Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler: 'Yeah, we're a weird band'

An interview with Maclean's ahead of the new album

Mike Blake/Reuters

Arcade Fire’s Reflektor was named top album of the year on Sunday night at the Junos. Last fall, Maclean’s talked to the band’s frontman just before the album’s release:

Even before Arcade Fire’s new single, Reflektor, was released on Sept. 9, the Montreal group had begun slowly rolling out teasers for the album of the same name, due out Oct. 29. Posters appeared without the band’s name, just the title of the song, written in the style of Haitian veve drawings. They then once again partnered with Google Chrome to make an interactive video. They confirmed that yes, that is David Bowie’s voice you hear on the song. They appeared on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, and made a 22-minute short film, Here Comes the Night Time, which is part live concert, part sketch comedy, and provides a cryptic glimpse at an even more bizarre project that will surface in the coming months. The album was produced by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, who knows a thing or two about giving rock bands some groove. Frontman Win Butler chatted with Michael Barclay from Montreal.

 Q: This is the first time you’ve actually worked with a producer outside your immediate circle, as opposed to an engineer like Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Midnight Oil) or Markus Dravs (Bjork, Mumford and Sons). What did you want from James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and how did he push the band?

 A: It was a three-year process, and he was there maybe a month and a half. We both joked going into it that everyone is going to think he made us play congas. People have strange ideas about how it works for bands. Maybe for some, the producer says, “Here’s a beat!” For us, it’s more nuanced. More often than not, if we were recording Here Comes the Night Time and working on the drums, James would say, “Oh, try and put the accent on the hi-hat there.” And I would be at the foot of the stairs about to run up and say the same thing. It was nice to have someone whose background is mixing live bands. And he’s toured with us before [Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem co-headlined a 2007 tour, so he knows what everyone is capable of in the band. If you have some random producer come in, they just want to talk to the lead singer. James knows that [guitarist] Tim [Kingsbury] is the most important person on a certain song, and knows what to zero in on. It was very natural and easy and I’m sure we’ll do it again.

Q: Your 2004 debut, Funeral, had Motown and disco and New Order beats on it—and now people seem to think that Arcade Fire have discovered dance music.

A: Our first hit, for lack of a better term, was Headlights Look Like Diamonds [from the 2003 self-titled EP]. That came out around the same time as House of Jealous Lovers [a popular single by the Rapture, produced by James Murphy]. I remember hearing that and thinking it was not worlds away from Headlights—even though we might have a more weird, homemade version of doing that. New Order and Bowie and Talking Heads—these are all primal influences for many of us.

Q: That said, there is dub reggae and soca on this album. Was that always waiting to bubble up?

A: We went to Haiti. Regine grew up listening to Haitian music and voodoo lullabies and hearing this kind of kompa music. We went to Haiti together for the first time and were exposed to rara, which is Haitian street music, this kind of deep voodoo drumming tradition. 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. But being in rural Haiti, with 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’s 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. Rave—I like some of that music, but that as a culture doesn’t do anything for me. There is no drug influence on this album. I think it’s a lot more interesting what you can come up with in your own head.

Q: It is a pretty trippy record, though: very dense and layered. Even the danciest songs are not straight-ahead, stripped-down dance songs.

A: Yeah, we’re a weird band. I don’t really understand why we’re as big as we are. We’ll see! We’re kind of playing this weird game: “Hey, we have a big new single! Play it on the radio! Oh wait, it’s seven and a half minutes long.” Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. 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.

Q: One of my favourite moments on the album is the beginning of Normal Person when you say: “Oh man, do you like rock’n’roll music? Coz I don’t know if I do.” Do you think you’ve always had a love/hate relationship with rock music? You simultaneously resist so many of the clichés and yet embrace others. And this album, more than anything since the first EP, has the least obvious nods to rock form.

A: When I first moved to Montreal I went to a lot of shows by bands related to Godspeed You Black Emperor, where there were no vocalists. But no matter what the show, there are a lot of rules as to how it works: here’s the stage, here’s the band. It felt very formulaic to me. There were a lot of rules of engagement. Even in a punk DIY venue there were still a lot of unspoken rules. When I got into a [performance] space, I always wanted to find a way to cross the line. I think we’re still interested in finding ways of doing that.

Arcade Fire at the 2011 Juno Awards. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Q: From the beginning, Arcade Fire has never demanded a passive reaction from the listener. Engaging the listener, the viewer, the audience member.

A: Yeah. We made everything up on the fly in Montreal because we were mostly playing weird spaces. I remember doing a show at our old second-floor loft where I hung coat racks and got a bunch of coats from the thrift store and then had people hang their coats when they got there, so when you arrived you had to push your way through all these coats. It was a horrifying fire risk; basically, a death trap. Then we built this fake suburban house that the band played behind, and there were trees with apples hanging from them and we served everyone apple juice. Very performance art kind of vibe.

Q: Was some of this album recorded live?

A: We did a secret show near the end of the recording process; some of the record was recorded live at the show: Here Comes the Night Time and parts of Normal Person. We had a version of Reflektor that—hearing it now, it’s just horrible. We worked on it for six months, but the day after the show we recorded the whole thing live, basically. We threw the old version in the garbage. We hadn’t played it in front of an audience, and then we thought, ‘Oh right, that’s how it goes.’ I was thinking if I was starting a band today, what kind of show would we do? That’s what we’ve been trying to do with these warm-up shows as well, not to lean on any kind of bag of tricks.

Q: Several bands like Savages and Yeah Yeah Yeahs started banning cellphones from their gigs, in part to demand that audiences live in the moment, to subtract a level of self-awareness that arguably dilutes the experience. Is that something Arcade Fire would ever do or consider?

There’s no cellphone footage of any of the shows we’ve done so far, partially because we asked people beforehand [not to take any]. At one of the Salsatheque shows [three shows in a small Montreal club in early September], we’d segue from the show into a DJ set afterward, and I had this Mexican woman I met make me a piñata of an iPhone. I was basically just DJing a playlist off a iPhone; I had preprogrammed everything, with air sirens and the whole nine yards, and then just mimed hitting buttons. At the show, I was DJing and the song Zombie by Fela Kuti came on, and I hung the piñata and I was wearing the mask. People formed a circle around the piñata and I’d give them the mask, spin them around, and they’d swing at it. When they’d hit it, they’d scream and it felt really tribal. It was really incredible. It was unintentional, but it was the most successful art piece of the whole night. It felt meaningful in a weird way, like, woah, people were really getting it out.

Q: Are you a slave to your devices?

A: At times. It’s like anything: some of it is amazing and some of it is shitty. It’s the same with the automobile. It is what it is, and I wouldn’t want to go back pre-automobile.

Q: This, from the man who wrote We Used to Wait?

A: I know. I love my iPhone, it’s great to have a camera around all the time. Like anything, if you’re not thoughtful about it and you take everything for granted, it turns into a shitshow.

Q: You’re mistrustful of technology’s effect on our personal relationships, in songs like We Used to Wait and Reflektor—and yet for both of those songs you teamed up with Google Chrome to make unique, interactive videos. Did you have any qualms at all about getting into bed with Google? Jay-Z got a backlash regarding privacy concerns after his album-launch deal with Samsung. Does Arcade Fire Inc. now have access to all their fans’ Gmail accounts?

A: We do. That was the joke, that we wanted to show everyone their Social Security number at the end of the video. Which I still kind of wish we’d done.

Q: Which you could’ve, obviously.

A: Basically we own the private information of everyone who’s ever watched one of our videos; we sell that information, that’s how we make our money now. The whole band thing is just a front to get people’s info and buying habits.

Q: It sounds like a new Dave Eggers book.

A: I’m glad you think I’m joking. It’s working!

Q: When we spoke about The Suburbs in 2010, you told me, somewhat facetiously, that you wanted to make something less bombastic and grim, “something to wash dishes to.” There’s very little about Reflektor that could function as background music: it’s dense and demanding. Did you consciously want to move well beyond The Suburbs? Was that an apex of sorts?

A: It’s been three years. If we didn’t change, it would be pretty boring. I think we allowed ourselves to be transformed by our experiences in Haiti. We changed as people in terms of what we wanted to express, and we wanted to make music you could dance to. Not exclusively that, of course. A song like Awful Sound is one of the only ones that James Murphy mixed, and it’s the least dance-y song. We were really inspired by these rhythms, and of course we’re going to try to make them our own—it’s not like we’re going to make Haitian music.

Q: A lot of celebrities lend their name to a variety of causes, but Arcade Fire put almost all your eggs in one basket after the Haitian earthquake. How hard is it to convince people that so much effort should be directed to one specific place, no matter how hard up, as opposed to an organization doing similar work in several troubled areas?

A: The work that Partners in Health do in Haiti benefits the whole world. They worked out how to treat drug-resistant TB and HIV, and then they train Haitians who then go to Rwanda and teach the Rwandans how to do it. It’s an interesting situation because on one level, it should be possible: It’s smaller than a city, and a lot of the basic infrastructure problems shouldn’t be impossible to solve. When we played SNL with Mick Jagger, the after-party was at Rockefeller Centre outside the ice-skating rink. Looking around, I realized there was more money and infrastructure in two square blocks of Manhattan than in all of Haiti, where there is 15 million people. There was literally more money in Rockefeller Centre than will ever be in Haiti. [The country’s history is] relevant to race in the U.S., it’s relevant to slavery. There’s no getting around the fact that Haiti is in the position it is purely because of race. It’s not like I’m a big believer in reparations, like France should be paying Haiti, but it should be acknowledged. It’s funny, because the story of U.S. independence is a story of freedom, and the story of Haitian independence has been turned into a story of voodoo and transgression. It should be as the most inspiring story: the slaves defeated Napoleon! It should be universally lauded and known. Myself, I think it’s something worth spending a lifetime on.

Q: Did you meet the million-dollar goal, where you pledged to match audience donations to Kanpe [a Haitian charity co-founded by Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne] up to a million dollars?

A: Yeah, we did.

Q: What can you tell me about Here Comes the Night Time? I know that European missionaries often looked down on or forbade indigenous music in the New World; more recently, Islamists attempted to ban music in Mali, as they had in Afghanistan before that; the Iranian government is also incredibly strict about musical expression. What in particular inspired the lyrics?

A: There’s a crazy energy in Port-au-Prince when the sun goes down, because there is no electricity in a lot of the city. A lot of parts of the city are pretty dangerous, and people are rushing around trying to get home. There’s also this nightlife thing that happens, and it’s a combination of really dangerous and fun. Whenever you go to Haiti there are all these packs of missionaries wearing the same T-shirts that say “Jesus loves Haiti” or whatever. You ask them, “What are you guys doing?” And they say, “Oh, we’re going to paint houses.” Well, why don’t you just pay Haitians to paint the houses? I’m sure they’d love to do that. There’s a strange idea of going there to teach people about Jesus, while I’m sure Haitians know more about Jesus than these people do; they’re the most religious people. After the earthquake, people were singing songs of praise in the street. It’s a strange idea that we can teach these people something. The music in Haiti is all tied up in voodoo and African rhythm and so there’s this funny thing: go to a voodoo ceremony and then go to a Catholic church and tell me which music you liked better, to which one the music is more integral.

Q: There’s lots of talk of heaven in that song, and obviously in the song Afterlife as well.

A: The film Black Orpheus was a big influence, which sets the Orpheus myth in Brazil during carnival. There are voodoo ceremonies in that film, too.

Q: I actually thought of that film’s soundtrack while listening to this album, in terms of the interstitials, the carnival influence, the crowd noise.

A: There’s a lot of overlap, some of it unintentional, some of it more intentional.

Q: You’re an acquaintance of Bono. What have you observed and learned from him about being a pop musician publicly championing what are, for lack of a better term, Third World causes?

A: Everyone has their own talents. It’s up to the individual to see what you can actually do. For Bono, he realized that he was already a cartoon character, so you might as well be a cartoon character who can actually get a lot done. I think he’s done incredible work. I think people don’t understand the nuts and bolts of what happens, particularly when you’re trying to convince the Netherlands, say, to give 0.5 per cent more of their GDP to the Third World. It gets really abstract. Whatever, I think he knows what he’s doing and that he’s going to take a lot of shit for it.

Q: La Presse reported last week that Celine Dion would love to record something with you. What do you say? According to her, her new album is “fresh, modern and edgy.”

A: I think she’s prime for a Freddie Mercury phase. We could be the Bowie, and she could be the Freddie Mercury.

Q: That sounds fantastic. Can you make that happen?

A: I … cannot.

Q: We met 10 years ago when the EP was just about to come out. You were one of the most ambitious musicians I’d ever met. Did you have a Plan B?

A: Plan B, what’s that?

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