Grammy Awards: Arcade Fire’s unlikely rise


Arcade Fire is likely the first band to play an L.A. DIY hardcore punk space on a Friday and follow it up with a Grammy album of the year award on a Sunday.

The Montreal indie rock band’s victory was one of the biggest upsets in recent Grammy history, with a visibly stunned frontman Win Butler thanking the Staples Center crowd before playing a second song at the ceremony simply, as he put it in his speech, “because we like music.”

The seven-strong ensemble, fronted by the husband-and-wife duo Regine Chassagne and Win Butler, has grown from a cult band beloved by indie websites like Pitchfork to album chart-toppers with last year’s “The Suburbs.” It’s following U2 and Radiohead’s legacy of mainstreaming ambitious rock music in its career arc. But Arcade Fire has done it on an indie label, Merge, without any smash individual singles. And while the other artists in the category — Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum — have platinum albums under their belts, “The Suburbs” has sold just 486,000 copies.


Its turn in the Grammys’ spotlight showed it to be the rare band that has ascended to music world fame without the traditional commercial compromises, as evinced by its hush-hush conquest of L.A.’s underground just a few nights before.

The first inklings of the unexpected L.A. gig came from an Arcade Fire figure usually well behind the scenes – the band’s manager, Scott Rodger. On Feb. 3, he asked his Twitter followers “Where would be the best small venue in LA to do a really great show for Arcade Fire? Any ideas?”

The final details stayed mum until Thursday, when the band posted ZIP Codes and images of a paper crane, a fingerprint and a playing card – suggesting that Origami Vinyl in Echo Park, Fingerprints in Long Beach and the El Rey Theatre in midcity would be selling tickets the next morning. Fans camped outside of each for upward of 12 hours.

“It was only die-hards out there,” said 23-year-old Rachel Mosqueda of the line outside of the Long Beach record store Fingerprints, where she waited seven hours for a chance to buy a $30 ticket to the show.

Inside, buoyed by free sodas and cotton candy (and no alcohol served), the all-ages vibe fit Arcade Fire’s “us kids know” youth-noir. The band seemed thrilled to be holed up in a bunker with a few hundred fans who slept outside record stores to see their 90-minute set. By the time a brave young fan broke hipster decorum and crowd-surfed through the encore of “Keep the Car Running,” the room went berserk and the band members grinned like they hadn’t seen this in years.

However, fans’ surprise at the intimacy of this set was equaled by the band’s entirely unexpected embrace by Grammy voters. In a category with competitors that included the pop-country juggernaut Lady Antebellum and pop music’s biggest celebrity, Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire’s sinuous live take on its single “Month of May” from “The Suburbs” would have been a validating capstone to its unlikely Grammy turn in itself. (Earlier in the day, it lost to the Black Keys for alternative album). Onstage, the band played amid a bevy of BMX bikers, an allusion to its online-only video for “We Used To Wait” that mined Google’s Street View for images of a viewer’s childhood home, lending a personal intimacy to a song about pining for handwritten letters.


The Grammy telecast is known for spectacle and precision, but when a dazed and delirious Arcade Fire re-took the stage for a crack at its song “Ready To Start” to close the telecast, it felt like a true encore, one demanded simply because Grammy fans saw what may be a real changing of the guard in pop music and the music industry. When sales are so low and no one knows what makes a hit anymore, an outsider can step in.

For those in the Ukrainian Cultural Center on Friday, however, the band’s win underlined what many already felt for the band but wouldn’t have dared to expect on the Grammys’ stage.

“When they played ‘Intervention,’ I stopped working and just watched, amazed,” Carlson said of Friday’s show. “The applause sounded like an arena in there.”