Arcade Fire are about to release a new record, WE, their first in half a decade.
The perennial Best Band in Montreal, according to readers poll voters, may be collectively less of a presence in the city these days, particularly with its principals Win Butler and South Shore gal Régine Chassagne having relocated to New Orleans six years ago. But in an inverse snowbird MO, the couple spends their summers in Montreal and still own property here.
“Oh, always,” Win Butler said in an interview on May 2. “We go north in the summertime.”
When asked what he misses most about Montreal during the long stretches away, Butler had to highlight the people, the friends and the ease of cultural exchange that feels different from what’s found in other North American and European metropolises.
“So many of my closest friends are in Montreal. There’s such a magical interplay between Haitian, Caribbean, West and North African cultures, with Québécois, Canadians and Americans, such a cool, interesting mix of people. It’s cultural, it’s food and just the humanity. There’s a way that people are able to interact in Montreal that is very different from cities I’ve been to that have a similar mix, like New York and Paris; it feels like people can actually hang out together. There’s a lot more cultural interplay in a way that I find really profound and kind of unique to Montreal. That’s the main thing I missed.”
The pandemic made travel difficult but not impossible, giving Butler a view into the havoc wreaked by the circumstances.
“I’ve been back a couple times since COVID, and I feel like it’s not the city I remember. It was hit really hard. Hopefully it’s starting to lift a little bit, but there’s a feeling like man, it’s been rough. Having survived many a Montreal winter, a combo of complete lockdown plus winter seems like it would break greater men than me.”
As for the Quebec curfew, which he saw from a distance, “It was already a pretty apocalyptic situation, then to add cops checking if you’re in your house — wow.”
When asked what prompted the move to New Orleans, Butler cited a gradual acclimatization to the culture and a Quebec connection that made the segue feel natural.
“We had been touring pretty intensely in the States, and particularly pre-Katrina, rolling into New Orleans felt like Port of Spain or Kingston, like fully Caribbean, not an American city — the energy of it is completely different. We played their jazz fest a couple times and ended up staying afterwards.
“There’s a really deep connection between Montreal and New Orleans. They’re my two favourite cities so I try to figure out a way that works with my life that I can spend time in both cities.”
Despite a brief runtime of not much more than 40 minutes, WE comes packed with all the things we associate with Arcade Fire: anthemic highs, vulnerable lows, memorable melodies and the song led by Régine Chassagne, almost always an unforgettable album highlight. (There’s also a cameo by Peter Gabriel in the self-titled album closer that feels right at home given the band’s previous guest spots by music legends like David Bowie and David Byrne.)
Some early reviews have praised the record’s “return to form,” an indirectly damning notion of more recent material that doesn’t sit quite right with Butler.
“There’s definitely things on this record that we have not done, or even gotten close to doing before. It feels like there’s a lot of hive-mind copy paste style thinking.
“I felt like we went really deep on this one. I don’t think anyone really has a firm grasp on whether something is good or not for 20 years after it comes out, so I usually take most reviews for the grain of salt.”
Likewise, the rollout for WE feels pared down and street-level compared with the pre-release secret-show fanfare for 2013’s Reflektor. There have been secret shows this time around, a series of gigs in New York City to raise funds for aid to Ukraine. With the pandemic seemingly winding down, the focus was on the music and the shows first.
2017’s Everything Now came with a big marketing push, a longform concept about selling out to a corporation, complete with brazen fake ads during their arena tour (in Montreal, they played the Bell Centre on that tour, followed by a show at Parc Jean-Drapeau).
“I never really look at it so much as marketing. I know it is, but to me the phase before the record comes out is sort of like this magic. When I was a teenager, all the alternative music I was exposed to, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Radiohead and Björk, it was really through music videos. Even ‘Losing My Religion’ or ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ — imagine hearing that for the first time without seeing the video? In that era, the video functioned in the same way that I think album artwork used to function in the ’70s, where you have the music but you also have a little bit of artistic context. There’s a universe that springs from the visual art. You’re trying to create a world that can help inform the record. On Funeral, we spent weeks working on every detail. I feel like we live in an era now where people are mostly receiving stuff on streaming, which is really not geared towards records at all. It’s really just a pop radio platform that’s masquerading as a music platform. That period before a record is released is an opportunity to have some artistic fun and kind of do things that help give some artistic context to the record, and for this one the vision was just more playing live. It was the music more than anything else.”
As for the tight length of the album, Butler said the band sought out a more express artistic concept than some of the epics they’ve delivered in the past.
“I love (the double album) Sandinista as much as I love the first Clash record, same with Dylan. Pretty much everyone I like, there’s things I like about a long record and things I like about a short record. (Our song) ‘End of the Empire’ is nine minutes and I feel like in the ’70s that would’ve been a record. There’s a lot of space within the song, there’s a lot to digest. It’s like the difference between eating at a buffet or having someone prepare a meal for you. I feel like the record we wanted to make was just like a beautifully prepared meal, and at the end you don’t want to die because you ate too much.” ■
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Cult MTL.
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