tour.

“The Neon Bibletour was a nightmare,” says Gara. “It was well over 100 shows, tons of festivals, so many new cities and new countries. It was extremely exhausting for all of us. We toured until we thought we were going to die. When it was all over, and we were all back in Montreal, it was really weird. We all live near each other, and we genuinely arebest friends, so we would see each other all the time. But there was no music – none whatsoever – for months and months. We had to wait until we fell away from the rock-tour life and the whole business of being in a band together. It was so strange for us all meeting up and never discussing or listening to music. But we had to wait for that time where we all absolutely felt we hadto play music, and when that happened we all assembled in Win and Régine’s living room, took out our instruments and pressed the record button.”

All the main preliminary work for upcoming album The Suburbswas done in this small Montreal living room.

“It was really cramped with all of us there, but we were trying to be true to what it was like for Arcade Fire before all the super-mega success. Because that’s how we used to get up songs before we had a record deal – all crammed into a room somewhere. And going back to doing it that way did shape the album.”

The Suburbsbegan with a journey singer Win Butler took back to the suburbs of Houston, Texas, where he grew up. “That trip really affected him emotionally, so we all got to thinking of the difference between now and then,” says Gara. “The underlying theme is where you grow up, where you come from. And given that we’ve been through the craziest life possible for the last five years, it was only natural for us to think back to how things were. That’s the concept – but we just fall short of it being a total concept album.”

The seven of them wedged into a small room again was the perfect antidote to the glitz and glamour of the Neon Bibletour. “We didn’t want a sound like someone had dreamt it up in the studio. We wanted it as raw as possible. There was definitely no Auto-Tune used – we’re all real nerds when it comes to vintage gear, so we used all the really old stuff. We wanted something true, not manipulated – something which captured the core of the performance in that living room.

“It struck me during the recording process that I am simply unable to listen to the radio in my car for too long – everything played is so over-compressed, so treated by Auto-Tune, it’s like some insane version of real music. You listen to U2’s music and you can tell they are a band. Yes, it’s highly produced, but it’s still the sound of four guys in a room.”

Equal parts straightforward rock’n’roll and more layered electronic work, there are musical nods on The Suburbsto Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. Oddly, the first single sounds uncannily like The Thrills. “I’ve never heard their stuff, but that’s interesting – I’m straight off to investigate The Thrills now,” he says. He thinks that the standout track off the album is Rococo.

Just two weeks ago the band were presented with two finished versions of the new album. “In one of the folders was the digital master, and in another was the vinyl master. We played them both back to back and when we had to make a decision which one to release, we all, individually, went for the vinyl master. So what you get on the CD version of the album is a digitised version of the vinyl master. And it was only a weird, mysterious difference between the two, I don’t want to sound ultra-geeky, but it was just a feeling as opposed to anything else. I think people over 30 will appreciate the difference when they hear it – people between the ages of 18 and 30 simply won’t care because that sort of digital/vinyl difference isn’t important to them. But it still is to the over-30s.”

For a seven piece band – and an artistically uncompromised one at that – seven years on from the release of the Us Kids KnowEP, they show no sign of fraying around the edges. “We’re a family,” says Gara. “And I think a functional family unit at that. What we have seen over the years is actual family patterns have emerged within the band. And that’s important to our creative health and longevity. It still really surprises me when we’re doing festivals and we meet all these other bands and they tell us that when they finish their tour they never see each other at all. It’s a good thing that we have been so emotionally close for so long – the highs are a lot higher for us. Whereas other bands can strike us as being dull business operations.”

So it’s all peace and love and boundless good vibes round Arcade Fire’s way? “Not to give too much away, but there has to be a boss within the band. I really don’t believe that an artistic collective can last for long without someone taking charge. You probably think you know who the boss is, but you don’t. The truth is that the person, or persons, who take charge changes from time to time. Sometimes you find it’s your time to step up to the plate. So in that sense we really are a true collective.”

So how does a cred indie band cope with The Man? “Sorry, but I’m going to have to give you a really boring business answer to that one: we have a really good manager. You have to learn how to navigate all that sponsorship/advertisement/song-placement stuff. If anything, we are even more uncompromising artistically now than we were when we started out. But the big guiding belief for us over the years has just been: whatever happens with this band, we will never turn into a bunch of douche bags.

“That’s the only guiding philosophy we’ve ever had.”

The world wakes up with a little help from U2

The first time many people heard Arcade Fire was when U2 played Wake Upbefore coming on stage during their Vertigo tour. “When U2 began to use it as their walk-on music, it was just a pure musical decision on their part, and a really nice gesture” says Gara.

“It got more exposure for the song and the band than we ever imagined. We’ve only ever licensed Wake Upout a few times, but it does seem to be everywhere. Sometimes people have used it a bit cheekily – in that you don’t need permission to use it if you only use a certain length of the song or something like that.

“It’s a big, singable song and I can’t deny that it does sound good over sports events, but sometimes the context is all wrong. I heard it being used over a golf clip that showed Tiger Woods pumping his fist, and it didn’t work, but then I heard it over an NFL slow-motion touchdown, and it really made sense.”

Extended family

Arcade Fire have taken to the stage with some big names over the years, including the following, which are all available on YouTube:

1 Arcade Fire and U2; Love Will Tear Us Apart,

2 Arcade Fire and David Bowie; Five Years and Wake Up

3 Arcade Fire and Bruce Springsteen; Keep the Car Running and State Trooper

The Suburbsis released on July 30. Arcade Fire headline the Main Stage at Oxegen on Friday, July 9.