Mid-morning in New Orleans, and outside an Uptown coffee shop, Win Butler is talking of life in his adopted city – the basketball, brass bands, and the poisonous caterpillars of the buck moth that, in late spring, fall from the city’s trees on to unsuspecting passersby beneath. He surveys the mighty oaks across the street, broad-branched and strung with moss. “Trees run this city,” Butler says. “They’ve definitely seen some shit, those trees.”
With his wife, Régine Chassagne, Butler is best known for fronting Arcade Fire. The band formed in Montreal at the turn of the millennium, quickly gained a reputation as one of the world’s finest live acts, and over the course of five albums became indie music aristocracy. They were anointed by Davids Bowie and Byrne; they won a Grammy, a Juno and a Brit; they played Obama’s inauguration; and frequently used their platform for political activism, promoting healthcare nonprofits, indigenous protesters and a number of Haitian charities (Chassagne is of Haitian descent). More recently, the band raised $100,000 for the Ukraine Relief Fund by playing a series of small club shows across the US, including cult New York venue the Bowery ballroom.
At times they have irked their audiences: the hijinks that surrounded the launch of their disco-tinged 2013 album Reflektor – secret gigs, street parties, audience dress codes – brought faintly unsettling echoes of U2’s Zoo TV campaign. But it was the release of their last album, 2017’s Everything Now, that rattled fans the most. The album was accompanied by a high-concept promotional campaign claiming that Arcade Fire were now part of a multinational corporation. They named their tour Infinite Content, and posted parodic record reviews, fake news stories, ironic product placements. To some, it was a glittering commentary on the consumer age; to others it seemed sneering, over-earnest and ill-conceived. To many, it was uncomfortably removed from the visceral heart-swell of their live shows.
This month, the band release their sixth album, We, a record they describe as being about “the forces that pull us away from the people we love … [and] the urgent need to overcome them”. This being Arcade Fire, there is a hefty intellectual backstory, nods to the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* and a guest turn by Peter Gabriel. But it also stands as the band’s most tender record since their early output; spacious and simple and sweet, an album born out of the steady closeness of pandemic days.
Butler, Chassagne and their son moved to Louisiana six years ago, captivated by its mingling of cultures and unbridled passion for music and creativity. “What’s that Mark Twain line about there being only three cities in America?” Butler asks as we walk along Magazine Street. “New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland.”
Butler cuts a conspicuous figure: basketball player-tall, with bleached blond hair, today he is wearing cream-coloured jeans, a tie-dyed white T-shirt and black bomber jacket. There is an intensity to the way he speaks, whether he is talking about a Mardi Gras spent playing cowbell in New Orleans’ TBC Brass Band, or the hanging chads of the 2000 US presidential race. But he seems to fit comfortably in this neighbourhood, greeting the coffee shop barista warmly and gleefully relating the history of Miss Mae’s, a 24-hour “dirtbag bar” that stands on the corner of Magazine and Napoleon.
Down the street, Butler leads us into a former luncheonette, now home to Peaches Records. Peaches, he says, is some way removed from the record shop he frequented as a teenager in the suburbs of Houston, Texas – a chainstore in the mall that mostly sold CDs, and where he tried to nourish his love of New Order and the Cure. He talks of how his mother played jazz harp, his grandfather played the pedal steel, and how the first time he heard Smokey Robinson sing, he couldn’t quite believe that this music had been made by human beings.
“Look at this,” Butler says, holding up an octagonal copy of the Rolling Stones’ compilation Through the Past Darkly, and holding forth on the qualities of a good record sleeve. His attention alights on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and the merits of the short album. “There’s like four songs on it and a lot of connective tissue,” he says. “And they sort of stretch it, so you have this space to hear stuff. That’s not even my favourite record, but it’s an example of coherence. You look at the album artwork, you listen to it, it’s very coherent.” He was seeking something similar on We, he says, paring back more songs than ever before to make a taut 40-minute record. “We cut some really good shit,” he says. “That’s how we did it.”
We walk along Napoleon to a Creole-Italian restaurant to meet Chassagne. This afternoon, the rest of the band will arrive in New Orleans to begin tour rehearsals, and Butler is eager to be back out in the world again after the restrictions of lockdown. He recalls the band’s recent show in New York, how good it felt to be before a crowd once more. “One hundred people spitting in my face,” he says. “It felt like being baptised.”
At the counter in Pascal’s Manale, the oyster shucker Thomas “Uptown T” Stewart stands beside a mound of silver shells, discussing the peaceful pleasures of Cyrano de Bergerac, jazz, poetry and softly spoken people. We are drinking martinis, and Butler is trying to persuade me that the best way to eat an oyster is to sit it atop a saltine cracker, with horseradish, ketchup and a little lemon juice. Chassagne stands beside him and unceremoniously slugs black a Gulf oyster from its shell. Stewart is impressed. “You knocked that down like you just did a shot of good bourbon!” he tells her. “I caught your rhythm. You have a lot of good energy.”
Chassagne’s energy has always been undeniable. When Butler first saw her she was singing jazz standards at an art opening in Montreal, and he immediately asked her to join his fledgling band. The strands of what she has described as her “grandmother music” – opera and Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, somehow melding with Butler’s art pop influences. On stage, they perform a similar feat: Chassagne singing, dancing, shifting between accordion, keys and xylophone, seemingly existing in her own orbit as the rest of the band play on.
Back at the table this lunchtime, she sits in a black batwing top and black jeans, her dark curls jigging along to the theme to Captain Kangaroo, inexplicably playing on the restaurant stereo. “I haven’t heard this song in for ever!” she says, suddenly distracted. Chassagne does this often – a sentence drawing suddenly to a halt so she can sing along with a chorus, then dart back to the conversation.
Before the detour into Captain Kangaroo, she was recalling how the new album took root in pre-Covid America, in the days of the Trump presidency. “It was pretty turbulent times in the US,” she says. “You would wake up and you had no idea what was going to happen.” The band began work on a record they hoped might reflect that turbulence: tracks such as the slow, syrupy End of the Empire reflecting the decline of western power, with references to the cauterising effect of television, the urge to unsubscribe and watching the moon on the ocean “where California used to be”.
The album opens with Age of Anxiety I and II, tracks that take their name from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1958 poem I Am Waiting. When Butler was 15, his beatnik English teacher invited his good friend Ferlinghetti to read at his school. It was a life-changing moment for Butler; so much so that he stole a copy of the poet’s Coney Island of the Mind from the school library. Not so long ago, he found the book in a box of his belongings at his parents’ house and began rereading. When he came across the poem I Am Waiting, “I just started weeping,” he says. “All the themes in that poem, it’s like all the shit I write about. Like looking for the soul of America, waiting for the American eight ball to straighten up and fly right. It got so deep in me. Like a spirit got in me.”
Butler’s relationship with his homeland has always been complicated and contradictory and highly charged. “This shit is fucking rotten, but there’s beautiful things about it,” he says. “I live in America, I can’t believe I still live in America. But there’s something about it that I can’t quit. And as an artist you’re trying to break something open and let the light in.”
He talks about the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine. “And it’s poor people who suffer,” he says. “Always, everywhere, always poor people suffer. Russian oligarchs are losing one of their boats, like boo hoo. Which boat did you lose? They’re all fine. But all the money is blood money, it’s all from the suffering of poor people.”
What role can music play? Butler pauses. “We’re the court jesters,” he says. “We’re performing in the court. The infrastructure of the thing is money. I don’t know the answer. But you can kind of undercut it.”
Across the table, Chassagne frowns. “It’s not the court,” she says firmly. “There’s no prerequisite on who to play music for. We play music in hospitals, for dying patients, we played at the inauguration. It’s food for the soul. It’s not that the music cures the community, but the music is the evidence that there is a community. It’s like evidence of life.”
Arcade Fire’s lineup has shifted over the years, but for We it numbered Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara and Butler’s younger brother Will, who has since amicably left the band. When the pandemic began, they had all flown to New Orleans to begin work on the new record. “And then our phones keep beeping and we’re getting texts saying flights are getting cancelled, borders getting closed,” remembers Chassagne. “So we had to do an emergency plan for them to go back immediately. Everything was falling apart.”
When everyone departed, Chassagne and Butler were left with three days’ worth of demos. “Glorified writing sessions”, as Butler puts it. “But at a point, I thought: ‘Well, this might be all there is so I’m going to work on this as if we’re never going to play music again,’” he says. “And I realised that even just three days, there was so much music in there. So it was like: well, that’s all we have. This is it. It’s DIY.”
For months, the pair stayed home and wrote with an intensity that they had been unable to find since their debut album, Funeral. “We were stuck in our house and so what do you do?” says Chassagne. “I guess the interesting thing is that when you’re stuck with yourself you ask: ‘What am I here for?!’ So we just wrote and wrote and recorded … ” The songs soon began to pile up. “We just worked every day,” says Butler. “All night, as if it was due the next day, but for like, a year.”
On Butler and Chassagne’s first date they went to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Chassagne had failed to mention that the film would have French subtitles, and so she spent the movie whispering translations to Butler in the dark of the cinema. Today over lunch, there seems a similar connection; a closeness to their dynamic that I have not seen since I interviewed them back in 2005 for Funeral. Their sentences frequently overlap, Butler picking up where Chassagne leaves off.
Their new album might come with a clever marketing campaign, slick videos, an artful mission statement that mentions Carl Jung and Martin Luther King. But at its heart lies something really quite simple: the connection that spans between the extended family of a band, that exists between a band and its audience, that binds two people over the course of a 20-year relationship.
There are two distinct halves to this record: the first tells of isolation, the second is about resolve. “It’s about unconditional love, love that’s not merit-based,” says Butler. “That’s not about loving someone because they’re such a good person, or they’re so talented. It’s love that has nothing to do with what you did, it’s something that’s freely given, and that’s why it’s the most precious thing.” He begins to sip Chassagne’s untouched martini. “Loving someone is hard,” he says. “It’s up and down, it’s a tough thing, but it’s also the shit.” Chassagne nods. “And the beauty’s in the commitment.”
Outside, the city is closing down under a tornado warning, shops shuttering, restaurants hurrying away their patio chairs. We drive back along Magazine Street with the windows down and the high winds blowing, listening to a top-secret remix of Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole), a call-and-response track between the pair. “Nothing can ever replace it / When it’s gone you can still taste it,” runs the lyric. “Going on this trip together … ”
In the front seat, Butler shakes his head; behind him Chassagne pats her hands rhythmically into the air, silently finding her way into the song. We drive on through the Garden District, past a seafood boil and the alligator museum, and on towards Arcade Fire’s rehearsal space. Outside, against the darkening sky, the tops of the oak trees wave wildly.
We is released on 6 May.
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• This article was amended on 1 May 2022. The picture of Régine Chassagne was not taken in the Bowery Ballroom as the caption had suggested, but after the show at an impromptu gathering in a subway station. The headline was also amended to better reflect the content of the article.