This weekend Arcade Fire played two intimate shows in an empty warehouse in semi-gentrified Bushwick, Brooklyn, under the name The Reflektors. The dress code stated formal or costume, so the crowd was festooned with ties, collared shirts, sequined dresses, banana suits and enough masks to outfit Mardi Gras. Reflektor songs led the 75-minute sets, but a few old favorites slipped in (“Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Haiti,” “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”) introduced as covers from “fellow Merge Records band Arcade Fire.” The band brought arena-level energy and volume to, essentially, a club show, albeit a club sans toilets. We sweated it out in the AC-less space during the show and danced the night away under a disco ball after. It was glorious.
Before you roll your eyes too far back, this sort of stunt is very on-brand for those familiar with the band’s history of unconventional gigs, from their 2007 church shows to the recent secret gigs at a Montreal salsa club. Longtime fans may have even come to expect some live antics with each record cycle. It’s exciting and at least a little self-serving as a “warm-up” to the big show that’s bound to follow. Above all, it’s important that Arcade Fire continue to pull out some of their old tricks in the midst of learning new ones.
They’ve kept it pretty quiet, but Arcade Fire have upgraded their business back-end. Indie mainstay Merge is still their label, but Reflektor (out October 29) is being distributed by Universal Music Group and worked to radio by the team over at Capitol Records. What does that mean for Arcade Fire fans? Well, the infrastructure supporting the band has increased. Once America’s biggest indie rock band, they can pretty much drop the “indie” prefix now. All-around, they are now just one of America’s biggest rock bands.
Can you blame them, though? They bested the major label machine when The Suburbs won Album of the Year at the 2011 GRAMMYs. From where they stand, they’re in the position not to mold to pop culture, but rather, to have pop culture mold to them. This is what iconic — not just popular — acts do. Think about Bowie, Springsteen, U2 — Arcade Fire aren’t there yet, but they’re laying the groundwork for that kind of a career, under the guidance of Paul McCartney’s manager, Scott Rodger. There’s a focus on longevity, on artistry, and above all, on having a distinct point of view from album to album. Akin to U2, Arcade Fire have a history of asking fans to step into their world with each record cycle, from the Neon Bible hotline to “The Wilderness Downtown” interactive film. They’re just doing it here on a larger scale.
The difference, of course, is the fact that music culture is far more segmented than in decades past. For a band like Arcade Fire, rallying the monoculture takes not just having your seven-minute single played on commercial radio; it requires everything that goes along with that, plus simultaneously staying true to your core fanbase. It’s convincing NBC to give you a half-hour special for an album no one’s heard — directed by a Coppola and featuring famous comedians no less — while slyly announcing your album in a Twitter @-reply to a fan and hosting a warehouse party where you pretend to be a fledgling young band.
Which brings us back to this weekend’s activities. On Saturday, Win Butler played coy with this whole Reflektors act. “We were so nervous to play CMJ,” he joked. “Thanks to all the industry types who wanted to put out our first record.”
It’s funny how they seem to throw a little sarcastic dart the very business people who they’re now aligned with, but this is no “sell-out” moment. The message has not changed, and the new songs feel as inspired as the old ones. The themes don’t exactly shy away from niche topics, be it culture’s reflective cycle or questioning normalcy; meanwhile, “Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo music” serve as inspiration points. This is what having it all looks like.