LONDON – Much has changed in Arcade Fire’s world since the band was last in Japan. Back in February 2008, the Canadian six-piece, still propelled forward by the momentum created by its debut “Funeral,” a record that attained perpetual cult status through nothing more than its sheer brilliance, was winding up promotion of its followup, “Neon Bible.”
The record was solid with spectacular moments, but the 18-month tour itself became something of a fraught affair: illness either blighted shows or forced their cancelation entirely, and the impression was of a band besieged by stress, in danger of imploding.
Frontman Win Butler, in particular, seemed ill-equipped to cope. Irritable interviews and petulant behavior — he smashed his guitar to pieces when performing on TV program “Saturday Night Live” — were so commonplace it moved the normally sanguine Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips to launch into an uncharacteristic tirade on the band.
Now, after six years, 9 million album sales and a best album Grammy for 2010’s “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire returns to Japan to headline Fuji Rock Festival as one of the biggest bands in the world. Not only that, but “Reflektor,” the David Bowie-featuring, Greek mythology referencing, James Murphy-produced fourth record boasts a stylistic shift few bands in Arcade Fire’s position are either fearless enough to attempt or savvy enough to accomplish.
Little wonder the band is in such high spirits. Bassist and guitar player Tim Kingsbury spoke to The Japan Times from Montreal during a brief interval in what has been a summer headlining festivals across Europe and North America, among them “the big two” in Coachella and Glastonbury. For a band singing about suburban isolation and existential anxiety to have been able to forge such communal euphoria is quite a feat, but the proof is there: Arcade Fire gigs are near-religious experiences.
It looks, too, as though the band itself is finally beginning to relish its status. I put it to Kingsbury that Arcade Fire returns to Japan a happier band.
“Ha ha, yeah maybe,” he says. “Maybe we’re mellowing with age. I think so. There is some truth to that. When I was in my 20s, I always used to feel a lot of pressure and feel like I had a lot to prove. As you get older, you feel more like you should enjoy it a bit more.”
Butler, living in Montreal via Texas, and his wife, vocalist Regine Chassagne, formed the nucleus of Arcade Fire in 2001. Kingsbury’s first meeting with Butler, the latter attending a local gig by the former, was conspicuously prescient.
“He came up and immediately went into critiquing my songs. It was funny,” he says. “And that was our first conversation, too. It wasn’t like, ‘Where are you from?’ or anything like that.”
From there, “it didn’t take too long” before the trio was augmented by Jeremy Gara (drums) and a pair of multi-instrumentalists, Richard Reed Parry and Win’s brother Will. That was 11 years ago.
“When we first started, we were in a band with no crew or anything; it was a lot more of a communal party vibe (laughs). We all have families now, so that has all changed.”
So too has the music. “Reflektor,” a two-disc, 75-minute set, represents a departure from the dystopian rock of “The Suburbs.” Caribbean rhythm, funk, disco and synths are all embraced, and the cumulative effect is startling.
The origins of the transformation began when Chassagne, of Haitian descent, organized a trip to her homeland. Initially intended to allow the band to regroup and focus — “at home we all have families and it’s easy to get distracted” — the outing, and another to Jamaica soon after, proved invigorating.
“They were formative experiences, and they helped to guide us a little bit,” Kingsbury says.
Further direction came from the hand of James Murphy, erstwhile leader of LCD Soundsystem. His fingerprints are everywhere, none more so than on the title track featuring Bowie — Murphy’s bass, piano and post-punk guitar licks could have been lifted directly from his DFA roster.
“It was great working with him, it was like having another band member there,” Kingsbury says of Murphy. “He knows how to step back and listen and watch, but when he does step forward with some ideas or information it’s really appreciated.”
Yet the volte-face doesn’t apply to Butler’s lyrics, which, with allusions to Orpheus, Eurydice and Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, still deal in disillusionment and alienation — in “We Exist” he depicts a gay Jamaican teenager struggling for acceptance.
“It’s a complex record in that regard,” Kingsbury says, “but all the lyrics are written by Win, so I suppose I can’t comment too much.”
At this point, I float the idea that to the wider public, the perception is that Arcade Fire is essentially the domain of Butler and Chassagne.
“Win and Regine often bring ideas and generate a lot of stuff, but as a group we really form how things sound. It would be a very different band without the rest of us. They’re the heart, but we work together to make the music as you hear it.”
Arcade Fire’s live show is testament to that. The music’s transcendence is now complemented by a spectacular visual element: mariachi bands, papier-mache heads, costumes and psychedelic backdrops are all part of “the effort to play to the whole crowd,” Kingsbury says. “The show reflects the album, we’ve stayed pretty true to its roots and tried to make the experience as all-encompassing as possible.”
Arcade Fire is itching to release the full force of the show on the crowds at Fuji Rock.
“It’s amazing there. It’s another big show for us, but it’ll be massive. We’re looking forward to it.”
Arcade Fire plays the Green Stage at Fuji Rock Festival on July 26. The festival takes place at the Naeba Ski Resort in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, from July 25 to July 27. Tickets cost ¥44,000 for a three-day pass, ¥18,300 for a one-day pass. For more information about the festival and the band, visit www.fujirockfestival.com or www.arcadefire.com