Tuesday night in Los Angeles, Arcade Fire celebrated the release of their fourth studio album, Reflektor, with a rooftop concert at the famed Capitol Records building, for hundreds of fans dressed in shiny, reflective-themed costumes. The band’s new album — their first since Grammy winner The Suburbs, from 2010 — is a sprawling, 13-song, 76-minute double-LP, inspired by Greek mythology, Haitian rara music, and the band’s own unlikely rise from loft parties in Montreal to the biggest stages in rock. It’s now on track to be their second consecutive Number One album. Earlier, we sat down with the band’s leader, Win Butler, his wife, singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, and guitarist and bassist Tim Kingsbury to discuss some of the stories and inspirations behind the record.
1. The first seeds for the album were planted by a spur-of-the-moment vodou drum-off.
“A year before we started working on the record, towards the end of the Suburbs tour, we played at the New Orleans Jazz Festival,” says Kingsbury. “This band from Port-Au-Prince called Ram was there, too, and after the show, Will [Butler] and Win and Régine all went to this studio in Lafayette with a couple of Ram’s drummers. That was probably the start of actual recording. They recorded a bunch of these vodou rhythmic drum loops, and we started to work on a couple of songs around those loops. Like ‘Awful Sound’ and ‘Afterlife’ — that was the beginning of those songs.”
2. The rest grew from some epic jam sessions at a castle in the Caribbean.
In the summer of 2012, the band spent two weeks living, writing and playing songs at Trident Castle in Port Antonio, Jamaica, which Butler says helped sharpen their sound. “We’re all based in Montreal, so it was nice to go away somewhere, because you have nothing else to do,” he says. “Usually writing songs, you hit a natural point where something’s not working, so you walk away and come back a couple weeks later and try it again. But down there, we would walk away for 30 minutes and come right back. We played together so much it probably saved us three or four months of recording.” And some of the sessions turned into marathons. “I remember playing [first single] ‘Reflektor’ for, like, six hours,” Butler says.
3. The title track was born at home, in a domestic collaboration between Butler and Chassagne.
“I was playing the chords on piano, and Win came in and started singing the melody,” Chassagne says. “It was kind of like a backwards Big Bang, where all the parts are there floating around, and you’re trying to bring everything back to the middle. To get the right feel, the right speed, the right arrangements, and tighten them into some kind of sculpture.”
4. The album’s title was nicked from a 200-year-old Danish depressive.
Chassagne says Reflektor was a title that the band had been kicking around since the making of The Suburbs, in 2009. “We knew it would be something,” she says, “but we didn’t know what.” Butler says it was taken from an essay by the 19th-century existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which was called “The Present Age.” “He kind of talks about a passionate age versus a reflective age,” Butler says. ‘It’s really resonant to now, but it’s from like 1840-something. It’s like, dude, you have no fucking idea how gnarly it’s gonna get.”
5. When they got back to their studio in Montreal, they recorded several tracks live in the room.
“‘Reflektor’ was a really live recording,” says Kingsbury. “We had the conga players and the saxophones, and we were all in the same room. I think there were 11 people playing at the same time, which was a record for us.” Kingsbury says the songs “You Already Know” and “We Exist” were also recorded more or less live. “There’s an energy to it that’s really exciting,” he says. “Way more than putting down a drum machine.”
6. Former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, who co-produced 11 songs on the album, started off playing hard to get.
Murphy didn’t go to Jamaica with the band, but he did come to Montreal a few times. “We probably worked with him for a month all together,” Kingsbury says. “He’s a great engineer, very hands-on, and he really knows synthesizers and drum machines, which certainly came in handy. Also, he’s very sensitive to band dynamics. He was really good about getting involved when it was helpful and backing off when we were trying to work stuff out amongst ourselves.” As it happens, the band had been trying to work with Murphy as far back as 2006, during the Neon Bible sessions. “He actually came up for a weekend, but he was too crazy-busy with LCD,” Kingsbury says. But that all changed in 2011, when Murphy’s band broke up and Arcade Fire won a Grammy for best album. “Finally,” jokes Kingsbury, “we were a priority for him.”
7. The band also got some unlikely inspiration from two movie geniuses: Spike Jonze. . .
“I was reading the script for Spike’s new movie Her [for which Arcade Fire composed the score] just before we started working on the new album,” Butler says. “‘Supersymmetry’ was a song we’d written that I thought might be good for the movie, so we did a really quick demo of it, maybe an hour, and then kinda forgot about it. Then at the end of recording, I found a rough mix and played it for James, who was like, ‘That should be on the album!’ So now it’s the last song [on Reflektor].”
8. . . .and Terrence Malick.
The band got a rare audience with the reclusive auteur who directed Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and the Oscar-nominated Tree of Life. “We met him in Austin when he filmed some stuff at one of our shows,” Butler says. [Malick is working on a film set against the Austin, Texas music scene.] “And then we visited him in L.A. and he invited us to watch him editing. It’s cool to talk to him, because he’s from Texas and he went to Harvard and studied philosophy, and I had kind of a similar path. So I just felt like, as a dude, I really related to him. Also, the way he makes movies now is very similar to making a record. He’ll shoot everything, and it’s all in the editing room and the voiceovers. Which is the same with music — you set up the equipment, and capture a spirit, and then you turn that into a song.”