Revenge of the Music Nerds: Arcade Fire Wins
Arcade Fire: William Butler is second from right
Photo by JF LaLonde/Courtesy of Nasty Little Man
Arcade Fire's William Butler admits he still gets homesick for Texas. Even the weather...up to a point.
"I miss how green everything was all the time always," he says of his youth in The Woodlands from his current home in Montreal. "You'd come home in December and the lawns would still be green, and there'd be flowers and...you know, that feeling. I like one day of summer that feels like Houston, like one day where it's 100 degrees and 102 percent humidity, where you walk outside and you're just like, 'This is stupid.'
"I like that one day, or maybe three days," continues Butler, who is two and a half years younger than his brother Win, the band's front man. "But not necessarily in a row. I do occasionally miss that aspect of the weather."
When Arcade Fire last played the Houston area, at May 2011 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Win announced from the stage that he had once been an usher at that same venue. Unlike his brother, though, Will -- who more or less plays anything with strings or keys, plus glockenspiel, trombone, clarinet (his first instrument) and pan pipes on Arcade Fire's latest album, 2013's Reflektor -- attended boarding school in New Hampshire, leaving him with somewhat different summer employment opportunities.
"I was a bellhop up in New England," he says. "I never had the counter job at Blockbuster music or anything."
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But Win and the rest of Arcade Fire -- besides the two brothers, the Montreal-based group's core members are Win's wife Regine Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara -- took the front man's fanciful experiences of his adolescence in the well-to-do master-planned community and turned it into The Suburbs, their conflicted, confrontational, sprawling 2010 double album. It wasn't quite as critical of suburbia as many people assumed it would be, finding room to appreciate the familiar comforts of home amid its general yearning to be elsewhere. As a reconciliation of Arcade Fire's stadium-rock sound and their indie-rock ideals, it was nearly perfect.
The Suburbs also came out of nowhere to win the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year, beating out Katy Perry, Eminem, and Ladys Antebellum and Gaga. Presenter Barbra Streisand's announcement came out as more of a question, and Win opened his acceptance speech with, "What the hell?!" The victory gave Arcade Fire carte blanche to make Reflektor exactly how they wanted to, with little worry of any outside interference.
"I'm hesitant to say that [the win] didn't affect us at all, but it mostly confirmed that we were doing something right," says Will. "So there was no need to panic or switch gears -- there was no pressure to change. If anything, it put less pressure on us. We had made every album to our own exacting specifications, so when the world appreciates that, you say, 'Oh, well, I guess we'll just keep making music to our own exacting specifications.'
"In a way, it took pressure off, because it made us able to ignore the world even more," he continues. "And then, yeah, we just kind of got to work on our own."
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That's Will at top right
Image courtesy of Nasty Little Man
Although it's not quite as big of a Statement Record as The Suburbs, Reflektor is full of plenty of pointed commentary. Songs like "We Exist," "Normal Person" and "Flashbulb Eyes" touch on the sometimes uncomfortable nature of celebrity for people who didn't quite ask for it; "Joan of Arc" on hero worship, martyrdom and revenge, opening with the lines "you're the one that they used to hate/ But they like you now."
It's a very self-aware album from a band that has studied its rock history, effectively dedicated to David Bowie and midwifed by NYC dance-rock scholar James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Not surprisingly, Will says Arcade Fire is all too aware of the pitfalls of rock stardom.
"We're all amateur music historians, so we know that playing rock and roll music has really not worked out that well for a lot of people," he says. "There are exceptions for that. There are people that have been successful for a long time, but even the people that have been successful for a long time generally have about 15 to 20 years of utter misery and drug addiction.
"So that means you read every contract, and most contracts are really bad, so you don't even try," Will adds. "As a young, idealistic band, we wouldn't even try to get on a major label, because it's kind of folly. You're not going to have any rights; it's just kind of rolling the dice."
Butler says Arcade Fire's relationship with Merge Records, their label since the self-titled EP that prefaced the band's 2004 breakthough Funeral, has eliminated any need for them to look elsewhere. Since day one, they've had a remarkable amount of artistic control, even for an indie band, and their almost unprecedented success has bought them even more. And being a successful music nerd does have its privileges, he allows.
"The resources for being a music nerd are only expanding," says Will. "I have mixed feelings on streaming services and iTunes and how it affects the bottom line of artists and everything, but it does mean an insane amount of music is available everywhere all the time. I mean, you can listen to Jay Z, and you can listen to everyone that Jay Z listened to, and then you can also listen to Caribbean bands from Trinidad in the '40s, or folk music from the 1930s, or psychedelic bands from Germany in the late 1960s. You can dig in in all these different ways."
With Kid Koala and Lost Bayou Ramblers, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 9 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands, woodlandscenter.org.
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