The official poster for the band’s European tour. (Photo: André Doyon)
By the time I’m at the foot of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, I haven’t slept in five days and I’m running on bocadillos and adrenalin. The circadian rhythms of touring like a musician are new to me; when you’re travelling on this kind of schedule, your experience of time and space becomes intensified, amplified, distorted. Travel at the speed of music is, for lack of a better word, trippy.
“It’s an interesting state to be in,” says Régine Chassagne, the front woman of Arcade Fire. “You have to embrace it, stop worrying about when you’re going to eat, when you’re going to go to bed and when you’re going to wake up because it’s all irrelevant. When you wake up, it doesn’t matter what time you think it’s going to be; it’s just whatever time it is. This is your life.”
I’m groggy with the first signs of jet lag when I hit the Montreux Jazz Festival. The event is fest utopia – just the right mix of alpine vistas and kiosks selling flutes of champagne. Festivalgoers stroll in the late-afternoon light on the sun-dappled promenade along Lake Geneva and negotiate with scalpers for tickets to the night’s performances. Arcade Fire’s are going for several hundred euros.
In my box seat at the Stravinski Auditorium, a Swiss-made temple to music, the sound is so sharp I can feel the notes carving tiny curlicues in my eardrums. And yet, from my viewpoint above the crowds, the band seems removed, even rarified. As he does every night, front man Win Butler directs audiences to visit the merch-and-info table dedicated to their Haitian initiative; the musicians, especially Haitian Canadian Régine, work closely with KANPE, an organization that assists in rebuilding Haiti “one village at a time.” Arcade Fire put their money where their mouth is, matching any donations made at that table.
Once the performance is over, I head to the after-show in a small bar adjacent to the dressing rooms. It turns out to be a gathering of about a dozen of the band’s friends. Still humming from the show, I peer out the window overlooking the lake. The moon is full, the water shimmery, and I imagine the ghost shape of Chamonix and the Aiguilles Rouges outlined in the dark night sky. None of it seems real. Especially when I venture down the hall to look for the exit and spot Win engrossed in an intense game of ping-pong with his road manager.
I’ve spent most nights so far on flights or behind the wheel of my rented Mini, listening to The Suburbs – Arcade Fire’s third full-length album – with the volume cranked up to 11. Still, my growing fatigue is dispelled by the Catalonian coast as I drive to the next tour stop, a music festival in Argelès-sur-Mer, a little French seaside resort village two hours north of Barcelona.
“You go through phases – a Looking at Shoes of the World phase or a Cathedrals of Europe phase,” says Win’s brother Will, the band’s keyboard player. “If I’m in an English-speaking country, I’ll Google-map used bookstores as a way to get to know neighbourhoods.”
Arcade Fire’s drummer, Jeremy Gara, and violinist, Sarah Neufeld, always start by seeking out the best cafés wherever they go. (See the end of this article for some of Jeremy’s favourites.) Régine takes a more micro look: She ducks into small shops and peruses signs or food labels as a way to decipher a new place. Win, who’s extra tall and still has the elastic pent-up energy of a teenage varsity basketball player, spends much of his spare time on tour pursuing pick-up basketball games. Then he returns with guest lists full of his competitors’ names for that night’s show.
Stageside, close to midnight, there’s more lightning than I’ve ever seen – jagged flashes of fire tearing mosaics in the sky. The festival is on the grounds of the local château, which sits high on a hill, at the top of a winding medieval road overlooking the vine-tangled valley below. Tonight it’s lit up like Disneyland.
The band seems overjoyed to be playing to a rock-festival audience after jazzy Montreux, though the crowd thins when the skies open up to torrential rains. They play a full set, standing on stage in a puddle of water with their electric guitars; the kids who stayed tear off their soaked shirts and cavort in the mud. “We kept waiting for someone to tap us on the shoulder and tell us they were turning off the sound system,” Win tells me the next day. “But they never did, so we kept playing.”
When the lights come up, the audience surges out the gates and proceeds to file down the hill toward town; they start walking in step, like pilgrims, chanting “Wake Up,” the hit from the 2004 album Funeral. Suddenly, voices join them from on high: those of the musicians.
As Will describes it the next day, “The organizers told us we were going to have to take a 30-minute van ride to go to some hotel to take a shower, and we said, ‘Never mind. We have a balcony with a view over the valley; the rain is coming down. Get us some soap!’ We heard the crowd singing, so we started singing along with them. In the moment, you think, When am I going to be standing on a terrace overlooking this crazy mountain, and have people singing our song and be taking a shower in the rain at the same time? Even though we’ve been on tour for so long, there are still things that, when they present themselves to us, we really try to drink in because it’s easy to get worn down by travel and to just go hide in our hotel rooms. But every once in a while we get those moments that make us think we’re pretty lucky to be doing this.”
As the taxi crests the hill and heads into the Nervión River valley, I get my first peek at Gehry’s voluptuous titanium roof. But today I’m planning a rest – the first in nearly a week – in a shady Cocoon in the Hotel Miró, a design property directly across the street from the Guggenheim. I lay my head down just as the museum opens; tourists are already taking turns snapping shots of each other in front of Jeff Koons’ Puppy. It’s no use; somehow I’ve tipped so far into sleeplessness that I’ve come out the other side, hopped up on adrenalin. I give in to the Guggenheim’s magnetic pull.
“You can’t miss meals, because you really need to eat,” Régine had advised when I was prepping for this trip. Will agreed: “We’re a fairly food-centric group. What’s the Talking Heads album? More Songs About Buildings and Food – that’s us.”
So I grab a couple of pisto-and-anchovy canapés and some very strong espresso in the museum café before doing a tour of the exhibit spaces with Will in the sliver of free time before the show starts. Richard Serra’s sculptural installation The Matter of Time is an enormous, elliptical steel maze that deforms our sense of time and space in a way that makes perfect sense right now. We manage to see most of the museum in under an hour; Will has become an expert at seeing the sights from within the strictures of a tour schedule.
A huge crowd gathers on the plaza as the sky darkens into night and the shadows of clouds become giant sky fingerprints on the Guggenheim’s roof. The band members regroup backstage, just as the sun lowers in the sky, to hear the Walkmen, their opening act. Win, fresh back from basketball, sits alone on an instrument case, listening.
Violinist Marika Anthony-Shaw is standing next to me. I say how it’s strange that the stage is set up so the audience is facing away from the museum. But she says it’s a gift to the band, which plays night after night to crowds that all look the same out there in the dark. “They’ve all come to see us, but I feel like the lucky one,” she says. “Because while I’m playing, I’ll be looking at this.”
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Each Arcade Fire member has a way of discovering a new city.
Here, drummer Jeremy Gara shares his favourite coffee spots around the world.
Photos: Jolianne L'Allier Matteau (1); Valerie Lam (3); Katie Spence (5); Melissa Buote (6)
1. Flocon Espresso
“This place is so nice to come home to. It’s very small, with just a dozen seats, but it has blends you can’t get elsewhere. Plus it’s got an amazing barista!”
2. Tim Wendelboe
“Sure, this is a tiny little coffee bar, but owner Tim is a World Barista champion. These folks are extremely committed and aim for a high level of coffee quality – and you can taste it.”
3. Sam James Coffee Bar
“Grab your drink and hang outside for a bit and you’ll feel like you’re being welcomed into the neighbourhood. See you there soon!”
4. Monmouth Coffee Company
“There are 20 other cafés within 15 minutes walking distance, but this one gets my vote because the coffee consistently tastes good. It’s worth the line-up.”
5. Once Over Coffee Bar
“A quick 15-minute walk from South Congress, this friendly spot makes a mean cup of whatever you like, to be enjoyed out on the back deck.”
6. Two If By Sea Café
Dartmouth, Nova scotia
“This café is a total success story. Serious-tasting coffee and Maritime hospitality make it an anchor for a cool new neighbourhood, just over the bridge from Halifax.”