Arcade Fire: Out of The Suburbs

Arcade Fire follows up a masterpiece with Reflektor. . . a dance album?
Dana Edelson / NBC / Getty Images

Everybody wants a piece of Arcade Fire. Montreal’s adopted sons and daughters—only multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne was born and raised there—have been courted by rock royalty. They’ve been invited to collaborate on stage with U2, Neil Young, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen; David Bowie and David Byrne have crashed Arcade Fire gigs; filmmakers Terry Gilliam and Spike Jonze have collaborated with them. Their 2010 album The Suburbs won every award imaginable—the Grammy, the Juno, the Polaris Prize, the Brit Award.

And now, as they prepare to release their fourth album, Reflektor (out Oct. 29), Quebec’s favourite daughter, Céline Dion, wants in on the action.

The singer, who says her own forthcoming album is “fresh, modern and edgy,” told Montreal’s La Presse this month she would love to record something with Arcade Fire. So what does the band’s Texan-born frontman, Win Butler, think of a Dion duet? “I think she’s prime for a Freddie Mercury phase,” he deadpans. “We could be her David Bowie” (a reference to the classic 1982 song by the two rock icons, Under Pressure). That sounds fantastic, I tell Butler. Can he make that happen? “I . . . cannot.”

Listen to Win Butler on Partners in Heath, the Hatian charity the band supports:

He’s lying through his teeth. When Arcade Fire says jump, people usually ask how high—and not just at their electrifying concerts, on which they made their reputation. That’s why they could get Bowie—who’s been a vocal Arcade Fire champion since the month their 2004 debut album, Funeral, was released—to sing on the title track and lead single from Reflektor. It’s why they can rally a ridiculous cast of Hollywood stars—Ben Stiller, James Franco, Zack Galifianakis, Rainn Wilson, Aziz Ansari and Michael Cera, as well as Bono—to appear in a 22-minute short film that’s part absurdist sketch comedy, part live music video that aired after the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, on which they were the musical guest.

When it comes to their music, however, they rarely stray outside their immediate circle. Reflektor marks not only the first time there is a genuine guest star (Bowie), but the first time they’ve used a producer: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, a New York City rock group that made some of the most exciting dance music of the last decade.

And so now that Arcade Fire can do anything they want, with the A-list of show business on speed dial, 10 years after their debut EP, what do they do with their clout? They make a dance album—albeit the kind of dance music only Arcade Fire could make. Reflektor has more layers of percussion than it does guitars, and there are more synthesizers here than on any other Arcade Fire album, but this is anything but a bid to enter the realm of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, both of whom they beat out for the Grammy.

Arcade Fire has always embraced dance music’s ecstatic release—this is not a radical move for a band whose first album drew directly from disco and Motown (on the codas to Tunnels and Wake Up, respectively) as well as New Order (Power Out) and Caribbean rhythms (Haiti). Guitarist Tim Kingsbury says the biggest difference now is that, with the help of Murphy, “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 we’d do our 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.”

Much of Reflektor is also informed by Butler and Chassagne’s experiences in Haiti; some of the songs were written while jamming with percussionists from the Port au Prince band Ram, for whom Arcade Fire opened there in 2011.

The ties run deep for Chassagne, whose parents are Haitian refugees; she sang about relatives murdered by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s regime in an early Arcade Fire song, simply titled Haiti. She had never seen her parents’ homeland until 2008, the first of several times she’s been there with Butler, her husband; the entire band made the journey in 2011. That island’s music is more inspirational for them than, say, the superstar DJ culture of Ibiza, the Spanish island and rave capital of the world. “For me, the idea of going to Ibiza and dancing with a bunch of rich white kids high on ecstasy is about number a trillion on the list of what I want to do with my time,” says Butler. “But being in rural Haiti, seeing one guy with a drum, and he starts playing and kids come from the mountains and dance until three in the morning, and then you jump in the ocean at the end—that I can really relate to, and dancing at carnival with 15-piece bands on floats and bands on the street and pre-New Orleans brass music and African music. That was really the first time I was able to lose myself in dance, and I want to create that experience for people listening to our music.”

Part of Reflektor was recorded in Jamaica; Butler, Chassagne and multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry took a separate vacation together to Trinidad “just to soak up more carnival stuff,” says Parry, who fell in love with steel pan music via a National Geographic album he played for his new bandmates when they first met 12 years ago. Butler and Chassagne honeymooned in Trinidad in 2003, and came home with a steel pan that Parry started playing. Yet there’s very little on Reflektor that sounds as though Arcade Fire is suddenly draping itself in exotic wardrobe.

It’s hard to describe what makes Haitian music different from the rest of the Caribbean. “You kind of have to get into minute musical terminology to start defining specific instances, outside of rara”—street drumming in the voodoo tradition—“which is very Haitian,” says Parry. “But also, you get loads of elements in rara from Ghanaian music. 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.”

Arcade Fire’s interest in Haiti is not just musical and cultural. Ever since 2007—three years before the country’s catastrophic earthquake—the band has donated part of all their concert proceeds to the medical charity Partners in Health, which works extensively in the poverty-stricken country. In 2011, Arcade Fire promised to match up to $1 million in donations to a new Haitian charity, Kanpe, spearheaded in part by Chassagne. “Please, take our money,” Butler begged from the stage. Audiences obliged; the goal was easily met.

“I think Haiti is something worth spending a lifetime on,” says Butler without hesitation. Their focus on Haiti is, like most North American philanthropy, borne not merely of goodwill, but of imbuing meaning to success. Butler would never question his band’s accomplishments; he was incredibly ambitious and confident from the earliest days of the band, even when they were playing gigs such as a 2003 show in London, Ont., where literally nobody was there—even the soundman left. No one, however, expected the instant success of Funeral in 2004; physical copies disappeared mere weeks after it came out, as the record label scrambled to manufacture more to meet demand. Though meticulous and industrious, the band never capitulated to anyone, as their success increased exponentially. Whenever the inevitable trappings of fame start to wear them down, as Chassagne told Maclean’s in 2011, she remembers that, without the attention, they’d never be able to raise as much money for Haiti.

At the same time, Arcade Fire delights in manipulating media to its own ends—because it can. Hence the TV special, cryptic marketing campaigns (one in 2007 involved a 1-800 hotline), teaming up with Google Chrome to create unique, interactive videos, and small warm-up shows like a recent three-night stand in a Montreal salsa club with mirrored walls, where formal attire or costumes were mandatory (and a piñata of an iPhone was involved). “We always favour doing things that seem like there’s an artistic gesture behind them,” says Parry, “reaching out in our own way, making every gesture personal, or doing something fun, funny, weird or unexplainable, instead of 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.”

“Yeah, we’re a weird band,” Butler adds. “I don’t really understand why we’re as big as we are. To me, the best-case scenario is what we have already, where we can play before 100,000 people in Montreal without ever having had a hit single. God help us, I hope it stays that way.”