In the excellent documentary The Refkletor Tapes (in theaters now), famed indie band Arcade Fire open up about making their smash 2013 album and touring the world. Below, frontman Win Butler, EW shares behind-the-scenes stories with EW, and talks about what’s next for the band.
Why did you want to make a documentary at this point?
The Clash is one of my favorite bands, but they broke up long before I could see them. So I had to cobble together a sense of who they were as a live band from weird promo footage and snippets of documentary. People come to groups at different points in their career; it’s something I’ve always been acutely aware of. If someone watches this in 20 years, they’ll get a sense of our world.
Tell me about the decision to work with [director] Khalil Joseph. This is his first feature-length film.
We got into his work while we were recording in Jamaica, at the beginning of the process of Reflektor. He’s got such a strong point of view, and he makes these music videos that exist really outside the parameters of the traditional video. They always capture something about the record or the world around the artist. He wasn’t familiar with us as a band before, but that ended up helping I think. He was able to come at it from a much more alien perspective.
One thing I loved from the recording sessions was that the band wore the face paint from tour even when the tracks were being built.
Even when we went to Jamaica we had ideas of what the album art could be or what the stage show could be. Part of the whole process was bringing the whole world of our vision into existence. It’s kind of like you’re developing those ideas at the same time you’re developing the music. I’m extremely into the digital era of music, but I miss album artwork. I feel like that’s a really essential part of the whole thing. I know there’s been a trend to do surprise releases and its cool and everything, but for me, as a fan, I like the lead-up. The promo of an album — you’ve heard snippets of music and you’re willing to go there with a band and see what they’ve gotten into — is a sense of possibility that I love.
The Reflektor promo certainly played into that. You guys did street-art campaigns, booked shows as the Refkletors…
It probably would have been the shortest promo campaign of 1991 but by today’s standards it felt really long. And it was really the first time we’d done it as well. Normally we finish a record and jam it out a month later. But we sort of knew from the outset of this project it was going to be something different, so we had to do it a little bit differently.
The film focuses on performing at Carnival in Haiti. How did people there connect to your style of music?
Six or seven years ago, we played a show three hours north of Port-au-Prince and realized the crowd didn’t have the same [musical] touchstones. They didn’t necessarily care about the Beatles; they responded to songs differently. We’d been playing some songs for so long they’d become muscle memory, but suddenly they felt new. And we met these kids who we now see whenever we go. Recently I went to their apartment and it looks like mine did when I was 19: drum kit in the corner, guitars everywhere. They played their music, and it has an Arcade Fire influence, it was like a Caribbean Weezer—it was profound. There’s a potency to music that’s unlike anything, it cuts right to the spirit. Haiti reminds me of that and that relationship with Haiti will continue to inspire me in the future.
You played an entire tour as the Reflektors, playing only Reflektor tunes. How was that.
It was really cool. We would do these shows and people weren’t like, “Play ‘Wake Up’!” at the end. The show was over when the material was over and, for me, it was extremely satisfying. It felt like one of the most complete things we ever did as a band. As you get older as a band sometimes you start feeling like people want you to shut up and play the hits but we’ve always wanted it to be where with every record, if that’s all we had, that could be enough — each album can be its own world and be compelling.
The band isn’t actually on screen for a fair amount of the film.
That’s less about mystery and more about trying to explore the world around a project. There’s so much in celebrity culture that’s focused on the selfie. Our band has never been about that. Most of us can walk down the street and people don’t call out our names. I feel very lucky to have some anonymity. I’ve seen the other side of it and it doesn’t hold much interest for me.
How is the next Arcade Fire record coming along?
I have to live a little to have something to sing about, so usually we take a bunch of time. I’m pretty proud of how far we’ve made it. A lot of the great bands we started with haven’t. No drug problems, we’re happy, and I still feel like the next thing we do could change the world.
An version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1383, on stands Friday, Sept. 25.