Montreal crew ranges from New York to Jamaica and Haiti for epic fourth
By Patrick Doyle Rolling Stone
Two years ago, toward the end of Arcade Fire's world tour behind their smash, Album
of the Year-winning "The Suburbs," they needed a change. They traveled to
earthquake-devastated Haiti, where singer Régine Chassagne's parents grew up,
visiting hospitals and playing a show in the remote village of Cange. "It was
life-changing," says Chassagne's husband, frontman Win Butler. The next year,
they returned for Port-au-Prince's annual Carnival. "There's people dressed up
as slaves with chains and black motor oil all over their faces," says Butler.
"There's big fire-breathing dragons that shoot real fire at the crowd, and
everyone is trying to hide. Wearing a mask and dancing, I felt less of a break
between the spirit and the body. It really makes you feel like a hack being in a
The trips sparked what would become "Reflektor," Arcade Fire's sweaty, epic
double disc of a fourth album. By this summer, they had written 60-plus songs
over more than two years in studios and makeshift spaces in Montreal, New York,
Louisiana and Jamaica. "Reflektor" spikes the band's classic coliseum-shaking
hymns with dub reggae, Clash-style punk-funk rhythms and eighties synth bounce.
Imagery from Carnival runs through the record, especially on the spooky "Here
Comes the Night Time" (which appears twice in different arrangements). "I was
opened up to a new influence," Butler says of Haitian music. "Bob Marley probably felt the same way when he
heard Curtis Mayfield."
The title track, featuring furious congas, chilly synths and a widescreen
chorus, became a mission statement for the album. "At first it was like,
'Congas, nowadays, really?'" says longtime collaborator Markus Dravs, who
co-produced the record with LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy. "The last
time I used congas was, I think, a remix in the late nineties." David Bowie, a fan and friend, stopped by for tea
one afternoon during a mixing session in New York and loved the song so much he
added some vocals.
With dozens of songs written, the band traveled to Jamaica in June 2012 and
met Chris Blackwell, the Island Records founder who signed Bob Marley and U2.
"He's probably the most interesting dude of all time to talk about music with,"
says Butler. The band members rented out Trident Castle -- a full-scale
Disney-ready white palace on the sea, built by an eccentric German baroness in
1979 in gorgeous, jungle-y Port Antonio. They installed a studio in the master
bedroom and experimented with dub-reggae grooves. "There was a limited amount of
instruments," says Dravs, "but huge amounts of inspiration."
One of the Jamaica tracks -- the stomper "Normal People" -- was inspired by a
bed-and-breakfast Butler and Chassagne visited that was run by a British couple.
"The lady said, 'Oh, you're not in one of those weird bands? You're normal
people, right?'" says Butler. "It was strange because these were abnormal people
in the Jamaican context."
Back in America, Murphy and Dravs, plus two engineers, cranked out mixes in
several New York studios -- but the band refused to let go. "It happened on
almost every song," says Murphy. "We would have mixed it and put it away, and
they'd go back to Montreal and add something, change it and mix it again. It was
a very ambitious process."
In April, Chassagne and Butler had their first child. (How's parenthood?
"Bonkers," says Butler.) Next year, Arcade Fire will hit the road on a massive
tour, joined by the Haitian percussionists who played with them on "Saturday
Night Live's" season premiere. "I'm really excited to hear what the band sounds
like in a year, after we've got a bunch of touring under our belt," says Butler.
"We were really changed by those experiences in Haiti and Jamaica. I was like,
'Oh, s---, we could be really good. We could get good at this music thing.'"
This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
Arcade Fire is either ready to conquer the bland music world again, now populated by the likes of Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, or they're going to fail miserably and slink away to the underworld with the rest of the musicians who've laid low after great records. I guess we'll see how it all plays out, eh? Still, with James Murphey and David Bowie in the band's corner, maybe they'll make a huge splash!!!