Sat Dec 11, 7 pm, Neumo's, $15, all ages (KEXP benefit).
There's a word for a group devoted to passionate, charismatic leaders and their obsessions with teachings on life and death. That word is cult, and there is no other name for the fans who've taken up a religious devotion to Montreal's the Arcade Fire. After all, the band's ferocity and lyrics almost demand that kind of intensity.
With a record themed around mourning and performances celebrating life, the Arcade Fire have become 2004's sleeper indie sensation. Earlier this year, they built a buzz touring behind the Unicorns, enchanting fans with a mysterious, endearing live show. By September, they had released their first full-length, the haunting Funeral, and become the must-see band at this fall's CMJ. They're played on New York City dance floors and Iowa City college radio stations, and they've been selling out concerts on their way out West. Rolling Stone and the New York Times have given them ink and David Bowie counts as one of their superfans. They have become, in singer Win Butler's own words, the "flavor of the month."
"It's such a weird thing--the whole music industry, they treat the new thing as the best thing," says bassist Tim Kingsbury. "We were just bracing for that because we knew as soon as people started writing about us it would be a sort of wave, and we were trying not to get too caught up in it."
The Arcade Fire may not get caught, but their fans couldn't help it. That's partly due to the urgency of Funeral. The principal songwriters (and married duo), Régine Chassagne and Win Butler, both had grandparents die during the recording process. As a result, the lyrics are haunted with the type of thoughts one typically associates with a wake. "Sleeping is giving in," Butler sings at the beginning of "Rebellion (Lies)," as the dance tune's catchy hook slides in. By the time the backing chorus chants of "Lies! Lies!" resound, it's clear that sleeping has nothing to do with dreams. On the album's spare closer, "In the Backseat," Chassagne reflects that, "My family tree's/ losing all its leaves." The vulnerability in her voice says the rest.
But if the album is a requiem, then the band's live performance is an exorcism. Before a stage decorated with glowing orange plastic cows and white Christmas lights, the Fire's seven members all sing along with the lyrics. "We're kind of an overwhelming spectacle just because there are so many tall people in the band," Kingsbury says, half-joking (Butler exceeds six feet tall). "We're kind of flailing around, screaming and shouting and stuff." Not to mention that some members use motorcycle helmets as both headdress and percussion.
"Sometimes it's hard for us to find a balance [between] restrained and not restrained," Kingsbury says. "Sometimes we just sort of go and everybody puts out as much as they can. It's almost better when some of us hold back a little bit and there's more of the contradiction between the two things."
The Arcade Fire's repertoire is still small (Funeral contains 10 songs, and the band has a couple more from prior releases), so they round out their show with a couple of covers, including Talking Heads' "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)." At a recent performance, though, the band almost decided not to do that one, for good reason: its author, David Byrne, was in the audience.
"We were debating whether or not to [play "Naive Melody"]," Kingsbury says. "But decided that since we'd been doing it so much and we liked the song, we may as well. Apparently he thought it was OK."
Byrne's not the only one. When Funeral first came out in September, Merge Records sold out of the first shipment of 10,000 copies. Fans (including, it's rumored, Bruce Springsteen) were left to wait for a new batch. Word has since gotten out, and the band's touring itinerary is extensive. So does bringing Funeral alive every night get exhausting?
"Even though the record's called Funeral, I think it's pretty celebratory-sounding," Kingsbury says. "Parts of it anyway. I've heard Win talk about death and how being faced with death sort of is when you most feel alive, so I guess that's where the title for the record came from, along with family members dying. I think that was something that was on his mind a lot. The performance is not too gloomy." Neither is the future for the cult of the Arcade Fire.