The Unforgettable Fire… Arcade Fire Interviewed!

Read MOJO’s 2014 Arcade Fire cover feature in full

Arcade Fire 2022

by Keith Cameron |
Published on

Arcade Fires latest album, WE, topped the UK album charts earlier this month. Back in 2014 MOJO joined the band as they went ‘guerrilla’ in Miami to launch their fourth LP, Reflektor to hear how they found themselves seduced by Haitian rhythms and compelled to record in Jamaica. “It felt like the Stones in the south of France. Minus taking a speedboat to buy heroin,” Win Butler told Keith Cameron

Picture credit: María José Govea

Something odd is going down in the quarter of Miami known as Little Haiti. At around 6pm, a queue of young people begins forming on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 59th Terrace. Some are in evening wear, tuxedos and gowns. Others favour fancy dress: a green rabbit here, a Spiderman there, over yonder a Fidel Castro. Even in a city where flamboyance and show comes as standard, this is a scene to turn heads. Two hours later, the queue has become a throng and moves en masse along 59th Terrace, descending upon the collection of buildings at number 212: the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

By day, LHCC functions as both an art gallery and an educational facility for Miami’s Haitian community; according to a mission statement displayed on the wall near a children’s after-school club, it aims “to provide a space that brings together people and ideas to promote, showcase and support Afro-Caribbean culture in South Florida.” On this muggy Thursday night, however, its palm tree-fringed courtyard is playing host to a street party. While technicians make final adjustments to the equipment on an open air stage, a trio of drummers wander through the crowd, pounding out itchy, insistent rhythms. The revellers glug cocktails and compare outfits: with Halloween just seven days away, it’s no shock to bump into Freddy Krueger and many’s a horny little devil. A puzzled-looking officer of the Miami Police Department studies a fly poster depicting six faceless musicians, with the legend: “The Reflektors – Formal attire or costume mandatory! Tenue de soiré ou costume obligatoire!” MOJO dons a Morrissey mask and moves in.

Shortly after 9pm, with the stormy Miami skies clearing as if by sheer collective willpower, The Reflektors make their entrance. It’s a squeeze onto the temporary podium, the mystery six augmented by four more players, two of them Haitian percussionists who fire up a conga groove that soon consumes the whole band. The imposingly tall singer grabs a microphone and straddles a front-of-stage monitor. “I heard you know how to dance here,” he says, as deep pulses reverberate around the quadrangle. “I don’t know, maybe not…” Gauntlet duly lain down, The Reflektors proceed to turn Little Haiti into one big hootenanny, a process aided by the fact that these no longer faceless musicians in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to Arcade Fire playing a song called Reflektor, the title track of their new album.

The next hour is all about the Caribbean beats and melodies offering succour to the Arcade Fire’s signature emo-angst, as under cover of darkness both band and audience loosen their ties. The weight of expectation loaded onto Reflektor was always destined to be immense: its predecessor The Suburbs got certified gold in the US and platinum in both Canada and the UK, scooping the 2011 Album Of The Year Grammy. Yet the inevitable brouhaha around Reflektor blew off the scale amid a pre-release publicity campaign that pumped the rumours of its existence, the nature of its contents, its co-producer (LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) and speculation over a vocal cameo from David Bowie, via a guerrilla marketing campaign that made it a music blogosphere cause célèbre. To now witness this physical manifestation feels like a massive relief.

After six selections from Reflektor, our singer, name of Win, announces “an Arcade Fire song” – it’s Sprawl II, aka Mountains Beyond Mountains, the song from The Suburbs named after the biography of Paul Farmer, the Boston doctor who founded Partners In Health, an NGO integral to the efforts to rebuild Haiti since the 2010 earthquake that destroyed the already impoverished Caribbean nation. It’s sung by Win’s female partner, Régine, to wild acclaim from the crowd, and the frenzy intensifies from here on, peaking with a new song called Here Comes The Night Time, where loose-goose skank, naïve melody and dervish percussion dissolve into one almighty carnivalesque, as Régine dons gloves with long fluorescent streamers to orchestrate the abandon. Win is back on top of the monitors. “If we’ve taught you anything it’s that Haitians know how to have a good time,” he says with a wave.

The Reflektors are go: the weekend prior to our meeting they brought Brooklyn to a standstill with an equally intimate, compelling show; tomorrow they’re off to do likewise in Los Angeles, and the day after to San Francisco, where they’ll perform with fellow Canadian Neil Young. Then, on the following Monday, Reflektor will officially come into being, followed by live shows in Glasgow, London and Blackpool which will have happened by the time you read this. In an atomised age of downloads and tweets, where the once sci-fi concept of virtual reality threatens to become the only truth, such excitement at the release of a new album seems both prosaic and supernaturally weird.

“We want to make an environment that can produce something people can really remember,” says Win, as the echoes of Haitian rhythms hang stickily in the warm Miami air. “To do something that 15 years from now you can say: ‘I remember the night I went to that show…’ We want to feel that way too. Because what we do together is play shows and make albums. Those are our memories – that’s our life.”

Lunch at Tap Tap, a Haitian restaurant in Miami’s South Beach. Just like last night’s Reflektors gig, space is at a premium, as the table sags with sides and mains: stewed goat, grouper, shrimp, conch creole, dips, sauces, rice and salads. “Easy with that stuff,” cautions Win Butler as MOJO starts piling into what looks like coleslaw. “It’s really, really hot sauce.” Next to Butler, his wife Régine Chassagne’s plate of food remains untouched, as she play-wrestles with their six-month-old son, who is at the stage beloved of all parents where the sum of contentment is a full belly and a grab of mummy’s hair. Eventually, Butler takes pity on her and takes the boy for a stroll around the restaurant so Régine can eat. Around the table, Butler and Chassagne’s bandmates look up gooey-faced at the baby.

It’s fitting Arcade Fire came to Little Haiti to launch Reflektor, as it was on Haiti proper, just an 80-minute flight from Miami, that the album’s story began. In March 2011, during a brief hiatus in the touring campaign for The Suburbs, the band played in Cange, a village on Haiti’s central plateau. Hiring a PA from the capital Port-au-Prince and with a gas generator for power, the band set up in the car park-cum-football pitch attached to a Partners In Health hospital. Aware that no one would know Arcade Fire music per se, they played mostly cover versions – The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Marley – and watched as people emerged from the surrounding mountains and villages, as well as the hospital itself. “Doctors came out with their patients in wheelchairs,” says Régine. “Children, elderly… it was really something.”

For Chassagne, whose parents fled to Canada from Haiti during the 1960s, amid persecution by the corrupt Duvalier regime, the visit had obvious heightened resonance. A vocal campaigner for Haitian consciousness since Arcade Fire’s earliest days, she’s visited the country numerous times – and the band had previously performed in Port-au-Prince – but this was the first time Arcade Fire had played the interior. The occasion was heightened because it was the band’s first engagement since attending the Grammy and BRIT awards a few weeks earlier. “I feel like that moment almost encompasses the weird duality of this new album,” she says. “Two different strange entities clashing together: being at these awards and then the very next thing we do is play rural Haiti. They’re both real, both part of you, yet they couldn’t be more opposite.”

Their performance in Cange was notable also for Arcade Fire, by now established enormodome headliners, being merely the opening act: for RAM, Haiti’s star band. As RAM pounded out their rocked up version of Haitian mizik rasin – Vodou-derived ‘roots music’ – Régine joined Win and the others, dancing in the crowd amid clouds of dust. “We had our minds blown,” says guitarist Richard Reed Parry. It proved a momentous experience. After the Suburbs tour campaign ended in New Orleans, Win, Régine and Win’s younger brother Will made the short trip to Lafayette, where they hooked up with RAM’s percussionists and spent two days in a studio, experimenting with Haitian rhythm hybrids.

“We hooked one of Will’s synths up to the conga player,” says Win. “Normally dance music is made with synthesizers – you go see New Order and it’s like, Hit ‘play’ then go eat a sandwich, all the work is in the sequencing. But I recently found this recording we did in Lafayette and basically whenever the conga player hit the drum it was triggering Will’s synth. It’s all handmade. That was something we really wanted to accomplish: do things that dance music does but in a different way, getting the human thing we do.”

Two years his brother’s junior at 31, Will Butler is even more confident and self-assured than Win; perhaps it’s a benefit of not being under the frontman’s spotlight, or maybe just a typical instance of the younger sibling slipstreaming his senior. Ahead of Win in the queue for Pampers – he’s father to a two-year-old – Will admits that he hasn’t bothered dispensing parenting advice: “There’s nothing to be said – probably nothing bad will happen.” Win laughs darkly: “I’m always copying my brother.”

MOJO’s formal interview session sees the band divide into pairs, and the Butler brothers make a formidably eloquent team, as one might expect from these bright-spark products of elite American schools and universities. Régine Chassagne hooks up entertainingly with Jeremy Gara, the drummer a grounding counterweight to her free-spirited flow. The final coupling comprises Tim Kingsbury and Richard Reed Parry, the band’s musical wingmen. In theory, Kingsbury is a bassist and Parry plays guitar, but as often as not they swap around. In Arcade Fire, job specs are malleable – Gara also plays guitar and keyboards, Will Butler switches between keyboards, bass and guitar, Régine is adept at accordion, piano, xylophone and hurdy gurdy, while soundcheck in Miami ended with Win behind the drum kit, leading the band through a highly plausible rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It. “We’re all very capable of many different things, and all are keen to do many different things,” says Parry. “I think our band is a mysterious, nebulous thing often-times.”

Be that as it may, all agree there was a clear sonic mission when Arcade Fire convened at Trident Castle, in Port Antonio, Jamaica in spring 2012 – one with its roots in that rhythmic woodshedding session in Lafayette.

“In Jamaica, from the get-go, there was a definite goal to make something more rhythmically propelled than we’d ever done before, something danceable,” says Parry. “Samples from Lafayette got made into loops, and then we spun them into songs.”

Given that Arcade Fire’s live shows are renowned for their quasi-gospel fervour, this shift to the hip is hardly a stretch of the imagination. Likewise the choice of Jamaica – Haiti’s Caribbean near neighbour – was symptomatic of a musically informative quest: an intent to reappraise the very essence of Arcade Fire.

“In Jamaica at night time you hear the sound systems coming from every corner of the island,” says Win. “It’s impossible not to absorb that. The way people relate to music there is really deep. It was great to be a band together and have a shared experience. It was like a summer camp but with intense work. For us to do something outlandish – it’s how people used to make records in the ’70s. Rent a castle! It felt like the Stones in the south of France, big time. Minus taking a speedboat to buy heroin.”

“I played Grace Jones an early version of Reflektor and she started dancing immediately. I’m like, All right! We’re definitely doing something right!” 

Win Butler

Trident looks like a stereotypical English castle and features murals of Queen Victoria growing up there, but it was actually built in 1979. The band commandeered an upstairs master bedroom and set up their gear. By night they drank rum and coconut water on the patio. Daylight hours were filled with what Parry terms “band defining”. A chalk board listed the names of 60 songs – testimony to the creative power of the Butler-Chassagne marriage. “They don’t stop writing songs,” says Gara. “They’ll go away for a couple of days, then get back and we’ll meet for coffee and it’s like: ‘So, we have four new songs from last night.’”

“Seriously,” nods Chassagne. “If we’re left alone and nobody bugs us, we write a song.”

After a month at Trident, the song-list had been reduced by two-thirds. Some of the remaining 20 were in clearer focus than others, but Win Butler knew he had a viable new direction when he found himself in a hotel room with Grace Jones.

“There was this amazing day when I was working on the lyrics to the song Reflektor, and I had the idea of having a third voice on there. I met Grace, she was on the beach playing with her granddaughter. I played her an early version of Reflektor and she started dancing immediately. I’m like, All right! Grace Jones is dancing to our song – we’re definitely doing something right!”

Reflektor was one of the songs Arcade Fire duly homed in on during the next phase of the mission. Back in Montreal, they began recording in earnest, and by the end of August 2012 had enlisted the help of James Murphy, who travelled up from New York to finally work with a band he’d been friends with ever since LCD Soundsystem toured with Arcade Fire in 2007. Murphy’s role would not be the bringer of beats, however, as the album’s dance heft was already established; rather, his influence was more of an interested fan-cum-relationship guru, albeit one who knows the difference between presets and Pro Tools.

“Immediately he did many producerly things,” says Parry. “Like flag a song we had left on the junk-heap: ‘Why aren’t you including this?’ He’d come into the room as we were working on stuff and start pointing at people: ‘You! Do that again in 10 seconds!’ ‘You guys, louder!’ ‘Let’s extend this part!’ ‘Why don’t we replace the bass with electric guitar…?’ Running round, directing things, ’60s producer-style, making proper arrangement choices, and conceptual too – ‘Let’s ape this Stones song here’, or ‘Maybe borrow early Kraftwerk here’. He wasn’t like, ‘This is the James Murphy show, y’all are making a DFA record!’ He’s as broad in his tastes as we are, which is why it worked really well.”

A gifted classical music composer, one day Parry was on bass, trying to nail the intense psycho boogie of Normal Person. Murphy made him drink a beer as he was doing so, to counteract his expansive instincts. If another band member had told him he was overcooking it, Parry might well have ignored them. From Murphy, he took the hint.

“We’re a group of people that can play every instrument, and need encouragement to do one thing or discouragement from another thing that you’re excited about but which may be the wrong thing,” says Parry. “It’s a tornado in there! To have someone from outside the band shake up the inter-personal dynamic is very useful, instead of us getting bogged down in this six-way marriage.”

Which, given that two people in this marriage are already married, must get a bit tricky?

“Especially the sexual side of things,” Kingsbury deadpans.

“Yeah!” laughs Parry. “We don’t know if we really love each other, but the sex is great!”

As one of the band’s dual creative lightning rods, Win Butler doesn’t dispute the marriage analogy. “If you’re not arguing in the creative process, it means you’re doing something wrong.”

“David Bowie went, ‘Oh, I haven’t been here in a while – the last time was recording Fame with John Lennon…’”

win Butler

After almost a year in Montreal, proceedings moved to Electric Lady studios in New York, where specialist mix engineer Tom Elmhirst – himself a Grammy winner for Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and Adele’s 21 – was tasked with digesting the huge amount of music that had been recorded. One song alone, the ominously titled It’s Never Over, amounted to 25 minutes of hypnotic jam, two vocal parts, yet no solid lyrics or structure. “Really compelling and creative, but not listenable,” says Parry. Carved up and re-assembled at the mixing stage, on the finished album it’s a stand-out moment, at a relatively concise and still-compelling six minutes 43seconds. “It’s a long record even now,” the guitarist admits. “And dense as hell. But there was a lot of stuff that isn’t there now.”

One thing absent until the 11th hour was the title track’s third vocal, the extra element Win Butler had been scheming on the day he met Grace Jones. It would be another grande dame of pop who provided the missing link: long-time Arcade Fire admirer David Bowie. “I sent him the song,” says Win, “because there’s that one line that’s a third person: ‘Thought you were praying to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a reflector.’ The rest of the song is Régine and I singing to each other, whereas that’s like a narrator talking to us.”

Or a ‘deity’.

Butler nods. “It was really perfect, because he walked into Electric Lady and went, ‘Oh, I haven’t been here in a while – the last time was recording Fame with John Lennon…’ We had him do a reference to the Fame harmony, he’s recording it like John Lennon did backing vocals on his song, and he’s doing backing vocals on our song, in the same studio. He was into that conceptual aspect. It was a breeze.”

Finished at last, given what was in their hands – the double album follow-up to a multiple award-winner, co-produced by a sonic auteur with hipster cachet (Murphy) and another Grammy-winning engineer (Markus Dravs), and featuring a guest spot from an enigmatic legend – the logical next move would have been to prime the world’s media and start spreading the news of arguably the most significant release of the year. What actually happened was far more elusive. There was no press release. The first – and only – official public confirmation of the existence of a new Arcade Fire album came when a band member replied to a fan via Twitter: “you’re my favorite,” tweeted @fifferwright. “Thanks,” said @ArcadeFire. “Our new album will be out October 29th.” This stray morsel landed on July 12 and heralded an obfuscatory pre-release marketing campaign that walked the line betwixt tease and irritation: the Reflektor insignia (based on vévé; Haitian Vodou symbols) appearing on walls in cities across the world; the on-line hints of an Arcade Fire-related happening at “9pm on 9/9” (the release of Anton Corbijn’s video for Reflektor); the Saturday Night Live special featuring Bono and Ben Stiller; the dissemination of fake artwork for a 14-track album by ‘The Reflektors’; and was that really David Bowie singing…?

The band insist the strategy was considerably more haphazard than it appeared, though given that their affairs are handled by Quest, a management hydra with offices in London, New York, LA and Montreal that also looks after Paul McCartney and Björk (and which in 2012 took up an option on managing X Factor acts), it’s safe to say that the randomness stops once Arcade Fire are done with creating. Random isn’t an option at this level of the music industry – especially when that industry is grappling with revenue shortfalls as sales decline in the face of streaming and piracy. “Gone are the days when you could do one big TV show and see your records move up the chart,” says Quest’s Scott Rodger, Arcade Fire’s manager since 2005. “You’ve just got to try things differently. Which we’ve tried to do with the visuals accompanying this record. How can we get not only our fans but people who’ve never heard of this band to say, ‘What is Reflektor?’ Arcade Fire aren’t a corporate rock band. They’re quite unique from any other band I work with.”

Several hours before The Reflektors played the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler telephoned a music fan who’d just bought his band’s new album from Roadrunner Records in Kilkenny; an album that wasn’t supposed to have been on the shelves for another five days. “I just thanked him for not leaking it,” says Butler, before locating an uncannily accurate south Irish accent to report the fan’s response. “‘Ah to be honest, we were never going to leak it, we were just so excited to hear it.’” It turns out Reflektor had already leaked earlier that same day, whereupon the band’s website began streaming it. Butler is sanguine: in the present climate, keeping an album under wraps until just five days before release is considered a result.

“We want people to make music based on our music and not other people’s shitty music.” 

Will Butler

Talking to him, a surprising competitive streak emerges as a motive for the pre-release cloak and dagger manoeuvres.

“It’s not as extreme as the whole Beatles thing of trying to get out the first psychedelic album, but there’s always a little bit of that in music,” he says. “Like, you have an idea but you moved too slow and then Kanye does it first – goddammit! I wanted to have a giant mountain and a fake Jesus on-stage!”

His younger brother is even more bullish. “We do think of things in a Darwinian way,” says Will. “We want people to make music based on our music and not other people’s shitty music. Let’s push something bad off the radio so we can be on the radio. We think what we do is good and we want to be influential to the next generation. We want our children to thrive at the expense of others’.”

Win Butler doesn’t tweet or blog, nor does he care much for the forest of raised mobile phones he sees at his band’s gigs. There’s a curious disconnect between the tech-savvy Reflektor marketing and the fact that Arcade Fire’s frontman is clearly ambivalent about many aspects of the internet age. A key lyric in the song Reflektor mourns the condition whereby people communicate more than ever, except to those nearest to them: “We fell in love when I was 19/And now we’re staring at a screen”. In this context, making a telephone call to a fan seems downright quaint. So too is the obsessive way Reflektor was conceived and crafted, right down to the track sequencing, over which the band agonised for weeks, as well as toying with one very long CD before making Reflektor an old-school double album – comprising two distinct but complementary parts.

“We haven’t given up on the idea of the album,” says Win. “We’re a band that can play to 100,000 people in Montreal and we’ve never had one hit single. So whatever we’re doing, I don’t wanna screw with it that much because we basically have the best career that anyone could have.”

One song on Reflektor, Flashbulb Eyes, has been widely interpreted as routine rock star mithering about being photographed. An alternative reading, however, might posit Butler’s reluctance to engage with the show-and-tell generation as a commendable – even common sense – assessment of the price of a man’s soul.

“I don’t feel bad if Régine and I are in a restaurant and someone asks for a photo and I say ‘no’,” he says. “I don’t feel a celebrity responsibility to not be a human. I talk to them: ‘Nice to meet you’. Sometimes I come across as a little intense to people, but it’s just trying to preserve a genuine relationship, for myself.”

While he’s in Montreal, Win plays basketball every week. It keeps him sane, he says, provides an outlet for aggression. Many of his fellow players are African and Asian, and it’s only recently that his music has impacted upon them: they tease him by yelling out lyrics to Reflektor, which they must have heard on the radio. Could he cope with Arcade Fire crossing over to a truly mass audience?

“I remember reading about R.E.M., where for a lot of their career they thought they could have dinner with anyone who liked R.E.M. – and then, it was like, ‘Actually, probably not!’” He laughs. “But I feel like for the size of a band we are, the percentage of fans we could have dinner with is still pretty high. We’re pretty reasonable people.” He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Generally.”

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