Arcade Fire are back with album number four and they’re burning brighter than ever, they tell Jim Carroll
Jeremy Gara can clearly remember when Arcade Fire’s adventures for the last album came to a close. It was a free show for 75,000 people in the heart of the band’s home city in September 2011 and Gara cycled to the show at the Place des Festivals.
“That was such a nice moment, to end in Montreal,” says the the loquacious drummer. “I remember riding my bike to the show, playing the show and then riding downtown to meet up with some friends. Then we took a little bit of a break before a bunch of us started writing songs and playing music.”
That was the jump between their last album The Suburbs and Reflektor, the sprawling new double-album that is the result of the band hunkering down in Montreal and taking some direction from outside voices.
As the band prepare to release the album, they know that all eyes are on them. Since Arcade Fire announced themselves with Funeral in 2004, they have swiftly become one of rock’s biggest tickets. They’re now a band who are both eminently fascinating in terms of what they produce on record and a group who consistently provide visceral live thrillers. Few do it better – and few have the album and ticket sales to back that up.
Reflektor, Gara says, is “pretty much all over the place”, reflecting a state of mind which seemed to have time for this, that and the other.
“There are a couple of really heavy rhythmic tracks, there are a couple of sprawling Pink Floyd songs and there’s a grunge song,” is Gara’s review of the new album. “Overall, there are many more rhythmic elements in the foreground of this record than any of the previous ones. It’s not just a disco record, it’s not that one-sided.”
It took the band roughly a year-and-a-half to go from start to completion. Gara notes that the band were more or less working all the time. “The goal these days is that there’s not much time off, that there’s not much time between finishing a tour and being on tour again.
“The ideal is to be always working. It gets crazy when you have this hard, defined life between band life and non-band life. If my whole brain is in tour and band mode and all of a sudden, it’s gone from my life for six months, it’s really jarring.”
That doesn’t leave too much time for side-projects or solo runs. “Arcade Fire is a huge chunk of life, but we all have different projects that we try to stay involved in. There’s always something on the go outside of it, be it music or something else. It’s healthy. I’m already fairly one-dimensional, but I’d be really sad otherwise.
“I haven’t been doing as much outside of this in the last little while, but I’ve played with my friend Michael Feuerstack from here for the last 15 years and I helped him mix his record.”
There’s also a covers band that some Arcade Fire members play in. “It’s called Phi Slamma Jamma and it’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s fun. When we came to tracking and recording this album, we realised that we were in shape and playing well together so the covers band kind of helps with all those jams.”
Jamming is pretty much how Reflektor came about, with the band spending a lot of time in their Montreal studio playing, playing and playing again. While it’s a double-album, Gara says this wasn’t the original plan. “We thought we’d cut just cut out four or five tracks from the ones we’d recorded and make a super-short album. We knew we had some really long dance-y songs so we thought about doing a five-track album that was about 40 minutes long.
“Of course, when we put it all together, we thought it was too long, but we didn’t want to leave anything out so that’s why it’s a double album in the end.”
This time around, Arcade Fire took advice and soundings from outside voices. There was Marcus Dravs, who worked on all their albums bar the debut, and there was also James Murphy, late of LCD Soundsystem.
“Marcus is awesome and he has had his two cents for a while. Then we brought in James and let him have a go on the songs he responded to, while Marcus worked on the songs he responded to and we took everyone’s opinion to heart. Each of them got their claws into half of the songs to varying degrees of production, from just having an opinion to actively workshopping the
“This time, early on, we decided that having someone else’s opinion would let us open up a bit and push us in a different direction”
song, like ‘I want you to only play the snare during this song’.”
For Arcade Fire, this must have been a big thing.
“Slowly, we’ve realised it’s OK to give a little,” notes Gara. “At the start, it was all ‘no, you can’t do that, we control everything, nobody can influence us, we’re the boss’. We were very precious. This time, early on, we decided that having someone else’s opinion would let us open up a bit and push us in a different direction. We’d still control when the finishing line appeared, but we deviated a little because of outside influences.”
He believes those other voices brought some fresh perspectives to the music. “There’s so much diverse opinion already in our group that we’re kind of full when it comes to opinion! But this time, we decided to try it and see if it worked. We’ve talked about working with James for years and he’s very vocal and opinionated so let’s try it and see what he has to say. It worked because we were open to him having his say and the experimentation, which was really new to us.”
Nonetheless, Gara stresses that the buck still stops with the band. “We realise that we are the boss and always will be the boss, but having someone else helps us do we want to do. I would say we never give up the director’s chair and will always have the last say.
“Recording the album wasn’t stressful. It flowed, it was fun, we got it done. The last few weeks, though, have been super-stressful because we want to have an opinion and the last word on everything that’s happening around our band.”
Arcade Fire are pretty nifty when it comes to ideas to promote their music. Previously, there were innovations such as The Wilderness Downtown, an experimental short for We Used to Wait using HTML5 technology and Google Chrome. There was also another short film, Scenes from the Suburbs, directed by Spike Jonze.
Most of these ideas, says Gara, come from
the band sitting around and just shooting the breeze. “We might meet up an hour before rehearsals and sit around brainstorming. We’re doing a half-hour TV special afterwards and that came from that process, just sitting around and talking. ‘Let’s do a variety show on TV, man’. One person might have an idea and the rest of us will just flesh it out.
“This time around, more than before, we’re trying to get the ideas actually done. Usually we achieve about five per cent of the ideas because they’re just logistically insane or too expensive or whatever. This time, we’re saying ‘let’s just do it, why not?’”
What comes next for Arcade Fire is a resumption of touring to plug the bejaysus out of the new album. While the band have been hugely successful to date, Gara says there haven’t been too many changes as a result.
“Life hasn’t really changed. I’m obviously a lot more financially comfortable – all of us are – and I’ve a mortgage on a house which I might not be able to do if I was still playing in the punk bands I was playing in 10 years ago. But other than that, life goes on. I bike to the studio, I bike to the gig at the arena.
There are, though, some negatives. “As the band grows,” says Gara, “a little bit of fame and celebrity creeps in on the outside, which is a game we don’t play or have any interest in. It’s a conversation and a world we try not to have anything to do with.
“You sort of have to want that and we don’t, though we do walk that line a little. It’s fun to use a little bit of that world to make people hear our music. The goal is for people to hear and appreciate the music.
“But even navigating a little bit of that is not fun. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve compromised my soul in any way. I’m not part of that world. I can still go to the same places I’ve been going to for 10 years and nobody cares about me or what I do. That’s great for me”.
Reflektor is out today and is reviewed on page 14