The Roots Of… Arcade Fire

Nine years ago this month a seven-person theatrical rock band from Montreal packed their kit to go and play the CMJ (once the College Media Journal) festival / bunfight in New York. Of their competition that year, Flameshovel went over pretty well, as did the Poison Arrows and File 13, but the Canadian band dominated the event so completely that the buzz around them became part of their story. “The hype is people saying there’s hype,” laughed their singer, Win Butler, shortly after. “It’s kind of postmodern…”

But then, so were – are – Arcade Fire. Win’s wife, the Haitian-Canadian Regine, had studied medieval classical music for years and wore full period dress while appearing with a medieval ensemble at local shopping centres. So there was onstage (fake) strangulation and motorcycle helmets getting drummed upon. Accordions were groomed and abused, while guitars, xylophones, drums, keyboards, hurdy-gurdys, French horns, mandolins and handclaps were all put to work. Win’s brother Will would, in between throwing drums around and playing piano, don a football helmet and bass-player Richard Parry would hit it with drumsticks. Their music was dramatic and emotional and the band called their debut album ‘Funeral’ in response – or tribute – to four close relatives who had died in quick succession.

“I always expected to make a living making music,” Win once said. Raised in a conservative Mormon environment in a suburb of Houston, Texas, he was still a teenager when he moved to Montreal to study Scriptural Interpretation and Russian Literature at Leonard Cohen’s old alma mater, McGill University. As far from the Ramones-like street-gang stereotype as it’s possible to be, from their very start in 2002, Arcade Fire have been entirely – and deliberately – self-funded and self-motivated. Their label, Merge, initially only pressed 10,000 copies of ‘Funeral’, but within a year it had sold more than 20 times that. In 2005 they played a moonlit concert for 5,000 in New York’s Central Park just months after playing for 200 in a local club – David Bowie was their special guest. U2 and Bruce Springsteen came out as huge fans.


“I think that in life it’s important to know where you came from,” Win told me in 2010. “But also to know where you are. You need to be able to draw the lines between the two so that they both make sense.” Bearing that in mind, how did Arcade Fire become the band they are now?

The Butler boys’ grandfather was guitarist and big band leader Alvino Rey (born Alvin McBurney), but it was The Cure who first gripped Edwin, who formed a band and played ‘Just Like Heaven’ at school assembly at the strict Phillips Exeter boarding school in New England. Pavement and Radiohead followed soon after, while the first track Win wrote – ‘Funeral’’s ‘Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’ was based on a Beethoven piece used in A Clockwork Orange.


An unholy amount of B’s all entered the Butler’s life around the same time – Bowie, Bono, Brecht, (David) Byrne and the Bunnymen. So Talking Head’s ‘This Must Be The Place’, Bowie’s ‘Queen Bitch’, the songs of playwright and theatre director Brecht, ‘Ocean Rain’ and some windswept Celtic grandeur (Win’s first gig was a show on the Zooropa tour) all filtered into the songs. “We can learn from the careers of all the bands we grew up with,” Win said in 2010.


It’s impossible for a Canadian songwriter to avoid the work of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but Arcade Fire were always smart enough to look around and learn from others mistakes. So they’re big fans of The Clash, but look at the way the band were “screwed” as cautionary tale. They could draw on the work of Monty Python man Terry Gilliam as much as they would Neutral Milk Hotel or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’, a huge Win favourite.


Talking about his love of Motown Win once said, “No matter how happy a song is, the darkness is always there”, and that darkness is in other influences like Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’ (“a fucking dark song”) and much of the material on the ‘Goodbye Babylon’ boxset, a collection of field recordings from churches captured between 1902 and 1960. Ultimately, it’s about the songs. “If you want to make noisy, avant-garde music you should do that,” Win told me three years ago. “But if in your heart you want to write actual songs that might all sound like U2 or The Cure, then you should make the art you want!”