Arcade Fire on graduating to arena rock

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Arcade Fire Photo by Guy Aroch

Photo by Guy Aroch.

Arcade Fire are no strangers to dubious distinctions. They’re Grammy winners, chart toppers, one of the last indie rock bands in the celebrity pop sphere and the only Montreal act to sustain a mainstream presence since Celine Dion.

Being critics’ darlings is one such distinction that they may have parted with, at least temporarily. Their new album Everything Now has received the most mixed reception of their career — the review in this very publication is not a very positive one — as the band seems to have entered a “tear them down” phase, though strangely not from the notoriously fickle British press, who continue to love them (NME and The Independent gave the record 5/5).

The record isn’t perfect — none of their albums are, really — but among its singles (some of the band’s best) are moments of sonic subtlety that sound like a fresh skill.

“We were just trying to listen to each other and trying to not consciously direct things,” says Will Butler, on the line from his Brooklyn apartment (he’s lived there for a couple of years). “There’s a looseness and a lightness to the music on the record, and there’s an unconcerned-ness with where the music is going.

“We were pretty focused on being pure musicians, which is rare for us because we don’t really identify as musician-ey musicians. So now, 15 years into being in a band, we’re better at playing our instruments.”

When asked about his favourite track on Everything Now, Butler names “Electric Blue,” the record’s token song sung by Régine Chassagne — as with The Suburbs’ “Sprawl II,” it’s a whirl of falsetto disco and an obvious album highlight.

“I like it as a song and I like how it functions on the record,” he says. “It feels very fresh to me. It sounds surprising and very gratifying.”

On the theme of gratification, Everything Now is a concept album in the way that The Suburbs was, this one being a broad swipe at consumer culture and the internet — an idea that could’ve played anytime over the past decade but feels especially prescient with a Twitter-addicted idiot as U.S. President.

“There’s a lot of amazing things about having everything in the world at the tip of your fingers — I’ve certainly found a lot of great music that way — but there’s also something horrifying about, like, ‘Oh, listen to this amazing song!’ ‘Oh North Korea fired an ICBM!’ ‘Oh Donald Trump is talking to the Boy Scouts In the black again and it’s horifying!’ There’s an element of The Twilight Zone about it but there’s also something very human and beautiful about it as well.”

The Butler brothers’ American heritage has always given the band an edge when it comes to commenting on the political shit-storms to the south (“Windowsill” from Neon Bible being the most flagrant example), but this was the first Arcade Fire record made in the USA. Frontman Win Butler and Chassagne bought a house (a second home, away from home) in New Orleans, where band members gathered for a series of writing, recording and post-production sessions (and a David Bowie memorial parade) over two years.

Since touring wrapped for the band’s 2013 album Reflektor, most of the band members made solo records, including Will, who also found time to get a Masters degree in public administration at Harvard Business School.

“We’ve always created by first calming down and living our lives,” Butler says, “and plugging into our communities and our neighbourhoods and plugging in with each other and just trying to be human —sticking your thumb up into the wind and feeling what the world feels like and letting the art emerge organically from that.”

The notion of “Infinite Content” (the name of a pair of tracks on Everything Now and the record’s ironic marketing scheme — has a special meaning for Butler, who sees it through the prism of fatherhood, as he has a five-year-old son.

“(As a parent) you start to have a different connection with material culture. You’re both overwhelmed by it because you have a greater sense of all the garbage in the world and how much garbage your child is living with but also how deeply comforting actual things are whether it’s a piece of crap you bought on Amazon or a meaningful family heirloom or all this crap that keeps your child physically alive, like a thousand needles and pills and tests and machines. There’s something about the deep and real comfort of the material and the utter horror of the material world.”

Perhaps the ultimate first-world problem for a musician is not having a big enough venue to play in your own city. Arcade Fire are well known for their intimate pop-up shows in church basements and off-the-radar venues like Salsatheque on Peel St., but they’ve exhausted Montreal’s larger spaces, having done shows at Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Place des Festivals. Now, after years of resistance, they’re finally playing the Bell Centre.

“We’ve 100 per cent been avoiding that, because it just feels like a terribly normal thing to do in Montreal,” Butler admits. “For the whole tour we’re playing in the round — we’re setting up in the middle of the arena — so we thought we might as well do this crazy shit show in Montreal. It’ll be more exciting doing this in-the-round punk rock thing. Hopefully it’ll be cool.” ■

Arcade Fire play with openers Wolf Parade at the Bell Centre (1909 Avenue des Canadiens de Montréal) on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m., $36.25–$112

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