To a large degree, the Arcade Fire mythology has always been the mythology of Régine and Win. That’s Régine Chassagne and Win Butler, the husband and wife who are the original architects of their band’s sprawling sound. But the lineup has been stable for the past few years, and every new album reinforces the importance of the other five members. That’s especially true of The Suburbs, the band’s latest: The songs veer from intimate to orchestral, and boast epic arrangements that would be impossible to pull off without all the members pulling their musical weight. For much of the band, which had been kicking around the Montreal scene for years before landing the golden ticket, the past couple of years have been one insane surprise after another. The A.V. Club met up with drummer Jeremy Gara and multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry in the garden of a fancy Manhattan hotel to talk about a few of them, like appearing on television, headlining festivals, and becoming hometown heroes.
The A.V. Club: You were recently on The Daily Show, which doesn’t host too many bands. How did that come about?
Richard Reed Perry: We talked to our management, and we came up with a dream list of things we could do.
Jeremy Gara: We said, “Write us into Friday Night Lights and get us on The Daily Show.”
RRP: And The Office.
JG: Just meeting Jon Stewart, we all kind of fanned out a little bit, because he’s awesome. We even had to re-do a song, but he made it okay. We left the stage and waited five minutes before telling them we messed up. And the whole audience had left.
RRP: They had to film it again with their staff in the audience.
AVC: Are you getting used to going on TV?
RRP: It’s still weird.
JG: The funny thing is, we’ve done it a handful of times. Each time, it’s a really good show, but the way they do it is quite different. We did Letterman and SNL, but they’re so different. And then we did Top Of The Pops in England and some French stuff, but it was always different.
RRP: It always feels like a bit of a crapshoot. It’s not just, “We’re playing the single and we’re done.” We’re trying to get into it, and trying to give what we give when we play a show. We don’t want to just strummy-strum the song, you know what I mean? It’s hard to do that in a television format.
AVC: For a lot of fans, their first Arcade Fire concert experience—or their only Arcade Fire concert experience—might be seeing you on Letterman.
RRP: Yeah. We feel like [our career] has been a logical sequence of events—albeit an extremely fortunate one—but there’s been an absolute logic from the start until now, in terms of how things have happened. I don’t feel like we’ve ever missed a section of what you’re supposed to do as a band, except for 10 years of slugging it out in shitty bars. And so I sort of feel like all the fans did that with us. But that’s not true. I’m getting used to that idea—that this is the first time a lot of people are seeing us.
JG: And there is feedback, like after playing Letterman, or Conan, or SNL, we hear through various channels, like, “So many people saw that that hadn’t seen you before.”
RRP: That’s a little bit weird to me, but it’s also not that weird, because people saw Elvis for the first time on TV. They saw The Beatles for the first time on TV.
JG: It’s weird because it’s old-school, and we always assume television doesn’t matter anymore. But TV commercials are literally the new music videos, and that will never work in our brains as a thing that is true. Like this fucking band I saw on a stupid insurance commercial yesterday, they’ll probably have great success. That’s a music video, and it’s going to be on ten times a day.
AVC: The last time The A.V. Club interviewed the Arcade Fire, Win mentioned he hadn’t watched MTV in a long time, and that the channel had “sold out a generation of kids.” Does that ring true?
RP: I think that’s actually part of what Win is writing about, lyrically. Not positively or negatively, because I think for a while you can lament the loss of MTV, the loss of giving a shit about an album, and after a while—at this point at least, for us—it is what it is. There’s not MTV.
JG: There’s the Internet.
RP: And what does that mean? I don’t know. I think MTV is beyond lamenting.
JG: It bums me out. But I’m fucking 33.
AVC: You’ve moved from clubs to arenas in just a couple of years. Is it harder to connect with fans in a big venue?
RRP: That’s the whole challenge, for sure. But everything we’ve done in terms of the show is to make that interaction real. So we have to think about lights, and video, and, like, big-show trappings, but it’s all to benefit the communication rather than wow people.
JG: Yeah, like Madison Square Garden. Walking out was crazy, but as soon as we started playing it didn’t feel that big.
JG: As long as people are excited, it’s okay. Like Lollapalooza was massive. There were maybe 80,000 people, split between two stages. It was us and Soundgarden, so let’s say 40,000 people. That’s four times the size of Madison Square Garden, but because people were so connected, it didn’t feel weird at all. It just totally worked. And I think the things we do for the large-scale shows help that. The sound is good, the video shows the band doing stuff. It brings everybody closer.
AVC: In a recent New York Times profile, Win mentioned the band’s “own little aesthetic rules.” What are those rules?
RRP: We don’t do anything that we think is tasteless, and if we can help it—and so far we haven’t had to compromise—we don’t do anything we wouldn’t have done otherwise, just for money. That’s the corner that most artists are put into, through no fault of their own. A lot of the time, the only way a reasonable amount of money can be made is through licensing or commercials, and thankfully we’ve done okay enough that we haven’t had to do that. But there have been a few occasions where we have done that for someone else’s behalf, like raising money for Haiti.
AVC: What is it like going back to Montreal after touring?
JG: We usually play a big show in Montreal, and then we avoid it by going on tour.
RRP: And thankfully that’s what we’re doing now, too. We played a big show where everybody saw us, and then we left town for six weeks. That’s how it should be.
AVC: Do people treat you differently? Do people act weird when they find out you’re in Arcade Fire?
RRP: People that we know aren’t weirder toward us.
JG: People like Richard and me have the advantage of being very social, and of having been quite entrenched in the Montreal scene before Arcade Fire. We see the same faces as we used to, we frequent the same haunts as we used to, nothing’s really changed. There’s lots of new blood in Montreal, though, and that’s where I see it. Like every year, Pop Montreal hires a bunch of 20-year-old interns, and they’re a little shifty toward the band. But that goes away, because everyone around them has known us for 10 years. I’ve always felt the same, but I’m not recognizable.
RRP: If I go to see a show, I’ll have to bumble around pretending I know a lot of people who act like they know me, but are really trying to meet “the guy in the band.” And my memory for faces has been thoroughly destroyed by being on tour all the time, so whenever I go to shows now, someone’s always like, “Hey, man!” And there’s a lot of that now. Maybe I already know them and I forgot them. But probably not.
AVC: Do you think Arcade Fire’s success expanded Montreal’s music scene?
RRP: I don’t know if that was because of us. It happened at the same time, but I don’t know if it was because of us. More venues did open around that time. It used to be that you had your 100-person venue or your huge club, and that’s changed, but I don’t think that happened because of Arcade Fire. There was a bit of a musical renaissance around then. Montreal was in a recession for 25 years until the late ’90s. By 2002 or 2003, there was a lot starting to happen.
JG: And it was at exactly that time that bands started selling fewer records, and making more of their money on tour.
RRP: The Internet happened. That’s one of the freak phenomena of the good fortune of this band: Right when this band started playing shows was exactly the time that people started paying attention to what other people were saying about bands on the Internet. But that wasn’t because of us—it was at the same time.
AVC: The Suburbs was recorded in multiple locations over multiple years, which seems counterintuitive for an album with a single thematic thrust.
RRP: You only can record as best as you can without losing your mind when it’s not the case that you have $5,000 to spend and you have to record and mix in a 10-day period, which is how a lot of bands make a record. For us, we can take our time, because we have our own studios.
AVC: Multiple studios? Aside from the church?
RRP: Well, we built the church, and almost all of us have home setups as well. So we did lots of mixing and matching, and then we recorded in New York a little bit last fall. And that was out of convenience, and fun, and the necessity of recording in different places. We had different sounds, different people working on different things at the same time, and that wasn’t, like, the plan. But as you start recording, you say, “The drums aren’t good in this guy’s living room, let’s do this in the church.” And then you say, “We can’t hear ourselves in the church, let’s do this somewhere else.” And that just happens. That’s how we make a record.
AVC: Before you decided to make the record, did you all agree on the suburbs as an overarching theme?
JG: We were trying to do something long and sprawling, and the idea of the suburbs just became the cutoff of what songs made the record and which songs didn’t. Because there are a few other songs that we started to record, some that we abandoned really early and some that we abandoned at the last minute, just because they didn’t fit under that umbrella. But it definitely wasn’t the plan to begin with, and by no means was it a concept from the get-go. There just had to be a cutoff point. Some of those songs would have been musically really cool, and there were a couple more rockers that maybe would have taken it in a totally different direction.
RRP: It’s always been the way with this band that the theme comes afterward, or comes three-quarters of the way through, and becomes the frame. It’s not like, “Here’s the frame, what are we going to put in it?”
AVC: You recruited Markus Dravs, who helped produce Neon Bible, to help again on The Suburbs. What role did he play?
JG: Markus is just one of the few people who can be around us when we record, and have an opinion that we appreciate. If somebody else comes in and has an opinion, it’d get really negative really fast. But Marcus is such a friend to us all, and we respect what he does as a producer.
RRP: He respects that we’re a band of producers that doesn’t really need a producer.
JG: Marcus is one of the few people that if he has an opinion and we don’t agree with it, we can shut him down and it’s not personal at all. Because he’s our friend.
RRP: And he’s not like, “Well fuck this, I’m leaving.”
JG: He’s not afraid to tell us how he feels, negatively or positively, and it doesn’t affect our relationship. He’s just really good at what he does.
RRP: This is a band of extremely strong personalities, and he complements that really well. He just fits in, and that’s rare. We’re not out of ideas, or in need of tons of help, so just having someone we trust is all we need. And he does beautiful sonic things as well. Magic fairy type things.
AVC: The lyrics on The Suburbs are pretty impressionistic. The album doesn’t necessarily take a stance either way—
JG: I’m glad you say that. Too many people think it’s negative.
AVC: What do you think the record is saying?
RRP: I think it’s a little bit like classical painting in a way. It’s there, it’s an aesthetic whole, it draws your eye to many different things and features of the whole composition, and yet within each part of the composition there’s a story, there’s an idea, there are questions, there are maybe scathing commentaries or just broad details. It’s just full of pockets of emotion and details and questions, if you feel compelled to riffle through those pockets. Questions and fragments of a life lived, or many different lives lived, that a lot of us can relate to or identify with. And there are moments when it points a finger, but I don’t think the whole thing is like that.
JG: Even now, I’m not a lyrics guy. I’ve never been one to let it seep in. So my favorite records are ones where I can feel what it’s about, and just enjoy it as such.
AVC: One of the more frequent criticisms of the record is that it feels heavy-handed—that the subject is something of a cliché, or that Win is always talking about “the kids.”
JG: I’ve heard that too, but I think the use of “kids” is a lot more casual than it seems when you look at a book of lyrics. That’s just the way he talks. How many times does Lou Reed use “all right?” It’s a thing, but it’s also not a thing.
RRP: I think calling something heavy-handed because it’s trying to work within a frame is not a criticism. Because so much shit is vague and not related to itself. If something warrants critical thought, it’s called heavy-handed. Basically, every song on Gray’s Anatomy is vague and emotional. None of them say anything, they just try to make you feel “emotional.”
JG: Anything that’s a little more specific than that can easily be called heavy-handed. And that’s fine. But The Suburbs is not The Wall. The Wall is heavy-handed.