Arcade Fire gets its groove on with new album Reflektor: paids tribute to Haiti


Latest release features signature jubilation while carving out new global territory, T’Cha Dunlevy reports for Calgary’s Herald.

Arcade Fire’s first album since Grammy Award winning The Suburbs is out Tuesday.

Win Butler remembers the day everything changed. He and his wife, Arcade Fire bandmate Régine Chassagne, were in her homeland of Haiti together for the first time, exploring the countryside. They met a farmer, who sang them a song he wrote.

“It (was) just like, pre-Delta blues, heavy, just a guy singing,” Butler said, sitting in a conference room in Old Montreal’s St. James Hotel.

It was but one of many life-changing, musically redefining moments that the leader of the world’s biggest indie-rock band has experienced over the past few years, most of them linked to Haiti.

“And rara music,” he continued, “which is kind of the street music — horns and African percussion, played super fast. We were exposed to these influences. Normally your influences are set when you’re 15; both of us were re-exposed to this deep influence later in life that was really transformative.”

Arcade Fire is a band transformed. Its fourth album, Reflektor, feels like a release. Marked by unprecedented electronic elements, funky beats, bursts of carnival percussion and old-time rock ’n’ roll, it is the best thing the group has done since its game-changing 2004 debut, Funeral. Maybe better.

Not to take anything away from the albums in between. Neon Bible (2007) and The Suburbs (2010) were the sounds of evolution — of a high-concept rock band exploring the boundaries of its esthetic, and making transportive music in the process.

The Suburbs winning the 2011 Grammy for album of the year was a crowning achievement, David conquering Goliath, the little kids from Quebec entering the big leagues on their own terms. And yet as Arcade Fire is set to prove, that moment was not a peak, but a stepping-stone.

Reflektor sounds nothing like Funeral. It shares that whirlwind first album’s cathartic mix of jubilation and drama, but it is freer. Lines are being redrawn. Clubland is for the conquering, but it is not separate from rock, or rara.

“We all love to dance,” Butler said. “Régine, especially, if she hears something and likes it, she’ll start dancing in the crowd. Richie (multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry) studied dance for a little bit at Concordia. (Butler’s keyboardist brother) Will’s wife is a choreographer. Will was auditioning to dance in one of her pieces; that’s how they met.”

The jury is out on drummer Jeremy Gara and bassist-guitarist Tim Kingsbury’s moves, but getting his back up off the wall didn’t come naturally to Butler.

“I never went to dance clubs, or anything like that. For me, going to Haiti was my first really deep (experience of) loving dancing and being in public. I remember being in someone’s house and a voodoo priest comes down from the mountain, and has a drum.

“All these kids show up in the backyard, and it’s this impromptu dance party till three in the morning, and you go jump in the ocean. That to me was way more appealing than going to Ibiza and watching rich kids on ecstasy trying to sleep with each other — and even the whole rave thing.”

The new songs have found Butler breaking out of his shell on stage, shedding the protection of his guitar and — gasp! — dancing. In the band’s appearance on last month’s season première of Saturday Night Live, he could be seen shimmying with his arms outstretched, or hands over his head. Though he hasn’t quite mastered the parameters of his new-found freedom, he is open to experimenting.

“I think dancing is a personal thing,” he said. “You’re supposed to be moved by music. I think a lot of people don’t dance ’cause they’re afraid of people judging them. I’ve been onstage since I was a kid. I don’t really give a s — t if people like the way I dance. I’m not trying to meet girls. I’m dancing because the music moves me. … It’s something I don’t think I’ll get a handle on for a little bit, but it’s interesting.”

Reflektor is co-produced by longtime collaborator Markus Dravs, who worked on Neon Bible and The Suburbs — and has done production for Mumford & Sons, Coldplay and Björk — and by James Murphy, of retired New York dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem.

The latter’s involvement was the first hint Arcade Fire was planning to get its groove on. Murphy is the epitome of laid-back New York cool. If anyone could bring Butler and his bandmates out of their shell without stripping them of their souls, he’d be the man.

LCD Soundsystem’s 2002 track Losing My Edge featured Murphy lamenting his fading trendsetting-DJ status in ironic deadpan over fuzz guitars and a thumping techno beat: “I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids / I played it at CBGB’s, everybody thought I was crazy.”

There are parallels between the two groups. Arcade Fire had a landmark moment when it graduated to Madison Square Garden, where it played two concerts in August 2010, the second of which was webcast live on YouTube; LCD Soundsystem chose the venue for its April 2011 farewell show, which streamed on Pitchfork.

Murphy’s band, like Arcade Fire, has been compared to Talking Heads. The 43-year-old knows guitars, and his way around a drum machine. But rumours that he single-handedly turned Arcade Fire’s sound around are greatly exaggerated.

Butler and his bandmates were well into the pre-production process on Reflektor when Murphy came on board. Inspired by their visits to Haiti, Arcade Fire travelled to Jamaica with Dravs, where they stayed in a hotel owned by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records and the man responsible for introducing Bob Marley to the world.

“He’s just the most fascinating dude to talk music with,” Butler said. “We spent a lot of time in rural Jamaica, in part of (the country) that’s closest to Haiti. There’s a lot of similarity. … In the mountains at night, you can hear the sound systems coming from different hills.

“We found this crazy old castle that was built in 1979 to look like an 1800s castle. It had been empty for, like, seven years. We found this dude who rented it to us, got us a bunch of beds and made it so it was habitable. We flew in some gear, bought a small upright piano and just worked for a month. Honestly, I don’t think the record would have been done for another year if we hadn’t done that. It crystallized a lot of stuff. We worked on the arrangements for Reflektor and Normal Person, and just had breakthroughs on a lot of songs.”

The band returned to Montreal with nearly 70 song sketches, which it was beginning to whittle down when Murphy arrived. The two groups have a history; Arcade Fire chose LCD Soundsystem to open several dates on its fall 2007 U.S. tour, and Murphy once visited Butler and the gang at their church in the Eastern Townships (which they have since sold).

Collaborations were discussed, but never materialized.

“Then the timing just worked out,” Butler said. “James would come up (to Montreal) for a week here and there, right at the beginning of the process, then he would come back and check in. It was not super different from how we’ve always worked. There was just a second cook in the kitchen. We worked on the album for three years, and he was there for two months.”

Murphy’s role was more about tweaking what was already there than creating whole new sonic templates, Butler explained.

“It’s not like James brings in a beat and is like, ‘Hey guys, I’ve got a beat for you! I like dance music! Check out this dance beat I did!’ Our most primal influence is New Order, as I think his is. New Order was like punk music to dance to.”

Reflektor is a double album (or a two-CD set) comprising 13 songs, rife with dualities. The opening title track, which has been out for over a month, is nearly eight minutes long, rides a thumping beat and features backing vocals by David Bowie.

We Exist fuses the bass line from Madonna’s Like a Virgin and some Bryan Ferry soul for a sultry ’80s vibe; Here Comes the Night Time is part electro-fied island singalong, part frantic percussion jam; Normal Person begins as Rolling Stones blues-rock and morphs into Nirvana-esque, power-chord punk; and the late-album anthem Afterlife soars with synth-rock grandeur.

None of it comes off as mere imitation, but rather the time-and-space-shifting adventures of a highly versatile group of musicians realizing there is nothing holding them back. The overarching impression is of a band breaking down barriers and blasting off.

Arcade Fire was given free rein in a wild, half-hour TV special, Here Comes the Night Time, which aired after its Saturday Night Live appearance (and is available online). Directed by Roman Coppola and filled with self-deprecating humour, the concert film features guest appearances from Bono, Ben Stiller, James Franco, Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Bill Hader, Aasif Mandvi and more.

The show was recorded over three nights of performances (under the name the Reflektors) at Montreal’s Salsathèque. Fans were urged to dress up in wild costumes to foster a Mardi Gras/carnival atmosphere. The band wore white suits with colourful animal designs, and Butler and Chassagne sported dark, face-painted strips across their eyes.

“A lot of people saw the TV special and were like, ‘Oh, Arcade Fire on drugs,’ ” Butler said. “No, it’s way weirder than that. There’s no drugs at all involved in any of this. The genuine expression of craziness is way more interesting to me than something that’s drug induced.”

Call it a natural high. Since bursting on the scene in a fireball of hype a decade back, Arcade Fire has paid its dues, stuck to its principles and honed its craft.

Funeral introduced us to a rock band weighed down by the world, yet able to unleash pure exhilaration on stage. That level of controlled mayhem could not be maintained, but after dipping into more sombre territory on Neon Bible, and showing refined artistic vision with The Suburbs, the group has experienced a breakthrough with Reflektor, an album that pulsates with renewed life, liberation and a polyglot global groove.

The world is their oyster.

Reflektor’s official release is Tuesday, Oct. 28.

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