During their surprise performance, the group aired the tender ‘Unconditional Love I (Lookout Kid)’, a then-unreleased song from their seventh album ‘WE’. It was inspired by the child of the band’s leading husband and wife duo, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne: there’ll be “skinned knees”, Butler sings, “but a life without pain would be boring”. Butler choked up and paused the song to take stock – when it restarted, an army of flailing inflatable tube men shot up from the stage for the euphoric chorus. One, however, did not inflate properly and hung his head while the others danced joyously around him. It looked hilariously daft until Chassange gave it a corrective nudge and he joined his pals to flail about with a wicked grin.
A fortnight later, Butler laughs when NME reminds him of the mishap: “I think when we were making these songs, we weren’t sure what world we were making it for,” he says, sitting upstairs in a spacious, swanky meeting room next to his Soho hotel. “There’s so many precarious things in the world and so much to have anxiety about, but I’ve been trying to really appreciate these moments when I’m in them. When the world is a beautiful place, I’m trying to allow myself to appreciate it in a way that I wouldn’t have before.”
The band are in town for their first London show since 2018 and, hours after we talk, they re-open north London’s iconic and recently refurbished venue, KOKO. It’s the latest in a run of small-shows to re-establish a connection with their audiences after a six-year break – their longest between records. Time and space has been kind to them, though. Split into two halves, ‘I’ – which depicts isolation – and ‘WE’ – a celebration of togetherness – ‘WE’ is the band’s finest album since 2010’s ‘The Suburbs’.
It’s a grab-bag of everything they’re great at: there’s twisted rave (‘Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’), dense multi-layered suites (‘End Of The Empire I-IV’) and an indie-rock shoutalong (‘The Lightning I, II’). If you’ve loved Arcade Fire at any point during their career, there is something in here for you.
“What business did Bowie and Byrne have checking us out in 2004? They were still hungry and curious” – Win Butler
Butler is in good spirits, despite the lingering jet-lag and rolling out of bed just minutes before our chat. He’s an affable, warm guy and, yes, his six-foot-four frame is tall and imposing. But he’s in a charming, somewhat goofy mood, flipping between long silences when collecting his thoughts and laughing giddily about those pesky inflatable fellas: “The concept of the video for ‘…Lookout Kid’ is that one of those tube men is depressed and their whole family is happy around them,” he says with a grin.
Later, onstage at the gig, which is live-streamed on Twitch TV and Amazon Music, he is uncompromising but also deprecating about his onstage persona. Before launching into the moody ‘My Body Is A Cage’, he demands total silence before performing: “I’m not trying to be an asshole; I just think that it’d be beautiful”. At the show’s electrifying climax, he gives an audience member his tambourine and barks: “Do you have rhythm? Don’t lie to me,” wilfully snatching out their hands if they’re not quite at his tempo.
Wry, heartening and full of warranted confidence, the band are – much like the venue – back to their old selves.
Since burrowing out of their Montreal base (Win and Régine have since moved to New Orleans) with 2004’s debut album ‘Funeral’, Arcade Fire have held a curious, unparalleled place in 21st century rock. They are commercial, chart-topping heavyweights, a band equally adored by the general public as they are by musos. Since their formation in 2001, there are perhaps only two rock anthems that can be chanted the world over without knowing much else beyond the riff: The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ and Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’.
They’ve benefitted from the our very online world, but are sceptical of the internet and its tentacles: they mourned the arrival of instant culture with 2010’s luddite-ish ‘We Used To Wait’ and 2013’s rave-rock epic ‘Reflektor’ was similarly dismissive: “We’re still connected, but are we even friends?”
And then came 2017’s ‘Everything Now’, the band’s most divisive record. Amid the highs – there’s no denying the sparkling title track and the accompanying in-the-round tour was their best ever – there were trickier moments. The promotional approach generated social media baiting ‘fake news’ stories (one claimed they were selling $109 fidget spinners) in the hope of highlighting our toxic relationship with the internet, social media and corporations. It came off like a tut and eye-roll from a new acquaintance at the bar; a joke you weren’t in on.
Butler remains bullish about the response to ‘Everything Now’ and its presentation: “I don’t have any insecurity about that record. I think a lot of journalism has become very ‘cut and paste’ and there needs to be some sort of storyline in interviews, so I’m happy for ‘Everything Now’ to take the hit and be maligned… Like, I know there needs to be a cliché and story and [‘WE’] is, like, ‘the comeback’. So, OK, cool – it works.”
He does, however, take the long view with music, and claims you can’t really tell whether a piece of art is good or not for “20-plus” years: “The important thing for me is to not worry about any kind of judgement people are going to have about what I do as an artist because it’s the opposite spirit of what music is. You have to be fearless to say something sincere.”
The shifting context around a record is important, too. When ‘Everything Now’ was released, Donald Trump was in the initial months of his Presidency, sending out chaotic tweets and imposing executive orders, including the controversial “Muslim ban”. Had Arcade Fire used that approach years earlier, the social media response would, potentially, have been less visceral.
“You have to be fearless to say something sincere” – Win Butler
Butler speaks of how Vera Lynn’s iconic 1939 torch song ‘When We Meet Again’ was impacted by geopolitical uncertainty, even if the sentiment in the song – one of forlorn lovers – hadn’t changed: “How things resonate shifts with the wind. That was just a random British big band song about a date – then World War II began and the context of the song then became about GIs going to fight in the war… And it suddenly becomes the heaviest fucking song of all time and I hear it and I want to cry.”
He also speaks longingly about discovering British music as a teenager – be it The Clash, Echo & The Bunnymen and New Order – away from the context of and commentary on their work. He doesn’t want music to be a product to be judged, rated and ranked: “I think as an artist you can end up chasing your own tail, because if you do anything good, the first thing that you do that’s good, people are like, ‘Just do that forever’”. I don’t think people realise from an artist’s perspective that we already did that thing you like – it exists and you can go listen to that. Art dries up and dies that way, unless you’re chasing that very ephemeral feeling.”
Recently, he was taken aback by a song on The Clash’s 1980 triple album ‘Sandinista!’, a record he’s listened to his entire life. On ‘Lose This Skin’, Strummer handed over the vocals to violinist Tymon Dogg, who yelps that “I’ve got to lose this skin I’m imprisoned in”. It’s a deep cut that even ardent fans of the band may not recognise. Butler describes the discovery of the song as a gift: “At first I didn’t know it was The Clash. And people in the present maybe don’t appreciate it… But that song is for someone – or maybe it was for me right [then].
“Music has a way of finding the people who need it and when they need it. I know it did for me as a teenager. The first time I heard Björk or Radiohead, it helped me feel less alone and less like an alien knowing there’s other aliens out there somewhere.”
“In the ’80s, Peter Gabriel branched out into world music… it was very rare to hear that” – Régine Chassagne
David Bowie was another figure who pushed him to keep moving forward. The band are intrinsically tied to the Man Who Fell To Earth: Bowie championed them in their early days joking that “he discovered them” and in 2013 leant his spooky vocals to ‘Reflektor’. A decade earlier, in 2004, Bowie and David Byrne showed up to the band’s first New York show, at the Bowery Ballroom.
“What business did they have going to check out a punk band from Canada in New York City in 2004?” Butler marvels. “They’d already done everything: if they’d never done another thing, their legacies are completely cemented and they didn’t need to prove anything. But what I learned from them was that they were still hungry and they were still interested and curious.”
Butler wants his contemporaries remain similarly open-minded, and not fear failure: “People have gotten used to this false perfection of everything, so everyone’s Instagram is perfect shots and everyone has filters on – but we don’t give a fucking shit about that. Fuck perfection. Perfection is boring. I don’t want to hear a perfect singer – I want to hear someone real. I want to hear your humanity. I want your soul and an artist laying it out there. Sometimes it’s rough around the edges… but at least it’s real. It’s alive.”
Following the conclusion of the ‘Everything Now’ tour in late 2018, Butler and Chassagne headed back to New Orleans and the remaining band members Will Butler, Jeremy Gara (drummer), Tim Kingsbury (bass) and Richard Reed Parry (guitar) returned to their respective homes. Will, Win’s younger brother and a multi-instrumentalist in Arcade Fire, left the band following the completion of ‘WE’ last year. “There was no acute reason beyond that I’ve changed – and the band has changed – over the last almost 20 years. Time for new things,” he tweeted in March.
Discussing his brother’s next move, Butler explains: “He’s our family and everyone in the band’s family, and he’s such a brilliant guy – he has so many things that just aren’t this band.” He adds, as Chassagne nods her head, “And on a human level, he’s got three young children, he just has so much other stuff to do – we’re fully supportive of his path, and can’t wait to see it.”
Butler and Chassagne continued to write together in their downtime, something they’ve done for their entire career. As the process unfurled, Butler discovered that this is a record they’ve been waiting their entire lives to make, mining decades worth of inspirations and finally connecting them. He first spotted the title ‘WE’, for example, emblazoned on a book on his grandmother’s shelf: it was the name of a 1927 autobiography by Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to complete a non-stop solo transatlantic flight. It was the book’s striking cover, not the content, that resonated with him. Years later, when studying Russian literature, he discovered the 1924 dystopian novel WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which itself inspired George Orwell’s 1984.
“The seeds of everything that we’re ever going to do are within us. Reading that Zamyatin novel connected this dot in my childhood, then to Orwell, and then allowed me to be inspired by its own merits,” he says. “I didn’t know what ‘WE’ was, but I knew that it was in there and that I’d use it at some point. I think conceptually within ‘WE’, there’s a universe that connects the dots between everything we’ve ever done.”
When Chassagne, the arty yin to Butler’s grounded yang, joins us for the second half of our chat, she shares similar feelings about former Genesis member and ’80s pop titan Peter Gabriel, who provides vocals on ‘WE’’s funky ‘Unconditional Love II (Race & Religion)’. When she was growing up in Montreal, Quebec, Gabriel’s music provided her with “nourishment” and a connection to Haiti, where her family is from: “He branched out into world music and, at the time, to have something mainstream that was so connected to the rest of the world was so rare for me. Hearing these sounds and these rhythms at the pharmacy or grocery store… it was very rare to hear that.”
All these threads are tied together elegantly on the new album, which was produced with Nigel Godrich (who’s worked with Radiohead and Beck) and meets its cultural moment delicately, with humour and heart. Its recording during the pandemic is obvious in those two halves, which reflect both the loneliness and unity felt over the recent years. On ‘Age Of Anxiety I’, Butler “fights the fever with TV” and sighs that the “pills do nothing” to combat loneliness. ‘WE’’s rousing second act opens with ‘The Lightning I, II’, as he promises: “We can make it / please don’t quit on me”.
“Will’s departure from the band? We’re fully supportive of his path, and can’t wait to see it” – Win Butler
When the band eventually convened in El Paso, Texas in October 2020, they had what Butler calls “a baffling amount of material”, adding: “There’s like 20 years’ worth of shit there.” Before they went, they called upon one Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty – whom Butler describes as “an incredible lyricist” – for his advice on material. “[We ended up] recording an incredible song of his called ‘Being A Dog’ that, if he ever has the courage to release it, is the greatest thing he’s ever done,” Butler chuckles, as Chassagne throws her head back with exasperation at the potential headlines.
They felt the backdrop of global uncertainty – the second, and deadliest, COVID wave in the US and the 2020 US presidential election – keenly when they were making the record. “In the background there was this election, this fucking Trump election, and we’re thinking, ‘Is this really our life now? Is this guy really going to fucking win again and we’re all going to be fucked?’” Butler remembers. As they finished a take of ‘The Lightning’, the band stepped outside to see that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the race to be the 46th President.
They rallied around each other during recording and, despite losing a key member, remain unified in their position as viewing the band as a collective, with various musicians coming and going through the years. In addition to the full-time band and existing live collaborators, they have recently welcomed multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun and Wolf Parade frontman Dan Boeckner, a fellow Montrealer with whom the band played DIY shows in their formative days.
“One of the strengths of our band is that Richie [Reed Parry] and Tim are so talented,” Butler says. “There is not a better rock drummer than Jeremy Gara, and what he does in Arcade Fire is just a tiny aspect of what he does. Everyone in the band is completely overqualified for what they’re doing at any given moment.
“You have to be selfless in a collective. It’s not all about you; it’s about the song. I think a lot of artists get it twisted and they think that everyone’s there to see them. No-one’s fucking there to see you – the audience is there for the song. The song is where we all meet. We’ve always had that perspective: it’s bigger than any one person.”
Tomorrow evening (May 7), the band will perform live on US comedy show Saturday Night Live and are intrigued to see if they land a ‘Five-Timers Club’ jacket (an honour usually bestowed among hosts who have appeared five times; recent inductees include comedian John Mulaney and actor Paul Rudd). The band are also planning their upcoming Autumn tour, where Butler hopes to execute “the definitive Arcade Fire tour”, though is keeping his cards close to his chest what that entails. We assume the tube men will have their work cut out for them.
If that tour, and WE’ itself, seeks to unite the band’s entire history, ‘… Lookout Kid’ will no doubt feature heavily. Although it’s inspired by his relationship with his son, Butler says it also chimes with the same message he expressed on their breakout single, ‘Wake Up’, back in 2004. In fact, the musician Brendan Reed, who played drums on the band’s self-titled debut EP, texted him to say how much he liked the song’s line: “Trust your mind / but you can’t trust it every time”. Everything is coming full circle, it seems.
“In ‘Wake Up’, I wasn’t singing to my child, but I was singing to myself as a child,” Butler says before gently singing its aching refrain: “‘Children wake up / Hold your mistake up’”. He reflects on the difference between paternal advice, and following his own lessons: “I feel like I still haven’t learned the lesson I was trying to teach myself from ‘Wake Up’ sometimes. You sing these songs you write as a kid, and then you get a bit older and they start to make more sense.”
Whether the lyrics, messages and influences are realised immediately or in the longer term, the band have proved that they sound just as sweet – and perhaps resonate even harder – with time. There may be mistakes and bumps along the road in the world of Arcade Fire but, after all, life without them would certainly would be boring.
Arcade Fire’s ‘WE’ is out now via Columbia Records