Arcade Fire on Reflektor: “We shouldn’t have put cowbell on it”

At a Haitian restaurant in Miami, FL’s ANDREW MURFETT sits down with half of Arcade Fire to discuss their game-changing new album Reflektor, world politics and Funeral 10 years on.

In person, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler is both game and disarmingly charismatic. “I’m Win from the Republic of Texas,” he says, sticking his hand out and smiling broadly. “Australia: how will we get Iran to stop their nuclear program?”

It’s the day after they hosted 1000 people at a makeshift outdoor stage in a gritty part of Little Haiti, Miami, and the band have convened for an international press day in a South Beach Haitian restaurant. The eatery is renowned for the impressive, semi-religious murals that decorate its walls. “We knew we had a press day, so we thought we would do it at one of my favourite restaurants,” Win says, as two of his Canadian bandmates, bassist Tim Kingsbury and keyboardist Richard Parry, file in. “We’re here all day hanging out in this amazing art gallery of a restaurant. There is a lady making tea-based punch. This isn’t like that Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy. We’re a little more into this.”

The band’s newly-released, James Murphy-produced fourth album Reflektor is a sprawling two-disc epic. It marks a beat-driven firm shift to what can be described as dance music.

The group of journalists scattered around the room talking to various band members include Brazilians, Japanese, Italian, Danes and Brits. And in 45 minutes of conversation, Butler is both relaxed and expansive. He seems neither as earnest nor guarded as his music infers he could be. He is also quite chuffed surmising the diversity of the groups he will be talk to today. “We have our own UN here,” he bellows. “We could solve world peace.”

And with that…

Do you think the perception Arcade Fire lacks a sense of humour is fair?

Win: We’re really funny people, generally. Not funny like we should be comedians. We laugh and take the piss a lot. That’s all we do when we’re hanging out. We don’t think ‘We need to change our image so people think we’re fun’, it’s more letting something out. We understand this process now.

The lyrics on the new album are very personal and centred around relationships. In the same vein, being in a band with your wife and brother could be the best or the worst thing in the world. Which is it?

Win: [Pause] My lyrics are not a one-to-one thing about my life. I’m a sponge for people’s experience around me. You get older and the relationship problems you have are not the same ones you had as a teenager. ‘Tunnels’ [from 2004’s Funeral is a song about escapism and wanting to meet your lover in the square. [Current single] ‘Afterlife’ is a song about trying to connect to someone and the real work of relationship. I am trying to explore different aspects of relationship and also being in one. Ideally I try and write in a way that is both direct and open. You want something to have a certain amount of mystery but also be relatable.

Win, you and your wife Regine [Chassagne], became parents a few months ago. Is that ambitious with the lifestyle you both have?

Win: It’s easier than both of us having to work minimum wage jobs, which 90 per cent of people have to. They work 60 hours a week and come home and take care of a kid. This is a breeze, compared to that. We have a nanny on tour. It’s awesome.

How do you look back on your debut album _Funeral) now, almost 10 years on?

Win: There are beautiful things about debut records and there are things that are annoying. On Funeral, we probably had about 30 ideas and accomplished maybe three. With the photographs and videos, we look back and say “That wasn’t what we quite meant to do with that.” We were passive. People were taking pictures of us and we were uncomfortable in our own skin. We didn’t know how to own it. We know what to do now.

Rich: There is so much that is so accidental.

Win: You can’t try and create something you did when you were 20 years old again. There is a certain place to describe that. It’s called hell. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

How has the band changed in the last few years?

Tim: On this record we have gotten to the point where musically we’re more confident expanding. Like, having the conga players on Funeral would have been insane. And we didn’t want it then either.

Richard: You know more about music as you go along so you want to try particular things. Around Funeral we weren’t in command of our abilities, I guess. We didn’t have experience in being a band. But you get bored of your own skin and bored of comfort zones. [We found] we wanted to be a bigger band and be more danceable, make longer songs and ride a certain direction of influence more and see where it takes you. We didn’t want to be the same band.

Did you feel like after The Suburbs [2010] you needed to take a break from music?

Win: We took way less of a break this time. Before The Suburbs, we didn’t play for a year. When we came back to do The Suburbs, we were out of shape, musically. This time we did take a break, but it was a little more natural. We went from the Grammys and Junos and played in Haiti for the first time and we started to feel that the seeds of this album were already starting.

Last night you played ‘Power Out’, ‘Sprawl II’ and ‘Haiti’ and they fit nicely with the new album tracks. Yet Reflektor is a left-turn for the band, isn’t it?

Win: Those songs have similar underlying rhythms to this album. It isn’t like we completely reinvented the wheel. Previously as a band, we have worked in small groups of maybe three to work on a song. This time was the first time we were all in the room together for an extended period. Instead of editing later, we edited in the room. People started trying to bounce off each other and be more of an ensemble in the arrangement process. I’m excited to see the music that comes out of that, say in a year when we’ve been touring. It was about expanding our tools as a band and how we play with each other.

Tim: We didn’t have the discipline or the chops before.

Also last night Win spoke about boat people being stopped by American immigration. What do you think of the US immigration policy?

Win: This is a country built by immigrants. Once you start picking and choosing who are good and bad immigrants you run into problems. In Miami there is a tiered system – Anglos, Cubans, Blacks and then Haitians. Haitians are a subset in terms of the social order. They are treated differently to Cubans even though they were also fleeing for political asylum. It wasn’t just economic asylum. Haiti is 99 percent below the poverty line. They didn’t elect someone a little left it’d be weird. What are they going to elect a free market guy?

“We wanted to make something we could take to Haiti or Brazil and they would love it [as much as] Brooklyn.”

Haiti seems to have left an indelible image on the band?

Win: We played a gig about three hours north of Port Au Prince. We trucked up a sound system and played with a band from Haiti. For a lot of people there, it was the first time they’d ever heard a big soundsystem. We played then there was a DJ. 4000 people came out from the mountains. It was a great party. You have no expectation of the parts people will get into. You just play the song, and you’re really into the song. It helped us reconnect to our own material. The songs we’ve been playing for years, you feel them differently. We have played in Brazil and Japan, which is equally culturally different, but they have heard the Beatles in Brazil. In Haiti there was a clean slate.

Win you’re sitting here in front of a painting depicting a Haitian voodoo ceremony. Did you absorb much of that side of Haitian culture?

Win: It was an African religion. Haiti got its independence in 1804, 60 years before the slaves were free in the US. A lot of the slaves were brought from Africa just a year or so before they became independent, so they were dropped in this island in the middle of the Caribbean. The initial thing was to find a common language and religion, so they would do these ceremonies and the idea was you would connect to your ancestor in Africa and it would come under the water. So you would play the beat and it would come under your feet through the ground and you would take the spirit while your dancing. And you’re connecting to your last ancestor in Africa who was free before slavery. So when you put it in that context, it makes a lot of goddamn sense for this island.

There seems to be a concept and a love story through the album. It starts from the beginning?

Win: There is definitely a strand. It goes much deeper on the second half. ‘Reflektor’ [the song] has elements in it too.

There is also a lot about being separated by the ocean?

Win: In Haiti, if you’re not from Haiti, you say you’re from the other side. Even if you’re black and they see you, they know you’re from the other side. There is a lot of horror movie bullshit around voodoo, but ultimately it’s about people wanting to know: Why am I sick? Why is my kid not healthy? Why is there no rain for the crops? It’s the same as anything. If we’re making lists of bad things that have happened in the world, voodoo has a lot less things to answer for than Roman Catholicism.

Let’s talk about James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem…

Win: Well, we brought in James because we had made this music. It wasn’t the other way around.

Richard: It was already rhythmic, the songs were already long, there’s already synthesisters on there … He is good at this.

Tim: We have been talking about working with James for a long time. He came up on Neon Bible [2007]. That almost happened. James was a front-of-house sound guy for a punk band. So he has done different things. We knew getting into this that we we’re going to have to answer these questions and everyone who is mad we’re making dance music. Damn you, James Murphy. There was already cowbell on it, he edited a few of them out!

Richard: We shouldn’t have put cowbell on it, then we might not have got these questions!

You were always going to get these questions!

Win: We know we’re both cultural signifiers for music press. I mean people in general don’t really know who LCD Soundsystem or Arcade Fire are. We are a somewhat famous band, but not really. We’re on the edge. It’s the perfect storm for the music press. I mean, David Bowie [guesting] as well…

Richard: We’re in music culture consciousness but not pop culture in the same way.

This is a double album. People will buy this on iTunes or consume it online. Does the concept of a double album even matter now?

Win: It was more of a suggestion of how you can listen to it. We know as a group that it’s a really long album and people aren’t used to listening to really long albums anymore. There isn’t a culture of double albums. That was more the 1970s, when people had hi-fis and it was a different era of listening to music.

Why didn’t you just cut a couple of minutes more off and make it one disc?

Richard: We tried to make it to one CD. The original idea was let’s try and fill an entire CD of music so there is not one second empty. And it was completely unlistenable.

Win: We were cutting songs off the record, like there is a song ‘Get Right’ we cut for sequencing reasons. But it was as good as anything else on the record. There are actually many songs we cut. If you listen to Side A and that’s all, it’s not too long. The same if you just listen to Side B. You can put it in iTunes and listen however you want. You can just hit pause and go and do something else. We don’t have to explain that to everyone.

“Voodoo has a lot less things to answer for than Roman Catholicism.”

Is it meant as two separate, divergent albums?

Win: It’s not a Kid A/Amnesiac thing. They are the same album. I think it will give people something to explore for a long time. It’s an album you can live with that will reveal new things.

Have you ready any Reflektor reviews yet?

Win: If we were here to make an album to get perfect reviews, that is a much different thing. We don’t give a shit about that. We want to make something that is great and we want to be able to play it for people and have them move their ass. We wanted to make something we could take to Haiti or Brazil and they would love it [as much as] Brooklyn.

Win, you played Michael Jackson at your show the other night. How do you see pop music right now?

Win: No disrespect to Justin Timberlake, he’s incredibly talented, but look at his song ‘Take Back The Night’. The playing is great. But you compare it to ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’. Not musically, but lyrically, ‘Take Back The Night’ means one thing: let’s party. ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ kind of means the same thing, but if you think about it, and you’re dancing to it, it can mean an infinite number of things to people: sex, relationships, money, work, wanting to accomplish something or even cocaine. It’s open to how you want to experience it. And lyrically, I am really open to that. Dancing and having this openness to experience it, is great. Michael Jackson was pop, but obviously he transcended it. If we could make a song as good as ‘Don’t Stop…’, we would call it a day.

Are you interested in the conventions of dance music?

Win: I’m not interested in the conventions of anything. But the conventions of dance music are way worse than the conventions of rock music. Like a bunch of kids getting high in Ibiza dancing on the beach on drugs, it’s like “Get out of my face.” Give me a bad rock show any day.

Rich: It’s easy to make throwaway dance music. There are machines that do it for you.

Win, you seem to be enjoying all of this?

Win: It’s a huge privilege to do this. The only negative aspect is people wanting to take your picture while you’re eating.

In 2008 you supported Obama. Any regrets?

Win: Obama is the greatest president we have had in my lifetime. It’s a shitty job. I think he did his best. The US system is totally screwed. I don’t think anyone could have navigated it better. I am so fucking proud that Obama is my president compared to John McCain or Mitt Romney. Those were the options. You better thank your lucky stars it was Obama or shit would have been fucked up big time. Sarah Palin was one heart attack from the presidency. Shit was fucking real.

Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is out now through EMI. Listen below. The band will perform at next year’s Big Day Out. Details here.