“The band changed a lot going into Reflektor. In a way, it felt like new era,” says Win Butler. “I guess it remains to be seen.”
Wearing a black, wide-brimmed hat, black blazer and black t-shirt emblazoned with a white skeleton print, the Arcade Fire founder and frontman looks dressed for a Reflektor photo shoot (the band would often invoke carnivalesque images such as skeletons in their stage dress), despite the album coming out almost two years ago. It’s an amount of time that, in today’s music scene, usually means a band has moved on to their next album, but Arcade Fire are still very much caught up in Reflektor, the album that was tasked with following up their massive, Grammy award-winning The Suburbs.
Hence the release of the Reflektor Tapes, out today, a documentary that traces the band as they wrote and recorded while travelling to Jamaica and Haiti (but also London and Montreal), all while consciously trying to achieve a new sound that heavily incorporated the rhythmic influences of their new surroundings.
Creating a new sound is not an easy thing to do, especially for a band that became synonymous with an eclectic, folky, anthemic style they introduced on songs like “Wake Up,” from their 2004 debut, Funeral.
Not unlike the Clash – in the film, Butler describes the post-punk group as “a magnetic pole for us” – who famously changed their style by following up their universally adored album London Calling with Sandanista!, a triple disc album that incorporated world influences and was partly recorded in Jamaica, Arcade Fire went big on Reflektor, both literally (it was a double album) and figuratively. A gamble, it seems, that mostly paid off with generally positive reviews, but, like Sandanista!, was also divisive, even controversial. It also failed to win them another Grammy.
“I think, at the beginning, we set out actively incorporating things we’d never worked on as a band before,” says bass player Tim Kingsbury, sitting beside singer/co-founder Régine Chassagne in a separate interview. “I think we succeeded. We were all pretty happy with the way it sounded. It’s funny, it’s an interview question, but we were never like …”
“How are we going to change?” Chassagne says.
“Exactly,” says Kingsbury. “Winning the Grammy was exciting because it was a big event, but it didn’t change how we approached music.”
Adds Chassagne: “Every record is a big record for us. It’s not like we made The Suburbs and were like, 'we’re going to make a Grammy record'. Every time we do it, it’s the most important thing we’re working on.”
Butler also credits the recording process with changing how the band worked in the studio, saying it was the first time they worked on the arrangements “with each other, playing as a unit. Just in terms of our musicianship and playing off of each other, it felt like we had more tools at our disposal from when we started.”
When asked how this new band dynamic has translated into new music, Butler deflects. "It feels like we never really know before we start making a record, we don't really know when or where it’s going to go," he said, adding that the entire idea of an album cycle is “a very foreign concept to me.”
His brother and bandmate Will, however, was much more forthcoming while speaking with NME magazine, leading us to believe there’s at least some anticipation within the group for new material.
"We're all itching to play music together and start recording things," he said. "We're basically in the demo and play together phase, and historically that's led to realising that, surprisingly, we're 30 per cent into a record, so we'll see if that happens."
According to Will, the new album could possibly even pick up where Reflektor left off. “It's good to know that we can play rhythmic music together and that we're good at it,” he said.
While Win is much more hesitant to admit the band is actively working on an album – "you’ll be writing for a while and then you have these songs and it starts to feel like, at some point, you have a record,” he said – it would seem as if we will get to hear what it’s going to sound like, sooner rather than later.
For now, however, fans will have to be content reflecting back with a film that shows a band grappling with the act of what, exactly, it takes to bring in a “new era.”
The Reflektor Tapes appears in theatres Sept. 23. You can also purchase previously unreleased material from the Reflektor recording sessions, both as a 7” and a six-song cassette, on their website.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG