After helping to craft some of the most influential records of this generation as the versatile multi-instrumentalist of Arcade Fire, Will Butler is finding a voice of his own. While he’s used to shifting around the stage and manning anything from a synthesizer to a bass to a glockenspiel, one place he has never found himself is front and center. But with new release Policy, his first LP as a solo artist, that’s exactly where the 32-year-old finds himself.
After being in a band as prolific and large – sometimes up to 11 members — as Arcade Fire, it’s easy for even the most talented of musicians to get lost as a cog in the machine rather than an individual talent. On Policy, Butler wastes no time establishing that this record is distinctively his own. The opening track “Take My Side” hits the listener with a flurry of choppy guitars and sharp vocals that sounds more at home in 1985 than 2015. Throughout the record, he captures some of the era’s strongest sonic characteristics, while turning in a performance reminiscent of frontmen such as Black Francis of Pixies.
Though the album is just 28 minutes long, Butler finds his voice in a large way on tracks like the vulnerable “Sing To Me.” It’s an effort that finds strength in its sincerity and establishes Butler as a viable front man. As he embarks on his first solo tour — one that will find him at The Bishop in Bloomington on Tuesday – he sat down with NUVO to talk about his new project, and the family business of bands.
NUVO: You’ve said before, “It’s kind of our heritage, the family band.” Were your family members the largest musical influence on you growing up or were there others in your life that had a profound impact?
Will Butler: I think family music is the most important. My mom is a harpist and a pianist, jazz singer and an everything, you know? Her parents were all musicians as well. The music that she would play was omnipresent and church music and Christmas music and lullabies and all of that was probably more formative than anything else.
NUVO: You grew up mostly in Texas, but you found yourself in the Midwest and in Evanston, Ill. for college. What role did being involved in WNUR-FM student radio while at Northwestern have in your musical development?
Butler: WNUR was hugely influential. It was a really persnickety radio station. You could only play the same artist once in a term. I was reading a friend’s recollection earlier and he was there the first day and wanted to play Lou Reed and the guy was like, “Ugh, too mainstream. How about John Cale?” He was in the Velvet Underground too.
NUVO: You’re going to be a part of a panel (with brother Win of Arcade Fire and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman) talking about the future of music business while at SXSW. What do you anticipate you’ll say about the topic?
Butler: I think Arcade Fire has done shockingly good in the music business. We have had such a strange path, it’s a historical anomaly. We don’t have a ton to say about Madonna 360 deals or anything but we’ve lived through the craziness that was 2000-2015 where music has gone from something that makes money to something that doesn’t make money.
NUVO: Which is no good.
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Butler: I’m enough of a rock and roller to think that maybe money isn’t everything. [laughs]
NUVO: Being that you went to school in Big Ten country, did you ever venture down to the Bloomington or Indianapolis area? If so, what experiences stand out?
Butler: I never made it down to Bloomington, though I went to Indiana lakes with friends on the weekends every once in a while. I’m blanking on the name right now. Anyways, one of my band members on this tour went to school in Bloomington so she’ll be showing us around.
NUVO: How long has the writing process been going on for Policy?
Butler: I decided to make the album January of last year and then I booked time for May of that year. So it was a blitz, like a three month blitz. Some of the songs are anywhere from three to five years old and there’s a lot of elements that were old like little chord changes or lyrical ideas that were old but they didn’t get polished until that stretch. But, it was mostly finished in those three months.
NUVO: What challenges did you look forward to when embarking on this solo album? How did those challenges meet your expectations?
Butler: I knew I would just have to judge everything myself which is both exhilarating and liberating and a little bit stressful because you have to make something and then you have to step outside of yourself and be like, “Is this good or is this bad?” So, that was really fun. It was more exhilarating and fun and fresh feeling than in was negative in any sense.
NUVO: At times, especially in the middle of the album when “Son of God” and “Something’s Coming” go back-to-back it feels like it could have fit right in on Reflektor with its tone and content. But the album is largely different in the sense that it’s concise: eight tracks, only one of which exceeds four minutes, whereas Reflektor is a one hour 15 minute epic. Do you consider this album to be more of an extension or backlash to Reflektor?
Butler: It comes from that world so it’s definitely reacting to having made a long album. I don’t know if I would use the word backlash but it’s certainly stemming from that artistic world to make something really concise and that fits on one LP and everything. That wasn’t a primary consideration but that’s definitely present.
NUVO: Now that the album is finished and you get a chance to perform it and release it to the masses, do you have any sense of what place this album will have amongst other projects you’ve been a part of?
Butler: I’m excited for it to continue and for the conversation to continue and to keep making music on my own, just using my own brain. I’m excited to see what happens, I don’t know what the response will be because it’s not out yet but people seem to like it. I’m really excited to play the shows and be in the rooms and see how the music breathes.
NUVO: You recently said, “Part of the goal of this record is to make people excited enough to pay attention when I’m 80.” With a plan, and really, the talent, to have that kind of staying power what do you aim to do over the course of your musical career? What would you like to achieve or take part in that you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
Butler: I’m happy if one thing I do survives for a long time. Like, Beethoven is extremely famous, but Beethoven is almost broken down to two things in the popular imagination. It’s bum bum bum bum (humming Symphony no. 5) and “Ode To Joy” and most people couldn’t hum something else from the Fifth Symphony. But, I’d be happy if a two-minute stretch of any work I did survived for 300 years.
NUVO: Looking back at all of the stuff you’ve worked on, what do you want to stick around for that long?
Butler: I have no opinion on that. I’ll be dead and gone by the time it sticks around. We’re living in an era of great reissues where stuff comes out and influences people a long time after the fact. Like, ESG is so influential these days and they were so small in the ‘80s. Velvet Underground was super influential, so it’s too hard to tell what’s going to happen and where it will go. Maybe the Mars colonists will take Arcade Fire’s greatest hits and they’ll be really into “Ready To Start “ or something and that will be one of the foundational art works of Mars.
NUVO: How do you think the tour and the live show will be different for you as compared to when you’re playing shows as a member of Arcade Fire?
Butler: The tour’s a lot smaller, it’s a lot more dense and city to city. I think the show will be a little more experimental musically because nobody knows anything or what to expect so I’m looking forward to playing with that. So, hopefully it will be frisky and feel a bit more like an improv show, but I don’t know yet.
NUVO: Do you think that’s exciting or tantalizing? What are your feelings towards the uncertainty?
Butler: I’m really excited, I love having a blank page and getting the opportunity to go and to see people reacting in the room; it’s such a lovely opportunity to have.