Bluefat Archive December 2005

Funeral for a Friend

How the Arcade Fire died and went to heaven

In late 2004, a Montreal-based band called the Arcade Fire made a very special record, a snowy, oblique, ornately lonely thing. Somewhat paradoxically, Funeral was also a throbbingly resolute album that proved to be one of the most life-affirming discs of recent vintage, critically hailed and trickling down into the hearts and minds of an impressively large number of record buyers. Featuring singer/composer Win Butler and his multi-instrumentalist wife Régine Chassagne, the musically rich Funeral –– a little box of indie-rock mini-operas warmly fleshed out in strings, xylophones, recorders, harps and synths –– captures an elusive moment in time, in which fear and melancholy and regret rub shoulders with their innocent counterparts: a youthful exhilaration at the prospect of the unknown lying ahead. From his cell phone outside a café in chilly Montreal, Butler fills us in on what it's all about, or might conceivably be.

JOHN PAYNE: There were several deaths among your friends and family when you were making the album. Is Funeral an ironic title? Or is irony an inappropriate term for what you do?

WIN BUTLER: I don't think it's ironic. It's just maybe meant in a slightly different sense than some people take it. We had just gotten back from being at a funeral when we came up with the title. We had driven with my family from Utah to San Francisco, across the Nevada desert, and meeting up with all this family that we never see except at funerals. So we kind of thought of a funeral as a meeting place, more than the somber implication –– though I guess we knew you could take it that way on some level.

The opening songs on Funeral, "Neighborhood 1" and "2," and later on "3" and "4," seem to set a theme in motion, albeit very obliquely. What were you going for in these pieces?

It was more like we discovered the thematic unity once we were all done; we definitely thought it was there once we talked it over. I think we're the type of songwriters who tend to look at things from a million different angles to really get into an idea. Not that everything is completely interrelated, but it's like the same ideas are kicking around in your head, and you're thinking about them in different ways.

These songs have deep impact because, while there are undercurrents of sadness and loss, the music itself is very adamant and strong, and only hints at the mournful, like you're scrubbing away at fading memories. It's beautiful, it's sad, it's exhilarating, it's ponderous and highly visual.

But putting it together, we never talked about anything in specifics. It's more what the song's trying to accomplish, and what kind of images do you want to use? I like there to be some mystery in a song; it's like you're just trying to get the essence of something, you're not trying to club it to death.

What inspires you to write?

The most exciting stuff always catches you all at once, like when you're in the shower or you're walking around singing a melody for a song and then the words fall out, and you put chords to it and it's done. That's kind of the stuff that sustains you. If that happens, you go, "Oh wow, this is an amazing thing." But some songs, like "Tunnels," took maybe three years to finish. One thing I know for certain is that it's really not something you have control over; it's like you have to show up to work, and you have to play a little bit every day, and leave yourself a chance to come up with something, but it's really not something you can force or just decide "I'm gonna write something good now." You're completely at the mercy of whatever it is.

You studied religion at college in Canada. Do your religious beliefs play a part in your music?

I think anything that you spend any time on affects you somewhat. But there's not a one-to-one correlation, except that religious texts are really rich and have all these bizarre images. And from a literary standpoint, pretty much all Western art uses pretty insane biblical references through everything. It's fertile, you know.

You recorded the album in your and Régine's apartment in Montreal. Did the locale of the writing and recording affect the sound of the record or its lyrical content?

It's more in the people you meet. It's not about buildings so much, it's more about the experience that you have when you're living in a place, although that is colored by the environment. "Tunnels" is probably the most stereotypically cold, wintery song on the record, and I wrote that one when I was in Boston, so...

The Arcade Fire seem refreshingly antistardom, somehow more like an agreement among friends that you all just want to make music and not a whole lot more.

The idea of a rock band is kind of embarrassing to me. I mean, when I see a band like Oasis or some of these bands that really buy into the rock band thing, it seems so transparent. I mean, it's great for them, but it doesn't leave me with much as a fan of music. So much of music promotion has absolutely nothing to do with music, and it's kind of nice –– even if it's naive –– to think that maybe if you just stick with stuff that's actually based on music then it might work out okay. But who the hell knows? I know that's not how bands get to be huge, but, whatever.