Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld: Bird Calls, Bell Orchestre and Billy Martin
For the past decade, Sarah Neufeld has held the violin chair in the arena-size indie rock band Arcade Fire. But during that time, the 32-year-old has quietly led a parallel life as a core member of classically trained, improvisational-leaning new music chamber group Bell Orchestre. After wrapping-up a nearly two-year tour with Arcade Fire, Neufield also decided to step out under her own name for the first time too as part of the Alone Together tour with Medeski Martin & Wood percussionist Billy Martin and noted classical pianist Gregory Rogove (Arcade Fire touring saxophonist Colin Stetson subbed for Martin for a leg of the tour too). In an attempt to mix their varied backgrounds in indie rock, freeform improvisation and orchestral music, Alone Together found the musicians performing a variety of solo pieces in an intimate, highly collaborative setting. Partway through the tour, Neufeld stopped by the Relix/Jambands.com offices to discuss the tour’s progress, her new yoga studio and why she always looked forward to “jam time.”
Let’s start by talking about your most immediate project, which is the Alone Together tour you’re currently in the midst of. It combines the musical backgrounds of three different people we’ve covered in Relix and Jambands.com over the years in very different settings. How did the tour come together and how familiar were you with Billy Martin’s music before it started?
So it’s this interesting union of people. I’d never met Billy Martin before but we’re both good friends with Gregory Rogove. Greg and I met when the Devendra Banhart band was opening for Arcade Fire last winter. We hit it off and stayed in touch, and we played some music together at his house in Venice. And he said, “You know what, we should do” and explaind the tour’s concept. He was releasing this solo piano album, and he kind of lit up a little fire under my ass to sort of get it together and write some music on my own.
Actually, a couple people did: I always wanted to write solo music, and it just never synced up at the right time. So he asked me to do this tour before I had a body of work together [Laughter]. So, I said yes! We’ve done two shows and it’s been really fun and, man, watching Billy Martin play drums in all his multi-faceted world of percussion instruments is so fascinating and beautiful.
We all kind of sit on the stage together. It’s like a living room show for ourselves that lends this really intimate character to the whole thing. So I’ve been starting the show and another [musician] will get onstage, and we’ll overlap a little bit. And the next person starts, and I just kind of sit down. It is truly “alone together”—we’re there for each other in this intimate “we’re-sharing-a-stage” way. Last night, we tried a kind of overlapping thing and we played together which was really beautiful. But mostly it’s this round-robin of solo pieces. Billy’s are looser, more experimental. Greg’s are composed. Mine are pretty much composed as well. And Greg’s got these beautiful visual elements projected behind him that he’s collaborating on with other visual artists. It’s been really fun and totally different and unique to anything I’ve ever done before.
Two questions leading off of that: First of all, when it comes to your solo piece, what was your initial idea for the project and did you immediately drift to orchestral work instead of more straightforward indie rock?
It was a combination of things. I’ve always had a personal style with this instrument that’s been more expressed in my band Bell Orchestre, for instance, which is instrumental and really driven by rhythmic-instrumentation. We have loose arrangements and improvisations, as well. I’ve always enjoyed playing in that capacity. It is really fun to not always be a part of a section or fulfilling a role as a string line or something like that. So I wanted to write music that was really informed by rhythm and movement, which were the elements that really inspired me to hear melody and make music. And so I’ve always played a tone on my own and come up with little seeds of pieces. But I never fully dedicated enough time to them to make them grow into full pieces. And then a couple things happened last year with filmmakers. A friend of mine did a piece for Vogue —a fashion film for Vogue Italia. So I composed a piece with him and performed in it, and it just felt like such a fun experience and it kind of gave me a little opening to follow through with more of that. So I composed a bunch of music around that piece just to see if it would hold together for me—and then it develops as you play it live. And I guess an album will follow out of that, too.
You mentioned earlier that Billy Martin, especially, plays in a very loose style. He definitely has a deep background in jazz and in improvisation, which is something you’ve explored over the years outside of Arcade Fire. Though you composed this piece for a film, did you leave some room for the songs to stretch out live?
Improvisation was always at the root of my playing, completely from the beginning. I was a tiny kid, three years old, when I started playing, and, in the Suzuki method I learned from, everything is very ear-based. And I really immediately connected with the improvisational element of playing. And that was the only way my parents could get me to practice my instrument. I was kind of rewarded with “jamming” time with my mom, actually, which, when I think about it, was so special. She’s quite an amazing flautist and she’s got a really great ear. She would come and play with me as kind of a way to encourage me to practice these things I was resistant against like scales and classical pieces.
So we would play these improvisational games where we really just improvised together. I didn’t really know what that was or what that meant and that it didn’t necessarily fit into the classical world which I didn’t really…I had a hard time with classical training. I stuck with it up until a certain point and then I just couldn’t deal—I couldn’t fit into that box, and I wasn’t willing to spend hours every day that were required of being a first violinist. It was too much, and I really just wanted to improvise and make pieces. That led us to start Belle Orchestre.
I met [Arcade Fire’s] Richard Reed Parry, really, on the first day of art school at Concordia. We had all these things that we were excited about and loved the same kinds of music. We both loved Rachel’s and groups like that. So we started improvising together and had this idea, “What if we could make this music that doesn’t really fit into any genre specifically?” We were both really inspired by other art forms and dance and visual art. So we used to just create improvisations together with dancers and with visual art. We’d play at art openings all the time and that turned into more of a formal thing—Belle Orchestre is as formal as that ever was. But all of our pieces were always informed by improvisations. That’s how we wrote music so I always had that thread with music. And then in other bands—the Arcade Fire and The Luyas and whatever else I’ve done over the years—it’s been like, “OK, let’s make a part that goes into a song form.” That’s always really creative and amazing in a different way, too. But it is interesting to make something make sense in a setting that’s already got so much form.