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If you walk up St-Laurent Blvd. to the corner of Bernard St., and you look down at the sidewalk, you’ll see Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s names carved in the cement.
“Whenever I go by, it’s still there,” Butler said, reached by phone on Wednesday. He was on the other side of the continent, driving out of Palm Springs following their band Arcade Fire’s surprise set at Coachella, the weekend prior. The band’s sixth album, WE, is out May 6.
Butler and Chassagne have spent the past few years living in New Orleans, but their hearts remain in Montreal, where their world-famous rock band took shape two decades ago. At the time, the band rehearsed in a loft looking out on that very intersection.
“It’s still a jam space,” Butler said. “Wolf Parade used to play there, and Stars and tons of other bands. Our apartment was over the rehearsal space. It’s still owned by the same guy we used to pay rent to. We sowed a really deep seed in the soil in Montreal.”
Butler and Chassagne still have a house here, which they visit whenever they can, when their 9-year-old son isn’t in classes (he attends French school in New Orleans). They’ll be back in town for the summer, with very few shows planned. But that open schedule filled up for at least one weekend at the end of July, when Osheaga called earlier this month.
Originally scheduled to headline the first night of the music festival’s 15th anniversary edition, Foo Fighters canceled following the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins at the end of March. Asked to step in to fill the bill, Arcade Fire couldn’t resist. The band had only played the festival once before, a headlining slot in 2010.
“I had got the news about Taylor passing,” Butler said. “I was just with him in New York the week before. He was so sweet to us. And (ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman) Dave Grohl is such a beautiful guy. Obviously, Nirvana changed my life in a lot of ways.
“It’s unfortunate circumstances, but we were going to be in Montreal anyway. We hadn’t been planning on doing any festivals, but it was just too good to pass up — to play a hometown gig outside, with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who we’re massive fans of. It just felt like an easy yes.”
The band will be back in Montreal at a later date to close out an arena tour that Arcade Fire is planning, which Butler says will be “the most epic arena show we’ve ever done.”
The new album is a concept album, of sorts, he explained, with a narrative arc that is the continuation of a musical journey the band has been on since its 2004 debut Funeral, exploring themes of “family and pain, youth and adulthood,” Butler explained.
The arena tour will be “a framework for understanding everything we’ve done to this point. It’s not exactly (Pink Floyd’s) The Wall, but the concert will be a through line of all our work from the beginning. We worked with Tarik Mikou, of (Montreal production company) Moment Factory, who did the last show. I feel very inspired to make the most badass show we’ve ever done.”
And where better to plan the whole extravaganza than the city where it all started? For Butler, Montreal is not only Arcade Fire’s creative, spiritual and geographical home, it’s the place that shaped his life outlook and allowed him to see the world differently.
“When I first moved to Montreal, there was a sense of wildness and freedom,” he said. “You could do what you want to do. I hope differently that can be the case again, and Montreal doesn’t get too constricted. It needs to remember that at its core is creativity and food and music and art.
“Quartier des spectacles is not Montreal to me. Montreal is the people, the Haitian community, the French African community, the European community, Quebec culture and Americans coming to study. It’s this beautiful, incredibly rare melting pot. That’s what makes it one of the most unique places in the world. I hope it doesn’t lose its sense of openness and welcome. That’s what I found in Montreal.”
AT A GLANCE: Arcade Fire headlines the first day of the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, July 29 at Parc Jean Drapeau. For tickets, visit osheaga.com.
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