The recording of Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor has been shrouded in secrecy — until now. In one of his first interviews this year, frontman Win Butler opens up about the nearly three-year process of making the album (due out October 28th) and the overseas adventures that inspired it.
Butler shares stories behind songs including “Here Comes the Night Time” and “Reflektor,” reveals influences ranging from Søren Kierkegaard to the 1959 film Black Orpheus, and discusses his life-changing trips to Haiti and Jamaica. “I was learning from what I saw and applying it to my own life, lyrically,” Butler tells Rolling Stone. “I’m not trying to tell other people’s stories. We’re just trying to allow an experience to change you.”
You’ve talked about how albums like The Suburbs and Funeral were rooted in a time and place. Was that the case with Reflektor?
Well, going to Haiti for the first time with Regine was the beginning of a major change in the way that I thought about the world. Usually, I think you have most of your musical influences locked down by the time you’re 16. There was a band I felt like changed me musically [in Haiti], just really opened me up to this huge, vast amount of culture and influence I hadn’t been exposed to before, which was really life-changing.
What were the defining experiences down there?
Going to Carnival for the first time and seeing rara music, which is a kind of street music with all of these horns and African percussion. . . I remember being on a beach at three in the morning, and there was a voodoo drummer playing, and he had been dancing for like, four hours with kids and teenagers and they started to get the spirit. . . . It really kind of makes you feel like a hack being in a rock band, having musical experiences like that. It’s just like, “Oh right. There’s living, beating folk music that’s alive in the modern world.” I’ve always listened to folk records, but actually experiencing it reminded me of the whole point.
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It’s obvious that some of the deep rhythms on this record came out of those experiences. Did you bring back any lyrical themes from there?
I don’t think anything is that direct. The most Haitian song on the whole record is “Here Comes the Night time,” which is kind of a rara beat, but it’s like kind of a hybrid of Haitian rara and Jamaican influence. We spent some time in Jamaica, but it sounds like a Cure song at the end of the day, kind of a mashup. I mean, it’s not like our band trying to play Haitian music. I just felt like we were opened up to a new influence. Bob Marley probably felt the same way the first time he heard Curtis Mayfield.
The album is a double record, and it really works as a full piece of music.
I think we spend more time sequencing records than most people spend making records. Our process takes forever to the point where it’s crazy. We lived with the songs for a while and just tried to figure out how they were gonna work together. The record is really long. We intended to make a short record and we ended up with 18 songs that were all between six and eight minutes and we were like, “Uh oh, I think we screwed up making a short record.” Splitting it over the two halves enables you to get into the different worlds of the records.
Can you tell me a little bit about both parts of “Here Comes the Night Time”? Both songs are very different from each other, and build very intensely.
They’re kind of opposites. The second one was actually written first and it almost starts the second half of the record – kind of like after the Carnival. Both of them are very much influenced by when the sun is just starting to go down in Port au Prince, and it’s really intense because most of the city doesn’t have electricity so everyone is just racing to get home before dark.
In the airport in Haiti there are always these packs of missionaries with matching T-shirts that say “God loves Haiti.” And you talk to some of these people and you’re like, “Oh what are you guys doing here?” And they’re like, “Oh we’re going to help Haiti! We’re going to paint houses!” And you’re like, “Well why don’t you hire a Haitian to paint the houses? I guarantee they would love to paint a house.” So I don’t know, it’s just like this mashup of missionaries and Port au Prince and that’s probably it.
Are those some of the missionaries you sing about in “Here Comes the Night Time?”
Yeah. Well there’s a line in it that says, “The missionaries, they tell us we’ll be left behind, we’ve been left behind a thousand times.”
What were you thinking when you wrote that?
Just the absurdity that you can go to a place like Haiti and teach people something about God. Like, the opposite really seems to be true, in my experience. I’ve never been to a place with more belief and more knowledge of God.
Were there any other things you learned about yourself in Haiti that you found coming out in these songs?
Carnival was pretty transformative because the tradition of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is really influenced by Haiti — you can find little pockets of that original energy — but a lot of it has turned into a spring break bacchanalia, flash-your-boobs and that kind of thing. But [at Carnival] there’s sex and death and people dressed up as slaves with black motor oil all over their faces and chains, and there’s these little kids in puffer fish outfits or dressed like Coke bottles. There’s big fire-breathing dragons that shoot real fire at the crowd.
For me, wearing a mask and dancing and being in the crowd — there’s this whole inversion of society that happens. For a lot of my friends and people that I grew up with, the only time you ever really feel comfortable dancing is if you’re with only your best friends and you’re really drunk. You know what I mean — feeling less of a break between the spirit and the body, and sex and death not being completely unrelated. [You] just kind of feel like a more whole person, I guess.
On “Reflektor,” you’re also singing lines like, “We fell in love when I was 19, now we’re staring at a screen.”
It’s not like I’m romanticizing it. I think that life is incredibly difficult and it’s more amazing to see people that don’t have access to food or clean water throw a party. It’s not like I’m trying to sing about their experiences. I was more learning from what I saw and applying it to my own life, lyrically. I’m not trying to tell other people’s stories. We’re just trying to allow an experience to change you.
You also seem to be singing about themes from isolation to death and depression.
The film Black Orpheus is one of my favorite films of all time, which is set in Carnival in Brazil. The Orpheus myth is the original love triangle, Romeo-and-Juliet kind of story. Lyrically, it’s not literally about my life. I feel like I’m kind of a bit of a sponge in a way. Like, if people around me are going through things, I find it very hard not to be empathetic. As I’m starting to get older, you just kind of see people in different stages of their lives. Like, you’re not 15. It’s not like, “I love you, baby,” it’s trying to understand men and women and trying to get to the core. I’ve never wanted to sing about “Oh, baby baby.” The first record is about your relationship with your parents and your neighbors and I’ve always been interested in those really core relationships.
On the last record you were singing a little bit about the parents’ perspective. What do you think the songs have in common?
I studied the Bible and philosophy in college and I think in a certain sense that’s the kind of stuff that still makes my brain work. There’s an essay by Kierkegaard called The Present Age that I was reading a lot that’s about the reflective age. This is like in , and it sounds like he’s talking about modern times. He’s talking about the press and alienation, and you kind of read it and you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.” [Laughs.]
What about Kierkegaard’s essay did you find relevant?
It reads like it was written here, basically. He basically compares the reflective age to a passionate age. Like, if there was a piece of gold out on thin ice, in a passionate age, if someone went to try and get the gold, everyone would cheer them on and be like, “Go for it! Yeah you can do it!” And in a reflective age, if someone tried to walk out on the thin ice, everyone would criticize them and say, “What an idiot! I can’t believe you’re going out on the ice to try and risk something.” So it would kind of paralyze you to even act basically, and it just kind of resonated with me — wanting to try and make something in the world instead of just talking about things.
Was that one of the first ideas that helped set the tone for the record?
Yeah, I mean “Reflektor” was definitely a song we worked on for a couple of years. We probably did the first sessions two-and-a-half years ago. We recorded a little bit in Louisiana with the Haitian percussionists and we kind of lived with that. It’s an incredibly long process. I think we went to Jamaica with 60 songs. We went with Markus Dravs to Jamaica a year and a half ago and then James Murphy came up for a couple of weeks in August of 2012, so that gives you an idea of how long the process is.
You also spent a lot of time at Trident Castle in Jamaica.
The castle was built in 1979 or something by this eccentric Jamaican dude who just wanted to hang out with royalty. And it kind of worked. After about five years he couldn’t afford to pay the bill, so it had been sitting empty for many years. I met a dude who was planning on turning it into a hotel, so we just rented it off him for cheap and there was nothing in there. We brought in some beds and a piano and some gear. So it was like this pretty amazing vibe, because you’re like, “This is an actual old castle.”
Did a lot of the writing happen there?
Yeah, a lot of writing happened there and recording, too. Like “Here Comes the Night Time,” a bunch of that was recorded there.
There’s a dance-music influence that comes through on songs like “Reflektor” and “You Already Know.” What drove you in that direction?
It really goes back to playing in Haiti. You’re playing for people who have never heard the Beatles before. In rural Haiti, they’ve never heard “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” They’ve never heard Elvis. So if you don’t have any of this kind of context of rock & roll, if you just play a song, what makes it connect? There’s the rhythmic elements of the songs and the emotion in the vocal — you’re able to really connect with people that you don’t share language or a common culture with.
You know, “Headlights Look Like Diamonds” is on our first EP and that’s pretty much like a New Order dance song, and New Order is probably one of our biggest influences from the beginning. That’s one of the things we always connected to with James Murphy. LCD to me is like New Order and the B-52’s and we deeply share a lot of those influences, and we did completely different things with it. Regine is kind of the person who dances. At any given minute, if you can get Regine to dance, you’re kind of on the right track, so I think we just wanted to make a record that Regine could dance to.
Did James surprise you with what he did with some of the songs?
We’ve been trying to work together since Neon Bible. I imagine that we’ll work together in the future. It was really positive both ways. It feels like we have more work to do.
At this point, Arcade Fire are able to produce so many different sounds – what can you do now that you were never able to do before?
Well, I’m actually really excited to hear what the band sounds like in a year, after we’ve got a bunch of touring under our belt. Because we’ve been playing with these Haitian percussionists live and it just does miraculous things to the rhythm section. I think everyone has really grown in their musicianship. So I’m actually really excited. We kind of get a sense of it when we’re playing: “Oh shit. We could be really good. Yeah. We could get good at this music thing.”
Congratulations on becoming a dad, too – how is it?
Can you tell me about the tour?
Um, that’s a great question. I don’t know.
You don’t know?
No, I really don’t. I mean we’re playing some dates in Australia in January. . . talk to me next week. I’m just trying to get through next week.