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Big Heads, Small(er) Egos: How Arcade Fire, the Hugest Band in Indie Rock, Stays Grounded 

Tuesday, Jul 29 2014
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One of the more interesting things about Arcade Fire — maybe as interesting as its music — is the way the band challenges the scope of what so-called indie rock bands are supposed to be. It did this early on with its notoriously intense and emotionally gigantic shows, in which members eventually came to wear helmets to protect themselves from their own onstage antics. It did this with its consistent financial and public support of the cause of Haiti, the struggling Carribbean nation from which the family of member Régine Chassagne hails. And it did this also by becoming huge itself — Grammy-winningly, culture-eclipsingly, arena-playingly huge, which brainy guitar bands from Montreal are rarely able to do, even if they want to. (There is also, of course the hugeness of Arcade Fire bandleader Win Butler, who is 6-foot-4, plays aggressive basketball, and is well aware of his cultural stature, to put it mildly.) Ahead of Arcade Fire's show this week at Shoreline, we spoke with Win's younger brother, Will, about how the band deals with its vastness, including the massive paper heads it wears onstage during this tour for Reflektor, Arcade Fire's big, dancey, James Murphy-produced fourth LP.

SF Weekly: Tell me about the very long, curious list of openers for this tour. In Mountain View you have Devo and Dan Deacon?

Will Butler: Dan [Deacon] played a really epic show in Montreal a long time ago. It was really fun and he's a really warm, giving performer, but still edgy. We had him open on the first run as an experiment, because he's not built to play arenas. The first show really fried his brain — he killed it, but he was like, "Huh, this is weird," and then he just figured it out. He was setting the mood perfectly, so we asked him back. Devo was a real wild card. We play a Devo song just as a cover ["Uncontrollable Urge"], and they're super cool. They're older, but they're so vital.

You're known for your spontaneity and antics during performances. What's the worst thing that's happened to you onstage?

I really badly sprained my ankle in Mexico a couple months ago. Which was a bummer. But at least it was in Mexico — the crowd was super into it.

I have to ask about the outfits on this tour — the suits, the huge heads — whose idea is all that? And do you guys ever dissent from the decision to wear one thing or another?

The album is really rooted in Carnival — it was very inspiring to the process and the music and to all the stuff that's come out of it. The heads are bona fide Haitian Carnival heads. We had these artisans in Jacmel build them. We sent them down photos and they just built us all the heads. There's not like a real game plan on the clothes, it's pretty shoot-from-the-hip. There's a bit of anarchy to it.

When you were first putting out Funeral 10 years ago, was there any part of you that thought it might get this big? That wanted Arcade Fire to become — gasp — an arena rock band?

I've always wanted to be able to do something like [the Talking Heads concert film] Stop Making Sense, since I saw it when I was 15. But there was no desire for size or success, really. Given the opportunities we have, we're really excited to do what pops into our heads. To have essentially complete artistic freedom and the budget, within reason, to attain that vision is really, really shocking and special, but feels fairly natural because we're still just trying to do what pops into our heads.

I've seen Win talk about the difficulties of bands getting bigger and staying self-directed. Is that something you all consciously deal with?

There's no conscious nostalgic drive to keep things as they were originally. But there's definitely a drive to keep it under control personally. We're concerned with making sure we still drive all the decisions. Especially the artistic ones, but also the business ones. It's so easy for things to spin out of control.

You're always getting compared to U2. Who's the biggest fan in the band?

I think probably Win. In his teenage years he saw the Pop tour. We all definitely appreciate the really great stuff they've done, but I think he was the most formed in his youth by them.

What's a similarly important band for you?

Probably Radiohead. Having Kid A come out when I was 18, right when you're kind of over being a teenager.... If they put out something more like OK Computer, I would've been like, "Ugh, they're just a band of my teenage years, who cares about them?" But they put out something in a transition right when I was transitioning.

And you guys take a lot of influence from what Radiohead has done on the live stage, especially on this tour.

Very much so. We're all super into Stop Making Sense and we all have loved Radiohead shows. I mean we literally stole [Radiohead's] sound person [Jim Warren] because we were like, "Why does it sound so good? Oh, because this guy is mixing."

Do you think the band sounds better live or on record?

It varies by the song, and it varies over time. I think we've gotten slightly better at translating some of the live energy to the record. A song like "Reflektor," we recorded it in a way that's a little more live than we would've been able to five or 10 years ago. For better or worse, we're more technically competent.

What's it like playing in a band with your older brother, Win, who can be pretty intense sometimes?

To me, the intensity is tempered by the fact that I normally know where he's coming from, even if I don't agree with him. He's never just a total crazy person to me. I think that would be more stressful, if it was just like random demands and if it was more mysterious. But I'm like, "Oh, I know where you're coming from, I know what you're asking for. It's not possible, what you're asking for, but I see why you would want that."

Are you as into sports and as competitive as he is?

No. I am the compromiser. I am the diplomat.

There's a lot of people to be diplomatic with in your band.

Yeah. [Laughs] It's quite a role to take on. And I'm also a prickly artist type as well. We're all prickly artist types.

I imagine you must have to strike this balance of inter-member dynamics with Arcade Fire. It's not a bandleader/sidemen situation, but it doesn't sound like a 100-percent democratic arrangement, either. There is a leader.

It's not dissimilar to film world, where there's a director and there's actors and there's producers, and it depends on the product who you give the credit to. Sometimes you're like, "The actor made this scene, because the actor made these choices and turned the scene into this. And sometimes you're like, "This is the director's vision." And sometimes you're like, "This was the producer who helped find these locations." So there's definitely different roles. But it's still pretty scrappy as an organization. It's still pretty in the thick of it, in the muck. Definitely Win's vision is central, I wouldn't dispute that. But in terms of its functioning as an entity, it's still a pretty common cause.

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Ian S. Port

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