Some bands are destined to leave a legacy for doing things their own way and creating a sound that defies genres, boundaries and, in places, description. For Montreal’s Arcade Fire the idea of placing boundaries in front of their sprawling yet dense, sound stage is never an option and listening to the progression of themes and emotions across their three highly successful studio albums, one can begin to understand a little bit about what drives the group forward. On their emotional debut record, Funeral, simple vocal melodies, often sung in unison are effortlessly back-dropped by sparse piano and swirling string arrangements, highlighting the band’s personal experiences surrounding the loss of several close family members.
2006 saw them decamp to a disused church, complete with a full pipe organ to record their second album, Neon Bible; an anthem-driven body of work, which is now widely regarded as a modern classic. To hear the eight-piece (led by husband & wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne) perform the stirring hymn-like lead track, Intervention live is a truly spine-tingling experience. Indeed, as the 65,000-strong crowd files into a sunny Hyde Park in the centre of London, for the band’s huge headline show, there is a palpable sense of excitement and a unified expectation that this show will see Arcade Fire perform at their anthemic very best.
But I’m not just on a mission to enjoy the band’s undoubtedly brilliant stage show. Along with my colleague, fellow whisky writer Joel Harrison, we’d been asked by the band to put together a few choice whiskies as part of a boutique backstage whisky bar, to be enjoyed during the day and after the show – and who were we to argue. As well as bringing along several of our favourite drams with our little 1950s-style bar, we’d ascertained that the band were partial to the odd dram of Highland Park.
So after an exchange of emails and calls with brand director Gerry Tosh and a little creative head scratching, 75 bottles of a special Hyde Park/Highland Park Orcadian Fire commemorative 18 Years Old were born, with the band contributing the finishing touches to the label.
After impressive sets from support acts Mumford & Sons and the hotly tipped Vaccines, Arcade Fire hit the stage as the sun begins to set and the whole park erupts. Sales of the band’s recent album, The Suburbs have just passed half a million copies in the UK and in an age where careers are seemingly built and destroyed overnight, it is heart warming to see how the Canadian octet’s unconventional approach to performing has gained such popularity. A pipe organ is wheeled out; along with a medieval hurdy-gurdy, accordions and a glockenspiel, giving a few of the new tracks a vaguely Baroque feel.
As the band leave the stage and head for our little whisky bar to begin the celebrations I catch up with drummer Jeremy Gara, who is beaming from ear to ear about the show.
“Wow, that went super well,” he laughs, as we tuck into a few drams and Joel and I prepare the first of 300 plus special ‘Orcadian Fire’ cocktails, for the bands and their friends at the after show party: using Cutty Sark, some firey, aromatic Fever Tree ginger ale and whisky cask-aged bitters. “We had such a great time on stage and the crowd was amazing,” he continues. “The line up was exciting and we got to spend the day with loads of friends, old and new. All in all, a totally brilliant day".
The Suburbs has been a phenomenal success globally. Has the response to the record been a surprise to the band?
“Well, to be honest,” explains Jeremy, “I think we’re always a bit surprised in this type of situation. We knew that we were really happy with the end result of all the hard work we put into making the album, but you never really know how it’s all going to go down, once it’s out there for everyone to pick apart. But things have definitely gone well and we couldn’t be happier about it.”
The party begins to kick off and the Orcadian Fire cocktails start to go down a treat so we grab a few ‘under the counter’ drams for the band to try, including a Highland Park 25 Years Old, a Yamazaki 18 Years Old, Ardbeg’s recent Alligator release and a 2010 Caol Ila Feis Ile single cask bottling.
I ask Jeremy about his favourite whiskies and whether being on tour has given the band chance to try anything exciting.
“Well, we’re not super hard drinkers, so we don’t actually buy loads of whisky for the tour, as it would just pile up, or only a couple of us would drink it all!
“Also you can only bring one bottle home to Canada. So we usually have a bottle of Jameson on the rider because it’s generally a well-liked drink backstage by the band and our guests.” But he continues: “occasionally we get something special like a decent single malt or a Bourbon and I think the word has definitely got out that a few of us like whisky a lot, so it’s happening more often and we definitely can’t complain about that!”
So any desert island drams you’ve come across recently?
“I’m really into Ardbeg and Laphroaig right now. I’d be happy to sip on either of those, as to be honest, it’s actually pretty hard to get Scotch at home in Canada. There’s a nice but very limited selection at the shop, as the provincial government really controls the ins and outs of it all. I only get to experiment with new drinks if the duty-free is well stocked on the way home.”
The band head off for a few shows in Europe before returning for one final sell-out UK show at Edinburgh Castle, complete with cannon fire at the end of the encore from the ageing battlements, which effectively signs off what has been a terrific campaign for the band over the past 18 months. Afterwards, we head off for a few celebratory cocktails (including a superb whisky punch) at one of the city’s best bars, Bon Vivant.
I ask Jeremy what the band’s plans are now the tour is over. “We’re actually happy to take a little break,” he laughs “so we can reconnect with our lives outside of all the touring stuff and we’ll casually get right back to it. We’re building a little studio / jam space right now, which is a really cosy space, so we’re all pretty excited to get in there and just see what happens.”
One thing’s for sure, no matter how small the space is, I’d be willing to bet good money that an enormous sounding, game-changing record is bound to emerge, once again proving that Arcade Fire are truly without boundaries.