I Kinda Like It: Tales of an Arcade Fire-Ambivalent Music Journalist

Categories: Fiesta!

Jaime Lees
Win Butler of Arcade Fire in 1999 or 2000. (No, he didn't always dress like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man.)

We music writers are often encouraged to argue our musical tastes in black-and-white terms. Not only does it make for a more interesting article, but hard-stance or scandalous opinions prompt conversations and an interesting, interactive online comment section.

One band that every music journalist seems to have a big, unalterable opinion on is the Arcade Fire. Love it or hate it, this band seems to have prompted the most spilled ink and fevered nerdy debates of any modern group.

I consider myself an Arcade Fire agnostic -- after all of these years of exposure it's like I still need more proof before I can commit to an opinion. Not only do I feel pulled in two different directions when I think of the band, but my views are wrapped up and twisted in my own personal history and the kind of "full disclosure" experiences that journalists are meant to avoid when writing objectively.

See, I spent a decent amount of time with Win Butler, singer for Arcade Fire, when I was just a teenager. He attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, with a friend of mine whom I visited frequently. (I mostly scheduled my trips around when I'd be able to attend Echo & the Bunnymen concerts in Manhattan, just a short train ride away. I've always been weird.)

I visited SLC a few times in a two-year period during 1999 and 2000. Sadly, the friend I was visiting seemed to always be ill when I arrived. (Once because she'd had surgery and a couple other times because of what I now recognize as probably alcohol poisoning.) In any case, when she wasn't available I spent a lot of my time on the East Coast being babysat by her excellent friends and dorm-mates who were kind enough to let me tag along with them. They took me into the city and offered to be my guides so that my seventeen- or eighteen-year-old ass wouldn't get into trouble.

Sarah Lawrence was (and probably still is) a school for the freakishly ambitious, the insane and the insanely privileged. It was one of the most expensive colleges in the country during the time that I visited, and it has maintained that standard. (Total undergraduate tuition and fees are currently estimated to cost over $66,000 per year.) Honestly, it's one of the most ridiculous places I've ever been. The school was known for not giving grades, working on a pass/fail system and letting students "explore" and invent their own "concentrations" instead of committing to a major. This meant that most SLC students basically blew through around $200,000 of their parents' money while they fucked off for four years.

Everyone seemed lonely and bored on that campus, too, but this worked in my favor when I'd hop off a plane and needed a companion -- and one of my favorite babysitters was Butler. I liked him because was a total sweetheart and a big Cure fan. He sometimes had the Robert Smith hair and everything. He seemed to wear mostly black, and despite what the picture above might indicate, no, he didn't always dress like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man. (I took that photo at a dress-up dance party.) He was geeky, shy and mega nice. And very, very tall. Whenever he took me into the city I'd always be jogging to keep up with him because my short legs had to take an average of two and a half steps for every one of his. Our adventures were always exhausting.

He left SLC sometime in around 2000 and took off for Canada. The next time I saw him was when his new band, Arcade Fire, toured the Midwest in 2004. I saw the (now-legendary) St. Louis show at the Rocket Bar and another one in Columbia at Mojo's. I'd heard his demos and liked them, but I still thought I was going to see some stupid college band. To my surprise, they arrived in town fully formed, and the music was impressively passionate. Arcade Fire was opening for the Unicorns and played for a very small audience at both of these gigs, but by the next year the band was on a main stage at the revived Lollapalooza festival in Chicago.

Jaime Lees
Arcade Fire performing at Lollapalooza 2005

The vibe backstage at Lollapalooza was intense. Gone was the joyous, silly kid who had shown me around New York City. He'd been replaced by a guarded grown man under intense scrutiny. The pressure was palpable. It was the hottest Chicago summer in decades and Butler sat at a table under a white tent, and we all tried to enjoy some delicious catered pumpkin ravioli while his handlers were attempting to pull him away to do this or that. None of that tension was visible from the stage that day, though. The band played in the blazing heat and impressed the thousands in the crowd. They all seemed more relaxed after they played, but the responsibility was still great. I watched the band be interviewed by MTV and realized that their lives had completely changed.

Continue to page two.

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John LeGrand
John LeGrand

Interesting, well written article. I feel the same way about AF..


Arcade Fire basically wanted to bring Kanaval to their shows which is why they asked people to dress up. They just wanted to share what they had experienced in Haiti with their fans. Hardcore fans were elated with the costume, formal wear request. It became a way to connect even further with the band. The concerts are like a huge halloween party! Like who hates halloween dance parties? lol The only people who complained about the "mandatory" costume/formal wear request were journalists, people you couldn't even necessarily call a fan. (people like you) 

I wouldn't even try to persuade you to like Arcade Fire because it's so plainly obvious you don't like them. Stop forcing yourself. 

Otherwise, have a nice day :)

Danny Yosbornata
Danny Yosbornata

I just got paid $7500 working off my computer this month. And if you think that's cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $8k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I dow ­w­w­.ℳ­ℴ­ℕ­ℯ­y­ℙ­ℯ­ℊ­.C­O­M


Thanks for writing Jaime. Your perception is unique, and you're on point with the facts.

I dunno though...for me Win's aloofness makes him more endearing...like they're this really great cult band that due to their perfect timing managed to go mainstream, and with that mainstream success came handlers who are hell bent on making them into the next U2...which alienates the cult and the musician class...but Win's insistence on re-conceptualizing the band every album/tour cycle (this is one area where Arcade Fire clearly have the purist high ground on Flaming Lips) along with the PR gaffes undermine that mission

at this point, they're a band without a country...yet the fact that they've never released a bad album and aspire to be the best live band in the world means they will always be relevant


Mostly for me, the resonance is in The Suburbs because it's an album about growing up in the aforementioned 'burbs and being hella disaffected by it. And then becoming an adult that's soaking in their own guilt and shame. One of the first songs has the line "the businessman drank my blood / like the kids in the art school said they would" which is pretty much the band's stance on big label money and the middle class in general. 

i dunno, shit like that speaks to me.


Hello Jaime - I just want to say right off that I'm not here to convince you to like Arcade Fire; the beauty of rock and roll is that we can all have different opinions on the bands we love!  One of my favorite quotes about this comes from Bruce Springsteen's SXSW speech from a couple of years ago.  Talking about this concept, he said "but you can pick any band, say KISS, and you can go, 'Early Theatre Rock proponents, expressing the true raging hormones of youth' or 'They suck!'"  So, I'm certainly not going to go against The Boss and try to convince anyone that Arcade Fire composes brilliant music.

I actually first heard of Arcade Fire after they played with Bruce in Ottawa in 2007.  Win and Regine performed with him on one of his songs, then he performed with them on one of theirs.  After hearing about this, I downloaded Neon Bible and immediately fell in...um...interest with it.  Like another band I love, The National, the music of Arcade Fire takes repeated listenings for me to fall in love with it.  When I first heard The Suburbs, the only song I really loved was Sprawl II.  Now, I love the whole damn album.  So, only hearing parts of Reflektor in a friend's car probably isn't the best way to form an opinion about the album, in my opinion.

As for their infamous "dress code," please know that most of their fans (above the casual level, anyway) knew that it wasn't going to be mandatory during their main tour.  They wanted a certain vibe for their small club shows earlier last year (some of which were filmed for that post-SNL special) and asked that people either come in costume or dress in formal wear.  These shows only had room for a couple hundred people, not the 1000s who would attend their shows this year.  Heck, for these club shows, they even provided "appropriate" clothing or costumes for the people who were in line and not wearing one.  When they tried to extend this vibe for their arena shows, certain members of the music press blew it out of proportion and freaked a lot of the casual fans out.  For the record, I saw them at their opening night in Louisville with a hoodie on over a t-shirt and jeans and blended in quite nicely with dozens of people around me not wearing anything formal.

Anyway, thanks for reading this and thank you for that goofy picture of Win from back in the day.  It sounds like he was and still is a great guy; I think he just rubs some people the wrong way sometimes.  Oh well - that's rock and roll, right?  :)


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