Music

10 things you didn't know about Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

The Montreal band's Grammy Award-winning 3rd album turns 10 years old on Aug. 2.

The Montreal band's Grammy Award-winning 3rd album turns 10 years old on Aug. 2

From where it was recorded to secret cameos and album cover locations, look back on Arcade Fire's classic. (Eric Kayne; graphic by CBC)

The 2000s were a seminal decade for Canadian music. From coast to coast, our country's indie rock scene exploded on an international scale, drawing worldwide attention to bands like Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers and Hey Rosetta!. But the band that would bookend that decade with illustrious albums would be the band that attracted the biggest spotlight: Arcade Fire. 

In 2004, the Montreal band released the critically acclaimed debut, Funeral, a small indie record that shot to the top of year-end (and later, decade-end) lists everywhere and managed to pick up fans like David Bowie and David Byrne along the way. But six years later, they would close out the decade with The Suburbs, their third studio album and the one that would not only earn them praise but awards recognition in the form of a Grammy, a Juno and a Polaris Music Prize win for best album. 

The album was inspired by members Win and Will Butler's upbringing in a Houston suburb, and the songs that were born from that aren't so much a love letter to, or an indictment of, that rural ethos. Instead, it's described by the band as "scenes from the suburbs," tales spun of wasted youth, corruption and the responsibilities of adulthood. The result fits somewhere between dreamy nostalgia and dystopian fiction; a series of epic songs that feel more grounded and humane than those on their sophomore release, Neon Bible, and somehow slightly more hopeful than Funeral. In thinking smaller, The Suburbs became one of Arcade Fire's most vast-sounding records to date. 

Aug. 2 marks the album's official 10th anniversary. To celebrate, we look back at 10 facts you might not know about the album. 

What were your favourite songs from The Suburbs? Share with us @CBCMusic


The album was recorded in a Quebec church the band purchased in 2005

This 134-year old Presbyterian church just outside of Montreal was refurbished into a studio space when Arcade Fire purchased it, and was used to record both Neon Bible and The Suburbs. Other artists who have recorded albums in that space include Timber Timbre, Wolf Parade and Beirut. In 2013, the church went up for sale and was bought a year later by Emery Street Records. It was renamed the Grand Lodge No. 24. 

The Suburbs was originally meant to be a much longer album

The Suburbs runs just under 64 minutes long, but originally, it was meant to be even longer. Butler told Rolling Stone that he and wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne first brought "30 or something" songs to the band, but "we kept refining and editing back." "There's a chunk of them that just sound like they were from a different planet," Butler added. 

But even at 16 tracks, The Suburbs was, at the time, the longest Arcade Fire album to date, something that drummer Jeremy Gara noted to Clash Magazine was sometimes arduous to record. "It felt like the hardest process of all time," he described. "It was like, 'Oh my God, this is so much material.' We were working on twice as much material as Neon Bible and trying to do it in the same time frame and it felt awful at times."

It was recorded using 1940s technology 

Arcade Fire has always been an album band, thinking more about the album as a cohesive whole than a collection of singles. For The Suburbs, they decided to employ a retro, analogue approach to recording, even though they would eventually need it to be digital. The album was mixed on a '40s console with vacuum tubes, and the tracks were mastered first to a 12-inch lacquer before being transferred back to digital format. The result was that the CD and digital versions of the album could sound as close to vinyl as possible. "We recorded it on tape, we press it to vinyl, and the digital is the archive of this physical thing that exists in the world," Win Butler told the New York Times. "Ultimately there was something real that was made." 

'Deep Blue' almost ended up as a straight-up synth song 

In that same Clash Magazine interview, Butler looks back on the evolution of the now acoustically driven number, "Deep Blue." "We finished it as this total synth song and it kind of left us cold," he remembered. The version that landed on the album is, as Butler pointed out, a "balance between this almost demo quality and the synth stuff." 

The track 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' is named after a book

Mountains Beyond Mountains is the title of a 2003 book by author Tracy Kidder about the life of anthropologist Paul Farmer. Farmer would go on to form the non-profit healthcare organization Partners in Health, with whom Arcade Fire have teamed up. 

"I've always been sympathetic to people who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty," Win Butler told the Guardian in 2011. "You meet all these people who are alive because of Partners in Health. It's really good that someone followed through on this idea, and went through all the bullshit and red tape and garbage and depressing setbacks, and made this thing that could have not been real, but is real. It's worth pursuing."

The album cover location remains a secret

When it came to the album cover, the band needed an image that could have been anywhere and nowhere. The original idea was to drive from Longueuil, Quebec, where Chassagne grew up, to the Texas suburb of the Woodlands, where Win and Will were from, and take pictures through the windshield on the way. The highways proved to be less than picturesque, so art director Vincent Morisset instead explored the Woodlands with a photographer, taking pictures of streets and homes. Those images were projected onto a wall with a 1979 Mercedes Benz in the foreground — an homage to a technique used by Alfred Hitchcock — ending up with the iconic album cover. To date, the specific location of the house on the cover is a secret, but Will Butler did reveal to Q magazine that "the car in the driveway belongs to a friend of ours, Tyler, who's now our guitar tech."  

(Merge Records)

The Suburbs was Merge Records' 1st Billboard hit 

The label is home to some of indie music's biggest names like Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Magnetic Fields, but commercially, Arcade Fire is one of Merge's biggest success stories. While their 2004 debut, Funeral, was the first Merge release to crack the Billboard Top 200, The Suburbs would surpass that by becoming the first album on the label to land at the No. 1 spot on the charts. 

Members make a cameo in 'The Suburbs' music video 

Members Win Butler, Will Butler and Sara Neufeld appear in the music video for the title track, "The Suburbs," but as masked homeland security officers. 

'The Suburbs' launched the careers of 2 young actors

When director Spike Jonze was casting the teenagers in the Suburbs short film and music video, he looked for first-time actors. This is the first time we ever got to see Sam Dillon and Zoe Graham onscreen, but it wasn't our last: the two Texas natives were later featured in Richard Linklater's 2014 Oscar-nominated film, Boyhood

The album achieved Grammy and Polaris history

The Suburbs is the only Polaris Music Prize-winning album to also score an album of the year Grammy Award, effectively making it the biggest commercial album ever to take home the Polaris title. That album beat out the Weeknd, Destroyer, Austra and Hey Rosetta! for the Polaris Prize, and it beat out Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Eminem and Lady Antebellum for the Grammy. Arcade Fire was the first indie act ever to win that Grammy Award. 

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