Last week, Arcade Fire’s new tour documentary The Reflektor Tapes premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and this Thursday (September 24) the feature-length film will screen across cinemas in the UK. Fluidly cutting between footage from the recording sessions for 2013 LP ‘Reflektor’, the band’s visit to Haiti (the birthplace of multi-instrumentalist and central member Regine Chassagne) and a multitude of gigs throughout the album tour with snippets of interview laced over the top like an out-of-body voiceover, it’s a tour doc with an artistic, contemplative edge.
We spoke to synth-man Will Butler about what we can expect from the film, and where the band are headed next.
What made you decide to document the whole recording process of ‘Reflektor’?
Will Butler: “We thought we were just making a concert film. We filmed a bunch of stuff from the making of, just for archival purposes, but then [director Kahlil Joseph] said he wanted everything to put it together. This was his introduction to us; he hadn’t seen us before and he wanted to make it as his first impression of our gigs.”
Why did you decide to use someone who wasn’t connected to the band?
“He was an outsider who was excited. It was great; it was good to see what he thought was interesting because it was very valuable to have an outsider artist looking in. I feel like he got into the cerebral, spiritual side of performing. There’s a lot of it that feels like it’s in the performers’ head, which I hadn’t seen before.”
There’s a quote in the film where you talk about keeping everything very insular between the band – how was it relinquishing that and letting cameras in?
“I’m at a point where I basically don’t care [about intrusion]. We’ve been a band for 10 years and the outside world has yet to affect us, so I’m willing to let the outside world in a bit more. It could still ruin us though; there’s always the opportunity for something to ruin you.”
There’s a couple of unreleased tracks in the film – was there much material left over from the Reflektor sessions?
“There weren’t many finished things. There was ‘Get It Right’ and ‘Crucify’ at the end of the film, and a couple of other songs that didn’t see the light of day, but not a lot of finished stuff. There’s a lot of demos and half-finished songs though; we have yet to re-use anything from that album cycle, but I hope we can go back and finish some of the better songs at some point. There are no plans at the moment, but I think at some undetermined future date we’ll have to get out the pitchforks, clean out the barn and see what’s inside.”
How involved were you with deciding what went into the film?
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“We gave lots of feedback, but we went into it knowing that it would be [Joseph’s] film because it wouldn’t be worth doing if it wasn’t. We brainstormed on what shows he should come to but we basically left it in his hands.”
What did you want to show through those choices?
“It was very important for us that he was there from the beginning, so we had the four stages of the tour which was the very tiny Reflektors shows [where the band performed under the pseudonym The Reflektors] at Salsateque and then the promo tour which was a couple of thousand people, then Earls Court which was 15,000 and then also Haiti which is just not on the radar. We wanted to make sure all the ingredients were there: big, medium, tiny and who the hell knows.”
There’s a lot of footage from your trip to Haiti in the documentary – what did you want to show within that?
“Part of what we wanted to do is just show Haiti culturally and not in relation to government or anything because it’s been very important for us. There was a desire to show that side and to go and experience it. Going to carnival was amazing; going anywhere with a really deep local tradition is amazing because there aren’t many places like that anymore. Richard’s dad was British and he went to [British] Carnival his whole life, so it was interesting to see it from his point of view. It’s great to play for an audience of people who don’t care about you at all and the only real response is to the music. It’s very selfishly valuable to have people go and watch something out of curiosity and see them processing it. It’s a different way of communicating which, particularly for a band in our position, is good to do every once in a while. It’s hard to play a show where the first five rows don’t know who you are and know all the words, but it’s good to be reminded that there’s a whole other world out there.”
And any highlights from the massive shows where people definitely did know who you were?
“There were a lot of highs. The Hyde Park show was very fun because it was surprising that it went as well as it did. The show is very tuned to being in a dark space so to do it in a field and have it be like a massive BBQ social was very surprising and heartening. Early on, we played Halloween in LA at the Palladium for a couple of thousand people and that was really fun to play too. My grandfather used to play there in the ’30s and ’40s so there was something exciting about that.”
Have you started writing sessions for the next record yet?
“We’re all itching to play music together and start recording things. We’re basically in the demo and play together phase, and historically that’s led to realising that surprisingly we’re 30% into a record so we’ll see if that happens. It’s a bit different this time because everyone’s older and fatter and lazier so it might take longer, but we’re playing music together. Win and Regine got a place in New Orleans so I think we’ll spend some time there because why wouldn’t you? But apart from that we’re in the old HQ [in Montreal].”
‘Reflektor’ was more rhythmic and danceable than your previous work – how’s the new stuff sounding in comparison?
“There’s kind of not enough [done yet] to know where it’s going. It’s good to know that we can play rhythmic music together and that we’re good at it, but there’s not enough there yet to know [if it’s going in that direction]. I got a couple of new synths that I’m excited by and I like the sound of them so, for me, that’ll really influence the direction of the record but I don’t know if anyone else will notice. For me, ‘Rococo’ and ‘Sprawl II’ have more in common because of the synth sounds than perhaps they would to an objective outsider.”
And when can we hope to hear the fruits of your labours?
“We’re not terribly good at schedules and luckily we’re in a position where no one can ever tell us what to do, so it’s good. I’m of the mentality that everything we do is a Number One smash and we’ve obviously never had a Number One smash, so my radar is good for making the music but not so much for seeing the end result…”