Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Arcade Fire's Joyful Funeral

UR Chicago
November 2004
(no link)

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.


Sunday, July 4, 2004

Songwriter of the South

UR Chicago
June 2004
(no link)

Iron & Wine's whispery frontman, Sam Beam, raises his voice to discuss his latest collection of Faulknerian sound -- hold the fury.

Two years ago Sam Beam was a film teacher who fooled around with a four-track tape machine in his free time. Now the sepia-toned singer/songwriter with a beard straight from Civil War photographs is back for another national tour in support of his second album on the label that brought you Nirvana.

Under the moniker Iron & Wine, Beam records gentle, anachronistic folk songs fit for a Deep South Nick Drake. Sumptuous harmonies dress up highly descriptive lyrics worthy of a man who until this year still taught cinematography at Miami International University of Art & Design.

"Cinder and smoke, some whispers around the trees / The juniper bends, as if you were listening," he half-sings, half-whispers in a particularly vivid example from his latest SubPop release, Our Endless Numbered Days. (The song, "Cinder and Smoke," is an "Adam and Eve kind of thing," Beam explains.)

"It's pretty intuitive, honestly," the happily married father of two says of his songwriting style. "A lot of people are just describing their feelings -- how many adjectives can you put on the word love? I try to push it a little bit differently."

While SubPop assembled The Creek Drank the Cradle from the original four-track demos, Beam sat down in a studio for his latest outing. With its evocative storytelling and quiet power,  Beam has proven himself to be a rare breed -- the lo-fi singer/songwriter who improves still further once he gets out of the bedroom and into the studio. While indie icons such as Lou Barlow and Liz Phair left much of their best work on hiss-laden cassettes, Beam has broadened his palette as gracefully as another melancholy troubadour, the late Elliott Smith.

Though the banjos and hushed vocals of the debut remain, augmented by backing vocals by Beam's sister, Sara, his lyrics are more character-driven, less confessional than that disc's first-person emotion.

"Even the ones that sound autobiographical weren't really autobiographical," Beam protests. "They're just stories. There definitely are autobiographical parts, but I think the sense that they're these sort of bedroom recordings really lends itself to making people think that it's more confessional than it is."

Thematically, Our Endless Numbered Days is a more mature take on Beam's Faulkner-esque depictions of Southern living and old-time religion.

"The first one has more of a rite-of-passage feel to the record," he muses. "This one is just more of a recollection, a pondering kind of feel. A rumination on mortality, on family, on life."

Lyrically and musically, Beam's songs are soaked in Bible Belt mystique, from his debut's "Southern Anthem" to the new "Sodom, South Georgia." Though he lives in Miami, Beam grew up in Columbia, S.C., to which he attributes his visible roots.

"It's a lot easier to comment on now that I don't live there," he says, pointing out that much of the Southern atmosphere comes from the banjos and slide guitars that twang throughout his music. "But a lot of the themes I talk about are pretty common to the entire country."

Beam basically stumbled into the music industry. A friend promoting another band played some Iron & Wine for the folks at SubPop, and the rest is indie history. With such a serendipitous path to success, Beam makes a point of trying to think of his music career more as a "hobby."

"I try to keep a certain perspective in my head," he notes. "If you take it too seriously, you end up writing road songs."

It sounds like Iron & Wine won't be covering Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" anytime soon. But Our Endless Numbered Days itself was recorded far from home -- in Wicker Park, as a matter of fact. The idea of the muggy, distinctively Southern sounds of Beam's music emanating from a frigid Chicago winter is tantalizingly ironic, but Beam and producer Brian Deck actually set the songs to disc last July.

"We went to the art museum and went down to the lake," Beam recalls of his Chicago experience. "Honestly, we were pretty busy."

Growing up, Beam wasn't always about songs that could have been culled from old Time/Life field recordings.

"When I really started to identify with music it was more like skate-punk stuff," he says. "Then in high school, Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd..."

It's not too far-fetched to imagine Beam as a young man listening to rock 'n' roll on the radio, rather than the faded myths of his own music. But what about his most distinctive feature -- that Robert E. Lee beard?

Beam chuckles. "I've had it for quite a while," he says. "It's out of pure laziness. A lot of men who have beards just don't like to shave."

What of men who don't like to shave, but whose girlfriends won't let them grow such in such facial topiaries?

Beam doesn't miss a beat: "Maybe you should reassess who you're dating!"


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