In the music video for “Electric Blue,” Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist and sometimes-frontwoman Régine Chassagne takes a stroll down Napoleon Avenue, walking, wiggling and singing her way through the aftermath of an unnamed Mardi Gras parade. While most New Orleanians will find a familiar sight in the hodgepodge of broken plastic beads, flashing police lights and clean-up crews, Arcade Fire sees something else. Namely the juxtaposition of beauty and alienation that has been a hallmark of the Canadian band’s work since their seminal debut, Funeral, turned indie rock on its head back in 2004.
“It was this really interesting scene right after the parade ends and before they clean it up. It’s this kind of desolate feeling of people stumbling around and the party’s over,” explains Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, who co-directed the video with his cousin, Julia Simpson. “I just thought it was this really beautiful scene, with what it did to the light. It also fit some of the melancholy of the song a little bit, that feeling after the parade. It’s like, where do you go when it’s over?”
The emotional toll levied by that endless search for the next party is explored in more detail on “Signs of Life,” another single from Arcade Fire’s new album, Everything Now. For a band that has never had a shortage of things to say about the ways we find meaning in the monotony, this is thematically familiar territory. Though the music itself may have come a long way since the orchestral pop of their early releases, the message is as clear as it’s ever been. Arcade Fire is having second thoughts about society’s desire for instant and eternal gratification. Everything Now wants you to have second thoughts too, maybe even while dancing.
Primarily recorded in New Orleans, where Butler and Chassagne now reside with their four-year-old son (the pair have been married since 2003), Everything Now instantly shot to number one on the Billboard 200 when it was released earlier this summer. Yet despite its Big Easy origins, the city’s influence on the album is far from obvious. Songs like “Electric Blue,” “Signs of Life” and the title track seem to take more from the melodic disco of ABBA or the skittish new wave of Talking Heads than from anything associated with New Orleans’ storied musical history. If this town found its way into Arcade Fire’s sound, it did so in ways that are more abstract
“We weren’t looking to do what you would maybe think of as cliché New Orleans. [The city’s influence] was more in a feeling of freedom, in mashing genres and not worrying about it,” Butler says.
“We would go see the TBC Brass Band play a lot, and some of the other great brass bands. How these bands play in the pocket is very inspiring. It just makes you want to have a better feel I guess,” he adds. “Being in the same physical space as a band that’s so much better than you at something is… I think it’s the same reason the CBGB scene was what it was. You had the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith and it’s all so different from each other, but there’s no way the Talking Heads didn’t hear the Ramones and want to play harder and tougher. There’s no way that Talking Heads didn’t make the Ramones want to be poppier. In a certain sense, it ends up rubbing off on you. Even though the Ramones sound nothing like the Talking Heads, it still makes you want to get back and work, just being around greatness.”
“Every single time I see Charlie Gabriel [of Preservation Hall Jazz Band] play the saxophone, I stop whatever I’m doing. He’s on so many of the Motown records I’ve listened to my whole life. Aretha Franklin too. Pretty much every note he plays is so thoughtful and coming from a deep place. You can’t help but be inspired.”
Butler and Chassagne moved to New Orleans in 2014 following Arcade Fire’s second appearance at Jazz Fest. At the time, the band was in the middle of a grueling tour supporting their fourth album, Reflektor. That record marked a bit of a stylistic shift as the group veered further into dance rock territory and incorporated Afro-Caribbean musical influences, particularly Haitian rhythms, into their sound. It was an interesting move for an act whose previous album, The Suburbs, was lauded enough to earn a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. For some fans, the changes were divisive. But for Butler, the new musical direction—and the subsequent move to New Orleans—felt just right.
“I grew up in Houston and my dad came to New Orleans a lot for work, so I visited when I was a kid. Régine, my wife, her family is from Haiti and she grew up in Montreal,” Butler says. “If you were to make a triangle of Haiti, Houston and Montreal, [New Orleans] is kind of in the exact middle of that triangle. So we always felt culturally at home in a way that Régine never felt anywhere else in the U.S.”
“I think the last time we headlined Jazz Fest, we stayed there for like three weeks and we didn’t even really talk about it,” he continues. “It just kind of happened. We didn’t have a big conversation about it. We just kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘Yep, this is where we’re going to stay.’”
By the fall of 2014, Arcade Fire had wrapped up their Reflektor tour and settled into a performing hiatus that would last nearly two years. The much-needed break from the road gave Butler and Chassagne time to get better acquainted with their new home, and the pair quickly discovered an arts scene that was as vibrant as anything they’d encountered in other parts of the world. The fact that this scene extended beyond the confines of what most people consider “New Orleans culture” only made it that much better.
“I just barely caught it, but there was this huge graffiti project that happened on the West Bank,” Butler says, referring to street artist Brandan “B-mike” Odums’ acclaimed 2014 project ExhibitBE. “That was incredible. I thought that was a really world-class art event… I had to jump the fence to see it because they had just closed it, but that kind of shit I find really inspiring. There was so much great work and so many man hours put into it and such talent. That shit’s not happening in Brooklyn.”
Their extended break from touring also gave Butler and Chassagne a chance to get acquainted with some of their new friends in town, including Preservation Hall Jazz Band creative director Ben Jaffe. After meeting him at California’s Coachella festival, the pair quickly developed a rapport with the bassist/tuba player, who has since become one of their best friends. “Our kids play together,” Butler notes.
Arcade Fire’s growing relationship with Jaffe and the PHJB would eventually take the form of a very public collaboration when the time came to honor one of the greats. For Butler and Chassagne, David Bowie wasn’t just a musical and cultural pioneer; he was an early proponent of their work and, more importantly, a friend. His death in January 2016 affected them deeply, so when Jaffe suggested putting on a memorial for the late English rock icon, they got to work planning something special.
“I don’t think it was on anyone’s radar how hard it was going to hit when he passed, or that he would pass,” Butler says. “The way he made that record [Blackstar] and gave it to the world right as he died. The whole artfulness of his whole, basically his whole career, it just felt very fitting. It seemed like a lot of people would want to have some way to mourn him in a public way.”
Somber occasions often have a way of taking on a celebratory tone in New Orleans, and a memorial parade for David Bowie was the celebration many New Orleanians didn’t know they needed. At least not until the idea was presented to them. Before the PHJB and Arcade Fire announced the event, they secured a permit for a 400-person parade through the French Quarter. When the memorial went down two days later, thousands showed up to join in.
In hindsight, it’s kind of baffling that they expected anything less. The middle of January is the middle of Carnival season, after all. Beyond that, Bowie was nothing if not a champion of freedom and creativity. He may not have had many personal connections to this city, but none of his myriad personas would ever seem out of place in, say, the French Quarter. They certainly didn’t seem out of place that day when a mass of costumed people followed the PHJB, Chassagne and a megaphone-wielding Butler down Toulouse Street to the river.
“Even if you don’t know someone, you have this intimacy from listening to their records. And he touched so many people at so many different points of his career,” Butler says. “He was someone I really looked up to and was lucky enough to collaborate with… He deserved a big send-off.”
Still, the gathering was not without its critics. Some locals wondered if the PHJB had strayed too far from its original mission, while others questioned whether it was right to call the event a second line (it was originally billed as such before quickly being relabeled a “memorial parade”). It’s an impulse Butler understands, even if he doesn’t think he’s the right target.
“New Orleans should defend its culture, of course, by all means necessary,” Butler declares. “I lived in Montreal for 15 years, where they have extremely intense laws about language… I think, ultimately, the reason that people still speak French in Montreal and they don’t speak French in Louisiana is because they fought extremely hard to defend that culture. So I think that it’s worth defending, and I personally don’t feel like us doing a parade for David Bowie really encroaches on the spirit of New Orleans in any way. It’s something that, if we tried to do it any other city, it just wouldn’t happen.”
“I don’t think I’m the best symbol for the problem of gentrification in New Orleans, but if people want to make me into that, then I’m cool with that too,” he continues. “That’s totally fine. I mean, I live Uptown. I don’t live in the Bywater. My neighborhood was gentrified like 200 years ago. But my only minor quibble is that I think there are a lot of people that aren’t actually from New Orleans that end up dominating the conversation. There are a lot of adoptee New Orleans people that, a lot of the time, have the loudest voices about some of the politics of it, but I think the instinct is absolutely correct.”
Around the same time that Arcade Fire led a very public procession through the streets of New Orleans, they privately began the yearlong process of recording Everything Now. While parts of the album were laid down in Montreal and Paris, the bulk of it—“80 percent to 90 percent” by Butler’s estimation—was recorded at the band’s own BoomBox Studios in New Orleans. These sessions featured production from Thomas Bangalter of French electronic music giants Daft Punk and bassist Steve Mackey of British alt-rockers Pulp. Lost Bayou Ramblers drummer Eric Heigle, whose production credits include Anders Osborne, Eric Lindell and GIVERS, engineered the whole album and helped the band get their studio up and running. The record was also mixed at New Orleans’ Parlor Recording Studio.
“Motown’s studio in Detroit is like down in the basement of a house. It’s this tiny room,” Butler adds. “Most studios you go to have this sound-deadening foam everywhere, and the idea is to suck up all the sound and to isolate everything. When I first went to Motown, they had lacquered wood on the walls about shoulder height. The idea was that sound bounces and hits the ears of the musicians and it’s a more exciting sound.”
“The idea [for BoomBox Studios] was to take—we had this really small space, maybe 18 feet by 10 feet with a really tall ceiling—just one room and put all the gear in there and have all the kinetic energy of everyone bouncing off each other physically, and the sweat, and just kind of play.”
Arcade Fire got into something of a routine as the album was coming together. Two or three week sessions with the full band—Chassagne, Win Butler, Will Butler (keys, bass), Jeremy Gara (drums), Tim Kingsbury (guitar, bass) and Richard Reed Parry (guitar)—would be followed by reflective periods in which the group listened to its new material and tinkered with arrangements. All those stints in New Orleans rubbed off on the other members too, especially Parry. Originally an upright bass player, his frequent trips to Preservation Hall inspired him to dive back into the instrument with renewed vigor. “He got pretty deep into it,” Butler recalls.
Arcade Fire recruited a few New Orleans musicians to join them in their new studio as well, including Helen Gillet, Rebecca Crenshaw and Preservation Hall’s own Charlie Gabriel. The Harmonistic Praise Crusade, a local choir, contributed some backing vocals, as did a choir consisting of Jelly Joseph (of Tank & the Bangas), Akia Nevills, Kayla Jasmine and Tracci Lee. Canadian musician and producer Daniel Lanois, who ran Esplanade Avenue’s famed Kingsway Studios in the ’90s, even added his pedal steel to two tracks.
Notably, Arcade Fire’s New Orleans–based fans have their own moment on the new LP. During the band’s headlining set at Voodoo Fest 2016, Butler asked the crowd to join him in singing part of what would become the title track from Everything Now. After a few minutes corralling the crowd, they got what they were looking for. “You’ll thank me when you’re older,” Butler joked at the time.
“It’s used in the breakdown, that kind of a sing-along part during the breakdown of the song,” he says. “It was tough getting people to sing something they’ve never heard before. Now that the record’s out, everyone sings it. But it was sort of an experiment because I was just kind of hearing a crowd singing that part, and it seemed like the best way to do that was to have an actual crowd singing that part rather than faking it.”
In the months after that Voodoo Fest set, Butler made a number of trips to the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans’ Central Business District. He wasn’t there to rehearse for an arena tour. He was simply enjoying one of his favorite pastimes: basketball. A student of the game since childhood, Butler played reserve center and power forward on his high school’s varsity team. The 6’ 4” rock star even took home the MVP trophy at last year’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game.
When asked if moving to New Orleans has turned him into a Pelicans fan, Butler replies with a very emphatic, “F**k yeah, man.” His thoughts on the team could warrant a story of their own, but it’s safe to say he’s been following them closely. And like many fans of the Pelicans, he has a few ideas for turning their fortunes around.
“[Anthony Davis] is a once-in-a-decade sort of talent. That dude could totally bring a championship to New Orleans and they better try,” Butler says of the Pelicans star. “Jrue [Holiday] is a top-five defender in the NBA. AD is a top-five defender. We could be a dominant defensive team. So to me, it’s a bit like the Spurs where you just need dudes that can shoot and play defense… I don’t think you need a lot of playmaking and shit when you have Anthony Davis and Boogie. Those dudes are going to get 70 a night, and then everyone else on the court should be able to shoot and play D. No exceptions.”
Butler’s basketball fandom extends to the University of New Orleans too, and he often goes to shoot hoops at the school’s Lakefront Arena. When the team graduated a number of seniors last year, they needed an extra player to run 5-on-5 during practice. Butler was happy to be the tenth man for a couple of weeks.
“I would just come and scrimmage at the end of practice, which is pretty much my dream in life. To not have to do the basketball practice and like lift weights, but to play,” he says. “So I definitely have a soft spot for that team.”
Incidentally, Butler will return to the Lakefront Arena when Arcade Fire headlines the venue on September 26 as part of their “Infinite Content” tour. They’ll be supported by Wolf Parade, another indie rock outfit that got its start in the same Montreal music scene that birthed Arcade Fire.
“We’ve been doing these shows with the stage in the middle of the room, kind of like a boxing ring,” Butler explains. “There are so many musicians in the band, and the stage is really small, so there’s been an extremely fresh energy. It really changes how you play songs… We love playing Jazz Fest, but this will be cool too because the production of our show is something we put a lot of work into, and it’s really a whole different animal.”
Considering Arcade Fire’s upcoming touring schedule—the band has 40-plus dates in three continents on the horizon—Butler and Chassagne won’t be spending as much time in New Orleans as they’d like in the near future. “Unfortunately, my professional obligations are kind of like being in a pirate ship,” Butler laments.
Nevertheless, the pair would like to dedicate more time to their philanthropic endeavors when their schedule allows it. In particular, they’d like to continue their involvement with the Preservation Hall Foundation, as well as their work with the KANPE Foundation, a group that provides aid to rural communities in Haiti (Chassagne, whose parents fled Haiti in the 1960s during the Duvalier dictatorship, co-founded the latter organization). Those worlds actually collided in December 2015, when the PHJB helped KANPE bring instruments to a youth group in the Haitian village of Baille Tourible.
Additionally, Butler would like to assist groups that are fighting some of this state’s most important political battles. “Something that’s really close to my heart in New Orleans that—I’ve kind of put out feelers—but something that I would like to be a lot more heavily involved with is prison reform in Louisiana. To me, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the last election was being so close to getting rid of private prisons and then having it be deferred, having all that work go in the garbage,” he says. “If anyone, through this article, has any way I can be helpful in moving that conversation along… I’m all ears.”
It’s encouraging to hear that Butler is concerned with local political issues. Over the decades—the centuries, really—artists who fall in love with New Orleans have been a dime a dozen. From Edgar Degas to Tennessee Williams and Trent Reznor, countless people have created beautiful works here, only to pack their bags when the muse calls them elsewhere. If one is truly to make their home in this place, they need to confront the bad as well as the good. When it comes to New Orleans, Butler has no qualms insisting his relationship isn’t a fling.
“It’s the only city in America I could imagine living in,” he says. “It’s where we’ve chosen to raise our son. We’re not pulling up stakes, other than this pirate ship of a tour that we have to do for an indeterminate amount of time. I have a picture on a wall in my house of my grandfather [swing era bandleader Alvino Rey] playing with Louis Armstrong. It’s not a passing flirtation.”