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 rock band.”
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.
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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, shit, 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.