On June 7, 2004, a typical Monday night, Arcade Fire played a set at The Cave. As the story goes in Our Noise, John Cook's written history of Merge Records, the hastily booked gig at Chapel Hill's favorite 74-capacity venue occurred in the middle of Arcade Fire's first U.S. tour. Though they had already played a number of undersold American shows, the band had scored a reliable opportunity opening for the short-lived Montreal bizarro indie rock outfit The Unicorns.
This was the early aughts, and The Unicorns were themselves riding a wave of pre-analytics internet hype and "will they implode" speculation months before Arcade Fire's debut LP, Funeral, would define that trend. In a twist, the Unicorns, long since imploded, would reunite to open for Arcade Fire in 2014, on their friends' 15,000-seat arena tour.
Why exactly did Arcade Fire play The Cave? Moreover, how did an art rock band from Montreal end up inextricably connected to the Triangle? Credit their longtime label, the Durham-based Merge, and a man named Howard Bilerman.
Bilerman is a longtime friend of Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan—he briefly drummed for Arcade Fire for about a year prior to Funeral's September 2004 release and currently co-runs the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. He was also the linchpin between Arcade Fire and Merge. Though sweating about his personal connections to the band, he mailed the label a DVD of live footage, which turned out to be improperly burned. He then offered a CD of demo material that hung around the office for a while.
As Cook documented in Our Noise, McCaughan and the rest of the staff loved the music when they eventually got to it. They also famously dragged their feet to respond. In that interim, Arcade Fire signed to Alien8, a Canadian experimental label known at the time for issuing oddball records by Merzbow, Keiji Haino, and Masonna. McCaughan sent an email expressing interest the day after the band went out for a celebratory deal dinner. Naturally, that created some tension, but the labels and the band resolved it more or less amicably. Still, the incident meant that booking a show in North Carolina, where Merge could see them, was likely important, as a show of commitment on all sides.
"It was like seeing U2 on the War tour when I was fifteen," McCaughan said about the show in a PopMatters piece in 2007. "They had these huge anthems that the crowd was responding to right away even though no one had heard the songs yet."
Just a month later, Arcade Fire returned to play a Mergefest pre-party at Local 506 with Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, just before the release of Funeral. Footage on Youtube shot by Chapel Hill videographer Cam Carrithers, who was working on a DVD for Merge at the time, shows the band fiercely ripping through their set, barely able to fit even their slightly downsized lineup on the tiny stage. Carrithers also taped an interview with the band, which is some of the earliest video footage of the group.
"We filmed this short thing with them in the green room of 506, just them talking while eating celery and Carrburritos chips. It was meant to be an MTV-style intro to the performance video," he recalls. But at the time, Carrithers wasn't convinced they'd go so far.
"I liked them, but even at that show, they were like any other new Merge band. Everyone in the know was like, 'You have to check this band out, they have so much energy,' because they were Merge's latest signing. I never assumed they would be bigger than Neutral Milk Hotel or Superchunk or the biggest things on the label," he says.
Fast forward fourteen years. Arcade Fire is returning to play Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh on July 12. Frontman Win Butler is spinning records at Motorco in Durham the night before as DJ Windows 98. This is their first official return visit into the Triangle in a decade: Arcade Fire's last show here was a May 2008 rally for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in the Carrboro Town Commons. The band was just off the Neon Bible tour, and George W. Bush was still in office.
The gap seems especially strange when you consider the length of the time and the band's run on Merge within those years. Funeral dropped to ravenous acclaim, well outstripping the initial ten thousand-copy print that Merge ordered. In 2007, Neon Bible galvanized Arcade Fire's status as the indie band du jour, and kept Merge's name hot to a new generation of indie rock fans, not to mention the burgeoning mainstream crossover indie movement. A few years later, The Suburbs boxed out Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum to win 2011's Album of the Year Grammy. Their rise is the stuff of rock legend.
And yet, Arcade Fire never publically returned to the area that signed them or put out those records. For years in the mid-2010s, the top Google result of "Arcade Fire North Carolina" was a news article about an actual boardwalk arcade fire at Carolina Beach.
Why not come back to play a festival like Hopscotch or one of Merge's anniversary events, like 2014's Merge 25? Chalk it up to financial incentives, large-scale venues, and other logistics that aren't easy to come by in the Triangle, as well as a vast and likely boring world of internal music industry politics. Their record deal with Merge was characterized in the press as loose and hands-off, with the band and label splitting profits and Arcade Fire otherwise handling all their own recording, licensing, production decisions, and tour routing with little input from Merge. It feels like a safe bet that playing the home state of their label wouldn't register high for a band of their pedigree—especially once the band quietly shifted over to Columbia Records.
Arcade Fire's return to the Triangle may be much delayed, and the occasion is a tidy benchmark for the status of local and international institutions alike. Who knew that a small one-off show in a college town could make such a difference?