The pre-noon sun that slants through the stained glass of Reverend Ohm's nave bathes the pews of his College Park church in a blue green. Ten miles south of Atlanta, Ohm sat with me in his empty chapel and listened to Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage." The song boomed off the walls with natural slap-back echo and floated on visible specks of dust. When it finished, Ohm said, "That's some holy business." Then I played him the title track off their fourth album, Reflektor, and he said: "That business is far away from holy. You gotta take three buses to get back to holy from where that song comes from. But it grooves. I'd move to it." After the song "Afterlife" he said: "You know, I've never heard a deceased person say that what happens after death is bad. I think it's just a continuum. Man, I need to dust in here."
Then Ohm talked about what the brain does in a near-death experience. We agreed that Montreal-based Arcade Fire have a suspended-over-your-own-body quality to their sound, something lambent and at peace. Reflektor rises spiked with endorphins and heads toward a bright white light, of a disco ball. The band lives in melodies and etched euphonic conglomerations. For Reflektor, the Grammy winners took the baroque and wood from the casket of their previous releases and fashioned it into a dance floor. Sounds embody much more bubble machine than hymnal. Arrangements travel an arc lit by the husband-and-wife harmonies of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. By the end of our listening session, Reverend Ohm concluded: "This is human music. I think I'd like these people if I knew them." Then he got up to get a duster. For this interview, Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalists Will Butler and Tim Kingsbury spoke from Montreal. They'd been home for a week and would leave for Japan in a few days.
What was it like having David Bowie sing on your song "Reflektor"? How did that come about?
TK: We were in New York at Electric Lady mixing the album, working on that song. He came over to the studio to visit and heard it. We always had the idea that the part he sings on the song would be sung by a third voice of some kind, we weren't sure who. When he was there, it dawned on us that he would be more than perfect. So we presented it to him, and he was happy to do it. He came back the next day to track. It's pretty amazing to be working on a song you've heard a thousand times, and then you hear David Bowie's voice on it. It was a surreal experience.
WB: When he came into the studio, he said, "I haven't been here since I recorded vocals with John Lennon for "Fame." He was very open to feedback, too. We were like, "Can you try this and try that?" He did it all, and was great about it. He also had a bunch of his own ideas. He had initiated contact with us a long time ago. We'd played with him in 2005. Right away he treated us well. He treated us as peers, so we thought, "Wow, if he's going to treat us like people, I suppose we'll treat him like people." [Laughs] He's very lovely to hang out with and to work with.
What do you do if you've got David Bowie in a vocal booth, singing on your song, but he's just not hittin' it? How do you tell a David Bowie, "Hey, Dave, that take was great, but we're going to need a little more oomph. Try it with a little more Ziggy."
TK: Thankfully we didn't have to cross that bridge.
WB: The very first second he opens his mouth, you're like, "Oh, I know that voice. Oh right, that's David Bowie." [Laughs]
Of the cover songs you all have played, which ones are your favorites? Are there any covers that were much more difficult to play and learn than you thought they'd be?
TK: In Nashville, we did a Louvin Brothers song, "Broad Minded." It's so different from anything we do. I also like Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge." Learning "Motownphilly" by Boyz II Men was tricky. The original version is probably lots of MPC and samples and synths. Figuring it all out with the harmonies was a task. We bring practice amps and a mini drum kit to the shows, and we'll work the covers out backstage in some room. Will, Richie, Jeremy, and I have a cover band we do on the side. Occasionally after an Arcade Fire show, we'll play an after-party—that was kind of how playing the covers started. On tour, we were thinking of songs we could cover by bands from each city. A few days before a show, we'll start thinking of what we're going to do, and start working on it. We'll practice it, and do it at sound check the day of the show.
I know you can't divulge what the Seattle cover song will be. But please divulge. Perhaps some sort of "Jesus Christ Pose" by Soundgarden? Or Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick" would be a fine choice. Or "Crimson Wave" by Tacocat. Heart's "Barracuda" could also be a front-runner. It's gonna be hard for y'all not to play "Barracuda."
WB: You're right, that'll be hard not to play. I'll put it on the short list.
TK: "Rusty Cage" could be cool, too. We haven't had the Seattle discussion yet. Jimi Hendrix is an option, too.
Please talk about the Jamaican castle you all wrote and recorded some of Reflektor in.
WB: It was built in the '70s by this rich, eccentric dude who wanted to attract royalty to hang out with him. It's called Trident. So I think there were lots of weird parties in there. Then it fell into disrepair. There's a studio nearby in Port Antonio called Geejam that's also a hotel—they bought the castle and were just starting to renovate it when we were there, but they hadn't really done much yet. So we got it for a really good deal. There was enough space for us all to set up our gear and do some writing and recording. It's a stunning place, like a paradise right on the water.
Any castle stories? Was it a castle castle, with a moat?
TK: Not a medieval castle. No moat. I'd say it was more a very large, dramatic looking white manor. There was a white owl that would come hang out every night, which seemed magical.
WB: I saw the white owl fly. The roof would leak when it rained. They'd put buckets out. It was a romantic place. All of us were able to be in the same space—all on the same page, playing music all day. Going out and eating jerk chicken.
The eccentric guy probably had some eccentric parties in there. Is the castle by any chance made out of bricks of cocaine?
WB: It could be. I don't know that for sure [laughs]. I'll go out on a limb and say, yeah, the guy who built it had some eccentric parties there. It had that vibe. We recorded things for "Here Comes the Night Time" there. We took a boat to this place close by called the Blue Lagoon that inspired the movie. I highly recommend going to Port Antonio, it's gorgeous.
When you all are wearing your bobblehead masks onstage for a show, can you see anything? Can you play an instrument in those things? Has anyone just biffed it while wearing one?
TK: I think Win tripped one time, but he caught himself. No one's hurt themselves yet. You can't really see anything out of them except through the nostrils, so you can see about five feet in front of you, through two little holes.
WB: I can play "Normal Person" on piano in the bobblehead. Guitar and bass are a little harder. You can kinda feel where you are on a keyboard. When we were shooting the "Reflektor" video, we were walking through a field at night, waist-deep in brambles. You could only hear your breath and someone yelling at you what to do from the distance. It was a lonely moment in the bobblehead.
When you're wearing the pope bobblehead, do you find yourself becoming more pope-like? You're the pope, but you can't see jack shit.
TK: You feel very pious and pure, definitely. It's beautiful [laughs]. Yeah, you can't see shit.
WB: It's terrifying. No one can see your face, which is nice. You use a lot of hand and arm gestures.
How was it working with James Murphy in a producer roll? How did he work with your producer Markus Dravs? Were there ever too many cooks in the kitchen?
TK: When we're self-producing, I think our band, by definition, is based on too many cooks in the kitchen. So it was nice with James having that outsider's perspective, on a songwriting level, too. We've been working with Markus for so long, he's very much an insider.
What's something on the album that's there because of James Murphy?
WB: He really brought "Here Comes the Night Time" to another level. He made it so it wasn't a total studio mess. He said, "Jeremy, play this drum part." And he gave it this progress. James has wise ears and he knows a lot of music. He's able to get such great sounds. He's such a great songwriter and performer, so he sees everything from that perspective. He knows those dimensions, and for a band like us, those dimensions are very important. He knows us super well. We've toured with LCD and hung out a ton. He knows all our personalities, so it was very much working on an individual basis, as opposed to a band and a producer.
Did you all get to help Peter Gabriel choose which of his songs you'd cover for his tribute album? You did "Games Without Frontiers," but what if you were like, "Sorry, Pete, it's 'Shock the Monkey' for us or nothing at all."
WB: "Games" was on both our short lists. Peter Gabriel is huge in Quebec. I mean he's huge everywhere, but the '70s in Quebec are the like '60s in America. Régine was way into it.
You guys are on the road so much. Is it weird to be home?
WB: It's bittersweet.
TK: It's a novelty. And nice.
How does prolonged life on the road affect you?
TK: Coming home is definitely a culture shock. On tour, everything you do is prescribed. There's a clear plan. Even on a day off, you're in a foreign city, so you'll go to a museum, or the gym. Then you come home, and there's not such a set plan, and you're like, "What do I do now?" I know for my wife it can be pretty jarring. I'll come home from tour and not know what to do with myself [laughs].
Is it more an emotional thing or a physical thing?
TK: I hope it doesn't come off like I'm complaining. I feel really lucky to be doing what I'm doing. I'm smarter about it now. I exercise, I took some meditating classes, and I've been with my wife longer than I've been with the band. When we started touring, she would come out and sell merch. I love touring! See you in Seattle.