Personal losses bring out best in Arcade Fire


July 22, 2005


The specter of death hung heavily over "Funeral," 2004's aptly titled debut album by the Montreal quintet the Arcade Fire, and the indie-rock underground hasn't so enthusiastically embraced an effort inspired by the loss of a loved one since "The Soft Bulletin" by the Flaming Lips in 1999.

Like that album, "Funeral" seeks catharsis by searching for the reasons that life is still worth living in the face of pressing grief -- not the least of which is the beauty of the Arcade Fire's finely constructed, lushly orchestrated pop music.

The group formed after guitarist-vocalist Win Butler saw Regine Chassagne, whose family had fled Haiti under the dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, singing lounge standards in an art gallery at Quebec's Concordia University. The two became husband and wife in the summer of 2003, and the band coalesced around them with the additions of keyboardist Richard Parry, bassist Tim Kingsbury, drummer Jeremy Gara, violinist Sarah Neufeld and multi-instrumentalist and Win's younger brother, Will.

"I think all of our goals have pretty much been music-motivated -- trying to finish songs and get together stuff that we're excited about -- and everything grew from that," Win Butler says. The group didn't necessarily set out to follow the ork-pop path of bands such as the Polyphonic Spree, Lambchop or Head of Femur. "To me it's just kind of a Beatles thing: I learned pretty early on that instrumentation is as important as anything to making a song work, so we try to pay attention for what each song actually needs."



  • 11:45 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
  • Hutchinson Field in Grant Park
  • Tickets, $60; $115 (two-day pass)
  • (888) 512-7469;



    Where has all the diversity gone?
    Though I hold that nostalgia is the enemy of all great rock 'n' roll, and I see plenty of skepticism in my reports from the front while the original Lollapalooza was still a thriving concern, I have to admit that I feel a faint tinge of regret for the musical diversity, optimistic energy and boundless enthusiasm that the tour represented at its best.


  • To that end, "Funeral" makes impressive use of accordion, xylophone, upright bass, violin, cello and harp, among more conventional rock instruments.

    "I think that the instrumentation of the band will probably always shift depending on the song," Butler says. "Regine and I work together a lot, and the band has a lot of control over the final product, the instrumentation and arrangement, but I usually have some kind of direction and everyone else will fill it in."

    The deaths that inspired many of the songs on "Funeral" included, between the summer of 2003 and early 2004, Chassagne's grandmother, Parry's aunt and, perhaps most significantly, the Butlers' grandfather, Alvino Rey, a respected swing-era musician, a driving force behind "The King Family Show" (an early '60s musical/variety TV program rife with white-bread patriotic and spiritual anthems) and a composer of more esoteric "space age bachelor pad" exotica a la 1960's "Ping Pong!," a genre classic.

    Win says his grandfather inspired him more by example than through his recorded legacy or live performances.

    "We didn't live in the same town, but he gave me my first electric guitar in middle school. He was more an influence in showing me that music was a way of life: I remember hearing about my mom growing up, and both of her parents were always home when she got home from school, and they were both musicians. There was just this positive attitude toward it, whereas most people have the idea that it's the life of derelicts or something."

    "Funeral" wasn't consciously crafted as a concept album, Butler says; the musicians' losses simply weighed upon all of them as they recorded at a home setup in Win and Regine's snowbound Montreal apartment.

    "I just think most writers tend to have some sort of lyrical world: They use a lot of similar images and words in songs, not as an intentional thing, but just as ideas they keep coming back to. A lot of times songs in the same period of time will be dealing with similar ideas and try to get at them from a different angle.

    "I tend to not write things down too much, in terms of lyrics or melodies, so if I'm singing something in the shower and I remember it two weeks later, it's usually a sign that it's good. I'm a really big on not editing oneself. I don't think you can have writing something good as a goal, you just have to write and work on music more as a pastime, and whether it's good or not is up to someone else to decide."

    The fans have clearly decided, making "Funeral" one of the most successful indie releases in recent years and packing the group's live shows, earning it a spot as one of the most anticipated acts at the revitalized Lollapalooza in Grant Park this weekend. The gig is one of the few the Arcade Fire is playing this summer.

    "Otherwise, we're taking time off," Butler says, "just trying to take some space and get some ideas kicking around in our heads again. We're setting up a space to record in Montreal in the fall, and we're trying to be as self-sufficient as we can be. We have a lot of musical goals for the next album, but we're trying to stay as focused on what we do as possible, pick sounds out of the air, and try to make sense of them."



    The Arcade Fire appears as one of the dozens of bands at Lollapalooza 2005 at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at SBC East, one of five corporate-sponsored stages at Hutchinson Field in Grant Park. (Tickets are available onsite at the box office, Columbus and Balbo, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $60 per day or $115 for a two-day pass. Call (866) 81-LOLLA.)

    A major factor that will decide the success of the retooled Lollapalooza, which promoters envision as an annual "destination festival," is the configuration of the stages at Hutchinson. In the past, the rolling meadow has successfully hosted major concerts for as many as 30,000 people with one stage at the northern end.

    Lollapalooza promoters have configured four stages, two of which will operate at any time, in each corner of the site, with another simultaneously operating across Columbus Avenue, and they hope to draw at least 40,000 concertgoers.

    The map at right shows the layout for the festival, and a full schedule of the acts and set times is available online at or in last Sunday's Lollapalooza preview in the Sun-Times Showcase section.