Arcade Fire discuss the bitter taste of success

They've crashed into the mainstream and Hollywood adores them, but Arcade Fire aren't happy. Alexis Petridis meets a band trying to make sense of their ascent to stardom

Randall's Island sits in the middle of New York's East River, a vast, characterless, landfill-augmented field, surrounded by straits given the kind of alluring names that New York's outer boroughs seem to specialise in: to the east there's Hell Gate and to the north, Bronx Kill. If it's not quite as ghastly as the waters around it suggest, Randall's Island certainly doesn't exude much in the way of charm, even in the sunshine of an unseasonably hot autumn afternoon. It is, concedes Richard Reed Parry - Arcade Fire's affable red-headed multi-instrumentalist sometimes known to play a crash helmet with a drumstick onstage - a far cry from the venues at which the band are renowned for performing: the churches that seem to echo the quasi-religious fervour in their music, the "aesthetically inspiring" spaces in which Parry has claimed they play their best. "We wanted the whole place hung with carnival lights," he sighs sadly, "but the city wouldn't let us do it." Instead, for the event they are headlining, Arcade Fire have attempted to stamp some quirky personality on the field by erecting a small stage to its rear on which a mariachi band play unamplified. Alas, the mariachi leader ends up singing his heart out and talking about how grateful they are to be here to a scattering of nonplussed punters, pausing only momentarily on their way between the hot dog stands and the Portaloos.

But if you wanted an indication of the magnitude of Arcade Fire's rise since the March release of their second album, Neon Bible, then Randall's Island and the nonplussed punters would do nicely. A couple of years ago, Arcade Fire were a critically acclaimed seven-piece, alt-rock act, albeit one noted for the intensity of their live shows, their frenzied, evangelical cult following, their penchant for dressing like 19th-century American farmers and for the fact that their two central members were a married couple, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne: the former the son of a wealthy Texan oilman who had moved to Montreal to form a band, the latter the daughter of Haitian refugees who had landed in Quebec in flight from "Baby Doc" Duvalier's dictatorship. They played the kind of venues that critically acclaimed alt-rock acts perform in: when asked by U2 to support them on a handful of Canadian stadium dates, the band viewed the shows, Parry says, with the bemused detachment of people who weren't really supposed to be there, dumbfounded by what he calls the "huge, ginormo machine of a production". "It was," he recalls, "like, whoah."

And yet, here they are, barely two years later, performing to 22,000 people, a crowd, Parry notes, that is "as big as one of those U2 shows". They are at the end of a vast American tour during which they were feted not by the kind of rock aristocrats who have queued up to garland the band with praise since the release of their debut album, Funeral, (David Bowie and David Byrne have both performed with them, while earlier this year a journalist at a New York show reported, aghast, that he had seen Lou Reed actually smile at the conclusion of their performance), but by a rather different kind of celebrity: Scarlett Johansson, Drew Barrymore and James Spader all turned up to see them in Hollywood, as did Rod Stewart, an artist whose love for apocalyptically inclined, anthemic baroque art-rock had previously gone strangely unnoticed.

The audience thronging Randall's Island, meanwhile, is conspicuously light on the kind of whey-faced indie-kid blogger whose early support earned Arcade Fire that most noughties of labels, the Internet Phenomenon. Instead, there are baseball caps and shorts and Gap casual wear in profusion: this is very much a mainstream American rock crowd.

It is all evidence of success of a kind that should, theoretically, cause headaches and hand-wringing in Arcade Fire's ranks. This is, after all, a band who zealously guard their independence and rigorously shun the celebrity that seems an inescapable by-product of your second album reaching the Top 10 around the world. "The song is independent of my face and what I look like," says Chassagne. "I know in pop music people are really used to, like, relating it to the person who made it and what they eat and what they do every day, but to me it's just independent." Nor could you accuse them of rapaciously pursuing global domination: earlier this year, Butler was heard to bemoan,"bands who think in terms of, 'I'm going to be the biggest band in the world, fuck all those bands who've got no ambition,'" as "a total crock of shit". Then there's the fact that Arcade Fire thrive, according to Parry, on "playing small rooms where you can really get in people's faces and connect with them and wrestle with them".

In an air-conditioned dressing room backstage, however, Butler is inclined to disagree. Slumping his 6ft 5in frame into an armchair - somehow he looks even bigger in mufti than in his onstage costume - he protests that there has been little hand-wringing about Arcade Fire's burgeoning mainstream success: for one thing, he says, success means it's easier to refuse to do things you don't want to do. Nor is he particularly sorry to see the back of playing small venues: indeed, he prefers playing Randall's Island or the Hollywood Bowl to the euphoric, wildly acclaimed performances they gave at London's St John's Church and Porchester Hall in January. "This tour is the opposite of the sell-it-out hype thing. It's more about letting people who want to see us, see us. That feels really good. A lot of these shows have been more intimate than the warm-up shows we did in the churches because they were so overwhelming and press-centered."

Perhaps Butler's contrariness should come as little surprise. He is famously no great fan of the media, claiming never to read anything written about the band which means that this year he'll have missed both the appearance of a blog called Arcade Fire Stole My Basketball, on which an outraged fellow user of the Cal Berkeley gym baldly accused him of the theft alluded to in the title, and Arcade Fire being called the Greatest Band in the World by at least three different British periodicals.

You get the impression that being interviewed seldom constitutes the highlight of his day. Today, he's scrupulously polite and thoughtful in his answers, but you would never confuse him with a boundless font of easygoing bonhomie. "I don't like the process of having to promote an album and talk about it," he says, flatly, "and I learnt pretty early on that the artist always seems like the asshole in the situation, no matter what you do. Even if, like, someone was poking you in the face and you went 'fucking stop that!', when the article comes out, it'll be like that happened in slow motion." He mimes giving someone the finger in slow motion, then sighs. "You can't win "

Both he and Parry think Arcade Fire's aversion to celebrity may have something to do with their roots in Montreal. For one thing, there are arts grants available to bands that instil a certain anti-commercial sensibility in the city's musicians: "They encourage people to think that being an artist is a viable way of life, that doing something that won't necessarily make money is a worthwhile thing to do."

For another, there is the shadow of the French Quebec pop scene, packed with artists unknown outside of its confines, but who apparently "sell as many records as Arcade Fire do worldwide, just in Quebec". "In Montreal, we're not celebrities at all, those people are celebrities," says Butler. Parry nods. "Occasionally, we've noticed that people are kind of surprised, like, wow, you've done really well, you're nearly as big as Jean LeClerc."

But whatever the reason, Butler has gained the reputation of a prickly and rather difficult customer. His understandable desire to avoid what he calls "the hoops" of the music industry - "all the things that have nothing to do with playing your instrument or playing together that take up a lot more energy than actually playing music and connecting with people"- has occasionally shown a tendency to look more like unappealing petulance.

It was Butler who smashed a camera with his mandolin and stormed off stage during Arcade Fire's appearance on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, apparently piqued because the band had to sit in the green room with the other guests while he wanted to visit a friend instead.

In fact, the ill-humoured appearance on Jonathan Ross was indicative of what was, by all accounts, a difficult summer for Arcade Fire. Despite the critical plaudits and commercial success, says Butler, "there have definitely been points in this year when we've been pretty down". Oddly, given their obsession with turning a live show into a communal experience in which the music invites a transcendent mass singalong, Parry came to the conclusion during a gruelling round of festival appearances that Arcade Fire were simply "not a festival band".

Certainly, their performance at Glastonbury, anticipated by many as the event's highlight, fell noticeably short of expectation: while no disaster, they didn't quite set the sodden environs of Worthy Farm alight in the way that their forebears Radiohead did a decade before.

For their part, Arcade Fire seem to have been faintly horrified by the Glastonbury experience. "There's something charming about how disorganised and hippy it is even though it's on that level," says Butler, his Texas drawl modulating into a tone that suggests he didn't think there was anything charming about it whatsoever, "but it was a fucking nightmare. It was like a mudpit. You have to drive your truck through the middle of the crowd of -" he pauses, as if grasping for the words to describe the ghastliness "- of shit," he finally decides.

"People are like, throwing up and hitting the doors and things like that. I get the appeal of wanting to get high for the first time and wanting to run round the fields, you know, but that's not necessarily the most engaging experience to me." Parry nods: "We were just, like, what in God's name is this?" "Why would I be here if I wasn't playing?"

They have toured almost consistently since January, a schedule that proved so punishing Butler and Parry alight on the singer contracting an acute sinus infection in March as an unlikely highlight: "Even though I was recovering from surgery, it was great, we had a month with nothing to do." They talk with a contagious wistfulness about the pleasure of being in the studio - at one point, Butler offers a description of recording a track off their debut album called Haiti that's so detailed it borders on fetishism - of returning to the converted church where they recorded Neon Bible, of finding a way to break out of the album-tour-album-tour treadmill. "We're going to find a way," says Butler. "That's the next great challenge. It's not the best system for creativity, because that's not the way it works: be creative for two years, don't be creative for two years."

That night, as they take the Randall's Island stage, he announces with barely concealed relish that this is the last time Arcade Fire will play New York "for a couple of years". The audience hoot their derision. "Yeah," says Butler, heavily. "Boo. Hiss."

Road-weary or not, they are magnificent on the stage. By the encore, Butler's brother Will is hanging perilously from the lighting rig and Arcade Fire have genuinely succeeded in transforming Randall's Island into something magical: a sea of swaying hands, a vast choir of voices singing along to Wake Up's wordless chorus. At the show's conclusion, the band rush into the crowd where they perform a frantic cover of the Violent Femmes' Kiss Off, to the delight of fans within earshot and the visible horror of security. It is, as Parry would say, like, whoah.

Backstage, I see Butler and Chassagne talking with fans, still holding an acoustic guitar and an accordion respectively, distractedly picking out a tune as they chat. Then they slip away into the dressing room, still playing their instruments.

· Arcade Fire play SECC, Glasgow, tonight. Then tour.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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