Funeral pyre 

When you graduate from high school it’s a time for big plans. Some people travel abroad for the summer. Texan Win Butler, leader of this week’s current indie It band, Arcade Fire, went to Montreal. And he stayed, mainly to attend school.

“Sometimes you have these stupid ideas that you just do, and this was one of them. I had never really been to Canada, so it wasn’t the wisest thing. But I ended up really loving it,” Butler says via phone from Europe, where Arcade Fire just finished a tour. “I used my student visa as an excuse to be in a rock band.”

That was almost four years ago, and it hasn’t been the smoothest ride. Butler went through several incarnations of the band before settling on the one that graces their recent debut LP, Funeral. The record was done in fits and starts because they couldn’t afford studio time. They had just finished the album when indie label Merge signed them.

The result is an eclectic collection whose ambitious scope recalls Radiohead and Wire as it wanders from tender ballads and sinewy post-punk to the plush atmospherics of indie art pop. The album is rife with subtleties that reward each listen, while Butler’s theatrical vocals recall Ian McCulloch.

As rich as the album’s sonics are, it’s clear from this conversation that the band’s sumptuous sound was no accident, but the product of hard and cantankerous work. Butler cites the age-old rock band dictum of extreme conditions (touring and working together in close quarters) as the discord that guarantees unending, but necessary, fuckedupedness in song creation.

“There’s some kind of chaos built into the whole system,” he says. “I think that we really try to put the songs first. Which means that people really fight for the direction they want [the songs] to take and the way they want them to sound. But I think that’s the only way you get something good.”

Certainly, the number of musicians who passed through Arcade Fire’s doors before they even released the album points to Butler’s exacting character. The man knows what he wants. Drummer Howard Bilerman said in a recent interview, “sometimes Win gets very obsessed over wanting things to happen right away, and I don’t think it’s a negative thing as much as it is he’s young and eager.”

“I think that there needs to be really direct, immediate communication on a musical level between people, and I think that that can come across as a certain impatience,” Butler says in reply.

The response to Arcade Fire has been huge. The New York Times made them the thrust of their feature on New York’s 2004 CMJ Music Festival; and all over, college kids and indie cognoscenti are slavering over the band like frat guys gathered around a TV for a Shane’s World screening.

“It’s nice that people are listening to it,” Butler says before returning to his pique at the “flavor of the week” treatment. “That kind of trendy aspect of it is kind of a pain in the ass. Some people like music as something to talk about over coffee, or like a haircut. People get so caught up in la-la land that they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re writing a political song, that’s so last week to be upset about the political situation.’ It’s like give me a fucking break. That kind of super self-conscious post-modern deathtrap is not one I want to live in. There’s not a lot of hope in it as a direction to put your energy into.”

Nor is Butler eager to live back in America, not after the election, anyway.

“It seems that people are living in so much fear, and that’s an important election issue, fear. I understand why people are tense about it, but at the same time, when you start manipulating fear in culture weird things happen,” Butler says. “It’s like group-think, and it’s scary if you’re from the outside watching a group do something crazy.”


Thursday, Nov. 18, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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