Arcade Fire On Its Brand-New Beat
Fans of Arcade Fire might be feeling a bit of culture shock. The group has been called the world's most successful indie rock band — but its new album, Reflektor, explores the Haitian roots of band member Regine Chassagne.
She and her husband, frontman Win Butler, have worked with Haitian relief groups for years; the band has donated more than $1 million to charities there. Speaking with NPR's David Greene, Chassagne and Butler say the seeds of the idea for Reflektor were planted on a trip they took to Haiti right after winning the 2011 Grammy for album of the year, in a total upset.
"And then there's people coming from the mountains to watch us play who've never heard The Beatles before," Butler says of the scene when the band arrived. "You realize, stripped of that context, what you're left with is rhythm and emotion and melody; it kind of gets back to these really basic building blocks of music. So we kind of wanted to start from there and try and make something out of it."
Reflektor isn't a dance record through and through, but it does incorporate many specific dance rhythms — "Here Comes the Night Time," for example, evokes the Haitian street music known as rara in its faster moments. The title of that song, Butler says, refers to an uncanny sight that can often be seen at dusk on the streets of Port-au-Prince, large parts of which have no electricity.
"Everyone's kind of really hustling to get home because it can be kind of dangerous in a lot of neighborhoods; you have to get home before nightfall. And people have their bags of groceries and they're sprinting in the streets trying to get home," he says. "And then you see, like, three dudes in really sharp suits that are just stepping out to go out to a nightclub or something like that. You kind of have this duality where it's this really exciting atmosphere, but then also really dangerous at the same time.
Chassagne says that though the new album's themes are deeply meaningful to her, she hopes the band has created something that can be appreciated anywhere.
"I'm kind of stuck a little bit in both worlds, so I would like to make something that, basically, my mom could dance to. She wouldn't dance to a New Order song, but she would dance to the Haitian beat," Chassagne says. "I want to kind of do something that everybody can lock into."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Fans of the Canadian rock band Arcade Fire might be feeling a bit of culture shock. It became one of the world's most successful indie bands with big rumbling anthems like "Wake Up."
(SOUNDBITE SONG, "WAKE UP")
ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.
MONTAGNE: But listen to Arcade Fire's new album, "Reflektor," and you hear more of a dance vibe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFLEKTOR")
FIRE: (Singing) Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light. Alone in the darkness, darkness of white...
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This new album explores the Haitian roots of the band member Regine Chassagne. She and her husband, the front man Win Butler, have worked with Haitian relief groups for years and the band has donated more than a million dollars to charities there.
MONTAGNE: Chassagne and Butler spoke recently, to our David Greene. The new album they said was sparked by a trip they took to Haiti right after the 2011 Grammys, where Arcade Fire had just won Album of the Year, in a total upset.
WIN BUTLER: I mean...
BUTLER: ...it was really a funny scene. It was, like, it was genuinely surprising. And just the audience were just like what is going on. Like, the security guards wouldn't let Regine back into the changing room afterwards. And we were like: Oh, we just won a Grammy, can we go back to the changing room?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
BUTLER: I don't know. We're not celebrities. Like, they don't know who we are.
REGINE CHASSAGNE: They didn't believe. I don't know. They were...
GREENE: They didn't recognize and know that you had just won the Grammy?
BUTLER: Its like, did you see me like one second earlier when I was on the stage?
CHASSAGNE: I was there.
GREENE: So you're on this big stage, all this excitement, then you land in Haiti and that's the moment where you say we've got to do something different here.
BUTLER: Well, we kind of prepared to play there. And then these people coming just from the mountains to watch us play, who've never heard The Beatles before, and...
CHASSAGNE: And maybe never will.
BUTLER: ...you realize, stripped of that context, what you're kind of left with is rhythm and emotion and melody. And it kind of gets back to this really kind of basic - these kinds of building blocks of music. And so, we kind of wanted to start from there and try and make something out of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: We should say this is not the first time that Arcade Fire has had Haitian music. I mean you have sung about Haiti before, on the first album.
BUTLER: Yeah, it's always been an undercurrent. I mean I remember going over to Regine's aunt and uncle's place when we were first dating. And she had these really intense uncles that were all super political and had these really deep voices, and would talk about Haiti and the problems in Haiti and...
GREENE: Intense uncles, I love that. Everyone has an intense uncle somewhere.
BUTLER: Yeah, she had an Uncle Albert that had the best voice, like: Hello, Regine.
BUTLER: And he'd always, like, pull you aside and have this, like: Never forget what I'm about tell - this is the most important thing. And then he'd kind of zone out 'cause he kind of ramble on.
GREENE: Regine, what's it been like going back there recently? I know you and the band have spent a whole lot of time there - both before and after the earthquake, we should say.
CHASSAGNE: Well, it's been very inspiring and I'm just very happy to be able to go there, 'cause I've always wanted to go since I was little. But we never got to because nobody wanted to go back. My mom was, like, really traumatized. She didn't want to go back ever. But she passed away so then I decided to go anyway.
GREENE: Some of the memories of the difficult life there were keeping her away.
BUTLER: She had an experience where she had to run. It's like she got home and her bunch of her family had been killed. And she and her little sister had to, like, take refuge and pretty much leave immediately - just, like, grab what was ever on their backs and leave.
(SOUNDBITE SONG, "WAKE UP")
FIRE: (Singing) (unintelligible).
GREENE: There's a place, a Haitian town called Jacmel, and it's actually a place that our listeners learned about - because NPR did some reporting there.
BUTLER: It's incredible. It's an incredible place.
GREENE: Once a very beautiful town that just took such hit during the earthquake, what is it like now? Is it coming back?
BUTLER: We were there for Carnival. The Carnival in Jacmel happens a week before Mardi Gras. And it's like the greatest Carnival in the world that I've seen. No disrespect to Trinidad or Brazil or whatever. It's most spectacular living, breathing folk art. Like, every single person is a painter. Everyone is an artist. The streets are just filled with the most spectacular costumes and music - rah-rah music in the streets - and floats with compas bands and...
GREENE: Rah-rah music is a very famous street music in Haiti.
BUTLER: Yeah, rah-rah, I mean actually the song "Here Comes the Nighttime," the fast parts in that song are kind of like a rah-rah beat.
GREENE: Take us to Haiti through the music here.
BUTLER: Well, when you go to Port-au-Prince, when it's kind of evening and the sun is going down - and there's no electricity in Port-au-Prince - and every one is kind of really hustling to get home, 'cause it can be kind of dangerous in a lot of neighborhoods. And...
GREENE: You have to get home before nightfall. I mean or else...
BUTLER: You have to get home before nightfall. And people are, like, have their bags of groceries and they're, like, sprinting in the streets trying to get home.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HERE COMES THE NIGHTTIME")
FIRE: (Singing) When the sun goes down, when the sun goes down, head inside. Because the lights don't work, yeah, nothing works but just say you don't mind...
BUTLER: And then you see, like, three dudes, like, in these, like, really sharp suits that are, like, just stepping out to go out to, like, go out to a nightclub or something like that. You kind of have this duality where it's this really exciting atmosphere, but then also really dangerous at the same time.
GREENE: When a lot of people think of Arcade Fire, they think of big sound, big anthems. This feels like a more fun, danceable album. Do you feel like you got the change you were looking for?
BUTLER: Yeah, we definitely got the sound we were looking for. I mean it's not entirely dance record. It's just more rhythmic. And our kid of goal was if we went back to playing Haiti or in South America that people would really dance and get into it, equally, as much as if we're playing in Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHASSAGNE: What I wanted to do is to be able to make music that - I'm kind of stuck a little bit in both worlds. So I would like to make something that, basically, my mom could dance to.
CHASSAGNE: But she wouldn't dance to a New Order song. But she would dance to the Haitian beat. Win and the dudes...
CHASSAGNE: You know - you know, I want to kind of do something that everybody can lock into.
GREENE: Is that why you call the rest of the band Win and the Dudes? I like that.
CHASSAGNE: Win and the Dudes
GREENE: Well, thank you both so much for taking the time to chat with us. It's been a pleasure.
CHASSAGNE: Thank you.
BUTLER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
FIRE: (Singing) (unintelligible).
INSKEEP: Regine Chassagne and Win Butler of Arcade Fire, their new album is "Reflektor."
MONTAGNE: And tonight, NPR Music is streaming Arcade Fire live performance from Capital Studios, here in Southern California. Listen at NPRMusic.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With David Greene, I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
FIRE: (Singing) Afternoon lights. I think I saw what happens next... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.