Concert preview: Modest goals fuel Arcade Fire’s massive success

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From the April 24, 2014 edition

Modesty is not the first word that springs to mind when one thinks of Arcade Fire.

The band’s albums tend to make capital-S-Statements, touching on universal issues like suburban isolation, religion and death, and the media blitz for last year’s Reflektor rivaled most any product rollout in recent times, tying together media appearances (“The Colbert Report,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which found the group performing on the roof of Hollywood’s Capitol Records Building), secret shows and a cross-platform launch of the album’s title track that was hyped for weeks with a steady stream of cryptic 9-9-9 messages (the song was eventually released online at 9 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2013).

Yet in a mid-March phone interview, Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist Will Butler, who’s joined in the band by big brother/frontman Win Butler, said the rollout was inspired not by some sense of world-conquering ambition, but by a simple desire to get the record into as many hands as possible — a strategy that clearly paid off, considering the album debuted atop the Billboard 200 charts.

“We want our music to reach as many people as possible, but whether that happens over the course of five years or it happens over the course of 35 years is relatively unimportant,” Butler said. “It's more about sticking around than ambition. You hope someone is listening to your music 50 years from now.”

Arcade Fire, like a species brought up in a predator-free environment, has seen its status grow virtually unencumbered since its debut album Funeral surfaced in 2004, and it will roll into the Schottenstein Center on Tuesday, April 29, in the midst of an arena tour that has seen the crew play to some of its largest non-festival audiences to date.

“Weirdly enough, we've been so well-received through our whole career that the external world hasn't really been a source of anxiety,” Butler said. “More often it's actually reinforced what we're doing.”

Rather than hew to this cocoon, however, the band challenged itself to branch out on the rhythm-heavy Reflektor, which was partially inspired by a series of shows the musicians played in Haiti in 2011.

“It's really good to go to a place where nobody knows who you are and nobody knows your music and you kind of get to see how people react,” Butler said of the trek. “My French isn't that good, and my Creole is non-existent, so the only way we could communicate was through playing music.”

The group has attempted to inject a similar spirit into its current arena tour, donning bobblehead-like papier-mache masks crafted by a Haitian artist and designed to evoke the feel of Carnival, and asking audiences to arrive wearing formal attire — a decision that caused opener Dan Deacon to remark “I guess I’ll be getting some nice shirts soon,” in an interview just weeks before the kickoff show.

“It's definitely different playing to 15,000 in an arena than 200 people or 1,000 people in a club, but it's still pretty communal,” Butler said. “We ask people to dress up, and I would say 60 to 80 percent of the crowd makes some effort, and even that makes it feel much more like everyone is on the same page.”

Guy Aroc