Arcade Fire, on fame and putting it to good use

In an exclusive interview, the Montreal band talks about doing things their own way
Their main act
Rune Hellestad/Corbis

People in tuxedos fighting over hot dogs. That’s the indelible image Win Butler and Régine Chassagne took home from their first trip to the Grammy Awards back in 2006. Their group, Arcade Fire, had received two nominations. One was for Best Alternative Album for their debut disc Funeral—a big-deal award handed out during the televised, evening portion of the ceremony. The other was a nod for a song that had shown up on HBO’s Six Feet Under, in the decidedly less-prestigious Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media category, parcelled out hours before the real show begins. Not knowing any better, all seven members of the Montreal band dutifully took their seats inside an L.A. convention hall at 11 a.m., and spent the day politely applauding the winners of the best Hawaiian, polka and metal recordings. It was hot. It was boring. They didn’t win. And there was no alcohol, food, or even water available.

Late in the afternoon, the famished crowd was finally herded across the street to the Staples Center, site of the evening festivities. Inside the rink, a huge lineup formed at the one open concession stand. Soon things turned ugly. “People were screaming,” says Butler. “Women in prom dresses were crying,” Chassagne chimes in. Organizers told them they had to take their seats, and that no food would be allowed inside. Total chaos. “By the end there were people offering $50 for a hot dog,” Butler says with a grin.

Sitting in a Montreal café, tucking into their quesadillas, the couple has every reason to laugh. When Arcade Fire returns to this year’s Grammys on Feb. 13, they’ll be performing for a worldwide television audience, earning both a dressing room and backstage catering. The Suburbs, their most recent disc, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts last August, is up for Album of the Year and Best Alternative Album. Their song Ready to Start snagged a Best Rock Performance nod. A couple of days later, they’ll be in London, playing at the Brit Awards, where they’re up for International Group and International Album of the Year. In late March, they’ll also take the stage at the Junos in Toronto, where their six nominations have them tied with Drake. In April, there’s a headlining date at the Coachella music festival in California. In June, a concert for 60,000 in London’s Hyde Park. And in late July, a shared Moncton gig with U2, a band they became friendly with after opening their 2006 shows in Montreal and Toronto.

Already an international indie-rock success—Funeral and its follow-up Neon Bible are both approaching half-million-sold gold status in the U.S., and The Suburbs sold 156,000 copies there in just its first week—Arcade Fire hover at the threshold of the mainstream, uncharted territory for a band without the backing of a major label. (The group pay for, and own, all of their recordings, striking distribution deals with various partners.) Perhaps even a little weird, given their sprawling sound, which trips from fuzzy punk, to electronic new wave, to revival-tent singalongs. “Sometimes there’s a little cultural moment for something that is different,” says Butler. “But it mostly seems like an accident of history.”

After lunch, and a quick trudge across the street through a fresh, deep snowfall, Chassagne and Butler join their bandmates—Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara, Sarah Neufeld, and Win’s younger brother Will—in a sun-filled room above a storefront for rehearsal. A week before the Grammys, the group still hasn’t decided what song they want to play. “It’s kind of subjective, since we don’t really have a hit,” says Butler. He discards his shoes and socks and starts tuning a guitar. Musically, Arcade Fire have always prided themselves in making it up as they go along—fidèle to the feeling, but not the rules. But there is a larger plan.

In the rehearsal room, as when they appear on stage, there are two drum kits. One kick drum bears the band’s initials. The other, the Haitian coat of arms. Since 2005, the group has raised more than $1 million for development work in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation. Recently, Chassagne and Dominique Anglade, a Montreal businesswoman and childhood friend, formed their own charity, Kanpe (Creole for “stand up”). Working with Partners in Health, an international NGO, and Fonkoze, a Haitian micro-lending organization, Kanpe is set to launch a concerted attack on the roots of poverty in one island community, shepherding 300 families to economic and physical health. The budget for the three-year project is $2 million. The band has pledged to match every dollar raised, up to a million, from their own pockets. In March, in between award shows, they’ll all travel together to Haiti to check out the work that has already begun, and get their own hands dirty.

Their main act
Photograph by Carl Lessard

Fame, even on the lower rungs, isn’t always fun. For example, Butler, Chassagne and their cohorts have learned to be sparing with the details of their lives in Montreal, lest fans turn up on their doorsteps. But it can have a purpose. “Every time I think it’s getting annoying, I say to myself, if people didn’t know who you are, or what you do, then you wouldn’t be able to raise all that money for Haiti,” says Chassagne. “It’s really all about doing something with it.”

On the surface, at least, they seem like an unlikely pair. Edwin Farnham Butler III, 30, the lanky eldest son of a blue-blood New Englander and a Joni Mitchell-style California musician, raised in Texas, and diminutive Régine Chassagne, the 33-year-old francophone daughter of Haitian refugees who washed up on Montreal’s south shore. On stage, he towers like an Ent with a guitar, and she flits from instrument to instrument like a pixie. But away from the music, he’s the expansive story-teller, while she perches on the edge of the couch, arms and legs crossed tight.

They met at the McGill Faculty of Music in 2000. She was studying vocals and playing recorder in a medieval ensemble. He wasn’t in school—although he did study comparative Biblical Scripture for a time—just haunting the corridors, looking for a drummer for his then more-notional-than-actual band. Their paths crossed again at an art opening where Chassagne was singing with a jazz band. They got together a few nights later to play music and wrote a tune, Headlights Look Like Diamonds, that ended up on Arcade Fire’s first EP in 2003, the year they married. “It was a songwriting thing that turned into a date,” Butler says. She snorts. “It wasn’t a date. No way! I don’t think it was.”

The relationship has remained creative. Always together and always writing, they toss riffs and fragments back and forth. “We’re each others’ hard drives,” says Chassagne. Music is intertwined with life. The ideas come while she’s cleaning, or taking out the garbage. A drum kit dominates their living room. Parts of the latest album were recorded there, then handed off to the other band members for their input. Butler says his wife “is music,” melody and rhythm springing from her core. She praises his focus and perseverance; the ability to bring structure to their ideas.

The Butler brothers’ musical pedigree stretches back two generations to their maternal grandfather, Alvino Rey, a big-band leader and pedal-steel guitar virtuoso who had a string of Top 10 hits in the 1940s. Win formed his first band as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite New Hampshire boarding school that counts George Plimpton, John Irving and Mark Zuckerberg among its other graduates. His first public performance was a cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven, at a school talent show. Music was the only career he ever gave serious consideration.

Chassagne taught herself to play piano at age four. Growing up in a close-knit household, song was always a part of daily life, but it was only after an undergrad degree in communications at Concordia, and her mother’s untimely death, that she ever dared to breathe her dream of performing. Her parents had come to Montreal in the early 1970s, after meeting in the States. Régine’s mother fled Haiti when she returned home from market one day to find her cousins and friends had been murdered. Her dad left after his father was taken away by the Tonton Macoutes and executed. (The price of refuge in America ended up being a tour of duty in Vietnam.) As new Canadians, both worked hard to establish themselves—he taught math, she worked as a secretary and at a daycare. But Haiti remained the country of all their imaginations. “Growing up, I never went there,” says Chassagne. “It wasn’t a possibility financially, and especially with my mom—she still had nightmares. She wanted to forget about it.”

In the end, it was a Harvard physician who introduced Chassagne to her parents’ homeland. She’d read a book about Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, and became fascinated by his quest to “cure the world.” In October 2008, she and Win spent a couple of weeks on the island, touring PIH’s clinics, and reconnecting with her roots. “Going there made me understand what was actually Haitian about my upbringing,” says Chassagne. “I realized I was Haitian by osmosis.”

Even before the trip, Arcade Fire had been raising money for Partners in Health, tacking on a charity surcharge—one dollar, one euro or one pound—to every ticket sold. The “biggest no-brainer thing we ever did,” as Win calls it, has so far collected almost US$1 million. At shows, he gives a short spiel about the organization, and PIH volunteers are always on hand to pass out literature. “It’s been kind of incredible,” says Christine Hamann, the outreach coordinator for Partners in Health. “It amplifies everything we do.” During the most recent tour, 5,500 fans signed up for its “Stand with Haiti” campaign.

The idea of Kanpe—an organization to ?ll in the gaps in the NGO network in Haiti—started with the 2008 visit. Paul Farmer had spoken of his frustration at returning TB and HIV patients to stable health, only to see them go back to the kind of impoverished conditions that gave rise to the illnesses in the first place. “It’s like that Creole saying about washing your hands and drying them in the dirt,” says Butler.

The earthquake just made it all the more pressing—and personal. The parents of Kanpe co-founder Dominique Anglade were crushed beneath the rubble of their Port-au-Prince home, the first confirmed Canadian casualties. In Montreal, the two exile families had been close friends, sharing birthday celebrations and summer camping trips. To date, Kanpe, which is still looking for corporate benefactors, has raised about $400,000. Half of it has come from the seven members of Arcade Fire.

Over the last few years, they’ve played on stage with David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, appeared twice on Saturday Night Live, and entertained Obama’s staff at one of the official 2008 inauguration balls. Just how much bigger the band can become is hard to predict. The music business isn’t like it used to be (not that Arcade Fire ever aspired to be part of it anyway). “Radio is the wild card,” says Butler. “That’s what separates us and Coldplay—having radio hits. Reaching the people who just buy one or two albums a year.”

They still control, or as Chassagne prefers to say, “direct” their own business, paying their way in the studio, on video shoots and the road. But there have been small concessions to stardom, like the manager they share with Björk and Paul McCartney. Butler swears things haven’t changed that much. “Our day-to-day life is identical, except for not sweating the electrical bill as much. We still have the same crap in our house; the old chairs, and the stool I fished out of the dumpster.”

On tour, they occasionally forsake the hired car and take the subway, just to remind themselves of how absurd it has all become. Having Haiti top of mind is also a pretty fail-safe way of “keeping it real.” “Now our lives are changing fast. Now our lives are changing fast. Hope that something pure can last,” Butler sings on The Suburbs’ track We Used to Wait.

It’s by a band that’s trying to change the world, without letting it change them.