Arcade Fire blaze danceable trail on fourth album 'Reflektor'
Arcade Fire are blazing a more danceable trail with their latest album, writes Scott Mervis
Arcade Fire's latest tour coincides with the release of their fourth album, Reflektor, which finds the band in a far more danceable state, incorporating Jamaican rhythms, LCD Soundsystem-inspired beats and new ideas about letting the songs groove.
"We wanted to do something more dancey and maybe with slightly longer song structures, kind of open things up a little bit," multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry says. "[It's] a little less tight than formula rock songs, not that we ever wrote formula rock songs, but [we] just let things breathe, find inspiration from the Afrobeat or James Brown or things like that, where the songs don't have a super tight beginning, middle and end."
Frontman Win Butler has noted that the inspiration began with a trip to Haiti, where wife and Arcade Fire singer and multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne has roots. Her parents had emigrated from the island to Montreal before the 36-year-old was born. Inspired by Haiti's rara music, the band began recording in Louisiana in 2011 before moving the Reflektor sessions a year later to Jamaica, where reggae is impossible to avoid.
Parry says: "You don't want to just become an annoying white reggae band. You hear great reggae and you hear [influential reggae band] the Congos and you want to sound exactly like the Congos. You want to be the Congos. It's great music, so deep and so soulful and so magical.
"On a lot of levels, for me, you just want to transform when you hear something that really grabs you and you just want to channel it and harness it and live in it. But you can't start making songs that sound exactly like the Congos and pretending to be a band you're not."
Reflektor, which became the Montreal-based band's second straight No1 album in October, also bears the mark of James Murphy, leader of the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, who injects Arcade Fire with LCD's electronic dance-punk aesthetic.
"We toured with [LCD] a bunch and they were our favourite of favourites in terms of live bands," Parry says. "Definitely inspired by that longer-form song, where the intro could go on a long time and feel perfectly natural, not like you were stalling for time but feel like you were defining musical space and sitting in it and enjoying it."
Murphy's presence in the studio was cherished. "It was great having an outside voice, an outside ear, that we all implicitly trusted. We loved his sensibility both in record making and as a guy in a live band. If we were playing and trying to figure out a song and he'd say, 'Who's doing that thing? Wait four more bars and do it then and do it louder', we would just immediately trust that instead of being suspicious of it. I felt he was stirring things up but not pushing us into uncomfortable territory," Parry says.
Translating that to the stage gives Arcade Fire room to jam - without turning into a better-dressed, indie-rock version of Phish. "Yeah, it's turned out that we're more ourselves and we still don't want to have everything go on forever," he says. "But it feels as if there's more freedom and we can just ride things."
Arcade Fire, who started out in 2001 and solidified two years later, have carried an air of importance since emerging with Funeral and becoming the darlings of the indie scene. The debut was praised for its urgent, romantic sound and its mixture of beauty and passion, inspired by deaths in the families of its principals. It was ranked among the top albums not only of the year but of the decade by online Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Paste magazines, among others.
With the pressure of a sophomore slump bearing down, the band returned three years later with Neon Bible, embracing their inner Springsteen on some songs, and then topping the charts and winning the album-of-the-year Grammy for 2010's The Suburbs.
"We would like to think we bucked the pressure," Parry says. "I think the pressure that you can't help but have is that this can be your life if you can keep doing it. That can have a positive and negative impact. It's hard to feel like you can be spontaneous and just let yourself do things that you would naturally want to do at the same time that you're being extremely scrutinised and made a big deal out of. So, there's definitely the danger there of falling into the 'too professional band' scenario instead of staying authentic artistically. I think we've done our best to navigate both sides of that."
Arcade Fire had their big moment in the spotlight when they performed live at the Grammys in 2011 and topped Eminem and Lady Gaga for album of the year. This year, Will Butler, band member and brother of Win, was nominated for an Oscar, along with Owen Pallett, for the band's work on the score for Her. Bands aren't supposed to put much stock in such things but, Parry says: "It's definitely cool to feel like your efforts are being noted. And we definitely put a lot of work into everything we do. It's nice to have it come back in some formal recognition.
"It's amazing how the world kind of opens up a little when things happen like that, because people who might not give you any credence go, 'Oh, they're doing something real and valuable'. I think sometimes people's perceptions of the arts that they're taking in can be radically altered by the framework around it. Having won the Grammy of the year, for some people, alters the experience they are then able to have of the music. Like, for some people, it takes having something culturally legitimised to feel like you really like something. It's weird. I don't relate to things that way, but I know some people do."
The prime-time recognition has brought more fans into the fold while also feeding the detractors who consider Arcade Fire to be overly serious and self-important. The band see the more danceable Reflektor as a way to lighten things up. "I hope so. I'm not trying to toot our own horn, but there are enough other bands out there wearing black and yelling," Parry says.
"There are enough out there doing things that we used to want to do that we just want to do something new. Yes, we're trying to open it up and get into celebration in a big way, with a capital C, and bring some revelry and some dance into the mix.
"I think it can still be serious and it can also be super fun. It can be transcendently fun even though there're heavy things going on. I think there are still heavy things happening in the songs and in the spirit of the songs, but I think you can still do that with fun and with fire and with the dance. You can still shake your butt and be singing about sad stuff, but it can still be powerful."