An eclectic independent rock band with baroque and pop undertones, Montréal’s Arcade Fire moved from virtual unknowns to critical darlings to chart-topping indie rock royalty in the space of three albums.
An eclectic independent rock band with baroque and pop undertones, Montréal’s Arcade Fire moved from virtual unknowns to critical darlings to chart-topping indie rock royalty in the space of three albums. The band’s breakthrough debut, Funeral (2004), is widely considered one of the best rock albums of the 21st century, and their third album, The Suburbs (2010), won Juno and Grammy Awards, and the Polaris Music Prize. They are known for their expansive membership and almost orchestral instrumentation, serious lyrical and thematic concerns, an anthemic yet iconoclastic sound and dramatic build-ups to cathartic moments of intense energy. Their theatrical, exuberant live shows have made them a popular touring act and enhanced their worldwide popularity.
Edwin (Win) Farnham Butler III (vocals, guitar), the grandson of swing-era bandleader and pedal steel guitar pioneer Alvino Rey, was raised in the Mormon faith in suburban Houston, TX by his geologist father and classical musician mother. After moving to Montréal in 2000, he majored in Religious Studies at McGill University and formed Arcade Fire in 2001 with boarding school friend Josh Deu (guitar, vocals). The group’s name is based on a tall tale Butler heard as a child about a fire that burned down an arcade and killed all the kids inside.
Regine Chassagne (vocals, multi-instrumentalist), the francophone daughter of Haitian immigrants, was a Communications grad performing in a medieval music ensemble while studying jazz voice at McGill. She met Butler while singing at an art gallery and soon became the third band member, and Butler’s girlfriend. They were joined by Win’s brother, Will (multi-instrumentalist), Myles Broscoe (bass, guitar), Gregus Davenport (French horn), Tim Kyle (multi-instrumentalist), Dane Mills (guitar, drums), Richard Reed Parry (multi-instrumentalist), Brendan Reed (drums, percussion, vocals) and Liza Rey (harp). The band’s self-titled and self-produced, seven-song EP, recorded at the Butler family farm in Maine in the summer of 2002, was made available online and at concerts the following year.
The EP showed a glimpse of what was to come: Win Butler and Chassagne sharing lead vocals; lyrics dealing with suburban malaise and post-adolescent angst; and an eclectic sound incorporating horns, keyboards, banjos and unique percussion in addition to guitar, bass and drums. It also included “No Cars Go,” which was later re-recorded for Arcade Fire’s second album, Neon Bible (2007).
Deu left the band in 2003 to pursue work in film and visual arts but remained involved, designing the band’s promotional materials, producing some of its music videos and participating occasionally in performances. Tensions among other band members resulted in personnel changes that brought about a core of the two Butlers, Chassagne (who married Win in 2003), Parry, Tim Kingsbury (bass, guitar, keyboards) and Howard Bilerman (drums, guitar) to record the group’s breakthrough effort.
The Butler brothers’ grandfather, Chassagne’s grandmother and Parry’s aunt all died within several months of each other between late 2003 and early 2004, resulting in the title of the band’s first full-length record. It was primarily recorded and produced by the group at Montréal’s Hotel2Tango studio where Bilerman was an engineer. Arcade Fire signed a deal with American independent label Merge Records (which has remained the band’s label) for Funeral, which was released to widespread critical acclaim in September 2004. A word-of-mouth success, it didn’t make an immediate commercial impact, peaking at No. 123 on the Billboard 200 Chart in the United States. After a slow but steady build in Canada, it achieved platinum status for selling 100,000 copies in November 2005. It was certified gold for selling more than 500,000 copies in the US in October 2011.
Funeral — whose thematic concerns were summarized by Rolling Stone as “loss, love, forced coming-of-age and fragile generational hope” — featured a grandiose sound incorporating elements of art rock, chamber pop, choral music, Québec chanson and post-punk. The album earned comparisons to David Bowie, Talking Heads, Roxy Music and British Sea Power. In fact, Bowie and David Byrne became outspoken admirers and joined the band in some performances. Funeral was nominated for Alternative Album of the Year at the 2005 Junos and Best Alternative Music Album at the Grammys. The album spawned five singles — “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up” — which helped earn Arcade Fire a 2006 Juno for Songwriter of the Year and two nominations for Video of the Year.
Arcade Fire boosted Funeral’s popularity by touring heavily across North America and abroad. They opened several shows for U2, who had “Wake Up” play as the intro song before every concert on their Vertigo tour (Bono would later say that Arcade Fire’s music “contains all the big themes and ideas that make all around them seem so vapid”). Performances on Arcade Fire’s own tour became legendary for their passionate bravado, with band members swapping instruments, using stage surroundings and each other as percussion instruments, and even parading through the audience and out of the venue while playing.
The band took a break from touring in April 2005 and recorded the single “Cold Wind,” which was used in the HBO television series Six Feet Under and earned a 2006 Grammy nomination. At the end of the 2000s, Funeral was named one of the best albums of the decade by NME, Rolling Stone, Mojo and Spin among others, and appeared on more “Top 10 of the decade” lists than any album other than Radiohead’s Kid A.
Neon Bible (2007)
Arcade Fire purchased an old church in Farnham, QC, that was converted into a studio to record much of 2007’s self-produced Neon Bible, the first album to include drummer Jeremy Gara (replacing Bilerman) and violinist Sarah Neufeld as full-time members. Originally conceived as a more stripped-down record, it became characterized by dense arrangements (three of which were provided by frequent collaborator Owen Pallett) and the use of such eclectic instruments as the hurdy-gurdy, pipe organ, accordion and mandolin. British producer Nick Launay (Midnight Oil, Gang of Four) was enlisted to mix the album, which included the Bruce Springsteen-influenced “Keep The Car Running,” the majestic “Intervention,” “Black Mirror” and “No Cars Go.”
With its American Gothic sound — accentuated live by the band’s ascetic, almost Amish attire — and dark, post-9/11 thematic concerns, Neon Bible further established Arcade Fire’s serious-minded sound and cemented their reputation as one of the world’s pre-eminent indie rock outfits. The album debuted at the top of the Canadian sales chart, and at No. 2 in the US and United Kingdom. Certified gold in Canada for selling 50,000 units, it was named Alternative Album of the Year at the 2008 Junos and nominated in the same category at the Grammys. Arcade Fire enhanced its global popularity by performing in 19 countries and headlining many major music festivals, while NME and Slate heralded the group as the greatest rock band in the world.
The Suburbs (2010)
Arcade Fire co-produced its third album, the rich, sweeping and evocative The Suburbs, with Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Mumford & Sons). Win Butler described its sound as a mix of Depeche Mode and Neil Young. A concept album based on the Butler brothers’ upbringing in the Woodlands suburb of Houston, the album included the singles “The Suburbs/Month of May,” “We Used to Wait,” “Ready to Start,” “City with No Children,” “Speaking in Tongues” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”
The Suburbs made an immediate commercial impact by reaching No. 1 on the sales charts in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland, Norway and Portugal when it was released in August 2010. It received almost universal critical acclaim and was certified double-platinum in Canada, platinum in the UK and gold in the US. Arcade Fire earned four Juno Awards and the Polaris Music Prize for The Suburbs, and jumped to even larger public awareness by performing at the 2011 Grammy ceremonies and winning the Album of the Year award.
The album also inspired the short film Scenes from the Suburbs (2011), directed by Spike Jonze and co-written by Jonze, Win and Will Butler.
Arcade Fire went in a different direction for its fourth album, Reflektor, adopting a slicker, more groove-oriented and upbeat sound. The group co-produced the album with Dravs, but also brought in former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy as a producer. His background in electronic dance music is reflected on the sprawling double album, which also drew influences from Haitian rhythms and the 1959 Academy Award-winning Brazilian musical Black Orpheus.
Arcade Fire was still riding high on its momentum from The Suburbs when Reflektor topped the sales charts in Canada, the US and UK when it was issued in October 2013. Critical response, though generally positive, was more mixed this time. On the favourable side, the Globe and Mail’s Brad Wheeler called the album “Arcade Fire’s most radical evolution … a giant, danceable thing of voodoo boogaloo, Bowie limberness and spiritual lyrical concerns.” However, the record also drew some of the worst reviews of the band’s career, with many pundits labelling it self-indulgent, bloated and pretentious. That last charge became harder for the band to rebuke in November 2013 when it issued a mandatory dress code of “formal attire or costume” for everyone attending its concerts.
Reflektor’s final track, “Supersymmetry,” was originally written for the Spike Jonze film Her (2013); a different version of the song appears over the film’s end credits. Will Butler and Owen Pallett received Oscar nominations for composing the film’s score.
Butler and Chassagne have long been involved with the Haitian aid organization Partners in Health, which has also influenced their songwriting — “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” from The Suburbs, is named after a book about the charity. Beginning in 2005, Arcade Fire instigated a “one dollar, one euro, one pound” ticket policy, whereby one unit of currency from every ticket sold on tour is donated to the charity. By early 2010 they had raised $800,000. In 2010, the band licensed “Wake Up” to the Super Bowl broadcast on the condition that the NFL pay the fee to Partners in Health. Chassagne also helped launch an organization called Kanpe (Haitian creole for “stand up”) to help coordinate NGO responses to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Songwriter of the Year, Juno Awards (2006)
Alternative Album of the Year (Neon Bible), Juno Awards (2008)
Best International Album (Neon Bible), Meteor Music Awards (2008)
Songwriter of the Year, Juno Awards (2011)
Alternative Album of the Year (The Suburbs), Juno Awards (2011)
Group of the Year, Juno Awards (2011)
Album of the Year (The Suburbs), Juno Awards (2011)
Polaris Music Prize (The Suburbs) (2011)
Best International Album (The Suburbs), BRIT Awards (2011)
Best International Group, BRIT Awards (2011)
Album of the Year (The Suburbs), Grammy Awards (2011)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.