Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is out next Tuesday, Oct. 29. Perhaps you’ve heard.
This band means a lot to a lot of people; they mean even more to me. They were the last—and in fact, only—band of my professional, pre-parenthood career as a music journalist that I saw rise from humble beginnings to global stardom, and who I got to know as people along the way. (Though for many obvious reasons, I only see some of them once a year now; the others even less.) On that entirely personal level, Arcade Fire’s success is a vindication of every time I’ve tried in vain to pitch an editor or even a friend on the brilliance a band they’ve never heard.
Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s fourth album. Unlike many frothing reviewers, I don’t think it’s their best—in fact, it may well be their worst, for its 80-minute length and the inclusion of some dreadful tracks that are best left alone. Coming off The Suburbs, it’s an inevitable letdown. But when it shines, it soars, containing not only their most truly ambitious tracks, in terms of self-reinvention, but also their trippiest and most wild.
I spoke to Win Butler for a story in this week’s Maclean’s here; the full Q&A is posted here. I reviewed the album for The Grid here. Three years ago when I was hired to work on their press materials, I wrote this piece for my own reasons, and I’m still very proud of it.
Here are my unedited conversations with Richard Reed Parry and Tim Kingsbury for the Maclean’s article.
Richard Reed Parry
October 15, 2013
What are you up to outside of Arcade Fire?
I’m recording a couple of Arthur Russell tracks for a Red Hot tribute project, and working on a Little Scream record that should be done in January.
How many times have you been to Haiti now?
I’ve been down a couple of times. And then we were all in Jamaica for a week together, and then me, Win and Regine were all down in Trinidad for a week as well.
What was going to Trinidad about?
It was more to soak up more carnival stuff and see what people were doing. It was a dream of mine forever, to go and hear the giant steel bands live, which have 80 people in them, steel orchestras, which is the most amazing and insane musical beast there is. They have arrangers who are basically doing mash-ups, taking loads of different, weird, disparate popular music, and they smush them all into one big eight-minute arrangement for a steel pan orchestra. I had a National Geographic record of carnival in Trinidad that had a few fragments of live recordings of steel bands at carnival, and many years ago I played it for Win, so we were stoked to see it live. It had 30-second fragment of a huge beat and the biggest sound ever and then all these people freaking out because it’s carnival. These field recordings make the hair on your neck stand up. So it was a dream of mine to go see that for years.
When did you first acquire that record?
Maybe 15 years ago. I distinctly remember playing it for Win and Regine when we first started playing music together.
They went there on their honeymoon, didn’t they? And came back with a steel pan? Is that the one we hear on the record?
Is that the first time it’s appeared on a record?
No, actually I used to play that thing live, pre-Funeral, on a lot of songs.
Really? Why do I not remember that?
I played it at that show we did with the Constantines at the Horseshoe. And it’s on the song “Lenin” that was going to be on Funeral, but ended up on that Dark is the Night compilation later.
Growing up in Toronto, was Caribana ever a big deal for you?
Not really when I was young [he went to high school in Ottawa], though I’ve played in reggae bands, and that’s been a part of my musical curiosity forever.
What do you think is different about Haitian music compared to other Caribbean music?
It has all the kompa influences and the soca thing as well. You kind of have to get into minute musical terminology to start defining specific instances, outside of the rara thing, which is very Haitian. But also you get loads of elements in rara from Ghanaian music, like the horns. So much of that music is interrelated, and various regions will put little accents in or add a different instrument and things progress over time. And Haitian kompa has similarities with Colombian cumbia, but they’re totally different.
And Brazilian, too. Win and I talked extremely briefly about Black Orpheus. Was that a reference point for this record?
It became one at a certain point, but not from the get-go. Win watched it at some point and was inspired by how it was relating to some of the lyrical stuff he was writing, and then he started playing with that a little bit.
There are two song titles that reference it, and there’s a song called "Afterlife" and heaven plays a role in "Here Comes the Night Time."
That was happenstance. There was already a song with those references, and then we thought to do another after we stumbled on it.
You’ve described the media lead-up to Reflektor’s release as “an art project.” Why? How is that different than any other media campaign involving slow leaks and poster campaigns and major television appearances?
We always forgo what would be commercially a guaranteed success, the traditional media things you’re supposed to do in favour of reaching out in our own way, making every gesture personal and have an artistic thrust behind it, or doing something fun, funny, weird or unexplainable instead of doing the boiler-plate promotion that one should do when one is in a position of selling more records to more people. But that’s never been something that has concerned us, and thankfully that has taken care of itself for us. Our natural instinct is to put up some weird posters with our faces cut out and make an alter ego and do a show where people aren’t allowed to bring cellphones—that’s what we want to do. Then it magically turns into promotion. Truly, all that stuff is just saying, “Oh, it would be neat to do chalk advertising with a mysterious symbol that will disappear over time,” rather than paying tons of money for big ugly billboards saying: Arcade Fire album available Oct. 29. Of course, eventually you have to do that because you do want people to buy your record. There’s such an abundance of empty publicity crap in music and in the entertainment business, and I don’t think that side of the business drew any of us into being in a band. As long as we can do things that are culturally interesting or relevant, we’ll always do that rather than twerking on the MTV Awards.
What about the YouTube awards, whatever that may be, that you’re doing in November?
The reason we’re doing that is because our friend Spike [Jonze] is directing it, and maybe we can do something really fun and live; it’s a challenge. That’s the side of it where you think, okay, we’re in a weird, popular position, and we have to figure out how many of those opportunities you want to work and what you want to do with them. Obviously it comes with a lot of attention, but the goal is to do something artistic while they’re paying attention. If we just wanted attention, there’s a whole range of godawful things we could be doing. We’re not going to do a red carpet; we’d rather bring our own.
And now people seek you out; or you can get people like Terry Gilliam on board just with a cold call.
That’s the benefit of being in the position we’re in. We can take a stab at these collaborations with people we want, and it’s worked out a lot of the times.
David Bowie shows up on this record, after only suddenly re-entering the public sphere after eight years out of it. Was he in touch that whole time?
He sends his best wishes when we do things that get on to his radar. He has kept some contact over the years; he’s a genuine fan of the band, which is amazing and nice. He heard through mutual friends that we were mixing in New York and wanted to come by and see what we’re up to. He showed up and was really into the song. He joked that we should hurry up and record it, or he would record it for us. We said, well, maybe you should sing on it. We had already talked about having another voice on it anyway, so it worked out.
That must have been around the same time he surprised the world by suddenly releasing a new album.
It was very shortly after that, yeah.
The generation you came up with in Montreal is now the old guard. There’s a new Spencer Krug album coming out the same day as yours. How tied in do you feel to the next wave of Montreal artists, outside of Little Scream?
I go see the Barr Brothers whenever they play, and I enjoy what Lief Vollebek is doing. I don’t feel super tied in. I’m more insular and continually going back in time and discovering old things I’ve never heard before. In general I find a lot more excitement and curiosity about old music and music from other places rather than what is young and fresh and new. Colin [Stetson] is doing the best, most groundbreaking work as anyone anywhere, and obviously Little Scream is my main musical love—in many ways—but the record [Little Scream] making right now is something I’m really excited about, even outside of being something I’m working on. You also hit a certain point when you travel so much and knowing people in music, that you mostly just keep tabs on people you know and love who are making music, and you’re less hungry for new sounds—which are rarely new sounds. Which is what’s remarkable about Colin, is that he’s actually making new sounds, which I love and will always go see.
What do you want to hear when you go out dancing right now?
Wow. Hmmm. Barry White. I’m on a big Barry White kick right now, and I also found a steel band’s version of a Barry White song that is really incredible. It’s absurd, but it is the most beautiful thing. I love that cultural clash element, and that happens a lot with steel pan stuff; I also just found a version of a Meters song, which is so fun and heavy and unlikely and weird. I love finding cover songs that are way more danceable than the originals, like the Slits’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
What is Sarah Neufeld doing? She’s not in press photos and not listed as a member of the band in any promo material, but she did play all the warm-up shows with you.
She’s still involved. We did all the writing and groundwork for this record in Jamaica where it was just the six of us. She’s always involved in the later stages of the record-making process anyway. We did tons of demos in Jamaica and we realized that this was really going to be just the six of us; obviously we’re going to bring her and Owen [Pallett] and Marika [Anthony-Shaw] in when it’s time for strings, but it just worked out that way. It wasn’t an official decision on anyone’s part; it’s just how the schedule fell. She’s still going to come out with us and be her awesome self. She had a lot of her own stuff going on this year, making a beautiful record and opening a yoga studio in New York, so she had her hands full.
October 15, 2013
I hear you’re travelling with two percussionists. Where are they from?
They both live in Montreal; I’m pretty sure they were both born here. They both spend a fair bit of time in Haiti and they’re well-versed in voodoo beats.
How did you find them?
The guy who owns Club Lambi recommended those guys. For some of the record we used these two guys from this band Ram, from Port-au-Prince. We first met them in Quebec City when we played Festival d’Eté. Then when we went to Haiti, the two shows we played there were opening for them, one at this hotel, the Oloffson; the singer of Ram owns the hotel and they do a weekly gig there, so they invited us to play with them. We played with them one more time at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and after that Win and Regine and Will went to a studio in Lafayette with a couple of the percussionists, and they recorded some stuff that we ended up writing songs around.
Like they laid down the rhythm and then you arranged around it?
They were playing these traditional voodoo beats, and Win and Regine and Will were jamming along to see what came out, and then they’d all work together to come up with what became the beginning of some songs.
I feel like these influences are really only there, however, if you know the story; there’s nothing about this that sounds remotely Haitian or Caribbean to me, outside of a few moments or sounds.
You’re right, it doesn’t resemble traditional music overall, outside of some parts of "Here Comes the Night Time." The influences are not all Haitian.
Win told me that both you guys and James Murphy knew that people would say he made you guys play congas. And yet Funeral had Motown and disco and New Order beats on it—very little of this is alien to Arcade Fire.
To me the biggest difference is that we’re more comfortable in the studio, and we can reproduce more specifically what we’re looking for. Whereas on Funeral, we’d think, “I want it to sound like this”—and then you’d do your best to make it sound like that but it wouldn’t sound anything like that. Now I think we’re still fumbling, but we have more experience.
What really struck me about this record is the sound, the attention to small detail in the production. Is a lot of that coming from Murphy?
A lot of that is us, I think. Everyone is involved: Win certainly has a microscope on stuff. Everyone does, in their own way.
Win was telling me about why he prefers using analog tape, not just for audio reasons but for immediacy reasons, because you don’t have 100 takes to spare.
Definitely. By cutting out options, you save yourself a lot of pain.
Was it all done that way?
No, but most of the beds were done to tape, the meat of the songs. The song "Reflektor" was live with 11 people all playing together on that one, and then just overdubbing a couple of instruments and the vocals later. For me, that was the highlight of making the record.
I know that you had wanted to work with Murphy on Neon Bible and that schedules didn’t work out. What do you think that record would have sounded like with him?
That’s a good question. It might have changed the sonics of it more than the vibe. For this record, he was open to facilitating with whatever we wanted. I think he would have done that there as well. A song like “Reflektor,” you might listen to it and immediately say, “Oh, James Murphy produced that.” Actually, a lot of the ideas were there before James got here. He certainly helped. The stuff he had the most influence on is probably the stuff that sounds the least like LCD, like “Awful Sound,” which he really worked hard on, and that has a very classic rock vibe to it.
I don’t remember harmonies every being a bit part of Arcade Fire, in terms of people harmonizing with Win on the lead vocal.
Me and Will and Richie and Jer, we started a cover band and did a few shows when we were in the final stages of making The Suburbs. We were mixing by then and going stir crazy because we weren’t playing that much. We got together and started slamming out covers with the intention of singing together and work on that. That came in handy for this record. In the past, we’d think about it, but no one was taking on the challenge; now we’re more comfortable singing together.
What was your cover set list?
We did the hits of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. We did a couple of Beatles songs, Rolling Stones, Jonathan Richman, Devo, some early R.E.M., Pixies, some Flying Burrito Brothers. We did one Pop Montreal after-party, and at BAM in Brooklyn once as a closing party for something. We mostly just got together and said, “Hey, let’s play new songs today.”
I feel like there’s more percussion than guitars on this record.
That’s probably true.
What do Haitians know about Arcade Fire?
I don’t think we’re a household name in Haiti (laughs). When we went down as a whole band, it was Partners in Health who hosted us and gave us a tour of hospitals and sites they work at. We played music in some of those places. People there were familiar with the band, because Win and Regine had gone down a couple of times and met people. So there was a big welcome banner for “Arcade and Fire.” We played our older songs and a few covers, because we weren’t sure if people would be into us or not. It was fun, and people were certainly listening. When Ram started playing, however, it turned into the best party I’ve ever been to.
And you’ve been to some parties, Tim Kingsbury.
I have! It was a place in dire need of a really good party, and Ram really brought it. There were a couple of thousand people dancing harder than I’ve ever seen. That would have been a year and two months after the earthquake.
Other than producing the new Basia Bulat album, what’s been keeping you busy?
Mostly Arcade Fire. House renos that seem to take forever. I’m still writing songs.
Your long-simmering solo project?
It’s going to be more of a debut box set. B-Sides and Rarities will be my first album.