'"Hipster" means absolutely nothing': Arcade Fire interview
At 9pm I join the back of a thousand-strong queue outside an inauspicious warehouse in deepest Brooklyn. Everyone is dressed up in the required ‘formal attire’. We look like a bunch of glam-goth masqueraders about to embark on a secret sex party. In fact, we’re gathered for the next best thing: an Arcade Fire gig.
Inside, the atmosphere is less ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, more illicit disco getdown. The crowd groove to a Marvin Gaye record under light scattered by half a dozen mirrorballs. It could be 1977, the peak of disco, when anything went on the dancefloor. ‘This is why I love New York!’ screams a man in braces and a fedora as Gaye fades and the show begins. Appearing in crisp white suits, Arcade Fire don’t waste any time launching into the throbbing, bongo-fuelled stomp of new single ‘Reflektor’. It’s a song that combines the inimitable disco knowhow of their new producer James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) with Arcade Fire’s own obsession with hidden worlds, flickering lights and illusory reality. ‘We fell in love, alone on a stage, in the reflective age,’ sings frontman Win Butler, partly to the audience, partly to his wife, Régine Chassagne, performing beside him.
It’s worth reflecting on how far the Montreal six-piece have come from their brilliant debut album ‘Funeral’. They emerged in 2004 looking and sounding like a lost tribe of soothsayers, able to sum up the tremendous sadness in the world at an indie-rock stroke. They now embrace disco, punk-funk, dub and glam rock on their equally excellent fourth LP, also called ‘Reflektor’. As Arcade Fire have discovered through their trips to Haiti – the Caribbean nation where Chassagne’s parents were born – pulsing rhythms can go hand in hand with pain, and even take you a little closer to worlds beyond this one.
These haunting musical forces aren’t just to be found at throwback New York warehouse parties or Haitian voodoo freakouts. This week Arcade Fire bring their disco roadshow to London for two nights. Playing as The Reflektors (the alter ego they use to help channel their inner boogie), they’ll transform the Roundhouse into the hippest place on the planet. I caught up with Win Butler shortly after the mirrorballs had stopped spinning in New York to find out more about what could easily turn out to be the London gigs of the year.
What’s the idea with the discos?
‘We wanted to translate the spirit of something we’d experienced at carnival in Haiti to a way people back home would understand it. It was the first time I enjoyed dancing as part of a huge crowd.’
Are you a good dancer?
‘I don’t think it matters – the point is to feel moved by music. I’m not someone who can dance to a song I don’t like. In high school, if New Order or Depeche Mode or something I liked came on, I’d jump up. But the idea of dancing to bad house music is something I could never get behind. Ecstasy probably helps – but I never partook.’
‘I never needed the help. I’d rather be moved by something great, rather than use drugs to make something that’s shitty seem great. There’s a big difference between going to Ibiza and watching people do drugs and try to sleep with each other, and being in Haiti when there’s a voodoo drummer playing and the kids come out and dance until three in the morning, and then jump in the ocean.’
James Murphy is really inspired by the disco scene of ’70s New York. Did that rub off on you?
‘Yes. But Montreal in the ’70s was another hotbed of disco. David Bowie and Grace Jones would come up. There was a club in Montreal called Lime Light. People used to line up all the way around the block, hoping to get in. And that was an inspiration.’
What about the ‘disco sucks’ movement? Why did people hate it so much in the ’70s and ’80s?
‘I think disco was this gay, countercultural thing. There’s a song on “Reflektor” called “We Exist”, which is about a gay kid talking to his dad [“Daddy, it’s true, I’m different from you. But tell me why they treat me like this?”]. In dominant cultures there’s what’s normal, and everything else is abnormal. It’s one of the darker tendencies of humanity to think everyone should fit into a mould.
‘I got really into these disco records made by African immigrants in the Bronx in the ’70s. But then I also really like Black Flag and Fugazi. It’s exciting trying to make a sound out of all these different influences.’
Did you and Murphy hit it off right away?
‘Everything we’d read made it seem like we’d find each other annoying. But we had a ton in common. When we saw each other play for the first time, we were both, “Hey, I really like your band!” And he has a great beard. His spirit animal would be the koala.’
Are you thinking of growing one yourself?
‘I’m not a good hipster – if I let my moustache grow for weeks, it just looks like I have dirt on my face. I’ll never have a glorious handlebar moustache.’
What does that word ‘hipster’ actually mean?
‘The term “hippy” was coined by the beatniks because, in the ’60s, hippy meant “little hipster”. I think “hipster” means absolutely nothing now. If you think our band are hipsters, then… whatever. I do like a good cup of coffee, whatever that makes me…’
Hipster enough for your ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ video to attract a shedload of stars. How did that all come about?
‘James Franco just happened to be in town. The Michael Cera bit was funny [Cera, of ‘Superbad’ fame, plays a scornful Spanish waiter], because I called him and he was like, “Well, I speak pretty good Spanish.” That just wrote itself: Michael Cera speaking Spanish – it’s going to be funny.’
Cera calls you ‘tiny bananas’ compared to Mumford & Sons. Are you a fan of them?
‘Ask me another question. I don’t like to talk about other bands in interviews.’
What have you learned about the world recently?
‘One of the most powerful things I’ve seen was in Haiti. After the earthquake, there was no electricity – everywhere blacked out. There were people in the streets with all their belongings and joyful women singing songs of praise to be alive. I just continue to learn a lot from Haiti and Haitians about how to be grateful for what you have.’
And you became a father this year. Do you worry about your son?
‘He’s six months old. He doesn’t really know what “scary” is yet. Sometimes, though, you can see it in his eyes: he’s like, “Whoa!” – totally freaked out by something unrecognisable. But I feel that sense of wonder is all part of growing up.’