Arcade Fire: 10 years in 10 transformative moments

September 15, 2014

Ten years after the Arcade Fire released their debut album Funeral, they are the biggest band in the world. Since the Montreal-born collective exploded piano keys and introduced their unhinged anthems to the world, they’ve taken their joyful sound and lovelorn songs to church (literally), headlined international festivals, scored films and, on their most recent tour, they’ve thrown giant costume parties.

But that concept began with Funeral.

“Its expansiveness, linked themes, and the meticulous nature of its production recall the cool grandiosity of OK Computer,” novelist Matthew Derby wrote in 2005, “although instead of broadcasting from space or some depressed robot’s forehead, Funeral emerges from the earth itself.”

Ten years on—after the release of Neon Bible, The Suburbs, and 2013’s Polaris-nominated Reflektor—Win Butler and Regine Chassagne’s collective continues to inspire a generation to start bands and communicate big ideas through bigger melodies and words. Although nobody does it quite like the Arcade Fire.

On the final night of the Reflektor tour, as confetti cannons coincided with the red and white fireworks at Montreal’s Parc Jean Drapeau, 30,000 children of a post-Arcade Fire world danced. But they were loudly belting out a melody born in small clubs a decade earlier. We look back at the evolution of the band through ten moments.

1. 2003: Toronto’s Rivoli: “Wake Up”, “No Cars Go” & “Old Flame”

Footage of the palpable tension in their earliest performances are easily found online, but this performance highlights Arcade Fire’s immediacy and their desire for communal celebration. It’s a glimpse into the youthful power of “Wake Up” before the song became a stadium anthem.

2. 2005: Late Show With Letterman: “Rebellion (Lies)”

On their 2005 performance on the Late Show, audiences were introduced to the immediacy, anticipation, romance, anger, paranoia and euphoria of the band all at once. It was a fusion of energetic art with orchestral flourishes, or, to spare the pretentious analysis, perhaps Letterman said it best: “Wasn’t that tremendous? That’s all you really want.”

3. 2005: Fashion Rocks With David Bowie: “Wake Up”

On the same New York trek, Arcade Fire joined David Bowie, the famously reclusive performer and unabashed fan, to perform at Fashion Rocks, a charity fundraising event. With a three-song timeslot, he chose to perform his own “Life on Mars” before joining with the band for “Five Years” and their own “Wake Up.”

“There’s a certain uninhibited passion in the Arcade Fire’s huge, dense recording sound,” Bowie told Rolling Stone later that year. “They meld everything from early motown, French chanson and Talking Heads through to The Cure in a kaleidoscopic, dizzy sort of rush. I bought a huge stack of the CDs last September and gave them to all my friends.”

4. 2006: U2 in Montreal: Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

“I don’t know if there’s a vocabulary, English or French, to describe Arcade Fire,” Bono told a Moncton crowd after playing with Arcade Fire. “They’re not like a band, it’s like a miraculous event or carnival with chaos.”

If Funeral had been the fuse, then U2’s endorsement was the match that lit the flame. At this point, they had been celebrated by everyone from David Bowie to Chris Martin to David Byrne to Bruce Springsteen, all of whom would become contacts on Butler’s phone. During U2’s Vertigo tour, which Arcade Fire joined for several dates, the Irish band incorporated “Wake Up” into their walk-on music. It was both a stamp of approval and rite of passage. Both bands would join forces to perform Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to close a Montreal gig.

5. 2007: Saturday Night Live: “Intervention” & “Keep Your Car Running”

Several years before they kicked off an SNL season with Tina Fey, Win Butler’s guitar string broke, and he violently smashed his instrument on the studio stage. It was their first performance at Studio 8H, and the protest was accompanied by sak vide pa kanpe, written with duct tape, which is a Haitian proverb meaning “an empty sack cannot stand up.” (Chassagne hails from the Caribbean nation, and the band donates $1 per ticket sold to Haiti charities.) After the live taping, the band performed several tracks for the cast and studio audience.

As a bonus: Watch Jorm of Lonely Island dance to Arcade Fire.

6. 2007: LA BLOGOTHEQUE: Neon Bible”& “Wake Up”

“A mobile cacophony, a music that takes form, several people coming together, and some random and various snippets of songs to come,” wrote  La Blogotheque, an iconic French video site. “Everyone is concentrating alone, but at the same time following a trace towards the group’s uncanny unity. As the orchestra tuned and grew powerfully aligned, we started towards the elevator.”

In the middle of the Arcade Fire’s 2007 European tour, they stopped in Paris to film a segment with La Blogotheque. The band entered a cramped freight elevator before wandering into an unexpecting concert hall crowd, who were waiting for their stage show. Those two visionary concepts married the ideas of stadium love and intimacy. They would later collaborate with Vincent Moon on the long-form concert film Miroir Noir, a behind-the-scenes look at their preparation for Neon Bible and its subsequent tour.

7. 2009: President Barack Obama’s Inauguration Staff Ball

As a band, the Arcade Fire have been political at times, perhaps most prominently with their vocal support of Barack Obama at the end of the New Hampshire Primaries. They performed several free concerts, then, at Obama’s request, this appearance at the Staff Ball alongside Jay Z. Say what you will about his policies, but there is no denying Obama’s (or his advisor’s) taste. Butler later praised President Obama in an entry for McSweeney’s-led 90 Days, 90 Reasons project, where he quips that, as an American living in Canada, he’d like “four more sweet years of Canadians liking Americans.”

8. 2011: Grammy Awards Album Of The Year

Their third album, The Suburbs, was a Springsteen-infused coming-of-age opus, and it racked up a ton of hardware, including Juno and Polaris Prize. Its magnitude was probably best felt when a dumbfounded Barbara Streisand fumbled their name, declaring The Suburbs as victor amongst Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Butler expressed the disbelief of the Twitter-verse when he took to the mic and said, “What the hell?” Then the band, who had just performed “Month of May,” spontaneously sat their trophies atop of their amps and kicked into “We Used To Wait”.

9. 2011: Coachella Festival


There are a handful of epic Arcade Fire headlining slots that are well-documented, including Glastonbury, Reading and a Terry Gilliam-directed Madison Square Garden gig. But this evening in California cemented their font size on festival posters. First, there was the “Happy Birthday” choruses for Win Butler, and then he smiled as a cavalcade of white balls descended upon the crowd, lit up with colours changing to the music. It was more than a stunt — it was an Intel Creators project titled Summer Into Dust, designed to visually portray the “collective emotional experience” of their encore. It’s not the first time Arcade Fire ventured into tech: They also created The Wilderness Downtown, a computer-manipulating video experience for “We Used to Wait.”

10. 2013: NBC Special: ‘Here Comes The Night Time’

Upon the release of Reflektor, NBC offered up a two-hour late night block for Arcade Fire to show off their new sounds: First, they were the musical guest on SNL’s season premiere, before it segued into a half-hour special featuring a motley crew of appearances from Ben Stiller, Bono, Bill Hader, Zach Galifianakis, James Franco, Rainn Wilson, Aziz Ansari, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Wareheim and Michael Cera. Directed by Roman Coppola at the band’s surprise set from Montreal’s Club Salsathèque, they took the opportunity to tease a few songs (“Here Comes The Night Time,” “We Exist,” “Normal People”) and mark a new chapter that had led into an extensive campaign, surprise warehouse performances as The Reflektors, endless cover songs, and extravagant bobble head characters.

Here’s another SNL bonus of the band’s “She’s Like A Rainbow’ / ‘Ruby Tuesday,” from SNL’s farewell To Kristen Wiig with Mick Jagger. The band sported carrés rouges (red squares) to show support for the 2012 Quebec student protests.

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