Arcade Fire’s Will Butler Explores American Identify On “Generations”

Scholastic indie rock fans may know that the Butler family’s musical legacy started long before Win and Will Butler jumped onto the scene with Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut; rather, the Butlers of today’s world are both fourth-generation musicians hailing from a line of successful music-makers. While none of them have something as significant as Funeral or The Suburbs under their belt, the story of the Butler family is a story mirrored by many throughout America’s history… which is something Will Butler has spent a few years thinking about. The end product of all that thinking? His new record, Generations, which dropped on September 25 via Merge Records.

Much like Policy — Butler’s fan-adored, 2015 solo-debut — Generations is a true collage of American styles and sounds, all wrapped under the roof of charming lyrical wit and New Sincerity-chic. Yet, this new record takes Butler’s writing onto a new level of conceptual clarity and thematic potentness. See, since Arcade Fire’s last release — 2017’s Everything Now — Butler’s been busy going to graduate school studying public administration. With that, he’s engaged in a variety of civic activities including working with nonprofits, organizing a series of local town halls after Arcade Fire shows (pre-COVID, that is) and writing music which speaks to the wider question that many in this country are trying to determine: what’s my place in American history?

The sum of all of this can be felt throughout Generations’ 10 tracks. Between bombastic romps like “Bethlehem,” lyrical proclamations like “Not Gonna Die” and solaceful breaths like “Fine,” the ups and downs of the record mirror the ups and downs of American life itself. 

Last month, American Songwriter spoke with Butler over the phone about all of this. Of course, discussing current events in 2020 presents a fascinating challenge in that the state of affairs changes so quickly — nonetheless, Butler’s observations speak to a deeper, more enduring sense of American identity. Perhaps this is fitting, considering that the band he was a part of played such a large role in ushering in the 21st century’s answer to two millennia of cultural circumstance. That is to say, as someone who’s spent the past two decades attempting to shine a light of hope on the frontlines of culture, Butler’s observations have as much merit to them as they do significance — something Generations wears proudly on its sleeves. 

It’s been five years since Policy came out — when did you start working on Generations?

The oldest songs are probably five years old, but I didn’t start consciously working on the record until last summer. But, I tend to play a lot of new music at shows, so I’ve been playing some of this stuff since the tour for Policy back in 2015. Since then, the band and I would play a few shows a year and work through different ideas, try things. A lot of it came out of that. 

You recorded and produced this record yourself in your basement — what did that process look like?

I knew I could record a certain amount of a record in my basement. I have some mics, I have some preamps, I could definitely make a punk rock song. I have a cheap little Craigslist piano down there too — luckily it fit down the stairs!

My first record I made on my own with friends, but after Policy came out in 2015 I put together a band that has stuck together. They’re a great band, so I was like “let’s play some shows.” We played some shows and figured out the arrangements. I had my friend Cory come over and help me set up the drum mics since I knew that I didn’t have the technical ability to make a good drum sound. He came over one Sunday, set up the mics and then I had the band over for about a week.

We went through and just played all the songs. There were about 10 in the running, and we went through them. I’d listen back and do edits and stuff. At the end of the week, we were like “oh, I think we’ve got 8 beds where the drums sound awesome, the piano sounds bigger than it actually is and there’s a vibe.” It sounded like a record. So, we decided to just keep going. Every step that we took forward felt right, it felt like it was going in a good direction.

So, yeah, we started with mostly me with Miles and Julie, who play drums and bass. It was the three of us getting drums, bass and then piano or guitar. Then, those bed tracks would percolate in my brain and I would do overdubs and go back and forth. I did a couple of backing vocal sections — my wife and her sister, Jenny and Julie, both sing in the band regularly. So, all of that really fleshed out the feeling of the record. That was throughout July, August and September of last year. That’s when the conceptual stuff came together.

After that, it was just me trying to polish things and get lead vocal takes in my basement. I was driving myself crazy, like “was that a good vocal take, Will?” “I don’t know, what do you think, Will?”

How much of the material would you say was written through the recording process?

Most of the songs we had played live — “Outta Here,” “Bethlehem,” “Close My Eyes,” “I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know,” “Surrender,” “Not Gonna Die” and “Fine” had all been played live quite a bit. Not exactly in the forms that they ended up in on the record, but nonetheless. “Promised” was just kind of a groove and “Hide It Away” and “Hard Times” I wrote entirely in the studio. Those were the only ones that were really solo, where I was making loops and trying out drum sounds and doing all sorts of garbage.

But, yeah, most of them we played live. I think it’s really valuable to do that first, to feel that energy. A song like “Surrender” we’ve been playing for about five years… which was another question we were asking; “Will this work next to the new stuff?” Even that required an extra 10% on the lyrics at the end.

I really love drafting. I love making different versions and coming back after letting stuff sit, making tweaks, changing prepositions — stuff like that. It’s a horrible process, but I find it deeply satisfying.

You were quoted as saying that this record asks the question: “what’s my place in American history?” What does that theme mean to you? How did you approach writing songs to capture this theme?

My great-grandfather — my mom’s mom’s dad — was the last son of Mormon homesteaders out west in Utah. They had been driven out of America in the 1850s, essentially. He quixotically decided that he wanted to be a musician. He had about six months of studying music at a conservatory in Chicago before his first kid was born and then he went back out west. He wanted to be an opera writer. He made all of his kids be musicians, sorta like a pre-depression, proto-Vaudeville band playing churches throughout the American west. They’d get driven out of towns with pitchforks and even got arrested for not paying certain loans back. So, my grandmother and her sisters were jazz singers and my grandmother married a guitar player. They had kids, then they had a variety show in the 1960s, then me and my brother came around. So, I’m a fourth-generation musician, which is very beautiful. There’s absolutely no strain being a fourth-generation musician, there’s nothing bad about that. But, there are also thorny inheritances about how I got to be where I am these days.

There’s an infinite number of hip-hop songs that are like “I made my money selling drugs” and I’m like “well, I made my money because my grandpa ran a small business in the 1940s.” Some of that is beautiful, but a lot of it comes down to “oh, I’m successful because the policy environment was working in favor of white men and not in favor of anyone else.” So, this inheritance is partly why I own a home now. Of course, it’s also why I’m a musician too. It’s very thorny — so, that’s kinda what I wanted to get at. Some of the songs address that very directly, like “Fine.” I was trying to be honest about it — not trying to put guilt on it or mystery or mythology — it was “this is the technical history.” Then the question is: how do you make that true? How do you make that an epic in the classic literary sense? Like, how do you list all the Greek ships on the way to war? How do you describe every type of whale before you describe Moby Dick? It was a bit like that — trying to be truthful and trying to tell everything at the same time.

Your writing in general draws from so many different forms of American music. There’s a breadth of influence that seems to span from electro-underground to early country music and everything in between. On this record, it’s especially cool since you’re taking a look at what “American identity” is through the sonic landscape of the nation. Was that purposeful? What was your thought behind that? 

It was very much purposeful. This is a kinda meta thing to say, but someone recently noted that I seem to start every interview answer off with something that happened 70 years ago… so, let me start this with something that happened 70 years ago. 

I did a piece for this magazine called Pop-Up Magazine about my grandfather, Alvino Rey. He was one of the early developers of the electric guitar. He was playing jazz music on an electrified Hawaiian guitar in the 1920s, early 1930s. I was researching that piece and it’s amazing how the instant that the electric guitar exists, there starts to be blazing punk rock solos in country music and Black blues musicians start playing electric guitars in places like Kansas City. The back-beat began to emerge. That swirl was deeply involved with technology. Technology comes out and you can see it move parallel through different communities in America. It comes from Hawaii and New York and San Francisco and it immediately goes to Kansas City or Denver or wherever. You can actually see the American story. I saw the American story researching my grandfather’s story. That story of technology and the diffusion of music, you can see it in other places. You see it with house music — black kids in Detroit hear Kraftwerk and start making house music and it pings back to Europe. Even like Wyclef Jean buying a sampler in the ‘90s and making a Fugees record in his basement.

I’ve become increasingly conscious of that experimentation. I think of it as an explicitly American story because it’s what I’ve been exposed to, it’s what I see. You see those threads throughout. So, to some degree it’s instinctual, but it’s definitely on my mind as well. 

You’re also quoted as saying: “‘What can I do?’ The record asks that question over and over, even if it’s not much for answers.” You might not be ‘much for answers,’ but do you feel any closer to understanding your role and what you can do about it?

Yeah, there’re various levels. For part of it, there are definitely some “lower-case-C conservative” things, like raising my children right so they’re not evil.

Then, there’s a neighborhood level — particularly in the post-COVID world. My kids go to the public school down the road, and it’s like “oh, we don’t have enough funding. How do we address that?” They’re going to form coronavirus pods for schooling — how do you do that in an equitable way? How do you make it so that it’s not just rich people making each other richer? All of that happens on a neighborhood level. 

Then, there’s a goddamn election happening. To the extent that I am a public figure: what role, if any, do I have? What good can I do? Can I do good without it just being additional noise? How do you decide what’s ‘good’ even? Figuring that stuff out is complicated, but you slowly make progress towards it.

Now, you started doing ‘Disco Town Halls’ in 2017 — what is that project?

Yeah, the ‘Disco Town Halls’ were essentially a series of political organizing after-parties for Arcade Fire shows. They were very concentrated on local issues, local officials and local activism. For instance — after we played Madison Square Garden, we went to this little club called Nublu and talked about closing the Rikers Island jail in New York. It’s the jail you go to after you’re arrested but before you’re convicted, it’s a really terrible place and it ought to be closed. 

Or after our show in Tampa, for instance, we got together with people who were organizing for the then-vote on re-enfranchising people who had been convicted of felonies. At that time, something absurd, like, 20% of all black men in Florida were disenfranchised because they had been arrested on a felony. So, there was a movement to restore their votes and we met with some of those organizers at midnight in a small club. 

I went to graduate school in 2016 and 2017 and got my master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, which is their government school. I came to realize what a wild resource it is to have bodies in the room. I also realized that I was going to every major American city to gather 5,000 to 10,000 of mostly local people in one room. I strongly believe that art is good enough on it’s own — like, art for art’s sake is great, we don’t need to turn every show into a political rally — but, it was still like “well, we have all these locals, many of them are definitely thinking about what’s going on in the country, I’m here, they’re here… maybe we could meet up afterward.” We were going to have an intense aesthetic experience — our hearts were going to be open, we ended the shows with “Wake Up” — and then there’s that “well, what now?” feeling. Well, come talk about things!

So, I’d find a club near our venue, which was easy since so many of these small club owners are into this kind of community organization just naturally. So, we’d find a small club that was into this shit. The dream lineup was to get a local activist and a local official, whether that’s a city councilperson or a state representative. Then, we’d talk about what we could concretely do about a specific thing happening in that city. 

We did 10 or 11 of those and they were really, really great. We’d come in around midnight, play a couple of songs, talk for an hour, play a couple of more songs and then go to bed, because it’d be like 1:30 in the morning. 

What do you see as the political potential of music fans? What’s the relationship between the artistic sphere and the political sphere?

Sometimes I think of communities as these Venn diagrams — the more circles you get encompassing people, the stronger that little community can be. Like, “oh, I care about this. Oh, and I like this. Oh, I’m physically in this space.” Suddenly, you make a peer group. I think that making those bonds is good unto itself. But, making those bonds and making that community power is also a prerequisite to community change. It’s really powerful. There’s something mystical about it that speaks to people’s souls. 

At the same time, the people in this particular community typically tend to be left-leaning — whether they’re consciously so or not consciously so, whether they’re addicted to Twitter or not addicted to Twitter. There’s a general vibe of “I wish we had a functioning healthcare system” among most of the general rock’n’roll audiences. That’s not entirely true and you can still be a fan of music if you’re not into functioning healthcare systems, but I’ve definitely found that there’s a left-leaning tilt. So, it’s not exactly “radicalizing” to those people — it’s almost like radicalizing the choir. Like, preaching to the choir not just to make us feel good but preaching to it to make the community gel a little bit, get that extra flavor in the stew. 

It definitely feels like it’s in the air. Bands are looking for it, crowds are looking for it. That started before the 2016 election, but that definitely kicked it into high gear. Everyone was like “alright, what are we doing? Let’s figure this out.” 

Have you ever considered running for public office?

Vaguely and theoretically, but, generally, I think it would be so hellacious to run for public office. I don’t think I quite have the chip in my brain. But, I like being engaged. I think it’s more fun to be a rock’n’roll musician and know people and talk to people. 

You’ve been working on this record for a few years now, yet the turbulence of 2020 certainly speaks to its political themes — how has your relationship with this material changed?

Sadly, this year hasn’t been a radical break with history. It’s a very tragic outgrowth of the past decade… and the past couple hundred years. So, it’s not like what’s happening now is that surprising. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are horrifying and we’ve gone through this every six months for the past decade. Certainly since Ferguson five years ago, it’s been very clear to everyone that this is happening. For it to ignite a mass protest movement… well, it just did. We did it in Ferguson and Baltimore within the past five years. 

The pandemic is definitely out of left field. I wish it was better and I wish that our officials were handling it better up and down the board. But, it wasn’t a shock. In a certain way, I suppose, I’m shocked, but it fits with the shitshow of the last little while. 

In relationship with the record, I’ve always tried to let anything I make emerge from the world around me. I finished the record in New York right before the pandemic hit and I was mixing it throughout April and May. So, I kept listening to it because I had to. I was like “so, does this still make sense?” It still makes sense, I still feel those emotions. It definitely reflects in ways that you can’t control. I’m really curious to put it out into the world to see what the world says. We all know that “Every Breath You Take” story where it’s like “this is a song about this” and everyone is like “nope, this is a song about something else.” 

So, all of these things are happening around the world — are you hopeful? What does the future look like to Will Butler?

I am increasingly incapable of making any predictions, particularly coherent ones. I wouldn’t have predicted what July was like based on what June was like, I wouldn’t have predicted August based on July. So, I have no idea what will happen. I know that it’s possible that we could change things. I’ve seen it happen in history. People have made crazy changes. 

For a long time, I worked with this group called Partners In Health, who started in the mid-80s treating people with AIDS in Haiti. The naysayers were horrifyingly racist and doubtful that you could treat people with AIDS in Haiti, they were like “those people believe in voodoo, they won’t take modern medicine.” It was like “no, they don’t want to die.” They had more success treating people in rural Haiti for AIDS than they had in Boston by the late ‘80s. It’s possible. You can do hard things if you do them wholeheartedly and give a shit. I am hopeful — I’m fearful as well, but I’m hopeful. My soul is oriented towards something better. It’s gonna be a gnarly couple of years, but I’d say that I am hopeful.

Watch the music video for “Bethlehem” by Will Butler below:

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