Indie stars Arcade Fire bring their arena-sized art-rock party to Nashville 

Fire Starters

Fire Starters

Lately, as Arcade Fire has rolled from arena to arena across the country, the indie superstars have personalized many tour stops by performing a goofy, city-specific cover. They played Prince's "Controversy" in Minneapolis; Philadelphia got a good-times rendition of Boyz II Men's "Motownphilly." So what country song will the band bust out at Bridgestone Arena Thursday night?

"We definitely won't cover Johnny Cash," guitarist/keyboardist/bassist Tim Kingsbury tells the Scene via phone. He's in Houston, where the band played Perry Como's "Deep in the Heart of Texas." "Johnny Cash, Hank Williams — probably we'll stay away from those. ... We'll choose something a little more deep-cut, I hope."

If Arcade Fire covers something like, say, Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places," don't be surprised if it makes next-day national headlines. "Those songs, they're covers that we're doing just for a little moment that's just supposed to be almost a fun throwaway part of the show," Kingsbury explains. "It's amazing that people are paying that much attention, but also it's kind of crazy to me."

Despite not having high-charting singles and spending the past decade on legendary indie-rock label Merge Records — also known for launching left-of-dial stalwarts like Superchunk, Lambchop and Neutral Milk Hotel — Arcade Fire is one of the world's biggest rock bands, with albums that top Billboard charts and take home Album of the Year Grammys. 

"From the minute we started working with them, they've always been super self-directed in what they're doing," Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan tells the Scene. "They know where they want to go. ... We didn't sign them because we thought they were gonna win a Grammy."

"[From the beginning], it really was just about trying to create music that we actually found interesting and exciting and artistically satisfying," Kingsbury explains. "Winning the Grammy was a really wonderful surprise, and it sure made my mom happy, but I never expected to be in a band that would have that kind of commercial success."

Because of that success, even Arcade Fire's slightest throwaway gestures hold the attention of the music press and inspire reactions of anger and amusement from fans and haters. But with each headline, for better or worse, the band's myth builds. Their albums, just like their massive shows, are events. If that's the band's genius, sometimes it rubs people the wrong way. Their ubiquitous new-media presence and critical-darling status make the band look unapologetically hell-bent on world domination. Their anthem-heavy earnestness and shape-shifting Bowie-worthy art rock give them a reputation as pretentious. 

Last year, in the run-up to releasing the feverishly anticipated double-LP Reflektor, Arcade Fire posted a series of short, cryptic teaser videos on their website, tweeted some nebulous clues and even released a vinyl-only single and performed a couple club shows under a pseudonym, The Reflektors.

"We did that thinking, 'Oh, these will just be little things that people will notice and it'll be kind of a fun, interesting way to roll it out,' " Kingsbury says. "The interesting thing is that every time we would update our website, there would end up being news pieces about it. ... I think it was getting on people's nerves a bit."

From their 2004 baroque-pop debut Funeral getting a coveted 10.0 rating from the tastemakers at Pitchfork to the seven-plus-minute Caribbean art-rock tunes on Reflektor, Arcade Fire's critics have constantly chided their grandiosity. Are they? Does it matter? Since when has pretension not had a place in the rock 'n' roll pantheon? The blogosphere blew up when Reflektor Tour tickets included a note in the post-purchase fine print instructing fans to "please wear formal attire or costume." But maybe this, like a lot of band's best intentions, is just a big misunderstanding.

"I have a feeling that was, like, maybe three people that didn't like us to begin with," Kingsbury says with a laugh. "No one that would come to our show would complain about that, I don't think."

So far, the band's fans have followed the formal directive, doing their part to enhance the grand intimacy of the interactive spectacle — a show built on paying homage to the band's experiences in Haiti during Carnivàle.

"It's been really great!" Kingsbury says. "It's a different experience when you can give yourself to it a little bit more."

Anyone who saw Arcade Fire rattle the rafters of the Ryman in 2010 or triumph as Bonnaroo headliners in 2011 knows the band can deliver a show fit for Bridgestone Arena. But they don't just want to pass the test, they want to put their own stamp on arena rock.

"We've been really trying to experiment with it a bit," Kingsbury says. "It's an amazing opportunity to play in venues that big. I think we've tried to approach it fairly adventurously."

The Reflektor Tour is a glittering, rave-like spectacle, featuring two stages, a meticulously crafted light show, and even bobble-head doppelgangers of the band members — expect party over pretense.

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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