We’re trying to do something that reaches people’s hearts…
story by Jay Gentile
The Arcade Fire is not a band — they’re a religion. Sure, they release albums and put on live shows, but within the small period of three years they have righteously blown up to pious proportions. The “indie band that could”, based in Montreal with seven official members (though often performing with 10), has become something of a deistic phenomenon. With just two records (2004’s masterpiece Funeral and the newly released follow-up Neon Bible), the Arcade Fire have more than just fans — they have pilgrims.
Multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry’s presence is unmistakable. He’s tall, awkward and wears thick-rimmed glasses yet projects professionalism as if the stage was his own personal office — free to goof around and work intently as needed. He, along with core couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, is part of their main songwriting process. He is often seen playing a wide variety of instruments (a skill shared by the entire band) including upright bass, drums, keyboard, accordion and guitar.
Though in the midst of a chaotic Neon Bible tour, Parry takes a few moments to speak with Chicago Innerview about the mission of the band and the difficulties of living the overnight success story.
The best thing about the Arcade Fire is their unabashed enthusiasm. Seeing their live show can be exhausting — the constant energy and emotion packed into every note every night, as well as their unrelenting willingness to be one with the fans (often entering or exiting through the crowd, leading them into a mass jam session). For those that have been fans since the beginning, it can be odd to see a band known for their humble energies now playing to packed three-balcony theaters.
Parry explains how he feels about the transition and its effect on their work: “I don’t know yet because it hasn’t been long enough,” he says. “It’s a mixed bag for me that I sometimes enjoy and sometimes don’t enjoy as much in terms of playing for larger crowds. In a big room sometimes it’s tricky to project for me personally. We’ve always just put one foot in front of the other and tried to do things that feel good…If it stops feeling good we will end up changing what we do.”
Though only a couple years have passed, it’s been a long road since Funeral. The highly acclaimed debut displayed youthful nostalgia and encapsulated a childlike state — unscathed by the horrible realities of adulthood and death, the very notion that inspired the band at the time. It was a concept album, with each haunting melody and arrangement oozing into the next to create some of the best music of the last five years.
Thus creating a frenzy. A high Pitchfork Media rating propelled them into hipster cyberspace, and there was no holding back the ensuing avalanche of hype. The Arcade Fire toured and toured, exposing to the world that they consisted of much more than empty praise. Soon even the skeptics learned of the magic that occurs during their concerts.
Frontman Win Butler is the preacher (always dressed as though he is from the prairie) — intense and passionate, beckoning his onlookers to reevaluate the state of their lives. Chassagne joins in, flailing her arms wildly to rouse fire in the parish with her enchanting voice. Parry and Win’s brother Will act as the healed, hitting each other and shaking violently until (often times) rendered unconscious. The rest of the band is the gospel choir, feverishly playing and singing as if their lives depended on it. The audience eats it up, and then they do it all again the next night.
“Hopefully we get something back,” Parry elaborates on their hysterical audiences. “Sometimes it falls on its face and you need to adjust. At some of the larger venues you can’t really look people in the eyes in the same way as you could pressed up against them in a small club.” Though the Arcade Fire are getting larger by the minute, their force is still pure and it remains a force to be reckoned with.
This revival is fitting, seeing as how the band recorded Neon Bible in an old church-turned-studio. They packed in loads of instruments as if preparing to hibernate for the winter and went to work to create a much darker, more politically-influenced composition. Neon Bible is not quite as bewitching as its predecessor, but it still proposes that same sense of urgency. Instead of encouraging us to gallivant through snowy fields forgetting about our parents and our ideals, it serves as more of a warning.
Though Neon Bible seems at times obvious in theme, Parry confirms its inspirations: “I wouldn’t say [the album is about] the war in general, but obviously that plays into it a lot. We try to put a bit of reflection back into the world that’s maybe a little broader in its scope and looks a little further into it.”
Album highlight “Black Waves/Bad Vibrations” is apocalyptic — starting with a sweet Chassagne and ending with an insistent Butler leading an epic choir of angels singing: “Stop now before it’s too late/I’m eating in the ghetto on a hundred dollar plate/Nothing lasts forever that’s the way it’s gotta be/There’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea.” Title track “Neon Bible” and album closer “My Body Is a Cage” echo this dire sentiment, but the band assures you that not all hope is lost. “Keep the Car Running”, “Antichrist Television Blues” and re-released “No Cars Go” bring us back to the good old days, but this time around with less Bowie (who is himself a rabid fan of the band) and more Springsteen.
All in all, the Arcade Fire lives by a mission statement: Give the world something genuine, and get back something omnipresent. “I would say it changes depending on where you are or how it feels at any given moment,” Parry says of the mission of the band and the emotion that they seek to exude. “We’re trying to do something that reaches people’s hearts. We’re trying to really use what we’re doing as much as we can, trying to take advantage of playing in front of people in a way that maybe other people don’t do as much…”
Where does this emotion come from? “I always try and make sure that [the music] comes from a place of purity,” Parry elaborates. “I like to feel pure. It’s hard to describe in words, which is why I try to do it through music to varying degrees of success. I have to be emotionally present when I’m performing, maybe even [with] conflicting emotions, while trying to tap into something bigger than any of us individually.”
Mission accomplished. All praise the Arcade Fire.
The Arcade Fire :: Chicago Theatre :: May 18, 19 & 20.