Arcade Fire heats up the rhythm on 'Reflektor' tour
March 6, 2014 12:00 AM
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The one and only time Arcade Fire played Pittsburgh was three months before the 9.7 Pitchfork review that instantly broke the Montreal-based band.
AF came through on the bottom of a bill with the Unicorns at the Rex Theater that June of 2004. The band was set to return that November for a small headlining club show, but there was a discrepancy with the guest list, and it was canceled.
Where: Consol Energy Center, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Tickets: $29-$57.50; www.ticketmaster.com.
Ten years, three albums and a Grammy later, Arcade Fire finally returns to headline the biggest room in town, Consol Energy Center, on Wednesday. If Arcade Fire has something against Pittsburgh, it does not reside within multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry.
Cue the obligatory nice comment about Pittsburgh.
"I love that city!" he says excitedly in a phone interview. "I remember our first show there with the Unicorns being one of the highlights of that tour and being the moment where I realized I'd been lied to about Pittsburgh."
He returned, without his famed bandmates, to play in his side project Bell Orchestre at The Andy Warhol Museum in 2006.
Arcade Fire's belated return trip coincides with the release of its fourth album, "Reflektor," which finds the band in a far more danceable state, incorporating Jamaican rhythms, LCD Soundsystem-inspired beats and new ideas about letting the songs groove.
"We wanted to do something more dancy and maybe with slightly longer song structures, kind of open things up a little bit," Mr. Parry says. "[It's] a little less tight than formula rock songs, not that we ever wrote formula rock songs, but [we] just let things breathe, find inspiration from the Afrobeat or James Brown or things like that, where the songs don't have a super tight beginning, middle and end."
Frontman Win Butler, originally from Houston, has noted that the inspiration began with a trip to Haiti, where wife and Arcade Fire singer and multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne has roots. Her parents had emigrated from the island to Montreal before the 36-year-old was born. Inspired by Haiti's rara music, the band began recording in Louisiana in 2011 before moving the "Reflecktor" sessions a year later to Jamaica, where reggae is impossible to avoid.
"Yeah, you don't want to just become an annoying white reggae band," Mr. Parry says. "You hear great reggae and you hear the Congos and you want to sound exactly like the Congos. You want to be the Congos. It's great music, so deep and so soulful and magical. On a lot of levels, for me, you just want to transform when you hear something that really grabs you and you just want to channel it and harness it and live in it. But you can't start making songs that sound exactly like the Congos and pretending to be a band that you're not."
"Reflektor," which became the band's second straight No. 1 album in October, also bears the mark of James Murphy, leader of the late LCD Soundsystem, who injects AF with some of LCD's electronic dance-punk aesthetic.
"We toured with [LCD] a bunch and they were definitely our favorite of favorites in terms of live bands," Mr. Parry says. "Definitely inspired by that longer form song, where the intro could go on a long time and feel perfectly natural, not like you were stalling for time but feel like you were defining musical space and sitting in it and enjoying it."
His presence alone in the studio was cherished.
"It was great having an outside voice, an outside ear, that we all implicitly trusted. We loved his sensibility both in record making and as a guy in a live band. If we were playing in a room and trying to figure out a song and he'd say, 'Who's doing that thing? Wait four more bars and do it then and do it louder,' we would just immediately trust that instead of being suspect of it.
"Instead of it being somebody else in the band where you've got a lot of history and you've got your own working dynamics and your baggage and if someone else in the band is like, 'Do that four bars later and do it louder,' you may be like, '[Expletive] you! This is a perfect time to do it!' because that's just the nature of being in a band. But having James be there, it's like, 'OK, I'm going to do that, because James is excited by it.' I felt like he was stirring things up but not pushing us into uncomfortable territory."
Translating that to the stage gives Arcade Fire room to jam -- without turning into a better-dressed, indie-rock version of Phish.
"Yeah, it's turned out that we're more ourselves and we still don't want to have everything go on forever," he says. "But it feels like there's more freedom and we can just ride things."
Arcade Fire, which started in 2001 and solidified two years later, has carried an air of importance since emerging with "Funeral" and becoming the darlings of the indie scene. The debut was praised for its urgent, romantic sound and its mixture of beauty and passion, inspired by deaths in the families of its principles. It was ranked among the top albums not only of the year but of the decade by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Paste, among others.
With the pressure of a sophomore slump bearing down, the band returned three years later with "Neon Bible," embracing its inner Springsteen on some songs, and then topping the charts and winning the album of the year Grammy for 2010's "The Suburbs."
"We would like to think we bucked the pressure," Mr. Parry says. "I think the pressure that you can't help but have is that this can be your life if you can keep doing it. That can have a positive and negative impact. It's hard to feel like you can be spontaneous and just let yourself do things that you would naturally want to do at the same time that you're being extremely scrutinized and made a big deal out of. So, there's definitely the danger there of falling into the 'too professional band' scenario instead of staying authentic artistically. I think we've done our best to navigate both sides of that. I feel like we're stepping up to the challenge and opportunity that was there for us."
Arcade Fire had its big moment in the spotlight when it performed live at the Grammys in 2011 and topped the more mainstream Eminem and Lady Gaga for album of the year. This year, Will Butler, band member and brother of Win, was nominated for an Oscar, along with Owen Pallett, for the band's work on the score for "Her."
Bands like AF aren't supposed to put much stock in such things, but Mr. Parry says, "It's definitely cool to feel like your efforts are being noted. And we definitely put a ton of work into everything we do. It's nice to have it come back in some formal recognition. It was never the goal to win awards, and there's something empty about that and something not empty about that. Something great. But I try to not let it distract me much.
"It's amazing how the world kind of opens up a little when things happen like that, because people who might not give you any credence go, 'Oh, they're doing something real and valuable.' I think sometimes people's perceptions of the arts that they're taking in can be radically altered by the framework around it. Having won the Grammy of the year, for some people, alters the experience they are then able to have of the music. Like, for some people, it takes having something culturally legitimized to feel like you really like something. It's weird. I don't relate to things that way, but I know some people do. Some people need to be told that they're going to see the greatest opera ever written for them to realize this is the greatest opera ever written."
The prime-time recognition served to bring more fans into the fold while also feeding the detractors who consider Arcade Fire to be overly serious and self-important. The band sees the more danceable "Reflektor" as a way to lighten things up.
"I hope so. I'm not trying to toot our own horn, but there are enough other bands out there wearing black and yelling," Mr. Parry says. "There are enough out there doing things that we used to want to do that we just want to do something new. Yes, we're trying to open it up and get into celebration in a big way, with a capital C, and bring some revelry and some dance into the mix. I think it can still be serious and it can also be super fun. It can be transcendently fun even though there's heavy things going on. I think there are still heavy things happening in the songs and in the spirit of the songs, but I think you can still do that with fun and with fire and with the dance. You can still shake your butt and be singing about sad stuff, but it can still be powerful."
Message boards and comments sections lit up in November when Arcade Fire dared to suggest that fans wear "formal attire or costume" for the "Reflektor" tour.
"We're trying to make a show that feels like an event, that's fun, that people want to be at and participate in," he says. "We've found from shows that we've done that people like to dress up, people like to put on a mask. Like, people love Halloween. I wait all year for Halloween. It's great, the costume part of that and the dressing up part of that just enhances the feeling that it's a special event that you're investing it and trying to have it be an elevated experience from the every day. I think the more you can get people to participate actively in the show, the less of a show-spectator spectacle it becomes and it becomes more of a celebration, more of a moment that people can share together. A couple of people complained on the Internet when we announced it, but it's like who gives a [expletive]? You can also not bring Christmas presents to Christmas and see how fun that is."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SMervisPG.
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