Jude Rogers meets Arcade Fire as they gear up for Glastonbury

Since the release of Neon Bible, it's all gone stratospheric for Arcade Fire. So how does it feel as the band gear up for Glastonbury? Like bumper cars crossed with lacrosse, discovers Jude Rogers

Tours! Mind-meltingly exciting charabancs of lust and sin they are, where every moment of the trip between the Wolverhampton Grand and Carlisle Sands is filled with sweaty orgies, Kilimanjaro-shaped mounds of jazz sherbert, and murgatroyds of booze. And the Arcade Fire, the most intense and wonderful band in the cosmos right now, tour more than most. So what does Montreal's celebratory seven-strong indie-rock orchestra get up to when not onstage?

"We play Whirlyball".


"It's a secret American game." I'm talking to Will Butler. Will is lead singer Win's cute little brother, the mad one who used to wear helmets and let his head be used like a drum, who tornadoes around the stage like Wile E Coyote, who used the pillars of St John's - the London church, where the band debuted their Neon Bible album back in January, as percussion.

"I don't know how to describe it. I guess it's like bumper cars crossed with lacrosse" he continues. Whirlyball, for the curious, is a game dreamt up by Salt City inventor Stan Mangum, who spent the 1960s imagining a sport that combined lacrosse, basketball, jai-alai and mechanised hockey. Each player is given a small car and a lacrosse-style scoop, used to launch the Whiffle Ball, a small plastic ball with holes, at a backboard at one end of the pitch. And Arcade Fire are big fans.

Let's hope it's helped them to relax. Straight after the last note of Neon Bible was recorded late last year, the band hit the road. The energy required to sing such intense, euphoric songs every night led to Win getting sinus and bronchial infections, which led to the cancellation of the band's European tour in March. Win went back to Montreal for surgery, and the group had a month off. This is a band that needs refreshment, and Win explains Whirlyball has a cathartic appeal. "It's violent, you know. When you're on tour, you're working hard, every moment. It's good to go mad, work things out." Clocking in at a rather impressive 6ft 5in, Butler - a former varsity basketball player - is, as they say, "games". But just two weeks ago, the Arcade Fire frontman was embroiled in an internet furore that accused him of some very unsportmanlike conduct. On a blog called Arcade Fire Stole My Basketball, an anonymous writer accused Win of crashing a court at a Cal Berkeley gym and storming off with the ball. A rival blog, allegedly written by Win's brother, cast doubt on the testimony, accusing the accuser of being drunk on whiskey and sporting "a tattoo of Puff The Magic Dragon on his penis". A sordid affair, but it hasn't put Win off the court. "It's good to ram into people", he adds, unfazed.

The Arcade Fire's rage used to be an onstage phenomenon. I spent two days in autumn 2005 with the band in Vancouver, at the end of their tour for debut album Funeral. While Win trashed his acoustic guitar up on stage, offstage he drank chai lattes, his wife Regine read poetry, violinist Sarah Neufeld met her family, and Tim Kingsbury ate some veggie lasagne. There were no proper sports to speak of. Before the concert itself, they did push-ups backstage and drank mineral water. Drummer Jeremy Gara broke the rules by drinking bottles of Grolsch, making jokes about shagging his band members' girlfriends and smoking fags like it was going out of fashion. But he even did that politely.

Perhaps all those torrid songs about religion, war and death are finally getting to them. Are any other bad habits emerging? "Thing is," says Will, "We always try to be good when we start a tour. Wake up, have a yoghurt, a juice, a few stretches. Richard and Sarah yoga it up, and eat plenty of brown rice. But by the second week, we're eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon." And the boys also like to eat out, like their grandfather, Alvino Rey. He played steel guitar with Elvis Presley on Blue Hawaii, and led a big band that toured North America. Before he died at the ripe old age of 95 in 2004, he taught his grandsons that a good meal after a concert is good for the soul. Now, in every city, they track down his favourite places, and try and eat what he did.

On the bus, Win mainly reads. He's just gobbled up the new Cormac McCarthy, and next he's reading books about the oppression in Haiti, the home of his wife Regine's family. "But I also watch Project Runway." The Bravo Channel reality show about fashion designers? "Yeah! I watched three seasons in two days. I love the crass end of reality TV. It's a big, giant candy bar that I just can't stop eating."

Perhaps the future will find the Arcade Fire judging American Idol, telling Kelly Clarkson wannabes to sing about black waves and bad vibrations, and launching their hurdy-gurdies, Whiffle Ball-style, at the weaklings who don't. For now, though, the road rolls on. Next week the bus pulls into a farm close to the tiny Somerset village of Pilton. No Whirlyball at Glastonbury, I'm afraid, boys.

"That's OK," says Will. "I'm excited about hanging out there anyway." Will remembers being 15 in 1997 and hearing about Radiohead's headline set. "The word Glastonbury had this mythic quality about it by itself - like the Royal Albert Hall." He likes British festivals too, finding American festivals "too clean" and European ones "too small". "British festivals are a lot more unhinged. It's all young kids having trash fires, going properly crazy."

Win is less enthused. "I'd never go to a festival myself. There's too much sun." But this is Glastonbury! You're playing before Bjork! "We'll put a lot into it", he says. "Half our shows are the audience anyway, you know? If they get excited, it's going to be a special evening." Any sing-alongs in the mud? "All that stuff is spontaneous. But you never know. If the stars align, it might just be great."

And as if that possibility's just shimmied into his big, dolorous head, he lights up at last. "You know, of course it'll be good. It's just touring is so uncivilised. We're finding out how to do it properly without losing our minds."

Suddenly Will's behind him, laughing. "Have you seen those adverts for Club Med? All these 40-year-old dudes see them and go, wow, that looks amazing, expecting all these hot chicks. That's what touring's meant to be like. First it's like, oh! This is cool! But, oh, it's for four weeks! I thought I was going to get laid! And, oh, I'm Win Butler! I asked to sleep in a coffin! And my room's not actually a coffin!" The brothers descend into giggles. "Yeah boys and girls, it's like Club Med alright. But the rooms are smaller than advertised."

· Arcade Fire play Glastonbury Festival, Other Stage, Friday


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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