Originally published on Forbes.com.
Like any artist coming down from an enormously successful album – their last album picked up a Grammy for Album of the Year – Arcade Fire faced the problem of how to outdo themselves. When you’re at the top, where do you go? Their answer was to go to Haiti, where band member Régine Chassagne’s parents came from. They left the cold comforts of their native Quebec to party with strangers in a ravaged land searching for personal and musical rejuvenation. The experience of putting on a mask and dancing with strangers in the street was life altering. “We’re at the point in our lives, career, where we’ve accomplished a lot,” said frontman Win Butler in a recent BBC interview. “When it comes down to the music, we’re doing things we haven’t done before. It’s really a joyful time.”
The result of Arcade Fire’s journey into the heart of darkness is the double album Reflektor, a new danceable sound, a glam look, and a preoccupation with masking their identity, Carnival-style, with oversized paper mâché heads and a new moniker, The Reflektors.
Artists often turn to outside influences to inject new life into their work. But it’s a risky tactic. If you try to become something that you’re not, you’re going to fail. The music will sound bad, your fans will be disappointed, and you’ll feel like a poseur. The challenge is to incorporate new influences without losing yourself in the process. The ability to do that is what Brandeis professor Andy Molinsky calls “global dexterity.” Molinsky’s book, Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, reports on research on how people adapt to working in a new culture. The process is the same whether it’s individuals working with foreign co-workers, chefs infusing a new cuisine into their dishes, or bands trying to incorporate new sounds into their music.
“Any band needs to adapt and grow over time and incorporate new elements into what they do,” Molinsky told me. “But at the same time, they don’t want to lose their original voice, their original essence of who they are. That’s a tricky balancing act. Ultimately, like in cultural adaptation, the integrity of your behavior in other people’s eyes is a function of how successful you are at blending and mixing the two cultural traditions.”
The key to strike a perfect balance is to make small changes that are at the edge of your comfort zone – adding something new, subtracting an ingrained habit, or creating a completely new blend. Though small, these subtle tweaks in behavior can still be transformative. The next step is to test out these changes through a kind of trial and error experimentation. “There are two key audiences that you’re satisfying,” said Molinsky. “The first audience is the external audience: is the music moving? Is it innovative? Is it cool? In terms of cultural behavior, the question is whether you’re effective.” Arcade Fire brought in Haitian drummers into the band, two of which will go on the upcoming tour, to help them experiment with Haitian rhythms and give them feedback on how it sounds. They also brought in dance music authority James Murphy to produce their album and give them feedback on whether their new sound was working. “If you get James tapping his foot,” Butler told the BBC, “You’re on the right track.”
But effectiveness in the eyes of your audience isn’t enough. “The other audience that people forget about is you,” said Molinsky. “You have to look inside yourself and make sure that you’re not being disingenuous and inauthentic and losing your own North Star.” Keeping the album true to Arcade Fire’s identity is likely one of the reasons it took so long. The band had more than 50 songs written for the album, but only 12 made it into the album. “I mean, it’s not like our band trying to play Haitian music,”said Butler. “I just felt like we were opened up to a new influence. Bob Marley probably felt the same way the first time he heard Curtis Mayfield.”
Arcade Fire allowed their experiences in Haiti to transform them as artists and as individuals. As a result, they are excited about their music and have grown and improved as musicians. “We were really changed by those experiences in Haiti and Jamaica,” said Butler. It made him realize “We could get good at this music thing.’”
Watch Arcade Fire’s latest video for the song “Afterlife” featuring footage from the Brazilian film Black Orpheus.