The other day, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire were redecorating their home in Montreal and listening to In Utero, the album Nirvana recorded amid the vertigo induced by sudden and confounding success. They got to thinking about how they were now headlining some of the same huge venues that Nirvana played after Nevermind, which Chassagne finds a “head trip.”
“There’s definitely three songs on In Utero that are like, ‘Hey jocks! Stop listening to our music! Go away!’” Butler says.
Does he ever feel like that?
“Yeah, of course. You want to be able to relate to what you’re doing. But,” he says with a tentative smile, “so far, so good.”
Arcade Fire hasn’t yet released an album as unnervingly huge as Nevermind, but its third, The Suburbs, continues the band’s upward trajectory, debuting at No. 1 in both the US and UK. Having headlined Madison Square Garden and London’s O2, the band will do the same in London’s Hyde Park in June.
The group won the Grammy’s top prize, album of the year, on Sunday, and on Tuesday it took home Brit music awards for international group and international album of the year. Furthermore, its music has a certain questing grandeur and cultural weight that has people talking in terms of U2 and “next levels” and “bigness,” all of which leaves the band feeling a little nonplussed.
“I don’t know if it’s a British thing, the biggest-band-in-the-world competition,” Butler muses. “It’s something that wasn’t ingrained in any of us. I don’t have a ‘We’re going to do this and be No. 1’ attitude.”
“New and improved! 33 percent more strings!” Chassagne laughs.
“It’s really a lot easier to get smaller,” Butler says, unfurling a broad grin that almost transforms his face from gloomy and austere to movie-star handsome. “That’s definitely not hard.”
It’s a winter’s day in Montreal and the snow lies so thick that the car park outside Arcade Fire’s building is buried under a 3m-deep drift. Inside the band’s top-floor office, which looks less like a place of work than a bohemian crash pad, complete with beds and racks of thrift-store vinyl, the mood is cheerful, largely thanks to a wise decision to take two months off. Butler, 30 and a looming 1.93m, wears a T-shirt that reads “I don’t know,” a slogan from Scenes From the Suburbs, the short film the band just made with Spike Jonze, and which premiered at the Berlin film festival last week. Chassagne, 33, literally dances into the room, her curls bouncing.
As they sit down to falafels and bowls of soup, they are both funnier and more relaxed than Arcade Fire’s earnest reputation suggests. “I’m not a particularly serious person,” Butler insists. (Later, I ask multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry whether Butler’s occasional habit of goading the audience reveals a fierce desire to forge an emotional connection. “Yeah,” he concedes hesitantly. “And he just likes to fuck with people.”)
In front of a dictaphone, Chassagne needs to gather momentum, like a spinning top. An answer will either wobble and stop or spin and spin. Butler is less extreme, but you can instantly tell whether or not a question has engaged him. The couple’s responses, like their music, are all or nothing.
When they met in Montreal in 2000, they were from different worlds. Edwin Farnham Butler III was the son of a geologist and a harpist: born in California, raised in the Houston planned community that inspired much of The Suburbs, and educated at the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Chassagne was the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s murderous Tonton Macoutes in the 1960s.