Mick Middles has written great biog about the biggest ‘indie’ band in the world, Arcade Fire- it’s the first book to attempt to define the band and their huge success. Here is an extract from the book…
Who The Fuck Is Arcade Fire?
“I AV NO CLU WHO THE SUBURBS IS. WHY THEY GET
FICK AWARD WHEN GAGA THERE. THEY PLAY N NON OF
MY PEOPLE KNOWS WHO THEY ARE.NOBIDY LIKE EM”Â
“FUCK YOU? Who the fuck is Arcade Fire? Stop riggin this shit. U lost
many viewers. Look at the reactions. You lost a lot”Â
(Messages on ”Ëwhoisarcadefire.com’ website)
It was an awards ceremony like no other, but in many ways it was like all the others. It is February 2011 and we are in Las Vegas amid a swirling mess of joyless sycophancy, excitable chatter, insincere smiles and the nervous undertone of cautious expectation. Scan the crowd and gasp at famous faces, all primed to bask their egos in shameless glory. They peer over vast, round, drinks-laden tables, a veritable orgy of smug celebrity, the
full blast of paparazzi flash, all languishing in tabloid cheese. Baby-faced, miniskirted female television presenters prowl freely.
And look at those faces: Justin Bieber, Eminem and, of course, the
omnipresence of Lady Gaga and her not-really-that-strange kookiness.
All of them are surrounded by bobbing and swaying minions; important looking men trying desperately to look even more important and glancing nervously towards the stage. The mind loses track of reality as gong after gong is presented between stilted, scripted announcements.
Everything, it seems, is clipped to a perfect choreography. The
thoroughly stage-managed slice of contemporary music is spliced with glittery glances of stars of yesteryear, all here to play tribute ”â and gain kudos by association ”â with the fast rising stars of 2011.
Perhaps due to the growing realisation that the record industry is
on its knees in subjection to file sharing, this year’s Grammys seems a little different. Record company nerves are more on edge than usual.
A million sales can follow a Grammy, making that priceless CD sticker reading ”ËGrammy Award Winner’ all the more important. In an age of universal uncertainty, with the entire music business shattered into fragments by digital downloads and the fast-moving listening habits of its audience, any chance of gong glory is no longer to be sniffed at.
“Of course. Fucking hope so, maan.”Â
No longer is the concept of ”Ësell out’ regarded with disdain. On
the contrary, it is actively encouraged by companies and fans alike,
even centrally placed in the marketing ethos of hip-hop and rap.
Prestigious awards like the Brits and Grammys are merely a cog in
this increasingly cynical game. Best Album equals best marketing too.
People will keep their jobs. People will smile and, tonight, tumble
into gleeful inebriation.
On this night, the honour of announcing the winner of the ”ËBest Album’ category falls to Barbra Streisand, though even a star of such magnitude seems fazed when she rips open the envelope, her facial features noticeably contracting as a twinge of anxiety creeps in. She must not mess up this simple task. She mustn’t”Â¦ and she is squinting at the name before her. She is momentarily nonplussed, a flash of panic, of unrecognition, crossing her exquisitely powdered brow. What is the name on this card?
“And the winner is”Â¦”Â
She is visibly fumbling at this point, clearly distressed. Her mouth
closes around two words”Â¦ two words delivered in a state of questioning terror. Was it an announcement? Was it a question? Her eyes are shining with “What the fuck?”Â
“The winner is”Â¦Theeee Suuuubuuuuuurbs?”Â
For once there is an eerie lull. Then a lonely squeal. Then the sight of a small excitable huddle. Of Arcade Fire’s RÃÂ©gine Chassagne spinning round in glee”Â¦ and of an uncomfortable band lost in a state of collective embarrassment. A chill ripples through the room, a low growl. Cameras flash on the less than exalted faces of disappointed superstars. Lady Gaga looks lost in thunderous disbelief. Elsewhere, there’s a sense of embarrassment. Will
someone get sacked for this, tomorrow? We expected to win that.
Who the fuck is Arcade Fire?
A band with no hits, that’s who it is. A band with no identifiable
genre”Â¦ which, in itself, makes them a dangerous property. A band rarely glimpsed on MTV. A band that looks like they don’t belong anywhere, especially at the Grammys.
The band with no hits takes the stage and begins to play ”ËMonth Of May’, performing before stunned, silent, stony faces. Nil movement.
The sheer energy of suppressed hate. Horrified faces”Â¦
Then they play a second song. This time it’s ”ËReady To Start’ and, at last, there is noticeable crowd movement. An initial trickle has become an embarrassing stream aiming for the exit. It’s a protest of apathy, setting the seal on a thoroughly disappointing evening.
I mean. Who the fuck is Arcade Fire?
“I thought it was hilarious”Â¦ at the ceremony,”Â Arcade Fire’s Win
Butler would later tell Q magazine’s Simon Goddard. “I don’t think we have ever played to a more apathetic audience in our lives.”Â
The band flash rebellious faces on finishing, darting from the stage
to the door, and RÃÂ©gine twice, three times, clashes with over-zealous security, their arms across the door. “You can’t go back there, miss”Â¦miss”Â¦ MISS. You cannot go back there. That is for artists only.”Â
Eventually, and only after a series of phone calls, RÃÂ©gine is duly
rescued from the ignominy of being the first Grammy-winning artist ever to be barred from her own awards ceremony. But, in another way, ejection from the ceremonial hall would have been perfect.
RÃÂ©gine: “It was kinda funny. I can see the funny side to that. And
maybe a little symbolic too. I don’t really know the truth of it. Maybe that security guy hadn’t been briefed properly. Maybe he expected female musicians to look like Lady Gaga or something. Or maybe he was a Kings of Leon fan”Â¦ I honestly don’t know.”Â
It may seem ironic, perverse in its stupidity perhaps, to object so
much to an awards ceremony that you are moved to instigate a website dedicated to emphasising a band’s state of obscurity. ”ËWho is Arcade Fire’ even became lodged as a top five Google search that catapulted their name through the digital catacombs of Facebook and Twitter, virtually creating for themselves a new cult status among the Gaga freaks and light hip-hop tribes ”â the very people who objected in the first place.
So powerful was this electronic wave, so penetrative the new media, that one might have been forgiven for thinking it a record company scam, Machiavellian/McLarenesque in its subversive effectiveness. Suddenly the band with no hits, the band plucked from dense obscurity at the Grammy ceremony, were gathering pace. Could this really have happened by accident?
Win Butler: “I can understand why people might think that such a
thing would be instigated by some scheming management but I can only assure people that it wasn’t the case. I might have been proud of it, if it had been. How strange to be at the centre of some kind of scandal without actually doing anything outrageous. It’s hardly the Sex Pistols, is it? Must admit, I did think the whole thing was really funny.”Â
In Q magazine, again, Simon Goddard wondered if this was true
when Win saw the internet message claiming victory for Kings Of
Leon, and calling Arcade Fire “faggots”Â.
Butler: “Um, I didn’t get too deep down on the comments because,
really, it is the lowest of the low form of communication. Hmmm.”Â
More perverse, perhaps? The sight of a full page ad in the New York Times, costing New York-based marketing executive Steve Stoute ÃÂ£40,000 to promote that increasingly tired notion that receiving their Grammy between songs during the ceremony’s closing credits was evidence enough of the music industry’s ”Ëwayward marketing exercises’, the inference being that it takes an expert to notice such a blatant marketing scam, or an expert to be fooled by the sheer chance of it all.
The charge of unworthy obscurity had already worn redundant”Â¦ it wasn’t as if this award was given to some upstart band enjoying a flash-in-the-pan hit album, either.
By the time of the awards ceremony Arcade Fiore had three
American number one albums already under their belt. Tickets for the American leg of their world tour were already shifting heavily, 30,000 over three days in Chicago alone while, over in England, advance sales for their biggest single headline date ”â the biggest and most prestigious show of their career, at London’s Hyde Park, in June ”â zipped from Ticketmaster’s website with unprecedented speed. And this despite the gig taking place right in the heart of the British festival season, just one week after Glastonbury and during the same weekend as the highly favoured Hop Farm event in Surrey.
But it was Arcade Fire who would be the band to see in 2011 as,
indeed, they had been for a full five years. Arguably ”â and it is arguable ”â the largest band in the world. If not so, then certainly the most intriguing and, as the NME noisily proclaimed, ”ËThe most exciting live act on the planet.’
But”Â¦ who the fuck?
Dismiss that as crude, ignorant, naÃÂ¯ve, juvenile or blandly streetwise, if you will, the fact remains that it is not a bad question. Especially to the eyes and ears of those ”â mid-teens to mid-twenties, perhaps? ”â whose musical and cultural advancement has been through the gloopy soup of contemporary R’n’B and the mainstream fringe of rap. I wouldn’t be openly dismissive of this ocean-sized genre, to be honest ”â Kanye West, Jay Z have both permeated the rockist wall of my listening habits, for what it’s worth ”â but, in league with the digital age, the visual effect has been to diminish instrumentation. Music, as such, appears as
soundtracks to soft porn videos where rappers and scantily clad ladies frolic on beaches, in cars and bars, even on stage in some vast arena.
The only noticeable instrumentation is often reduced to the sight of a spangly mic, as much worn as used; a shimmering item of bling and status. Generally speaking, award-winning males are elegantly black-suited and visually cruising. The females are mesmerisingly famous and iconic, shining beacons of elegance and poise. You know their names.
We all suffer their omnipresence as the power of their influence filters down through to the crass global mimicry of X Factor ad infinitum.
This sanitised cultural arena offers nothing remotely like Arcade
Fire, and even the competing and giant arena of rock and its myriad genres seems firmly slammed in reverse, amplifying the echoes of Black Sabbath or Neil Young or The Velvet Underground. Only in the recent emergence of Americana, which itself kicks back strongly to The Band and Grateful Dead, will you nudge within a country mile of anything remotely like Arcade Fire in terms of visuals, sound, lyrics, attitude and appeal.
But to the global audience of an awards show”Â¦ who, indeed, the
fuck are Arcade Fire? Just look at this lot. There are seven of them ”â sometimes more, but that is not the issue here ”â an awkward, ill-fitting seven at that, of all shapes and sizes, it seems; for English viewers a grown-up Bash Street Kids, none of whom assume the accepted traits of ”Ëcontemporary icon’ or even attract attention in the accepted manner.
The central husband and wife team, Win Butler and RÃÂ©gine Chassagne, seem oddly configured, awkward. He’s very tall and she’s quite small.
RÃÂ©gine, petite and blessed with an increasingly commanding presence, is unquestionably attractive but her looks don’t conform to the pop star prototype. Win is lanky, powerful, passionate and looks ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. Beyond them is diminutive Sarah Neufeld, standing aside, openly mouthing the words while her arm slices across a violin. Alongside are Tim Kingsbury, Will Butler, Richard Reed Parry and Jeremy Gara. In an age and an arena where guitar, bass, drums and keyboards are regarded as fading tools of ancient lore ”â ”Ëdad rock’ accoutrements to use a particularly derogative label ”â what exactly is happening here? What are these people playing at on their guitars, drums, bass, piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass, xylophone, sidedrum,
French horn, flugelhorn, accordion, hurdy gurdy, harp and
mandolin. One can only imagine the astonished and dismissive face of, say, Simon Cowell should such a dishevelled and unconventional troupe have the temerity to audition before him, or before a rigidly controlling global television regime that prefers its females to launch into a Mariah Carey warble or Shakira come-on, and its boy bands to perform a step-perfect dance-troupe formation routine.
And that is just the start. Those who so vociferously complained
about Arcade Fire’s victory are unlikely to dig too deeply into either the bizarrely baroque music they play or, indeed, the lyrics that, at once, evoke the past and present”Â¦ and, furthermore, appear to be launched from some oddball Gnostic heart. This is the sound of an ancient church, full of shadows and light, mystery and paranoia, dragged from a muse built from both academic immersion, the mysteries of childhood and, here is the twist, an unlikely eye for the futuristic. Generally speaking,
this is not subject matter found in singles by Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne or Jay Z.
You would have to squint hard towards, say, the now existential
and gloriously aloof figure of Tom Waits to find anything closely
comparable to Arcade Fire; artists who, despite being accepted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame (whatever that is) rarely find themselves invited to a televised music awards ceremony. Arcade Fire construct their music with unconventional flare. Even many of the British indie bands who flicker in their influences ”â of which much more, later ”â did not and do not tread such mainstream boards with such bravado.
Who are they, indeed, this strange band that is getting stranger, despite moving deeply into the mainstream with their third album? There, indeed, lies a whole mess of paradox and contradiction. They are a band that flies between the black and the white. They speak in tongues.
At the time of that awards ceremony, despite a worldwide presence that had been increasing in focus since the launch of their first album, Funeral, in 2004 (2005 in the UK, thanks to Rough Trade), they were a hit band with no hit singles, though in reality they were no strangers to the concept of the awards ceremony. In 2008, they won The Meteors ”ËBest International Album’ award and JUNO ”ËAlternative Album of the Year’ award for their second album, Neon Bible, in addition to previous Grammy nominations in the same year for Neon Bible and in 2005 for
Funeral. However, their subsequent appearances did not previously spark such bizarre and unwarranted objections. No one seems to know why.
If this was merely a story of a gang of young musicians evolving from a singular obsession with the music of Manchester and post-punk Britain, then the heart of Arcade Fire would seem achingly familiar. In fact, it is nothing of the sort, and in the softer echoes of the mainstream-friendly The Suburbs, it is something immediately identifiable, immediately uplifting, a rarity in this world of closed genre and, almost, universal lack of fresh musical ambition.
Arcade Fire do not create a sound that slots into any recognisable
genre. It is a sound with roots that creep deeply into the past, long
before anything with a slightly folksy, bluesy, country edge was referred to as ”ËAmericana’. It reaches back to a land of disparate complexity, where music forms would evolve and roll and mix and gather pace without push of media or hype or expectation.
So let us travel back to the cultural and racial melting pot of North
America in the early 1900s, a time and place of harsh rural realities and comparative lawlessness, and where rampant and accepted racism was firmly entrenched into the underside of the Constitution.