THE ARCADE FIRE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Wednesday (June 23). $8. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Montreal - Montreal is a weird nexus of disappearing heritage, panic and passion. Walk down one street and you get the folksy vibe of Old-World communities - dépanneurs where the pot-smoking schmo behind the counter knows everyone in the area, ladies in housedresses hanging undies on clotheslines, community gardens and architecture straight out of a Mordecai Richler novel.
Turn a corner and gentrification smacks you in the face. Boutiques and big-box stores battle ancient shopkeepers for real estate while artists are booted out of their studios to make way for the creeping scourge of yupscale lofters. There's a sort of anxiety in everyone from artists to pure-laine Quebeckers that stems from their driving desire to maintain a rich, autonomous culture.
Which is where the Arcade Fire fits in.
The Montrealers make music that's jarringly beautiful and evasive, drawing on everything from the avant-classical experimentation of Debussy to the Cure's moody, atmospheric guitars and keyboards to the raw catharsis of archival folk recordings. Considering the complexity of their tunes, it's shocking to hear founder-slash-songwriter-slash-wailer Win Butler locate his inspiration in a cultural vacuum.
"There's something very suburban in our music," insists the Texas-born beanpole. "I think we have a drive to find a semblance of universality, which to me seems innate to kids from the suburbs. You relate to different kinds of things than someone who grew up in a super-rural environment or in a really dense big city, where there's an actual culture."
Ask what they model their avant attack on, and the answers are eclectic. Drummer Howard Bilerman recalls seeing a spandex-clad Freddie Mercury perform a pyrotechnic-packed Queen concert at Montreal's Forum when he was 12, although he's since realized the show was not all that. Butler cites the bare-bones honesty of Tom Waits on a Saturday Night Live rerun, even though he says he wasn't really into the music.
We're in the apartment Butler shares with wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne, way north up the Main, past the McGill ghetto's poseur bars, the late-night falafel shops and the grassroots galleries in a crumbling industrial area. Instruments are jammed into the space - pianos, antique organs, Rickenbackers, drum kits - and the rest of his bandmates (Richard Parry and Tim Kingsbury along with Butler, Chassagne and Bilerman) busy themselves throwing together a late-night pasta dinner.
It's the day before what could be a make-or-break tour, opening for fellow Montreal wackos the Unicorns across America. They have to be up by 6 am the next morning and plan to hit the road by 8:30. Everyone's exhausted and cranky. At one point, the group breaks into a heated argument over who should be where during the photo shoot that has me aching to leave the room.
The experience helps me understand how the Arcade Fire pull off such passionately explosive performances.
"Once you've heard musicians who are really being themselves, totally passionate and out of control, doing something that's beautiful but also dangerous, it's frustrating to go back to typical pop music," offers Butler. "It's the difference between the Clash and Sum 41."
The quintet's live show has been known to feature everything from manic helmet-clad members drumming on each other's heads (and on the ceilings of clubs) to whirling parasol dances to unselfconscious performative improv. During one memorable Horseshoe gig, a technical difficulty stalled the set. While most musicians would've been left staring at their Chuck Taylors, Chassagne charmingly broke into a keyboard rendition of the Super Mario Brothers theme song (three full levels!), while Parry and Kingsbury acted out the visuals. The crowd ate it up.
"Oh yeah," recalls Parry. "The ultimate 'artists who take risks' moment. I'm sure we struck fear in the hearts of the attendees. 'Is he the goomba? Oh my god, is he gonna kill us?'"
While the Arcade Fire refer to their aesthetic as "dangerous," it's more of a transcendental confrontation: something bizarre, uncanny and, yes, even spiritual. Most members grew up performing in churches - a pushy nun tapped Chassagne to play organ, Kingsbury's mom forced him and his siblings to sing in front of the congregation.
The discussion turns into a debate over whether popular art still has the ability to inspire. Parry contrasts the artistic void with a Methodist radio preacher they heard down in North Carolina.
"That was inspiring and actually uplifting. He was talking about not being trapped by your circumstances, and the cycle of doubt. Not feeling sorry for yourself. I remember the big thing I got out of it was not feeling stuck in your circumstances and stepping up to bat about the things you're faced with in your life. It was spoken with such grace and authority."
Preaching aside, the Arcade Fire are hell-bent on smashing the paradigms of conventional pop music on every level, which makes them a thrilling cultural phenomenon in a world where prefab bands dominate the charts and even so-called cult indie bands seem to be merely rehashing formerly hip trends.
It's easy to understand why, in the past year, the band has been torpedoed on a sea of scene buzz. While the band claims rumours of a bidding war between hot indies (Paper Bag and Alien-8 both expressed interest) are fictional, they acknowledge that North Carolina's Merge (founded by Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan) won out over a handful of would-be suitors.
"In all of our minds, the light at the end of the tunnel was Merge," explains Bilerman. "I think all of our hearts were set on Merge because of the music they put out. And meeting them and finding out what wonderful people they are was just the icing on the cake.
"It was really important to me to have the people who are putting out our record be in bands themselves - to feel a certain kinship with them, but also to know they've been down the same road."
Before their hotly anticipated full-length debut drops in the fall, the Arcade Fire are releasing a preview on Merge, a split 7-inch featuring a b-side track by Butler's grandpa, the late pedal steel legend Alvino Rey.
"My grandpa passed away last February, and the last song they played at the funeral was the b-side, My Buddy. It's just pedal steel guitar with this weird vocoder thing running through it, and an orchestra flourish in the middle. It was a lot more pared-down than the big-band stuff I'd heard of his before.
"His last big project involved touching up these radio broadcasts he'd done during the second world ware. To most people the track'll probably sound bizarre and quirky, but it reminds me so much of him and what was so great and important about him as a person. He was really funny, a really unique guy."