We Deserve Love: Arcade Fire on defying backlash
After years spent untouchable at the top, Montreal's indie rock royalty saw the tide turn against them last summer. Will Butler discusses their arena bid to reclaim their crown
“I’d much rather that people were talking positively about everything we do, but whenever you put two-and-a-half years of your life into something, you’re just happy to see it exist in the public sphere in some way.”
Last year, Arcade Fire entered unchartered territory. For over a decade, they’d been setting their own bar impossibly high, and still clearing it comfortably. Funeral, their 2004 debut, was marked out by critics as a future classic and now, at less than fifteen years’ distance, is already widely considered as such – it’s an indie rock all-timer. The follow-up Neon Bible made a mockery of the age-old concept of the difficult second album, exploring ever darker thematic territory as it offered up operatic ambition on the musical front. By 2010, their third LP The Suburbs had delivered them to arenas and festival headline slots the world over, and they never seemed in any mood to look back thereafter.
They continued to push boundaries and take genuine creative risks with Reflektor in 2013; a sprawling double album that played like the soundtrack for an end-of-days discotheque, it wore its excesses proudly in its sleeve – its seven-figure budget, its obscure filmic influences, its supernova of a guest turn from David Bowie on the title track. The band’s live shows were already the stuff of modern legend, but when they toured Reflektor, it swiftly became evident that they were writing their own rules as they went along, instituting dress codes at their gigs (your choice of fancy or formal), setting up false stages at the wrong ends of venues to pull the rug from under the audience, and arriving at some concerts not by having a blacked-out car deliver them at a side entrance but, instead, in the thick of street parades they’d thrown themselves.
If ever there was a time for a backlash, you’d have thought Reflektor would have been it – the moment when rock traditionalists would begin to draw unfavourable comparisons with Zoo TV-era U2 and, not to put too fine a point on it, suggest that Arcade Fire had begun to disappear up their own collective arse. But nobody did. Fans and critics alike lapped up this latest madcap chapter in the history of a band apparently incapable of doing anything by numbers. You sort of assumed that if they’d gotten away with Reflektor, they could get away with anything.
And then, last summer, the levee broke – and in dramatic fashion. Even before Everything Now was released in late July, the album’s promotional campaign – which was typically panoramic in terms of its vision – was being met largely with a sea of rolled eyes and a sense that patience with the band’s antics hadn’t just run out, but had snapped with a violent abruptness. The album itself is their weakest to date but it was also never afforded a fair crack of the whip, with the most vocal section of the target audience having apparently decided they were over Arcade Fire before they’d even heard it.
“The launch turned a lot of people off,” says multi-instrumentalist Will Butler, with a wry chuckle. He and the band are in the UK as part of the Infinite Content tour that should have served as a victory lap, but has instead taken on a new urgency, as a last opportunity to reshape the popular perception of Everything Now. “Some of the reaction was strange to me, because all we did was tweet out maybe seven things over the course of ten days of hijinks. I get that some people might not have liked it, but whoa! There was some real fury.”
Any other band – and particularly one like Arcade Fire that had grown used to nothing short of universal adulation – might have chosen to dial down the conceptual aspects of the album’s campaign. The offending narrative was that, in advance of the record’s release, the group had sold out to a multinational corporation – one that, even by the already dubious standards of such organisations, was particularly maniacal in terms of its stop-at-nothing greed.
Arcade Fire, the story went, were now capitalist slaves, a mere vehicle for the delivery of rampant advertising and product placement. It was very obviously supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and as much as taking aim at the dead hand of the global free market is hardly scintillatingly original, it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously either – and neither were the glut of fake news stories that this fictional iteration of the band leaked about themselves, from satirical lifestyle columns to parodic reviews of Everything Now.
“It seemed like the people who took it the worst were critics in particular, and the media in general,” says Butler, who still seems amused by it all. “I mean, the media probably took the full brunt of it to be fair. I think our bigger fans thought it was fun, and then maybe more casual fans interacted with it less. Philosophically, we’re kind of like Terry Gilliam, where everything’s 100% absurd and 100% heartfelt at the same time. We were genuinely angry about the issues that the album raises, but with us, there’s always a strong element of it just being a lark too. A lot of people didn’t get that I guess.”
Still, where so many others would have wilted in the face of that negative pressure and reverted to type, Arcade Fire have stuck to their guns. Last month they unveiled an epic double video – Money + Love – directed by their friend David Wilson and encompassing both Put Your Money on Me and We Don’t Deserve Love from Everything Now. In it, the band – condemned by Toni Collette’s shadowy executive to, amongst other things, a slot as the house band at one of Everything Now Corp’s casinos – duly ransack and rob the joint.
“There was never any question that we were going to see the concept through,” Butler explains. “These days, the public tend to move on quickly anyway. If you’re not a superstar, then records sort of disappear from the consciousness, and while we’re quite popular, we’re not Adele, you know? We’re not Beyoncé, and we’re not Justin Timberlake.
“So we put together this little film that I think really speaks to the core of the record. Put Your Money on Me is a great single, and I think in a different era We Don’t Deserve Love would have been played on the radio. Those two tracks are the emotional heart of Everything Now and we wanted to make something that gave life to that part of the album. We Don’t Deserve Love, especially, is the least ironic thing on there – it’s totally a bleeding heart thing. The whole emotional arc of the record is contained within those two songs.”
It was for that reason that they were so keen to take the opportunity to present them in such grand fashion. “We definitely never want our videos to be grist to the content mill. I know it’s not the era where Spike Jonze is working with Björk, when all those songs were hits, but that doesn’t mean that videos are any less important. We’ve always thought about music in visual terms anyway. The word we use more than any other is 'cinematic': 'Oh, that needs to be look more cinematic, it needs to sound more cinematic, we have to dress more cinematically.' It’s always been the mode that we’ve worked in.”
[Arcade Fire by Guy Aroch]
That remains the case on the Infinite Content tour – to put it mildly. 'Arcade Fire in Spectacular Stage Show Shocker' would be the cynic’s take on proceedings, but the opening night of the UK leg in Manchester was genuinely something else. It had been announced last year, when tickets went on sale, that these arena shows would be in the round, but fans surely didn’t expect that – save for the standing floor – the venue would be configured exactly as it would for a boxing match, ring and all, with a giant four-sided jumbotron hanging overhead. It showed the band making their way to the ‘stage’ through the crowd to the strains of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, as an announcer assigned them the red corner and reeled off their glittering career record over the tannoy: “representing Canada and the USA, weighing 2100 pounds collectively, with 20 Grammys, 15 Juno Awards, three Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards and one shocking Oscar loss.”
“Oh, there’s definitely something of the blood sport about the shows now!” laughs Butler. “It’s a pretty lengthy show, and we’ve got a lot of long songs, so we’re going out there into the ring and it’s a little bit gladiatorial. It’s got that sense of Christians fighting lions to it. It’s pure spectacle, but then again, it needs to be; we’ve always thrived on intimacy at our gigs, and that’s obviously hard to come by when you’re headlining arenas and playing festivals. At the same time, we want to make sure that as many people as possible can come to see us, so small rooms aren’t an option – and I have to say, I would happily play the Barrowlands in Glasgow every year until I die if I could. So we put the stage in the middle of the floor and, all of a sudden, everybody’s all around us. It feels like much more of a shared experience.”
That’s something that’s more important than ever now that the internet, a constant target of Everything Now’s ire, has so profoundly altered the manner in which artists deliver their work to their audience; the game-changing impact of the streaming age is not lost on Butler. “The landscape has changed a lot since we first started out,” he reflects. “We came out in this small little blip that was the post-Napster, pre-Spotify era, when there wasn’t so much negativity on the internet and people were using it to turn others on to music they really loved. Now, it seems quite a bit more brutal, especially after Netflix and Spotify, which have led to people consuming media the same way that they’d eat a steak.
"It’s beautiful that we have access to every album ever recorded, but it also means that you can just mow through them like a mulching machine. You can watch ten years of The Sopranos in two weeks. Nobody spends enough time with anything anymore, but there’s a real connection at live shows that remains unaltered. The internet hasn’t been able to break that down.”
The gigs also allow the band, and in particular Butler’s brother Win, to reach their fans without a filter. If the convoluted political ideas behind Everything Now’s concept went over the heads of those assembled in Manchester when the album was released, they would have left the show in no doubt about where the frontman – and, by extension, the rest of the group – stood on Donald Trump, Brexit and the gun control debate in the U.S.
“We’re in this strange position where we’re travelling around the world, to every major city, and feeling the vibe of a big group of people every night. On stage, we just try to earnestly respond to what we pick up on. It’s not as clear-cut on the records, but it’s there if you look for it. The way we’ve always made albums is that, after a tour, we go home, and we plug into our communities, our families, our neighbourhoods. I mean, there’s a reason why there’s four songs called Neighborhood on Funeral! We try to let the art and the concerns emerge organically from there. That means some of the mood of the world is always going to be present on the record, but maybe isn’t concretely addressed. That goes for the shows too, because they’re works of art in a contemporary time.”
That process of plugging back in is close at hand once again; Win told the Manchester crowd that it’d be a while before they met again, and the younger Butler confirms that there’ll be little to nothing happening on the live front once they complete their scheduled shows, which run until August: “By then, we’ll have been on the road for more than a year, and that’s normally the point at which we want to rediscover what it is to live in one place and think about one thing.”
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Win said of Everything Now that “part of me hopes that this record is our stinker, our horrible record... because if it is, then we may be the greatest band of all time.” He’s never wanted for confidence, so there’s surely more to that statement than just him putting a brave face on the album’s perceived failings, but once these shows are in the history books, you suspect he won’t need to do that anyway. Viewed through the prism of Arcade Fire’s unrivalled status as the world’s finest live band, history is going to be much kinder to Everything Now than most listeners were last summer.
Everything Now is available now via Columbia. Arcade Fire play Glasgow’s SSE Hydro on 16 Apr