Montreal Is Burning

Arcade Fire’s meteoric rise changed a city and redefined a subculture

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe

On February 13 of this year, the Montreal rock band Arcade Fire, known for their spirited live shows and ragged emotionalism, arrived at the Grammy Awards with low expectations. Their third LP, The Suburbs, released on the independent label Merge, was inexplicably nominated for album of the year, up against efforts from four of the biggest acts on the planet: Lady Gaga, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, and Katy Perry. The past decade has been hard on the music industry, but the Grammys have generally been content to go down with the ship, doling out prizes in accordance with establishment tastes. Few expected a bunch of shabbily dressed Canadians to beat out the luminaries who brought us “Poker Face” and “I Kissed a Girl.”

As the ceremony dragged on, the band performed “Month of May,” one of The Suburbs’ harshest songs—a thumbed nose at the Grammy overlords. Then Barbra Streisand took to the podium and announced the winner: “The S-s-suburbs? ” The band members themselves were as shocked as the rest of the universe, beaming adorably as they thanked Montreal for giving them a musical home. “We’re going to go play another song,” singer Win Butler announced, between bleeped expletives, “ ’cause we like music.” Then they launched into the tough, terse “Ready to Start,” whose lyrics describe businessmen drinking blood, and the emperor’s new clothes; if this was another protest song, though, why did the band members look so giddy?

Almost immediately, furious people took to Twitter, as furious people do these days, to register their disgust. “Fuck the fucking grammys!!!” went one typical response. “I cant see wat im typing but fuck those mother fuckers!!! Arcade fire?!! Who the fuck arfe they? I dnt know…” Rosie O’Donnell (“album of the year ? ummm never heard of them ever”) and Dog the Bounty Hunter (“Who the he’ll is that Fire who? ”) both tweeted their displeasure; the whole firestorm was documented on a sarcastic Tumblr titled “Who Is Arcade Fire??!!? ” The band members took it in stride: “We’re called Arcade Fire,” Butler later joked at the Brit Awards, in a nod to the meme. “Check it out on Google.”

But no one was more surprised than Arcade Fire’s fans, some of whom had been following the group since it formed ten years ago, in the living rooms and underground venues of Montreal. “It has been almost a decade since I first heard Win’s voice, plaintive and twanging, at a Battle of the Bands,” wrote Sean Michaels the next day, on his influential music blog, Said the Gramophone. “They have come a very, very long way, mostly just by playing their hearts out.” In the process of achieving incredible success, Arcade Fire almost single-handedly turned the world’s attention to Montreal’s music scene, and became the ultimate contradiction: an indie rock band that sells millions of records and racks up major awards. How did this happen?

Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s first date was also their first jam session. They initially met at McGill University, where she sang jazz while he, a religious studies student, stalked the music department’s halls, hassling other students to start a band with him. But the two did not stumble upon their trademark synthesis—his quivering Americana tenor paired with her technical prowess and sense of whimsy—until they bumped into each other at an art opening. That night, in Butler’s apartment, the pair wrote “Headlights Look like Diamonds,” which would eventually appear on Arcade Fire’s debut EP. “The countryside’s deserted / there’s no one on the farms,” Butler croons; perhaps not a terribly romantic tune, but when was the last time you composed a song on a first date?

At the time, Montreal was not quite the indie rock mecca we know today. It had a rich history—jazz in the ’60s, punk in the ’70s, new wave in the ’80s—but around 2001, widespread pay-to-play policies discouraged live music in bars, and the city’s best-known band was the sombre, instrumental Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Over the next several years, as Arcade Fire performed in lofts and galleries, supported by a rotating cast of local musicians, it gained a reputation as a formidable live act. (Chassagne and Butler married in 2003.) This was a very different time in music: the terms “hipster” and “indie rock” still brought to mind beat poets and ’90s alternative acts like Pavement. Today, fairly or unfairly, these are almost always labels of derision, connoting fleeting musical trends and pretentious Brooklynites in skinny jeans.

I first saw Arcade Fire during this in-between period, in the summer of 2004, at a small folk festival in Ontario. They opened with “Wake Up,” still arguably their best live song: the anxious, wordless oh-oh-oh chorus, their collective voices cracking on that high A. They wore frayed dresses and ties, like aristocrats fallen on hard times, and the music they played was soaring, almost spiritual. A few months later, I moved to Montreal, and Funeral, their massive debut, dropped like an anvil. I bought it in a now-defunct record store on Ste. Catherine Street, popped the CD into my Discman (a more obsolete collection of words I cannot imagine), and listened to it in the autumn chill as I trudged back to campus. Within a year, the record sold half a million copies. Arcade Fire opened for U2, played with David Bowie, and appeared on the cover of Time Canada.

By 2005, as the group drew more attention to the town from which it sprang, the trend-hungry New York Times was declaring Montreal an “It City,” on par with Seattle during the grunge era. That same year, the music outlet Pitchfork, whose name has become synonymous with indie, ran an interview with the band. “It’s pretty weird that we keep getting tied together in the press,” the writer said, by way of a question. “Like, a lot of the features I’ve read on the Arcade Fire mention Pitchfork and vice versa.” This was a sly ruse, a way for the website to point up its burgeoning influence while distancing itself from accusations that it was perpetuating an unsustainable hype cycle. Although its early, glowing review of Funeral is frequently credited for Arcade Fire’s success, the effect went two ways: the band’s rise also cemented Pitchfork’s status as this generation’s most definitive tastemaker. Arcade Fire’s members were standard-bearers who represented not just Montreal’s musical ascension, but that of an entire subculture.

The wave of indie rock they led arose while the music industry was entering a period of great turmoil. In the early 2000s, file sharing demolished the major label business model, while independent labels and bands—with their loyal fan bases, dedication to touring, and grasp of the Internet’s marketing potential—weathered the storm. The indie scene’s newfound viability allowed Arcade Fire to retain its autonomy by sticking with Merge, even though it seemed primed for a major label. As a result, it’s not quite as popular as a star like Katy Perry, whose Teenage Dream has sold 1.7 million copies; The Suburbs has sold almost 500,000 to date. But recall that Britney Spears’s …Baby One More Time, from 1999, reportedly sold an absurd 25 million units. The digital revolution effectively levelled the musical playing field, allowing Arcade Fire to come closer to the pop mainstream than any independent band before it.

“Indie rock” is a woolly term; it stands for a music defined by its ethos rather than its sound. One could say the same about punk, but indie’s sonic diversity is unprecedented: it can encompass both an unlistenable noise act and an acoustic singer-songwriter. Arcade Fire has always been a pop band, though. It just took us ten-odd years to realize it. Funeral is full of big hooks and proper choruses, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most influential albums of the decade, having inspired legions of indie rock clichés: earnest group vocals, boots-and-pants beats, the use of once-unusual instruments like the accordion and the xylophone. On Neon Bible, its second album, and The Suburbs, Butler’s voice is raised considerably in the mix, and the production is more polished, giving the records a classic rock feel.

Arcade Fire left behind the spare experimentalism of its first EP a long time ago. And, caught somewhere between the underground and the stratosphere, its music contains a hint of melancholy. “All my old friends, they don’t know me now,” Butler sings on “Suburban War,” from The Suburbs. When you blow up, he seems to be telling us, you learn to say goodbye.

If you happen to visit Montreal, here are some things to do. You could get vegetarian food at Le Cagibi, where members of Arcade Fire used to hang out, back when it was still called Pharmacie Esperanza. You could get a pint at Casa del Popolo, a bar and music venue co-owned by a member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, where Arcade Fire launched its first EP with a sold-out show. You could catch a concert at La Sala Rossa, located just across the street, where Arcade Fire once opened for Broken Social Scene and Royal City and almost broke up right onstage. You could get a coffee at Café Olimpico, where, even now, you might spot a sweaty Win Butler ducking in with a basketball under his arm. I offer this friendly tour because I think newcomers could use the help. When I first moved to Montreal, I registered my eighteen-year-old excitement about the local music scene on the now-defunct 20hz message board. I was quickly and mercilessly brought to heel by the site’s veterans, who accused me of colonizing the city with my froshie’s sense of entitlement. After living here for a few years, one of them told me, you’ll be one of us, and then you’ll understand why we hate you.

Like many Montrealers, Arcade Fire’s members are not actually from Montreal. Only Chassagne was raised in the city, while the others come from Ontario, British Columbia, and the US. The same is true of most of the city’s more recent successes—similarly named acts like Braids (Calgary), Grimes (Vancouver), and Suuns (pan-Canadian)—which says a lot about Montreal itself. It’s a place of considerable appeal for the young and the creative: far less expensive than New York, far more fun than Toronto or Vancouver, it glows with unambitious energy, a place where great things might happen, or might not.

Arcade Fire’s problem was that it never sounded as small as its city. Those anthems and those Rickenbackers, the Springsteen posturing and the roomy production—this is music meant to fill stadiums and festival fields, to reach listeners of both college and satellite radio. New York is a bottomless pit of history and aspiration; because you’ll never be greater than the city itself, you can’t possibly outgrow it. But anglophone Montreal is smaller and more parochial, its pulse easier to lay your finger on, which is also why so many young people from there leave for Toronto or Brooklyn or Beijing. At its root, the story of Arcade Fire’s success is also the story of growing too big for your environs.

In 2011, a decade after the band first formed, Montreal hasn’t quite lost its cool, but international attention has moved elsewhere (Portland, Baltimore, Akron), and few of its local peers have lasted. When Funeral was released in 2004, groups like the Unicorns, Wolf Parade, and the Stills were hot on their bigger sibling’s heels. None of them exist today; the fitful Unicorns imploded before they could explode, and Wolf Parade and the Stills both called it quits earlier this year.

Montreal has ably managed the slow transition away from buzz city status. Although it doesn’t hold the same vivid romance it once did for me, it has the steady, reliable hum of a viable art scene. Bands play as though they have little to prove, because they know what this place is capable of producing; and rather than imitating their forebears, local artists are committing to their own visions. Two of the city’s best recent exports are Colin Stetson (originally from Michigan) and Tune-Yards (originally from New England, now relocated to California). Stetson, who has opened for Arcade Fire, is an experimental saxophonist; while Tune-Yards, essentially the one-woman project of Merrill Garbus, is a beguiling fusion of Afropop and ukulele loops. Unlike Arcade Fire, they don’t play rock music at all, and their avant-gardism wilfully forestalls anything close to mainstream success. Montreal’s musicians are newly confident, but that doesn’t mean they want to win Grammys.

When I heard about Arcade Fire’s Grammy success, I didn’t feel much; not possessiveness, not scorn, not even mild surprise. It made sense that the band had won, because it is better than Lady Gaga or Eminem, its new peers. The vertical distance between the band and its listeners has increased exponentially over the past ten years; it will never again be an act for lofts or small folk festivals, because the world has finally caught up with its ambition. On its own terms, it became the twenty-first century’s first great “mindie” band—mainstream indie, a bit of blogosphere parlance that, in a less complex time, might have been oxymoronic. There are others—Animal Collective, the National, Broken Social Scene—but these acts do not partner with Google to create interactive online music videos, or team up with charities to aid in the reconstruction of post-earthquake Haiti. Corporate partnerships and earnest do-goodery are the hallmarks of a U2.

In late September, three days after The Suburbs won the Polaris Music Prize (a sort of Canadian anti-Grammy), Arcade Fire played a free outdoor show as part of the Pop Montreal music festival. About 100,000 fans swarmed a few square city blocks in downtown Montreal, drinking beer from plastic cups amid ubiquitous corporate signage. I had last seen the group five years earlier, playing to an audience a fraction of this size. A reverent crowd obscured the stage, but on the giant screens Butler, Chassagne, and the rest looked as if they were having fun.

During their last song, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a cloud of giant, glowing balls was released upon the audience. Most people bounced the orbs around, but some, it seemed, clutched them as keepsakes. “If you’re holding on to a ball, you missed the purpose,” Butler admonished the crowd. “Throw it into the air. Share it with everyone.” Arcade Fire was our band before it was anyone else’s, but it was always too good to keep to ourselves.

This appeared in the December 2011 issue.

Drew Nelles
Drew Nelles earned an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He was previously a senior editor at The Walrus.
Matthew Forsythe
Matthew Forsythe won a Doug Wright Award for his comic book Ojingogo. His second book, Jinchalo, came out in January 2012