Arcade Fire

An eclectic indie rock band with baroque and pop undertones, Montreal’s Arcade Fire 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 moments of catharsis. The band’s breakthrough debut, Funeral (2004), is widely considered one of the best rock albums of the 21st century. Their third album, The Suburbs (2010), won Juno Awards, a Grammy Award and the Polaris Music Prize. Their theatrical, exuberant live shows have made them a popular touring act and enhanced their worldwide popularity. They have been nominated for nine Grammy Awards and more than two dozen Juno Awards, winning twice for Songwriter of the Year and three times each for Alternative Album of the Year and Album of the Year.

Arcade Fire performing in Los Angeles, 2011.
Image: StarBright31/Flickr commons. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Early Years and Formation

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, Texas, by his geologist father and classical musician mother. In 2000, he moved to Montréal and majored in Religious Studies at McGill University. He 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 who performed 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).

Arcade Fire EP (2002)

The band recorded its self-titled, self-produced, seven-song EP at the Butler family farm in Maine in the summer of 2002. It was made available online and at concerts the following year. The EP gave 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 with the group. He designed the band’s promotional materials, produced some of its music videos and participated 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.


Funeral (2004)

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: Funeral. It was primarily recorded and produced by the group at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio, where Bilerman was an engineer. The band signed a deal with American independent label Merge Records (which has remained the band’s label), which released Funeral to widespread critical acclaim in September 2004.

A word-of-mouth success, Funeral 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, it was certified platinum in Canada in November 2005 for sales of over 100,000 copies. It went gold in the US in October 2011 for selling more than 500,000 copies.

Funeral’s thematic concerns were summarized by Rolling Stone as “loss, love, forced coming-of-age and fragile generational hope.” The album features a grandiose sound incorporating elements of art rock, chamber pop, choral musicQuébec chanson and post-punk. It earned comparisons to David Bowie, Talking Heads, Roxy Music and British Sea Power. In fact, Bowie and Talking Heads’ David Byrne became outspoken admirers and joined the band in some performances.


Funeral was nominated for Alternative Album of the Year at the 2005 Juno Awards 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 Award 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 played “Wake Up” 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”). Arcade Fire’s performances on their 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 NMERolling StoneMojo and Spin, among others. According to review aggregator Metacritic, Funeral appeared on more “Top 10 of the decade” lists than any album other than Radiohead’s Kid A (2000).


Neon Bible (2007)

Arcade Fire purchased an old church in Farnham, Quebec, and converted it 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 than Funeral, 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 Juno Awards 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.

Win Butler of Arcade Fire performing in 2007.
Image: Rama/Wikicommons.

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 after 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 and the Butler brothers.


Reflektor (2013)

Arcade Fire went in a different direction for its fourth album, Reflektor, adopting a slicker, more percussive and groove-oriented sound. The group co-produced the album with Dravs and former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. Murphy’s background in electronic dance music is reflected on the sprawling double album, which also draws influences from Haitian rhythms and the Academy Award-winning Brazilian musical Black Orpheus (1959). The album’s cover art, a picture of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice, also references the Greek myth of Orpheus, a magical musician who was unable to rescue his wife from the underworld.  

Arcade Fire was still riding high on its momentum from The Suburbs when Reflektor topped the sales charts in Canada, the US and UK following its release in October 2013. Critical response, though generally positive, was more mixed this time. On the favourable side, Pitchfork’s Zoe Camp called it “courageous and reckless in all the right ways,” while 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.” Rolling Stone, NME and Pitchfork ranked Reflektor at No. 5, No. 7 and No. 10, respectively, on their lists of the 50 best albums of 2013.  

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.) In his review for the Washington Post, Chris Richards called Reflektor “bludgeoning and vacant… an album that both condescends and sells itself short, over and over again, for 76 insufferable minutes.”

Reflektor was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. The video for “We Exist” received a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video and won a MuchMusic Video Award for Best Rock/Alternative Video. Reflektor was nominated for six Juno Awards, winning for Alternative Album of the Year and Album of the Year. In 2014, it was ranked No. 88 on Pitchfork’s list of the 100 best albums of the decade so far.

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.


Everything Now (2017)

Released on 28 July 2017, Everything Now continued the band’s evolution into the dance-oriented, synthesizer- and percussion-driven electronic sound that had begun on Reflektor. The album’s lyrics also reflected Win Butler’s continued anxiety over the impact of digital technology, social media and empty consumerism on people’s emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being. Produced by the band along with Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk and Steve Mackey of Pulp, with regular collaborator Markus Dravs providing co-production, Everything Now debuted at No. 1 on the sales charts in the UK and hit No. 1 in Canada and the US within its first month of release.

Everything Now also continued the trend from Reflektor of polarizing critical opinion. The Independent and NME both gave the album five-star reviews, with the former calling it the band’s “most upbeat, joyful album to date” and the latter calling it “uplifting, incisive and sublime.” Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes gave the album four stars out of five for “zeroing in on our modern malaise while taking inspiration from more concise dance-pop styles.” Entertainment Weekly’s Eric Renner Brown called the album “musically rousing” despite its “lyrical shakiness.”

However, Everything Now outperformed Reflektor in drawing negative, even scathing, reviews. In his 5.6/10 review for Pitchfork, Jeremy D. Larson observed that, “on Everything Now, Arcade Fire aren’t lifeboats for our ennui, they’re scolds. Their self-reflexive mood and half-baked critiques have landed all over the record’s grooves. The ‘society, man’ songs are riddled with cliché, and the love songs are a bore.” He also wrote that the album’s “pale, joyless songs don’t transcend their social critique — they succumb to it.” Isaac Feldberg of the Boston Globe, meanwhile, wrote, “there’s nearly nothing left of early Arcade Fire’s poignant lyricism or cathartic sweep on Everything Now. Instead, the band has doubled down on snotty yet trite social criticism (‘Infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content’ is the grating refrain of not one but two tracks) and sonic experiments that more often than not come crashing down.”

Everything Now was longlisted for the 2018 Polaris Music Prize and was certified platinum in Canada on 1 November 2017. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album and earned the band Juno Awards for Album of the Year and International Achievement.


Charity Work

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. The band received the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 Juno Awards in recognition of their charity work and philanthropy.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Awards

Juno Awards

  • Songwriter of the Year (2006)
  • Alternative Album of the Year (Neon Bible) (2008)
  • Songwriter of the Year (2011)
  • Alternative Album of the Year (The Suburbs) (2011)
  • Group of the Year (2011)
  • Album of the Year (The Suburbs) (2011)
  • Alternative Album of the Year (Reflektor) (2014)
  • Album of the Year (Reflektor) (2014)
  • Humanitarian Award (2016)
  • International Achievement Award (2018)
  • Album of the Year (Everything Now) (2018)

Others

  • Favourite New Album (Funeral), CASBY Awards (2005)
  • Favourite New Artist, CASBY Awards (2005)
  • Vanguard Award, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (2005)
  • Best Live Act, Mojo Awards (2007)
  • Best International Album (Neon Bible), Meteor Music Awards (2008)
  • Best International Alternative/Indie Band, NME Awards (2008)
  • Best International Alternative/Indie Live Act, NME Awards (2008)
  • Best Album (The Suburbs), NME Awards (2008)
  • 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)
  • Band of the Year, Consequence of Sound (2013)


Music of
Arcade Fire

Twitter // Arcade Fire

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