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Arcade Fire

Inside the church of Arcade Fire

April 11, 2007  |  10:57am
Arcade Fire

The entrance to the Petite Église church in Farnham—a town 45 miles outside of Montreal—is absolutely unremarkable. It’s nothing more than some red brick and a narrow wooden door with a mail slot. But when letters arrive there, they’re addressed to “Arcade Fire.” And when the fanmail is taken inside, the members of Canada’s only bilingual Grammy-nominated art-rock band read it over bowls of cereal.

Four years ago they were just another indie band in Montreal’s booming scene, attracting modest but ravenous audiences. But today, the band, led by husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, has sold hundreds of thousands of records and performed with David Byrne, David Bowie and U2. And even though their fierce, straining songs have little in common with Coldplay, last year Chris Martin dubbed them “the greatest band in history.” In the midst of all this furor—while touring the world on the heels of their debut full-length, Funeral—Arcade Fire bought and renovated this church in the middle of nowhere. And they began working on some new songs.

Farnham, Quebec, is not a pretty town. It was founded in 1876 on the banks of the Yamaska river, attracting industry through its proximity to the Canadian National & Pacific Railways. Where there are sidewalks they meet at ugly angles, and factories squat on almost every corner. Its biggest institutions are a peat bog, a large creamery and a beet-sugar refinery. “The studio is amazing for recording in,” Win tells me, “but when you actually want to do anything, being stuck in Farnham can drive a man crazy.” Still, as we pull off the highway and into town, guitarist Tim Kingsbury takes a deep breath and, blinking at the paper-white sky, says, “It’s nice to be out of the city.”

Win and Régine had been keeping their eyes on real estate since shortly after the release of Funeral. Their first EP was recorded at a barn in Maine, the LP in a cozy attic studio called Hotel 2 Tango, but the group was keen on finding its own space in which to write, rehearse and record. It’s easy to understand why Farnham was so appealing: The Petite Église was already partially converted, used as a coffeehouse by its previous owners; the city leaders were amenable; and at about $200,000 CDN, the price was a fraction of sites they’d seen in Montreal. And Win Farnham Butler must’ve felt at least a hint of inevitability when he entered the town that shares his middle name. “There are no such thing as coincidences,” he says.

The entrance of the church leads almost directly into a kitchen/dining room, snug and baby-blue, with wooden cupboards left from the church’s café past. The place is stuffed with food—fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, tea and all the rations for withstanding a November in rural Quebec. A paper streamer sags over the dining table, left over from Halloween. Downstairs in the basement is a band barracks rendered in new drywall and IKEA furniture. Will Butler—Win’s younger brother and yet another of the band’s multi-instrumentalists—is standing on tip-toes as he mounts a digital projector over a pair of couches. Down the hall is a string of small bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms. It’s the middle of the afternoon, but the band was up all night working, and Régine emerges fresh from a shower with ringlets wet against her face. She looks serious, thoughtful, but like when she’s on stage there’s always a spark in her eyes. “Where’s Win?” she asks. Her husband is back upstairs with engineer Marcus Dravs and Richard Parry (upright bass, the kitchen sink), murmuring something about having talked “to the neon-sign guys.”

His comment makes much more sense when the title to Funeral’s follow-up, Neon Bible, is finally announced. The album’s cover is a neon sign version of the Good Book, caught mid-flicker—an image of the actual six-foot neon sign that the band commissioned and is now taking out on tour. It’s a foreboding image, and marks the way Arcade Fire’s overall aesthetic has developed. Neon Bible is noticeably anchored by the insistent drumming of Jeremy Gara, who joined the band in late 2004, and the influences of Talking Heads, David Bowie and New Order take a backseat to those of The Cure, Bruce Springsteen and The Band. Combined, these are shorthand for the album’s dichotomy: Rootsy numbers like “Keep the Car Running” follow the synth swirl of tracks like “Black Mirror,” with backwards-phased vocal effects and hard-matte strings. Perhaps the most obvious change is the evolution of Win’s vocal delivery, which is now more steady, certain and deep. It’s no longer the voice of a kid; it’s the voice of an older brother.

The next day, I meet Win and Régine at a café in Montreal’s hip Mile-End, where they once lived and now come for eggs Benedict. They order for each other, and complete each other’s sentences—the ease of their relationship is unmistakeable. They began writing songs together not long after they met, and even today it’s the push and pull of their partnership, more than anything, that lies at the center of Arcade Fire. “We know exactly what we’re doing right now,” Win says.

Legendary producer Bob Johnston (Blonde on Blonde, Songs from a Room) gave some recording advice, but mostly the band eschewed producers in favor of engineers; they used Scott Colburn (Animal Collective, Sun City Girls) for the initial sessions and then Marcus Dravs (Björk, Brian Eno) for the rest. Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Kate Bush) helped mix the album.

Not all of Neon Bible was recorded at the Petite Église. After a brief session in New York (Win: “Our goal was to go near the ocean but the closest we could get was the mouth of the Hudson”), Win and Régine flew to Budapest to capture something a little bigger. Owen Pallett—the man who records looped-violin wonders under the moniker Final Fantasy—worked with Régine to compose orchestral arrangements, particularly for a re-recorded version of one of the band’s instant classics, “No Cars Go.” Michael Pärt, son of famed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, was brought in from Iceland to engineer the session, “making sure no one was rustling papers.” “I just wanted to give the song a chance,” Régine explains. Though the original is based around her accordion, she says she was “always trying to pretend it was an orchestra.”

And they didn’t stop at a Hungarian orchestra: A military men’s choir recorded vocals for “No Cars Go” and future B-side “Surf City Eastern Bloc.” Elsewhere, Wolf Parade’s Hadji Baraka adds “bleeps and bloops”; Calexico’s Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela play trumpet; other pals contribute French horn, or join Sarah Neufeld on violin. “[The elaborate arrangements] make me laugh sometimes,” Régine admits, “but at the same time, this is what I have in my head.” And then there’s the pipe organ.

“A few years ago,” says Win, leaning back in his chair, “a friend of Régine’s was caretaker at this church up in [Montreal’s] Little Italy, so Régine got to play the organ at midnight.”

“Two in the morning!” she interrupts, “Full blast! Absolute full blast!”

“Normally you think of organ with just a couple of stops open,” says Win. “It’s like a flute—gentle. But with all the stops pulled it’s got this really aggressive sound. I knew that for ‘Intervention’ it was really going to be about the organ. We found a church, St-Jean Baptiste on [Rue] Rachel...”

“I had to listen to the band on my headphones extremely loud,” Régine interrupts, “because the organ was so loud. And the reverb had an eight-second delay.” She mimes as she speaks, fingers spread on the tabletop. “It was almost like being a surgeon doing a new operation, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and if I screw up anything then the person’s dead. It was one take. You couldn’t cut it piece by piece. No mistakes.”

The result is a heavy, haunting song, the organ at once mournful and bristling. “It’s like a hymn,” Win says. It’s the track they’re mixing the day I visit. We sit in the balcony-turned-control-room overlooking the church’s main hall, and amid racks of blinking lights, the band listens and listens, engineer Nick Launay taking their notes and making the tiniest adjustments. Later I watch as Régine works alone with Launay, scowling as she scrutinizes every single glockenspiel hit.

The hall below is the main tracking room, where most of the recording has taken place. There are a dozen guitars, mandolins and drum kits, a hurdy-gurdy and steel drums and Owen’s harpsichord. On the rear wall there hangs a neon crucifix, a cross in blue and white. Neon Bible, Win says, “is addressing religion in a way that only someone who actually cares about it can. It’s really harsh at times, but from the perspective of someone who thinks it has value.”

Win and his brother were raised as Mormons, and Win studied Theology at university, but Neon Bible is not a Mormon album, a Christian album or even a particularly pious one. Instead it’s a record thick with questions about fear and faith, and songs of love and disappointment directed at other human beings as much as at the Divine. “There are two kinds of fear: The Bible talks a lot about fear of God—fear in the face of something awesome. That kind of fear is the type of fear that makes someone want to change. But a fear of other people makes you want to stay the same, to protect what you have. It’s a stagnant fear; and it’s paralyzing.”

Neon Bible is an album about both these types of fear, from its grappling with the sublime in “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’” to its condemnation of a certain side of America in “Windowsill,” in which the Texas-born Win insists, “I don’t want fear at my windowsill.” “(Antichrist Television Blues),” meanwhile, is a Dylan-esque character study—a “good Christian man” reminiscent of Jessica Simpson’s manager/father, praying for his daughter to become a star.

Thematically, Funeral was burdened more by hopes than by fears. Neon Bible is darker. If that first album was the sound of young people shaking themselves free, Neon Bible is the disillusionment of those who have escaped and yet still find themselves lost. “My body is a cage,” Win sings on the song of the same name. (“The most instant song we’ve ever written,” he says, “one of the few times when it was like, ‘yup, that was exactly what I was trying to say.’”) Meanwhile in the band’s updated version of “No Cars Go,” a new line has been inserted—“Don’t know where we’re goin’,” in a tone that’s in no way reassuring.

On the night of January 29, Arcade Fire plays at a church in London—its first public concert in more than a year. After the encore, the band troops through the crowd and out a side door, Richard lugging his double bass. This is an old Arcade Fire trick, and those who are savvy follow them outside. It’s night and Westminster is quiet. At the top of the old stairs they play a hushed, acoustic version of “Wake Up,” the bellowed original transformed into a lullaby. Around them everyone is humming, singing, warming themselves in the moment. It’s a scene of communion that feels in direct opposition to Neon Bible’s estrangement: a hundred people trying so hard together to remember these seconds.

“My grandma just passed away a couple weeks ago,” Win told me in Montreal. “She grew up in Hawaii but moved back to the [continental U.S.] when she was 15. By the end, she had pretty bad Alzheimer’s. But even when she couldn’t remember my dad’s name, she could still play these 3-chord songs on her ukelele. She remembered every word.”

Régine watches her husband. “When I was 15,” she says, “I would hear Bob Dylan songs ... I barely spoke English. I probably got 10 percent of it, just the basic words—‘babe’ and ‘door.’” She looks at her hands on the tablecloth, how her fingers meet the pattern. She lifts her eyes to mine. “But I could tell that there was something important there.”

In Farnham, letters sometimes arrive without stamps. They’re rare (“the people in Farnham couldn’t care less,” Win says), but every now and then something arrives from a neighbor—a local kid who’s experienced a moment like that one in London, or who heard “something important” when an Arcade Fire song came on the radio one day. Maybe the writer plays a little bass guitar, maybe they’re just volunteering to cook the band some potato soup. Arcade Fire reads these letters, and they pin them to the fridge. Some, they answer. But, me, I just imagine the pilgrims, tentative and hopeful, cycling up to the Petite Église at night and cupping their hands to the walls, wondering what prayers might find their way through the red brick to their ears.

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