BY DILLON ALEXANDER In 2004, Montreal-based Arcade Fire gifted the world their debut album Funerals, which has since been compared to heralded indie classics like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The electricity of the earnest expression of pain, loss, and alienation pulsed through the indie rock album. It caught the attention of the likes of Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, David Byrne, and U2, all of whom, Arcade Fire would go on to perform with. After their success with Funerals, the band has evolved over the course of four records, straying increasingly from their indie rock foundation to genre-bending electronic, disco, and even reggae. Like a Phoenix, Arcade Fire has seemingly treated their albums as life cycles, reinventing themselves in the ashes of their past for each new record. At the heart of the band is Win Butler and his Haitian wife, Régine Chassange. Adding to the idea of Arcade Fire as a family band, Win’s younger brother Will is a multi-instrumentalist in the band. Phawker got him on the horn to get some fresh perspective on the band. Discussed: being a professional musician studying policy at Harvard, fraternal tension in the creative process, the new album Everything Now.
PHAWKER: I was surprised to see that you — well not that surprised — that you studied Policy at Harvard. Can you tell me what made you decide to study Policy in the first place and how what you learned has informed Arcade Fire?
WILL BUTLER Yeah, I actually just graduated this past May. Mostly I went because, for the last ten years, the band has worked with Partners in Health which is based in Boston, but they’re a global health organization. They’ve been in Haiti for 35 years, and their Haitian organization has 9,500 patients, nurses, and doctors. They’re trying to build up the actual state health care system. They work in Rwanda, they work in the Russian Prison system. Humanitarian work. Community building. I was originally thinking I would go to learn skills to be more useful to them. Just because we have been useful to them. We’ve donated a dollar a ticket from all of our shows for the last ten years. Mostly going to partners in health. Some going to their partners. I thought, in my position as a rock and roller with a fancy master’s degree from Harvard, I would be able to talk to Congressional Aides and be like, “Hey guys! What do you think about Paragraph 2C, line 4? Want to have a couple of words? Ya’ know, save 100,000 lives?” I thought it’d be a useful tool in the toolbelt. I also knew it would be an election year. I thought it would be interesting…I didn’t realize how…Hard to think of a term…”
PHAWKER: Upsetting? Cataclysmic?
WILL BUTLER Yeah, how awful it would be. I was also very happy to be in a place that was very formally dedicated to puzzling over what the hell happened and what the hell to do. And to do it with a bunch of really smart, interesting people was really great. And how it relates to the band…Well, until recently, I didn’t think of myself as a musician. I thought of myself as an artist, but I kind of just thought of myself as a human, doing human things. And great, people pay me for it. But now, I’m like, ‘huh, I guess I am a musician. I’m better at music than other things.’ And if you’re a human and you care about where you live and the people around you and far away from you, then you want to figure out how to help them and be of direct service. So I was trying to couple that out. And I think that music is a great service to people and it directly impacts people’s lives.
PHAWKER: Absolutely. It can be therapeutic. I worked at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents, and there were times that hearing a favorite song would help someone who was having a manic episode find a sense of calm and peace.
WILL BUTLER Yeah, that’s totally amazing. I’m very proud to be a musician, but I’m also like, ‘well, I’ve got other skills, so I should figure out how to use them.’
PHAWKER: So how old were you when Funerals came out. In your early 20s?
WILL BUTLER Yeah, I was a senior in college, so I was 21? When did it come out, 2004?
PHAWKER: Haha, yeah, as far as I know. So that’s a pretty pivotal age, when people are still really in the process of formation and securing a sense of self. And Funerals was received so well so quickly. So, has it been difficult to cultivate and maintain a sense of self having been involved in such an iconic band at such an early age? Have you ever craved a simpler life, or are you more just grateful?
WILL BUTLER I’m insanely grateful. It’s been such a pleasure. To play music for a living. For people to buy our records. It’s been really amazing from the get-go. Our goal was to play for 100 people. And when 100 people came, we were like, ‘oh we made it! Awesome!’ It’s all been a great bonus since then. We’ve never had a radio hit. We were big in certain circles early on, but we were never giant. And unless i’m in the ‘cool’ neighborhood, like the day before the show, I’m so anonymous that I’m hardly recognized by anyone. So, it’s felt like a normal life. But I think it’s been different for Win and Régine, whose relationship is at the center of the band. They’re the singers and everything. I think they have a slightly different relationship to that. But it’s been very easy on my end.
PHAWKER: That segues into another question I wanted to ask. I’m a younger brother myself and I have a decent relationship with my older brother. But I know that we’d never be able to maintain a professional relationship of any sort, much less that of professional musicians. So, I’m wondering about your dynamic with Win. Do you ever get jealous of his having the frontman’s limelight, or do you more feel like you’ve dodged a bullet and you can have the best of both worlds. Part of this big beautiful band, while not having to deal with being recognized?
WILL BUTLER Yeah, 90% I have the best of all worlds. Hahaha. Obviously, though, friction comes up. Any creative endeavour has a lot of friction. Any fraternal endeavor has lots of friction. For the most part, it’s just that I know where he’s coming from. So, even if I really disagree with him or think he’s being totally crazy, I know what he’s getting at, so I know that he’s arguing something in good faith, which I think is partly why our band has lasted for so long. Even when I really disagree with an idea, it’s not like an evil idea.
PHAWKER: Right, it’s sort of like there’s empathy built-in. It’s in your blood. You see where he’s coming from, even if you consciously disagree with it.
WILL BUTLER Right. And I think it works both ways, which I don’t think always happens with brotherly relationships. I think there’s sometimes an assumption of ill will, but, for some reason, we were raised such that we’re able to get along with each other.
PHAWKER: I saw an interview where Win calls your grandfather his hero. So, yesterday I spent about an hour watching videos of him on the pedal steel guitar and others of his amazing performances. I’m wondering if you think that having Alvino in your blood and conscious has allowed for you and Win to get along, which has allowed Arcade Fire to be a successful entity over the years?
WILL BUTLER I would say even further. My grandma was in a group called the King Sisters and she was married to Alvino. So it was literally a family band, where it was the four sisters, who were the singers, and then Alvino had the band. They literally all lived in a mansion in New Jersey together. Like the whole big band. They’d all live there together and then go on tour. Then, in the 60s, when my mom was a kid, they briefly had a show on ABC, like a variety show, where it was 6 sisters, 2 brothers, Alvino running the orchestra, and 40 cousins doing like a song and dance variety show. So, yeah, there’s definitely like a family band element to it. It just lets you know that it’s possible.
PHAWKER: Right, these stories of successful families bands had already been down. Their arcs had already been realized. Getting through the difficult times with Win must be so much easier, keeping that in mind.
WILL BUTLER Yeah, totally.
PHAWKER: I’ve always been impressed with the storytelling of the band. I’m wondering if, growing up, there were any particular stories that captured you or your brother’s imaginations?
WILL BUTLER Our grandmother on our other side, our dad’s mom, used to read us this book called Little Arlo. Just a little kid and his dog going out on adventures. He always called the dog comrade. Like, “come on comrade, let’s go!” And that idea of a boy and his dog going out in the big, wide world has resonance in lots of other art, and also resonance, I think, in some of our music. Nothing else immediately springs to mind. Well, the old lullabies, the “Skyboat Song,” which is about Prince Charles being buried away from Scotland? It’s got like something to do with Monarchs killing each other, but it’s got a little boy on a boat, being taken away so that the people don’t kill him. Or maybe he’s being taken back, while murderous crowds are waiting on the shore?
PHAWKER: So now, more specifically about the new album, I’m wondering if you and everyone else in the band personally struggled with themes like information overload and managing the presence of instant gratification. Personally, I have to actively manage those things, or they take over. I’m wondering if that’s the same for you?
WILL BUTLER I mean, Win and Régine write the lyrics, but I have a 5-year-old, and my relation to material culture has changed a lot over the last 5 years. Both in that you see all the garbage in the world and how instantly everyone wants garbage, but also the vast web of vaccines, surgery tools, and everything keeping people alive. These supply chains with antibiotics. There’s this whole system that keeps people alive, while at the same time there’s a garbage pipeline from everywhere to your house. So you become conscious of all that more acutely.
PHAWKER: There’s cognitive dissonance in trying to reconcile the double-edged sworded-ness of all these technological advances.
WILL BUTLER Yeah.
PHAWKER: So with the way the band approached the promotional campaign for this album — the usb fidget spinners, the spoof premature review, and the dress code for a show — it’s directly lampooning music media and consumer culture. Would you say that Everything Now is Arcade Fire’s most political album to date?
WILL BUTLER To be honest, I have no perspective on how the album feels because I approach all our records with a dual mind. They come from the world that we live in. That’s how we’ve always made art; we plug into the community and the people around us. What emerges is intimately tied to that both in the artistic and political aspects. I think part of the emotion has just been having fun and part of it has that you gotta’ dance to keep from crying a little bit. It’s difficult to tease out the specific aspects of that in my brain. A lot of that was instinctual. It wasn’t plotted out.
PHAWKER: So it’s more emotionally driven and then intellectually explained after the fact?
WILL BUTLER I think so.
PHAWKER: It’s always difficult for me to feel emotionally connected to music when I haven’t heard it live and have only heard recordings. Can you tell me what the songs on Everything Now have felt like, playing them live?
WILL BUTLER It feels really good. I don’t know if it’s just because we’re better musicians, so we’re just playing the songs faster. You know, everything now has been on the radio a little bit, so people know the songs more. But it’s felt more instantly familiar playing these songs than songs in the past, so that’s been exciting.