The debut album by Canada's latest indie-rock export makes clamorous noise and mournful lyrics uplifting. Lead singer Win Butler explains how.
A few days after playing sold-out shows at the CMJ Music Festival and earning rapturous praise in the New York Times, Win Butler is talking about dogs.
Butler is the lead singer for a Montreal band called The Arcade Fire, whose debut album, Funeral, is a madcap, orchestral indie-rock epic that fuses Neil Young, Talking Heads and the Pixies. The album's centerpiece is a suite of four songs about a concrete yet universal "neighborhoods," ranging from the fractured escapism of "Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)" to "Neighborhoods #4 (7 Kettles)", a blistering emo ballad that would make Bright Eyes weep (maybe more than usual).
It's angular, accordion-accented "Neighborhoods #2 (Laika)" that has the soft-spoken Butler's thoughts turning toward man's best friend.
"Laika's the Russian space dog," he explains, "the first living thing in space. They launched this dog up in space, it had enough food for two days and they knew it was going to die. There's the image of this animal being the first thing to see Earth from space -- to see this amazing, unbelievable thing -- but also knowing that they're going to die, or everyone else knowing it, anyway."
As a child, one of Butler's favorite movies was 1985's My Life as a Dog, directed by Lasse Hallström. This bittersweet film tells the story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer.
"The character keeps saying that 'whenever stuff gets really bad, I think about Laika,'" Butler recalls. "He's just up there going around the Earth."
The central contradiction of Laika's existence suffuses Funeral. As the album's title suggests, the Arcade Fire's members saw their share of death in the time leading up to Funeral's recording. Multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, the other half of the band's songwriting team, dealt with the death of her grandmother in June 2003. Butler's grandfather died in March 2004. Richard Parry's aunt died a month later.
As a result, conscious or not, the album is dark with the frayed emotions of people who have lost their loved ones. "The streetlights all burnt out," Butler sings, his voice fragile and stark, in "Une Annee Sans Lumiere" ("A Year Without Light").
Yet in the midst of so much sadness, Funeral resonates with the joy of living, with the magic of being the first to experience something amazing, even if life is ultimately temporary. After Butler delivers a lyric about the grim reaper in "Wake Up", his accompaniment takes on a Motown-like bounce. Sounding perversely uplifting, Butler shouts, "Look out below!"
"It wasn't really a record that was explicitly trying to deal with anything," Butler says. "It was just something that leaked through, I guess. I don't know if it's that explicitly uplifting if you look at the lyrics on the page. That's what we feel, so that comes through, even if it's not explicit."
Amid the past year's funerals, the Arcade Fire also saw a wedding. Butler and Chassagne were married in August 2003. They first started playing together after Butler saw Chassagne singing jazz at an art exhibit at Concordia University.
"Everyone was just totally caught up watching her sing," he recalls. "I'm just -- I knew I had to play music with her."
As Butler describes it, their musical relationship was like a compulsion, not something optional.
"It was just kind of a sense that we had to do it," he explains. "There was almost like a real dire kind of feeling to it, 'Yes, we have to play.' It wasn't like, 'I want to play it.' I still feel that way."
The Arcade Fire have played in Chicago once before, for a show with fellow Canadians the Unicorns at Open End Gallery in June.
The band's upcoming shows at Logan Square Auditorium and the Empty Bottle will feature the return of Butler's younger brother, multi-instrumentalist Will. A student at Northwestern University, Will Butler appears on the album and played at CMJ, but his classes prevent him from playing on most of the band's dates.
"We're super-excited," exclaims the elder Butler.
On stage, the band likes to stray a bit from the record, Butler says.
"I don't know that we could ever go into the studio and just capture what we do live," he observes. "It's a lot more draining and a lot more intense physically live, and it could really only exist the way it does in a live setting."
Butler says the band is made up of a bunch of instinctual performers.
"When we feel the instinct to do something, we just kind of follow it to its logical extreme," he explains.
All right, but what's up with the band's name? Butler says urban legend held that there was once a fire at the arcade he played in growing up. Funeral may hold as many layers of meaning as it does orchestration, but some questions have simple answers.
THE ARCADE FIRE PLAYS LOGAN SQUARE AUDITORIUM (2539 NORTH KEDZIE, 773/276-3600) NOV. 25 AND THE EMPTY BOTTLE (1035 N. WESTERN, 773/276-3600) NOV. 26. FUNERAL IS OUT NOW.