Four funerals and a wedding

Arcade Fire's debut LP is all about death. Why does it sound quite so happy, wonders Dave Simpson

Win Butler and Regine Chassagne look nonplussed. Their band, Arcade Fire, is winning praise from every corner. David Bowie has already seen them play three times, and has declared their debut album, Funeral, his favourite record of the past 12 months. David Byrne joined them on stage after hearing that they did a cover of his Talking Heads song This Must Be the Place. In Britain, critics have declared Funeral "a masterpiece". Now Butler and Chassagne are fending off offers of up to $1m from record companies - even though they managed to make Funeral for just $10,000.

"I'm pretty sure we'd make a terrible record for $1m," says Butler. He'd much rather downplay all the attention. "This is our first record, so it's a bit weird. It makes me suspicious. A lot of the stuff we like gets panned." He raises a sliver of a smile. "So maybe we're doing something wrong."

There may not be anything wrong, but there is definitely something very odd about Arcade Fire. The name comes from a story a friend told Butler and Chassagne about an inferno that claimed the lives of several children. (Butler insists that it probably wasn't true: "I've no evidence it happened, although things like that do, everywhere.") More strangely, they have made a giddy, atmospheric, curiously uplifting album about death. Real death. At least three family members died while the album was being recorded; some articles on the band have placed the body count as high as nine.

Sitting in a cafe in London, Butler and Chassagne betray little of the euphoria of their music. She is tiny, almost silent but prone to eruptions of excitement. He is a giant, and has the dry, quiet manner of an undertaker. Perhaps this is what happens when you make an album about private affairs and emotions and then are faced with the task of repeatedly talking about it in public.

"The songs were written before [the deaths], so there's not a one-to-one correlation," says Butler. Bowie told the pair that the album contained a mysterious "something else", but when I remind them of this it prompts one of Chassagne's eruptions. She'd hate it, she says, if people thought the band were freaky: "We're not the Addams family."

Chassagne's parents are from Haiti, but fled the country and "Baby Doc" Duvalier's murderous regime for the safety of Montreal before she was born. She met Houston-born Butler in 2000. At the time, she was playing medieval music in a band with recorders ("We played weddings, but not funerals") and he was studying Genesis - the first book of the Bible, not the Phil Collins band. "It wasn't the most popular major," Butler deadpans, "but it is the basis of western civilisation so I thought it'd be kinda interesting."

Butler had seen Chassagne singing at an art exhibition and made it clear he was, as he slyly puts it, "interested in collaborating". The relationship blossomed at the same time as the music. Butler was into Dylan, Leonard Cohen and New Order and had already been in a band called the Sleep; for Arcade Fire, the pair also called on Butler's brother Will and multi-instrumentalists Richard Parry and Tim Kingsbury. From the start they were raising eyebrows in Montreal, not only for the music on their demo tape, but because they performed alongside an electrified Christmas reindeer that they bought from K-Mart. Everything was going swimmingly - and then people started dying.

The first was Chassagne's grandmother, in June 2003. "She'd been sick for a long time," she says. "She had Parkinson's. She was mentally there but not physically. She'd say 'Come on, why don't you take me?' So it was kind of refreshing when she died." Butler and Chassagne married two months later, went to Trinidad and Tobago for their honeymoon and began recording. Then Butler's grandfather, Alvino Rey, died at the age of 95. In his life a famous bandleader, Rey is still with the band in a sense: My Buddy, a track he recorded in the 1940s, appears on the B-side of Arcade Fire's first UK single. "It was kind of a tribute," says Butler. "He'd grown up with Duke Ellington and when rock'n'roll came out in the 50s he felt the world was ending. But towards the end of his life I heard him say: 'Bruce Springsteen's music's bad but he's a great performer.' So he would have appreciated us ... a bit."

A month later, Parry's aunt Betsy died. By this point, the band were flitting between the recording studio and the funeral parlour. Nor is this likely to be the last death: Butler's other grandfather - also 95 - is currently in hospital. "He was playing tennis until a year ago and he wanted something for the back pain. The doctor explained that they could give him cortisone but that there'd be long-term effects. He said: 'I'm 95! I'm not worried about long-term effects!'" Butler bursts into laughter at the thought.

It would have been easy for the album to wallow in depression, but instead the music has something of Butler senior's defiance of death and lust for remaining life. "If people find it uplifting that's great," he says. "That's better than saying it's sad bastard music. I listened to my share of early Cure." He plays down the effects the deaths have had on their sound, pointing out that deaths happen around everyone. But not, surely, with this level of frequency? "One of the first short stories I wrote in school was just after my grandma died and I went to her funeral," he finally admits. "I guess being exposed to death at that age has an effect."

A permanent sense of loss may explain the eerie vibe of lyrics such as "ice has covered my parents' eyes". Chassagne explains that the line "if all the stillborns formed an army" in Une Année Sans Lumière refers to "all the babies killed and generations lost, compliments of Duvalier". The character in The Backseat is her mother, another dearly departed. However, some lines must remain shrouded in mystery, such as: "Alexander, our older brother, set out for adventure, got bit by a vampire, we caught his tears in a cup." "Some things are best left unknown," says Chassagne. "It's like if you look at a gem or a mirror. If you turn it around you'll see different things, different flashes."

Butler cheerily asserts his belief in some form of afterlife, pointing out that people are such specific personalities that it's hard to imagine it all going to nothing. One thing we won't see again, however, is the electric reindeer. "We had to leave it somewhere," he says with a sigh. "It died."

· Funeral is out now on Rough Trade. The single Neighbourhood 2 (Laika) is released on March 28.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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