Following a joyous hometown show at Montreal's Osheaga music festival, Arcade Fire's Will Butler tells Dazed about the band's brand new record 'The Suburbs', his penchant for Blondie, and why playing US President Obama's inaugural ball was kind of like playing prom.
Dazed Digital: Do you feel you made the record you set out to make?
Will Butler: I think so. Though initially, we don't have many expectations when making a record. It's really a few months in, when we've put down a few songs and are practicing others, that we begin to see patterns -- whether lyrically or musically. About halfway through the process, we decided to really hone in on the suburbs material. Though it's a long record, and there are plenty of other subjects to go around.
DD: Arcade Fire has managed to maintain control over business as well as your art. You own your studio and master recordings as well as licensing rights. What's it like handling both sides?
Will Butler: You have to engage with the business half of the music business. As much as it'd be nice to just hang in your bedroom and make music and let business folks take care of business, if you did that, well, there's plenty of rock history that shows that that never happens. The business half always come into the equation. So you might as well take control of it. So we've become little business people. Ho ho ho.
DD: Is there some quality you make sure is consistent in every element?
Will Butler: Everything about how you appear to the public is an aesthetic choice, sadly or not. And most of those choices don't really matter. But if you don't want people to be distracted from the art you're making, you really have to focus whenever you decide to go out into public. Because it gets really annoying when people get distracted from the art. That's all. We're just trying to keep people from getting distracted. Maybe. That's one idea, at any rate.
DD: Tell us a bit about Kanpe Haiti and your pledge to match one million dollars in donations.
Will Butler: We also work with an organization called Partners in Health. Kanpe, I think, was started in the spirit of giving them some more partners to work with on the ground. PIH's mission is originally medical (though in practice, the good they achieve goes far beyond that), and Kanpe will have other goals that dovetail with PIH's methods and mission; increasing school attendance, helping secure loans, etc... It doesn't really matter if you like us or not. If you don't like us, it might give you some satisfaction knowing that the money you give takes money out of our pockets. And we wouldn't be mad if someone who's never heard us sends Kanpe a cheque.
DD: How do you stay normal as the band becomes larger than life?
Will Butler: Montreal is a very easy place to live. Also, we're not really that famous in the scheme of things.
DD: Arcade Fire gigs range from tiny to huge; church basements to big festivals. You also played the Obama inaugural ball. How are big shows different from smaller and quirkier ones?
Will Butler: The biggest factor is physical distance from the audience. At a big festival, the stage is super high, there's a bunch of movie cameras in front of the stage (for the big side screens), then there's a sometimes quite a large gap filled with security people, then there's a fence, and then there's the crowd. At a small show, the crowd is right there. Also, the Obama inaugural ball we played was pretty small, it was the Staff Ball, for all the people who had worked for the campaign. It was kind of like playing prom. Except Jay-Z was actually playing, instead of being played by the DJ.
DD: Terry Gilliam will be directing the YouTube webcasts of your New York shows this week. That should be interesting!
Will Butler: We're really excited. He's directed some of my favorite movies. Back in the day, the band recorded a version of the song "Brazil," which we learned from watching his movie Brazil.
DD: Did making the Suburbs - an album that, in some ways, looks back on adolescent restlessness, longing and innocence -- bring back memories tied to specific songs?
Will Butler: In "Deep Blue," there's the line "I was only a child then/Feeling barely alive when/I heard a song from the speaker of a passing car." Both Win [Butler] and Richie [Parry] have strong memories in their youth of hearing music coming out of a passing car, and wondering what the heck it was. In Win's case, it was our friend's older brother driving, and he was listening to Depeche Mode. We wanted, on this album, to create a few sonic moments that would perk up the ears of some suburban kid grown up on mainstream radio--make some sort of sound that they've never heard before, whether they like it or not.
The Suburbs was released August 2 in the UK and August 3 in North America. Arcade Fire are now on tour and play Reading and Leeds later this month.