Arcade Fire’s fifth album, Everything Now, came out July 28, and ahead of a traditional interview, we also asked the band to tackle some of our favorite questions from AVQ&As past. We called it AFQ&A, which is very clever. Here are their answers.
Question: If you were Santa and you could gift everyone in the world with just one piece of culture, with the implicit understanding that they’d definitely read/watch/listen to it, what would you give them?
The Very Best Of Nina Simone: Sugar In My Bowl 1967-1972. No matter what’s going on, I can listen to her sing and play and to her amazing band, and it takes me to a better place. Her music is my favorite, definitely a desert-island record for me.
Her version of “To Love Somebody” is perfect. The band is amazing—particularly the rhythm section—and the way she sings, it uncovers some emotional layer to the song that the Bee Gees never quite hit (and I love their version). I discovered Nina Simone’s music through my high school girlfriend, and it has been a staple ever since then. I really enjoyed the Netflix documentary as well, called What Happened, Miss Simone?
Caroline Shaw’s “Partita For 8 Voices,” performed by Roomful Of Teeth. This piece of music stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it, and I fell deeply in love with it. It combines and channels a range of emotions and gestures that I’ve never heard or felt in any other music, ever, and it’s performed entirely a capella—just eight human voices singing together live, in an utterly unique fashion. Within about 25 minutes, it somehow manages to be tender and fierce and soothing and alarming and exciting and gentle and brash and literal and nonsensical and emotionally clear and emotionally confusing and abstract and concrete and erotic and terrifying and liturgical and profane and earthly and unearthly and austere and celebratory and funny and profound and very, very moving. Oh, and also it won the Pulitzer Prize For Composition in 2013.
Tim Hecker’s Radio Amor. It’s one of my favorite records. It’s ridiculously beautiful. There are no words, so it’s not alienating for people who don’t speak the language, and it is a really beautiful full-album experience. If this magic actually forces people to sit through the whole thing, well… there you go.
The world doesn’t need more America right now. But still, I’m going to give everyone Moby Dick. I find nothing cleanses the soul and mind so much as a long, dense book, once you get into the rhythm of reading it. Melville covers the nature of humankind, the mysteries of the soul, and most famously the dangers of the single-minded pursuit of an idea. But he does it with a passionate ironic detachment. “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator says, knowing he’s being a symbolic asshole. The book is full of physical comedy, jokes about whale penises, and mind-numbing descriptions of different kinds of whales. It doesn’t have everything, but it sure has a lot.
For the whole entire world? Then probably “One Love” by Bob Marley. That or the Cantique De Jean Racine.
The piece of writing I’ve probably read more than anything in my life at this point is the essay “Why I Write” by George Orwell. It was given to me in my first real writing class by Fred Tremallo. (Josh Rothman, who writes for The New Yorker, was in my same class.) I always buy copies to give away, and I’m constantly losing mine.
Question: What was your first favorite song as a kid?
It was probably “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, same as my 4-year-old son. I didn’t have access to any real TV until I was 5, so seeing this live on a friend’s TV was a mind blow. My grandmother Gooley used to sing me a traditional song, “The Skye Boat Song,” that I absolutely loved—the combination of the melody and the title was so evocative to me. I didn’t understand that it was an island called Skye. My other grandmother sang in a pre-Andrews Sisters harmony group (called The King Sisters), and I loved it when she sang anything. That combined with my mother playing Debussy on the harp, I was pretty spoiled for music.
My first favorite song was either “Super Trooper” by ABBA or maybe “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. I can’t say for sure which came first. My older brother bought all of the cassettes at that time, and I was heavily influenced by his collection.
Also fairly early on was “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock. It was on a cassette called How To Break Dance and it was the first track on the tape. That first side of that cassette is still deeply engrained in me. The second side was actual instructions on how to breakdance. I never mastered it.
I was really mesmerized by “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer. (For those who don’t know it by name, that’s the instrumental main theme from Beverly Hills Cop.) It always seemed to be playing out of the windows of cool cars driving down my street or out of boomboxes owned by the tough kids hanging out at the schoolyard across from my house. I grew up in kind of a pop culture vacuum—my parents were very deeply into British folk music, medieval theater, Morris dancing, storytelling, seasonal celebration. We didn’t own a TV or a car. Most of the music that happened in our house was being played or sung by us or the people around us. We had solstice parties. There was a stereo in our house, but we didn’t have a single album of anything that could be considered pop, save for some Beatles records. I didn’t even understand that the radio stations that played at some of my friends’ houses (AM pop stuff) could also be accessed by the radio at our house, which was only ever tuned to CBC (Canadian equivalent to NPR), and I assumed that was all it was capable of playing. Anyway, all that is to say that “Axel F” seemed like this magical anthem from the other side of culture and was the most dangerous, exotic, and gloriously “outside”-sounding music I’d ever heard. It still gives me a certain kind of chills when I hear it.
My first 45 I got when I was 3 was a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace,” which I played a whole lot on that old blue Fisher-Price record player. Sorry, Mom and Dad!
I had a tape of Tchaikovsky when I was 10. One side started with the 1812 Overture, the other with Marche Slave. I would lie on the bed listening and reading the Hardy Boys, or the Redwall series, or Judy Blume. If I had to pick one side over the other, I guess I’d pick Marche Slave. My second favorite song was the title song from the video game Final Fantasy.
Actually it was the “Molto allegro” theme from Mozart’s 40th symphony. I was 4 and was really obsessed with the use of semitones in the melody and how the colors of the chord runs could change so seamlessly. I learned how to play the melody alone in a dank basement, on a tiny ultra crappy electric organ that the previous owners had left behind. I begged for a piano and got one when I was 6.
Question: Who was your first pop culture crush?
Really, I could say any protagonist from a Judy Blume book. But probably most of all Davey Wexler from Tiger Eyes. I wasn’t a teenager yet when I read the book, and the world of sorrow and longing it portrays was deeply foreign to me, but deeply compelling. Davey Wexler’s world was a dark one, but I wanted to be part of it. And I got to be! Thanks, Judy Blume.
Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands completely stole my heart. She seemed like the perfect girl. Just witnessing the existence of this pure soul who could see through the status quo around her and love the strange, angelic weirdo who turned up in it…
My first pop culture crush would have been Mallory Keaton from Family Ties, Justine Bateman. She was way too old for me at the time, but that might have been part of the appeal. I also had a thing for Christine from Night Court, but I never would have admitted that.
Tiffany, I think. Or Phoebe Cates?
I wasn’t ever really the type of girl to get crushes on heartthrob singers, but the first pop song that caught my ear was “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. I was about 7.
We didn’t have a lot of current music in my house, but my bedroom shared a wall with the neighbor’s teenage daughter’s bedroom. She would play that song a lot, and I would stick my ear to the wall every time to hear it better. This is about the time that without the technical language to explain it, I started to understand the relationship between a song’s relative minor and relative major structure and how variations in chord progressions can affect a mood. That is also around when I quit my piano lessons but started to teach myself, learning everything by ear.
It’s not exactly pop culture, but I had a huge crush on Patricia Arquette. Her character in the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood gave me all kinds of butterflies.
Question: Who would you want to star in the story of your life thus far?
In the story of my life, I think it would be best for me not to pick who would play me. But if I had to, I’d probably choose someone unlikely like Tilda Swinton or Leslie Jones just to see what they’d do with the role. I suppose if it was a Hollywood movie it should have been Philip Seymour Hoffman (R.I.P.) or maybe it could be Matt Damon.
Gwendoline Christie or, if she’s not available, Tilda Swinton. Or maybe both: Tilda could play younger me, and Gwendoline could play me from when I hit 6 feet tall, so grade 10 onwards.
Donald Trump because it would be a really dull movie and starring in it would be really tedious and maybe it would keep him away from his current job and just fuck that guy.
Easy. Young Lauren Bacall. Can I say that? Have you watched those early Lauren Bacall movies lately? She is a world-crushing force. Who wouldn’t want to be portrayed by Lauren Bacall? If I have to go with someone alive, I’ll go with Jesse Plemons. I think he’d get my jokes, and his Friday Night Lights Christian band Crucifictorious seems like relevant experience.
I have been blessed with a soulmate/band mate/husband and a loving son. Tout moun se moun. [Haitian expression meaning “everyone is someone” (We are all equals)—ed.] Everyone is a star. We are all dust material. I believe that you reading this, we can all be part of a same story without ever meeting each other. (I know it doesn’t really answer your question but that is where my mind went for this one. I don’t really think about stars in a showbiz sense often.)
Christopher Walken, obviously. Stupid question…
Question: What are you listening to/watching/reading right now that you’d recommend to A.V. Club readers?
I’m reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, which was written in 1961 but feels like reading a description of a car crash while being in a car that’s crashing. It puts a name to many of the ideas we have been trying to express in the meta data surrounding our new album.
I’ve been watching the new Planet Earth series, and I would highly recommend it to everyone. It’s so beautifully shot and offers a rare glimpse into places that rarely anyone gets to see. It has added, slightly funny sound effects, but mostly I find them charming. The variety of wildlife they document is really amazing and gorgeous.
Reading The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to read. Or anyone who doesn’t really like to read but who feels like something is missing in their life. (FYI, if the latter is you, the thing that is missing is quite possibly this book!). It’s really compelling, a fascinating window into certain aspects of Japanese culture. I’m not finished yet, so can’t tell you how it ends, unfortunately.
I can’t stop listening to Richard Dawson’s Peasant; it’s an incredible album. Lately I’ve been digging into Hats by The Blue Nile, and I also keep digging the new Laurel Halo record, Dust. And I’m in the thick of reading Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti. Weird life!
Recently there was a moment—before Trump was nominated, long before he won, and way before he appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general—when it seemed like America might make progress on criminal justice reform. Holy hell what a difference a year makes. Right now I’m reading Blood In The Water: The Attica Uprising Of 1971 And Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson, which tells not only the dark story of the uprising and the brutal police response but also of the decades-long effort to bring some—any!—measure of justice to the prisoners who were wounded, tortured, or killed. It’s not a cheery read, but it’s very readable. And it’s a reminder that no matter who’s in the White House, much of the criminal justice system is determined by state governors and prosecutors, corrections officers unions, local police, municipal budgets. Which gives me marginally more hope that things might still improve. Pretty goddamn dark, though.
I am working so much. Between making music as Arcade Fire, fundraising for Haiti, and being a good mom, I get zero free time to sit and chill with a book lately. But my favorite authors are Edwidge Danticat, Dany Laferrière, Dave Eggers, Junot Díaz, Paulo Coelho, Antoine De St-Exupéry, Jean Racine, Saint-Augustine. When I get a free second, I’ll listen to early Palestrina, Sainte-Colombe, or Coltrane, or Bach or Miles Davis. Because I remember every song, I find it relaxing and fun to listen to complex music that I have to decipher until I can fully deconstruct it and play it back in my head. I guess it’s my version of playing video games.