Arcade Fire Channels Their Inner Absurdist in “Chemistry” Video

We talk with Win Butler about the new Ray Tintori–directed video, and go behind the scenes of the track’s recording in an exclusive in-studio live clip.

It’s been nearly a year since Arcade Fire released Everything Now, but 2018 seems like the right time to release a visual for the album’s centerpiece track “Chemistry.”

“When times are really crazy and fucked up, you have to be able to rely on the absurd. It’s a valuable response to the insanity,” Win Butler explains over the phone before boarding a plane that will take him and his band to Europe to resume the Everything Now Continued Tour. “I think it’s confusing to people if we make something that’s not super serious. [But] one of the pieces of our catalog is, ‘Don’t take it too serious; it’s really light.’”

That ethos is at the heart of the track, as well as its video. Directed by Ray Tintori—whose filmography includes music videos for MGMT and The Killersand animated by Starburns Industries (Rick & Morty, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Community), the clip tells the story of an animated cat (played by Tootie Tootz from Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce) and a dog who fall in love under…interesting circumstances.

We chatted with Butler about the visuals, finally working with Tintori, and the band’s ever-evolving partnership with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as well as why they don’t tour as much as other bands of their stature. Watch the “Chemistry” video, check out an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the recording of “Chemistry” in-studio in New Orleans, and read our interview with Butler below.

Your “Chemistry” video expands on the song’s theme of chemical attraction, using a mix of animation and live action. What made you decide to portray the story that way?

In a sense it’s almost just sort of like a Tom & Jerry cartoon—an absurdist version of a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

I wanted to talk about an experience I think many of us have had where it’s just complete mutual attraction. My mom’s from LA and grew up Mormon, and my dad’s from Maine and is sixth-generation Harvard. They were camping in Idaho, saw each other for like ten seconds, wrote letters for five years, and have been together their whole lives. On the surface, it’s absurd why people are attracted to each other—it makes absolutely no sense. I just feel like that’s an experience a lot of people have had and wanted to try to capture that feeling a little bit.

This was your first time working with director Ray Tintori, but you’ve wanted to work with him for years. Can you talk a little bit about your fascination with his work?

“On the surface, it’s absurd why people are attracted to each other—it makes absolutely no sense.” — Win Butler

I remember when he did those MGMT videos. They kind of just came out of nowhere, and you could tell there was so much love put into it. It kind of felt like some sort of collective. We were working with Spike [Jonze] on a short film for The Suburbs at the same time around when that was happening. Spike was good friends with Ray, and we initially were going to make the film in New Orleans—way before we moved there. Ray was going to help, and we were getting everything set up, and then he started working on Beasts of the Southern Wild. We didn’t know anything about it—that was just happening in the background. So we kind of pivoted and ended up making the film in Austin, which was really cool, but it was just sort of this ships in the night moment where we had the instinct to work together.

How did you end up working with him for this video?

A lot of his work is really playful and carefree. We sent him the song and he really liked it. He loves New Orleans [and that’s where we wanted to shoot it]. I had the basic Tom & Jerry idea, and he completely bugged it out with all the robots and sharks [laughs].

The video ends in the middle of Fat Tuesday, which mirrors the playful energy of the song and also pays tribute to New Orleans, where you’ve been living the past few years. In what ways would you say the city has inspired your creativity and music?

You constantly feel like a hack [living here] because there are so many beautiful, amazing musicians. You see twelve-year-olds playing the trombone and you’re just like, “Holy shit, this kid is an embarrassment of riches.” So it’s not in a literal sense, where we’re playing a more New Orlean style of music, but it’s more just being inspired by it.

We hang out at the Preservation Hall, and the saxophone player Charlie Gabriel is like eighty-five and played on most of the Motown records. I met the drummer who played on every Ray Charles record the other night. Some of these dudes—no one knows their name, and they’re kind of forgotten in a sense, but all the shit people are sampling nowadays, they played it with their hands. It’s just really inspiring and makes you want to work harder and work on more music. It kind of gives you this false impression that music is really important and is the center of the universe, which I think is a good deception to have when you’re a musician. Even if it’s not true, it’s good to believe.

You’re about to resume your Everything Now Continued Tour, which sees you traversing Europe and North America for three months and concluding at the Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas. How do you prepare for such extended time on the road?

We’ve done it a lot now, so we kind of like to leave some room for the spirit. We don’t over-practice. We know the songs really well. Our team is really familial—we’ve been working with a lot of the same people for most of our career, and they know how stuff is supposed to sound and we know how stuff’s supposed to go. So when we go home we just try to get back into our lives and get inspired.

“We hang out at the Preservation Hall, and some of these dudes—no one knows their name, but all the shit people are sampling nowadays, they played it with their hands.” — Win Butler

All the touring can really be a slog. Being away from home and all the airports… As we get older, we try to space it out a little more, so when we’re on tour we can really appreciate it and give it our all, instead of feeling bogged down. I think that’s why we tour a lot less than other bands in our position—we probably do half as many dates as a lot of bigger bands, just because we give so much. I don’t ever want to be onstage and going through the motions, and thus far I don’t think that’s ever been the case. When we’re up there, we’re in it.

You’ve been collaborating a lot lately with Preservation Hall. How has your relationship with them evolved?

[Our relationship] was born out of friendship and seeing the world in the same way. We started a Mardi Gras crew with them, and half the money goes to the Preservation Hall Foundation and half of it goes to an organization in Haiti called KANPE to try to make links between Haiti and New Orleans and celebrate the historical connection. It’s a deep partnership, and I think one that will be going for the rest of our lives.

What’s it like performing with them?

It’s very humbling. They’re such amazing, beautiful people and such great players. FL

For more from Win, Arcade Fire, and Preservation Hall, stay tuned for FLOOD’s upcoming Festival Guide.

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