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Everything We Learned from Our 'Reflektor Tapes' Q&A with Arcade Fire

When you're arguably the biggest indie band in the world, you're allowed to open your documentary screening with a Bukowski poem.

by Andrea Domanick
Sep 22 2015, 4:00pm


All photos by Timothy Norris

When you're arguably the biggest indie band in the world, you're allowed to open your documentary screening with a Bukowski poem. And that's just what Arcade Fire's Win Butler did to intro last night's screening of the band's new documentary Reflektor Tapes at The Theatre at the Ace Hotel in LA. Reading from a piece of notebook paper, Butler rattled off Bukowski's "So You Want to Be a Writer" in lieu of a traditional speech to present the 90-minute work. A little hifalutin, sure, but the words were a fitting choice for both the famously impassioned band and the Khalil Joseph-directed film, a highly-stylized, nonlinear patchwork of the group's travels and creative process leading up to and throughout their 2014 Reflektor tour.

The screening was followed by a Q&A led by Noisey's own managing editor Eric Sundermann, who talked to Butler and bandmate Regine Chassagne about the story behind the film and fielded questions from the audience. Read on for the top takeaways from the night as well as photos from the event and afterparty DJ'd by Butler.

Director Khalil Joseph wasn't a fan of the band before Reflektor.
"We kind of invited him into our world and we didn't really know we were going to make a film," Butler said. "For Khalil, he knew a couple of our songs, but he didn't know any of our records. He kind of got into the band through Reflketor. So most of the songs in the film were dictated by what he was gravitating towards. I think it appealed to us to have someone who didn't have a bunch of baggage about what our band meant. It was kind of appealing to have someone just point the camera at what he wanted to point the camera at and we just kind of did our shit and let him do his shit, pretty much. We provided the show and the locations and let him have carte blanche to put his camera where he wanted to."

The band and Joseph looked at making the film like making an album.
"I feel like it's a film where you can watch it again and get something different out of it [every time]," Butler said. "We kind of wanted to mirror the experience of listening to a record. Pretty much every time I listen to Blonde on Blonde, a song will come on and I'll be like 'Right, this song is on here!' It's so dense that I forget even what tracks are on the record, even though I've been listening to it since I was 15. For [20] years I've been getting something out of that record. It feels weird speaking for [Khalil], but it seems like he looks at filmmaking like making a record. When we originally met him he was working for Terrence Malik in Austin as an editor. In terms of filmmakers I've met, I feel like Terrence Malik has the most similar working style to making a record. Because the whole thing is about trying to capture the essence of a performance, and the film kind of makes itself around the emotional truth of the moment that we get. I just feel like we had philosophical things in common, more than anything."

Arcade Fire's next album will be a departure from Reflektor.
The band shyed from sharing much about future projects, but when asked where they see Reflektor fitting into the band's discography, Butler played it coy: "[It's the] fourth one. The one after The Suburbs and before...whatever the fuck we do next. Which will be different as well. Brace yourselves."

If they could give their younger selves career advice, they'd take it a little slower.
"Maybe, don't do a double record and do the soundtrack to a film and have a child at the same time. It's intense. Just pick one," Butler said. "Or two. Because we were doing Reflketor and the soundtrack to Her and Regine was nine months pregnant and then you're on SNL four months after. It was intense."
Chassagne saw it differently: "But we did it. [I'd say] actually, do even more."

The band took away many lessons from their visits to Haiti.
"When I go to Haiti it's amazing to see a place that has almost no stuff, but all spirit," Chassagne said. "It's kind of something that's really clashing when I come back. Because here's there's a lot of stuff, and not a lot of spirit."

Butler's time in Haiti was as influential to him as a musician as the first time he heard Radiohead's The Bends.
"I remember being in rural Haiti the first time we went and there was this guy, he was an arborist. His name was 'Tit Oiseau, which means little bird in Creole. And this guy starts singing and it was like getting in a time machine and going to like pre-Delta blues, a hundred years [back]. It was the deepest music I've ever heard, just this guy singing a capella. Regine was translating the lyrics for me and it was about heartbreak and how hard life is. I've seen a lot of bands play, I've been exposed to a lot of music—for me, it was one of the high points of my entire musical life. I remember buying The Bends at a mall in Houston, Texas. It was this shitty mall and there was a cardboard cutout of The Bends, it was the day it came out. I had maybe seen a music video and I bought it. And I went home and I put the CD in the thing and I listened and it completely changed the way I thought about music. And this experience in Haiti for me was an equivalent experience in my own personal understand of how music works."

Becoming a parent has reshaped Butler's perceptions of his own songs about growing up.
"The song 'The Suburbs,' there's a line about wanting to have a daughter, which...we didn't have a daughter. So it comes to my mind all the time. We did the Bridge School a couple years ago and seeing Neil Young sing 'Old Man,' which he wrote when he was 22, it almost sounds more appropriate now that he's older. I aspire to be able to write songs that good. I think that's a pretty good sign of good song, that you can sing it when you're 80 and the depth of it has kind of gotten richer."

Arcade Fire had been trying to work with Reflketor producer James Murphy since Neon Bible.
"I'd been a fan of James for a long time and we'd toured together and he actually flew up to Montreal about working on Neon Bible. We couldn't get the schedules to work out because he was doing LCD [Soundsystem], so it was just kind of a matter of time before we did it. And then we got to be in New York with James and have David Bowie come sing on 'Reflektor'. Which, the first seven-inch that James bought when he was 14 was Bowie's 'Fame,' and we're in the studio where he recorded 'Fame.' And he was like, 'Oh yeah, the last time I was here I was in the basement and John Lennon came by and we recorded "Fame."' We were like, alright, cool. We're at least in the [right] building. I hope we get to do more shit with James. It's a pleasure."

Writing a great song is about more than just technical prowess.
"I went to jazz school for two years before I met Win," Chassagne said. "You can use all these chords and make the craziest composition with all these extensions and substitutions. I was listening to really far-out stuff and intellectually I was like, 'Ok, yeah, five of a five of a five and a seventh and an eleventh...' Ok, that's cool. But my aunt thinks this is elevator music. For me, you just have to be sincere and you just have to mean it and express something through the music. Because you do all kinds of shit, and if you don't mean it, it's just shit, you know?"

The band hates having their picture taken—except by Aton Corbijn.
"We really don't enjoy having our picture taken as a band," Butler said. "I'd say it's one of our least favorite activities ever. It was always like the sacrifice we had to make to play music. It was like, we need band photos because there are papers and they need to advertise we're doing a show. But then we met Anton Corbijn on the Funeral tour and he came backstage. We were used to these horrifying photoshoots where everyone's really uncomfortable and they're like 'Why don't you guys hold these umbrellas? Why don't you try this or that?' and it's like 'No, please, stop talking.' But Anton came backstage and he just had his film camera and he took a lamp, told us to open our mouths like we're singing 'Wake Up,' and was like, click—'I got it.' He took four photos of us and it was the best band photo of us that's ever been taken."

Andrea Domanick is just a reflektor. Follow her on Twitter.