The sudden noise from beneath the floorboard of Win Butler's green-and-white GMC van sounds so violent as he speeds down Highway 101 that something feels seriously wrong.
"Don't worry," says the founder of Arcade Fire, the superb band that's the new favorite of rock tastemakers. "We're just out of gas."
Then why is the van shaking so alarmingly and the gas gauge showing plenty of fuel?
"Oh, don't go by that," Butler responds. "There's something wrong with the needle, so we run out of gas a lot."
The van makes it just far enough on this rural stretch north of Paso Robles for Butler, 24, to spot a gas station a few hundred yards from an offramp. He jumps out and pushes the vehicle down a steep ramp, and it quickly picks up speed.
This leaves him with a big decision: Does he obey the stop sign at the bottom of the ramp and lose all the van's momentum? Or does he roll through it, even though an overpass is blocking his view of oncoming traffic?
Running the stop sign would be tempting fate for a group whose debut CD is titled "Funeral" and dedicated to the memory of relatives who died around the time the album was recorded.
Without hesitation, Butler jumps back in the van, presses vigorously on the horn and zips past the stop sign, easily making the station.
As his bandmate and wife, Regine Chassagne, heads inside for coffee, the 6-foot-5 Butler stares back at the highway. "We had even more problems with the gauge on the school bus we used to tour in," he says. "We once ran out of gas right at the entrance to the busiest intersection in Toronto. It was such a mess that it made the TV news."
Butler got so frustrated with the bus he sold it for $200, which he considers a good deal even though the check bounced. "At least they towed it away. That was good enough for me."
No gas gauge. No tour manager. No manager at all.
Is this really the way life is for a band whose debut album was called one of the 10 best of 2004 by critics coast to coast, from The Los Angeles Times to the New Yorker?
With all their potential, the members of Arcade Fire, whose album was released by North Carolina indie Merge Records, could switch to a life of relative luxury overnight by signing with a major record label.
Ever since their CD started an industry buzz last fall, thanks in part to endorsements on such influential Internet sites as Pitchforkmedia.com, the band has been besieged by record company representatives, each promising creative control and visions of gold albums.
But Butler and Chassagne worry about the price of such a move in an industry where the chief thing that seems to matter is sales. They've heard enough horror stories about the creative compromises that usually come with those seven-figure advances.
Unlike past decades when major labels would frequently stick with a promising artist for several albums, hoping for an eventual breakthrough, labels now tend to lose interest or even drop artists if they don't deliver hits quickly.
"If an artist's goal is to play the halftime show at the national championship football game, then you need to be with a major label because they are plugged into that whole corporate system," says T Bone Burnett, the respected songwriter-producer whose new Sony-affiliated label, DMZ, aims to provide an artist-oriented environment within a major-label framework.
"If you want to make challenging, innovative music on your own terms, a major label might not be a good place for you because record companies are only in one business anymore: breaking artists through large-scale media events."
As the van heads back down the 101, Butler says he doesn't see the debate over major-versus-indie labels as a moral one. It's more a case of which one is best for the band.
"I think the White Stripes and Rufus Wainwright have managed to get good enough deals so they operate with pretty much the freedom they'd have on an indie label," he says. "But I'd say there are many, many more examples of the opposite, where people have lost control of their music. And that's our biggest nightmare."
Young rock musicians talk so often about the pressures and angst of their world that it's refreshing to spend time with a couple who are so happily down to earth, making music they love and getting hailed for it. They had never toured outside of Canada before "Funeral" was released four months ago, and now their reps are talking to David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.
On a stop just south of Monterey, they play tourist, stepping gleefully along rocks on the beach, and then hold hands during a stroll in Carmel. They're so new at the whole media game that they still have to pause when questions are asked. They don't have sound bites ready.
In the car as they head to Los Angeles for a final few days of vacation before starting the second leg of their tour, they repeatedly press the scan button on the radio, in hopes of finding some vintage pop tune, but the reception is poor.