Interview: The Arcade Fire
Pitchfork: Sorry to hear you've been so sick.
Win Butler: I'm feeling a lot better. Not 100% yet, but I'm worlds better than I was a couple of weeks ago. I got sick around New Years. When we were rehearsing for the first shows, the secret shows and the warm-up shows, I couldn't really sing in rehearsal because I was so sick.
Pitchfork: How has the tour been going so far? Do you think the songs from the new record are more challenging to play live?
WB: Last time, we played a bunch of the songs live, while we were recording-- a lot of small shows just as stuff started to take off. So I felt like we had time to figure out how the songs wanted to be played. We tried to do that this time by playing some warm-up shows. I think we're starting to figure out how to play the songs.
Pitchfork: It's funny that you call the Judson [Memorial Church, in New York City] shows warm-up shows, because those were hugely anticipated dates. It seems like things came together really fast.
WB: It's a sink or swim thing. I think we work better when we jump in, get in over our heads. And it's like, OK, we've got to figure this out right now.
Pitchfork: Do you do anything in particular to prepare for a tour?
WB: We had such little time this time around, it was about the bare essentials. "OK, how are we going to make this pipe organ sound? What instruments do we need to bring?" Just trying to work out arrangements and stuff. With so many people, it's a logistical nightmare.
Pitchfork: The Arcade Fire seems drawn to churches, both as performance spaces and as inspiration. Can you talk a little bit about the churches in your life?
WB: I'm not really a churchgoer these days. I grew up in a somewhat religious family. My dad's family isn't religious at all, but my mom's side of the family is, so [as a child] I was exposed to church a bit. Most buildings aren't really built with acoustics in mind, and small churches definitely are. Voices need to carry. But also just architecturally-- there's something going into the architecture that's very inspiring.
Pitchfork: Sure. And even taken out of all religious and spiritual contexts, there's something peaceful about being in a church. Church is one of the few places left in America where there's no noise, no television, no radio, no advertising. It lends itself to contemplation.
WB: Right, the purpose of the building is totally different than, like, an office building. It's designed to have an atmosphere. If you think about it, if you've ever been to a Catholic service, it's practically a laser light show. It's very dramatic, very theatrical. The outfits they wear, it's all designed to be impressive.
Pitchfork: I know that in the past you've identified yourself as a non-denominationally religious or spiritual person. And I may be misinterpreting this, but it seems like some of the lyrics on the new record seem to skewer the notion of religious fundamentalism. It's a huge idea in the world right now, and especially in America-- growing up in Texas, did you see fundamentalism at work? Did it inform your childhood, even if you weren't participating in it?
WB: Yeah, it's definitely a big part of the culture there. [In general] I think the relationship between religion and culture is much stronger now. I remember outside of Houston, seeing one of those huge mega-churches, just driving by it on the highway, thinking it looked like a football stadium. I was definitely exposed to that-- the Christian bookstores, the money side of it. But I don't have an overly negative view of religion. It's so diverse.
Pitchfork: Lyrically, on the new record, there's a certain amount of contention between the narrator of the songs, and the trappings of 21st century culture. Television, especially. Was that something you were thinking about when you started writing? The claustrophobia of too much noise? How we're all complacent in it?
WB: We're exposed to ideas everywhere. The world is full of ideas. I think that television is a pretty powerful medium in that regard. People don't necessarily know that they're taking on a worldview, or absorbing ideas [while watching television]. It doesn't necessarily seem like [it's happening], but it definitely does. I find it very easy to get sucked in. It starts to affect the way you see the world.
Pitchfork: There's also a lot of ocean imagery on this record. On NPR, I heard you talking about Children of Men and the idea of going to the coast. I get it, but it's also almost counter-intuitive, in a way-- because ultimately, the coast is a dead end.
WB: My parents live near the ocean, and I've spent a lot of time walking through the water at night, being around the water. If you've ever been in a boat when the weather is bad-- I don't know if you have-- but my family sails, and when weather comes in, all of sudden you feel out of control. Like when you're in a plane and you begin to feel turbulence, and you suddenly realize you're 30,000 feet up in the air. Those are the few times when I'm really aware of how out of control of the situation I am. And definitely, if you've ever been in the ocean and had a huge wave move over you, you become very aware that you're not in control.
Pitchfork: So on Neon Bible, does the ocean represent a lack of control?
WB: Yeah, in a way. I have this image of being on the ocean at night-- feeling that you're being moved by a wave, but not being able to see it. The natural fear in a situation like that, the sense of everything being beyond your control-- it's a self-preservation instinct or something. It's a different kind of fear.
Pitchfork: The new record was preceded by a multi-faceted, viral art-marketing campaign. Can you talk a little bit about who was behind that, and what the inspiration for it was?
WB: The marketing campaign? [laughs]
Pitchfork: Fine, maybe that's not the right term. But the phone number, the videos…
WB: I thought it would be fun. In London, we were promoting the record, and someone wanted to play a song, and we thought, "Oh, we'll give them 'Intervention'". It was kind of a conscious decision to go by the seat of our pants a bit, and not actually think things out. So we gave them the song to play. And then because the song is so huge and overpowering, I thought it would interesting to hear it on a telephone line. I thought that would be an interesting context, to have this huge, overpowering thing coming out of a tiny telephone speaker.
Pitchfork: You know, that story reminds me of how in New York people broadcast their ringtones on the subway, listening to the song on their phone, but as a ringtone. And the way that works with the sound of the city and the sound of the subway, and then the tinny quality of it-- it makes a certain kind of sense, right now, to play with having people listen to songs that way.
WB: We had this opportunity where people seem to be interested in whatever crap we do. So we do these little, like, school projects. It's kind of fun. We all have backgrounds in art. We kind of make ourselves not edit, not spend a lot of time on it. It's really fun to do stuff like that, just off-the-cuff. Especially when we spend so much time thinking over every detail of a record.
Pitchfork: How do you feel, in general, about file-sharing? Is it frustrating to you, or are you bemused by it?
WB: It is what it is. It's hard to be frustrated about, because it's kind of abstract concept to me. It doesn't keep me up at night. And it doesn't really seem to matter what my opinion of that stuff is, because it's gonna happen. There are exciting things about it and there are more challenging things about it. I don't know. All I really know is that I buy records if I really like an artist. If I just want to hear a song, maybe I'll download it.
Pitchfork: So it doesn't necessarily bother you if a record is leaked.
WB: I think the label people are doing a surprisingly good job of fighting leaks. If it's more convenient to buy stuff, then people will always do it.
Pitchfork: Sonically, the new record is rich and overwhelming in the best way. Do you find yourself attracted to a certain kind of sound, a big, all-encompassing aesthetic?
WB: I think we're still kind of finding that a bit. It's only our second record. With certain songs, you get an idea for a palette, for instrumentation you want to try. Going into this record, there was an idea that we would do a stripped-down approach. But on some of the songs, it just didn't work-- the songs wanted more. I always think that the song should determine it-- you don't listen to Queen and say, "Oh, why did they have to have 100 tracks on the vocals!" That's just what they sound like. People can be like, "Oh man, they're so overblown, they use all these vocals." It's like yeah, but that's why Queen are Queen, that's what they sound like. When I hear a record, that's what it is.
There's this weird thing where people think they can change records. "Oh, if only this were there and this were here, it would be a super record." But that's the record, that's the way it sounds! You can't change the record; you didn't make the record. I didn't make "We Are the Champions", Queen did, and that's the way it sounds. It's almost like people think they can control something. It never even occurred to me that I could change the way something sounds.
Pitchfork: I wonder, too, if the fact that there's a feedback loop now, with bands reading their own message boards, responding to fans-- maybe now it makes people feel like they can get what they want. They launch their demands, and they expect to be listened to.
WB: I try and stay as unaware of that shit as possible. Every once in a while I'll catch a bit of chatter about the band, and it's always a mistake.
Pitchfork: It's pretty deadly for any artist to start listening too much-- regardless of whether it's good or bad input…
WB: At our shows, we used to play in the crowd. We did it a few times. But then there was a palpable sense that we were supposed to come play in the crowd-- fuck that. Maybe we will, maybe we won't. It depends on the moment. But you start to feel like you owe them, like this is what you're supposed to do. Well, we won't do that anymore, then.
Pitchfork: So are you done, then? You won't be playing in the lobby, playing in the crowd?
WB: No, I mean it's not like we'll never do it again. This is the interesting thing about playing music now-- the Talking Heads used to play the same set in every town. That's the set, what we're playing on the tour. But now people have so much more access to music, maybe they've downloaded a couple shows already, and they want theirs to be special or whatever. It's just interesting, it's a different time in that regard.
Pitchfork: The Arcade Fire have opened for U2-- did seeing success on that kind of colossal level change anything? What did you learn from that?
WB: I think every band is different. It depends on the group of people, what you want. I think you definitely have to make a conscious decision to go to that level. You don't accidentally stumble and "Oh, we're the biggest band in the world!" It takes a lot of dollars. No matter how good the music is, or how much people relate to it. You know, the Outkast record, it's amazing how many people really relate to it and find it catchy. But if it wasn't on every radio station, all those people wouldn't have heard it. But I don't know, the U2 thing was kind of interesting just because the way their stage is designed, the crowd is right there-- there isn't a huge gap or anything. And it was actually more intimate than a lot of club shows, because the people are right there. They've done it for so long that it's really well-designed. You can play a crappy show in a 100-person room, and you can play a crappy show in a 15,000-seat room. You just have to make the most of whatever situation you're in.
Pitchfork: Neon Bible debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart-- congratulations. I imagine you've had to contend with yet another wave of wooing from major labels. Is that something you've talked about, as a band, or are you just taking it one record at a time?
WB: We've done so much on our own. We don't do everything on our own, but we have ideas about how we want to do things. I feel like distribution is one thing-- even the distribution at Touch and Go and Merge is owned by Warner, ultimately. But just the nuts and bolts of getting a piece of plastic into a store so people can buy it, that makes a lot of sense to me, because how can people listen to the record if they can't physically get it? We're pretty self-directed. We basically have a glorified distribution deal, which makes sense for how we work. I don't think it would be right for every band, and I don't think most bands would want to be this involved-- we're probably overly involved. But everyone is different. The typical label situation is not relevant to where we're at right now.
Pitchfork: Do you think you'll stay with Merge?
WB: Yeah. It's been a good relationship. The reason we went with them in the first place is that they're really doing it for the right reasons. And I think that's a rarity, that's not how labels are run anymore. It's depressing. Once you get into the major [label] thing, it's not really based on anyone's taste anymore. There's a country act, and a comedy record, and a Disney contract. It's not that inspiring. It's like, "We used to have Bob Dylan on our label!"
Pitchfork: Did Funeral's success change the way that you wrote and recorded Neon Bible? Does the artistic process change once you know, for sure, that people are listening?
WB: Not in that regard. It was more about practical things. We were playing in a different room, playing in a studio. And then not really having the same time and budget restrictions, it was really different, and it took a while to find our footing. Honestly, the actual physical room, for us, makes a big difference. It took us a good six months to get used to playing at the church. Just relating to each other, musically, in a different environment. You get really used to things being a certain way. That was way more difficult than the idea that people were listening. Because once we got back into our little world, we had no way of knowing if people cared.
Pitchfork: There must be solace in that-- just shutting people out, and doing things the way you've always done them.
WB: You want to make a record that's good. And you want to be happy with it. And it takes so much energy to be happy with yourself. That's why our little experiments using a producer never really worked. It takes so much to make this group of people happy, that once we get there, if someone else is like, "Let's try this," you're like fuck, we've gotten to this point already, and here's yet another person with an opinion.
Pitchfork: Right, so is it generally tough having so many people in the band? It's a lot of input, it's a lot of gear, it's a lot of schedules to coordinate. It's a lot of opinions.
WB: It's kind of the strength of the band, too. The hardest part is usually the strength. I feel like that tension is what makes the band interesting. If that goes away, that's when the real crap starts flowing. When you get too many yes-men around, that tension gets lost.
Pitchfork: On the new record, are you surprised to be getting so many comparisons, vocally, to Bruce Springsteen?
WB: I know that "Antichrist Television" sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song. I definitely knew that going into it. But you don't really choose the songs you write-- the songs you write are the songs you write. And that song really started when Regine and I were playing, and I was playing this blues thing and making up words, and she was like, "That's really good." And I couldn't even imagine doing something that was blues-based. I didn't really think of it as a song. But I started working on it, and working on lyrics, and it turned out to be a really good form for what I wanted to say. It was fun to work with some more traditional chord progressions on this record. It's already so well established, what happens in that form-- you can fill it up with whatever you want.
Pitchfork: I imagine that it's fun to play live, too.
WB: Yeah. It's a song where you could go into a bar in Houston and play it, and people would be nodding their heads along. It's really good for us to have diversity of material so that we don't get bored. Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison are two of my biggest influences, and I hear that in Springsteen as well-- he started as a Bob Dylan parody, and it got richer and richer as he went along. He sounds like Dylan doing Roy Orbison. That's what Springsteen sounds like to me.
Pitchfork: Do you think it's fair to say that Neon Bible is, at least lyrically, more worldly than Funeral? When the record first came out, a lot of people were talking about how the lyrics are broader, that they take on bigger things, rather than smaller, more personal things. Do you think that's an accurate response to the record?
WB: It's definitely more outward-looking. But it's just as specific. It isn't about general feelings. Those are a big pet peeve for me. [Sings] "Everybody feels…this way." I'm always trying to make things as specific as possible. But it's definitely looking outward more.
Pitchfork: Do you think that's just a product of getting older, having traveled, things like that?
WB: I think those things come in waves a bit. I'm definitely someone who gets interested in ideas, I like exploring ideas in songs, and I get fixated on something and keep thinking about it in different ways. It feels like something that comes in waves, because you're interested in different things at different times in your life.
Pitchfork: The lyrics page on the website references "The Wolf and the Fox". Do you take inspiration from literature?
WB: That's from Fontaine. Do you know that stuff?
Pitchfork: I know a little bit about Jean de la Fontaine, contextually, but I don't speak French. My French is pretty terrible.
WB: I don't know if it's translated into English, actually. He took the old Grimm fairytales and the old Aesop's Fables and made them into really specific political allegories for the time. The wolf is the king, and there's a really direct moral at the end of the story. I thought that was a really cool idea. I originally wanted to do a whole series of them, but that was the only one that panned out.
Pitchfork: Those fairy tales-- the things you read when you're little stick with you in a way that nothing else you'll ever read again, for the rest of your life, ever seems to. So the notion of taking that, something that's already close to our hearts, and then twisting it into political allegory-- it's an interesting, profound thing to do, as an artist. That was something you were thinking about, lyrically, when you started writing?
WB: Yeah, we had the story when we first started working on the song. We were trying to re-tell it.
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