A new stage for Arcade Fire

Ahead of Forum dates, Arcade Fire co-founder Win Butler looks at the band's changing directions and even controversy.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

When the Montreal band Arcade Fire arrives at the Forum this weekend for two shows, brothers/bandmates Win and Will Butler won’t be the first family members to have stepped onto its stage.

“My grandpa played there back in the day,” Win Butler said in passing during a recent conversation about Arcade Fire’s coming shows, which will land the Grammy-winning band its biggest set of Los Angeles gigs since its formation in 2001.

He’s referring to pedal steel guitar innovator Alvino Rey, who gigged the arena not long after it opened in 1967. Grandpa’s innovations with electro-acoustic amplification helped change the course of guitar music. Generations later, his heirs will plug into the same power grid in support of “Reflektor,” the band’s richly textured, percussive 2013 collection that explores deeper rhythms, many influenced by co-founder (and Win Butler’s wife) Régine Chassagne’s Haitian heritage.


If Butler seems a little ambivalent about that family history, maybe it’s because he’s seen much bigger stages in the last few years and has had to deal with more troubling issues than where his mom’s dad performed.

From early Los Angeles gigs at the clubs Spaceland and the Troubadour in support of its debut, “Funeral” (written in part about Rey’s death), the band has ascended venue by venue: nights at the Greek, the Shrine, in the desert at Coachella, a memorable evening teamed with LCD Soundsystem at the Hollywood Bowl and, its most prominent mainstream victory, an upset album of the year Grammy Award in 2011 for its album “The Suburbs.”

“Reflektor” was released last fall to the kind of fanfare that might have made Rey blush and that saw Arcade Fire ascend in equally striking, if polarizing, new directions. Most notable, according to Butler, was the addition of two Haitian percussionists, who added a depth of rhythm that drives songs in dynamic directions.

“It’s something we felt right away as a band,” said Butler. “It feels really fresh and different, and it makes it really exciting to play the old songs.” Referring to an indigenous island music, Butler describes their song “Haiti” as “basically a compas song. It never had that kind of rhythmic backing to it before, but the bones of what it is have some of those influences. Now to be able to play those songs and have that rhythmic bit locked in is really cool.”

As it has risen artistically and commercially, however, Arcade Fire has come to occupy a place in the popular musical hierarchy that, while enviable to many, can be tough to navigate, especially for a band eager to avoid being placed on the rock star pedestal. But there it stands, one of the few remaining bands, alongside Foo Fighters, U2, Nine Inch Nails and Muse, able to fill big arenas.

As the group has promoted “Reflektor” through videos and touring, it’s faced increased scrutiny. Hoping to inspire creativity, for example, Arcade Fire asked concert attendees to dress up, a request ridiculed by some and misinterpreted by others. A few months later, the band released a video for “We Exist” that featured actor Andrew Garfield dancing in drag. The act was criticized by the LGBT community for using a non-transgendered actor.


Butler said he long ago learned to cope with the online echo chamber. “From our perspective, there’s been a lot of bull ... and backlash and blah, blah, blah from the very inception of the band. We were riding this wave of anonymous, ‘People can say stuff that isn’t true on the Internet,’ and we got to experience that joy ride from its very inception.”

Still, he said, over time, it’s gotten more extreme and less anonymous, something he’s witnessed during the year. “There’s a pressure to have a headline that people click. If any one person says anything negative, it’s a story, because you make a headline, and it makes it seem more negative and people click on it.”

What he called “the fake controversy” of the costume request was frustrating for another reason. The intention was to invite joy into venues. “We’re nowhere near the first band that’s ever done this,” he said, his voice becoming more urgent. “I remember the Beastie Boys doing a tour that was a black tie tour, and they said, ‘If you want to wear cargo shorts, do it somewhere else.’”

Butler, 34, and the father with Chassagne of a one-year-old boy, paused. “If I said something like that now, the world would end! But that’s one of the aspects of the Beastie Boys that I feel like really separated them from a lot of their contemporaries. They brought these artistic things into something that was pretty mainstream, you know?”

There’s an upside, added Butler. He said that because of the request, half the fans are dressing up for the gigs. “It really does wonders for the vibe of the show. That made me chuckle. It was like the fake controversy was good promotion for the thing itself, in terms of actually getting people to engage with the show and treat it like a special event.”

The band spent the early part of the “Reflektor” tour in smaller venues trying to figure out how to, indeed, make them special events. These early sets, said Butler, were geared toward finding a solution to the rigidity of most arena concerts, where “you’re constantly reminded that they’re going to be kicking you out soon, and you’re just here for a planned event.”


Instead, Arcade Fire’s built a solid block that will also feature magnetic electronic composer Dan Deacon and Canadian indie band Unicorns. “We tried to do it so that the minute you walk in, there’s always some level of lights and smoke and music. The opening acts kind of blend in to the DJ, and it feels a bit more seamless, aesthetically.”

Arcade Fire has a busy August before concluding the “Reflektor” run. After shows in Santa Barbara and San Diego, the band will perform in cities including Brooklyn, Chicago and Toronto before closing in its hometown on Aug. 30.

“Then we’re done touring for the foreseeable future,” said Butler. It will have been nearly a year of concerts, and he’s ready to start anew. He’s got a family, he said, and is feeling inspired to work on new material.

“Even at nighttime, I’m just so itchy to be creative again, and it’s very hard to do on the road,” he said. “I can definitely feel that. Even being home for a couple weeks, I just feel insane, like I want to think about other music and start to dream again.”

Twitter: @LilEdit