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Nostalgic For A Different Future: Arcade Fire's Will Butler On How His New Solo Album Finds Healing In Community

Will Butler

Photo courtesy of Will Butler

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Nostalgic For A Different Future: Arcade Fire's Will Butler On How His New Solo Album Finds Healing In Community

Butler talks to GRAMMY.com about his sophomore effort 'Generations,' how it fits in with an upcoming Arcade Fire album and the healing power of community

GRAMMYs/Sep 29, 2020 - 08:17 pm

When Arcade Fire released their very first single, it came with a B-side that hit very close to home to brothers Win and Will Butler: a recording of a song called "My Buddy," credited to their grandfather, Alvino Rey. In fact, several generations of musicians line their family tree. While those historic echoes provide joy and solace for younger brother Will, the world tipping into pandemic and protests over racial injustice reinforced life’s darker cycles. On Butler’s second solo album, Generations (due Sept. 25 via Merge), he explores the ways in which we come together in community both because of and in spite of those ripples.

The video for early single "Surrender" represents that duality perfectly. The clip opens with studio footage of Butler’s band recording the jangly anthem, complete with call-and-response vocals and gospel falsetto. But much like 2020, things devolve quickly, with closed captioning-style subtitles mourning the deaths of Black men and women killed by police, calling for sweeping political change, and insisting on prison reform. Though written long ago, the album holds a special ability to tap into something boundless and timeless while simultaneously feeling entrenched in the tragic pain of the present.

Butler spoke with GRAMMY.com about the album’s similarities to Fyodor Dostoevsky, the ways in which songs take on new meaning over time, how Generations fits in with an upcoming Arcade Fire album and the healing power of community.

Did you have any hesitation about releasing the album in the midst of the pandemic?

I'm sad to not tour it. If I could wait four weeks and then tour the record... but that's not going to happen. It's actually kind of a good time to put out music. It feels morally good! People want music, so let's put out music. I've experienced that, where people put things out and it feels generous.

It truly does. You've compared this album to a novel and your debut before this to a collection of short stories. Is there a particular novelist that you feel would be in tune with your work? Do you take inspiration from fiction in that way?

It's not Dostoevsky. [Laughs.] But it is weirdly more inspired by Dostoevsky than it ought to be. It's the tumult of the 19th century, the next stage of the industrial revolution and the gearing up of socialism and anarchism. It feels related to the pre-revolutionary thing happening in Russia. [Laughs.] It's not a one-to-one comparison by any means, but it’s just the deeply human things happening in a context of the whirlwind.

Was there an experience that led you to the feeling that it was the right time to deliver such a politically driven album?

Partly, I went to grad school for public policy. I explicitly went as an artist wanting to know what's happening and why it's happening. I started the fall of 2016, which was a very bizarre time to be at a policy school. But I had a course with a professor named Leah Wright Rigueur, a young-ish professor, a Black woman, a historian. The course was essentially about race and riot in America. And since it was a policy school, the second-to-last week on the syllabus was talking about Hillary Clinton and the last week was talking about Donald Trump. It was a history class, but in an applied technical school, so it's like, "What are we doing with this history?"

We read the post-riot reports of Chicago in 1919 and the post-riot reports of the '60s, the Kerner Commission and after the Watts riots, and we read the DOJ reports after Ferguson and after Baltimore and Freddie Gray. And then Donald Trump got elected at the end of the semester. This course really trained my eyes at this moment of time, just being in that state of thinking about what's going on and why it's happening.

Right, and the album's title feels like it encapsulates not only the history that you were learning at the time but also your personal and familial ancestry.

Yes, very much so. My mom's a musician, and her parents were musicians. My grandmother grew up in a family band driving across the American West with her parents before there were even roads in the desert. Her dad got arrested a bunch of times for vagrancy or for not paying off loans. There's something very beautiful about being in the tradition of generations of musicians. That's a positive thing in this world. It's no coincidence that I'm a musician. There are, however, many more poisonous things that are also not coincidental that are rooted in both personal and political history. All of political history in America has been geared towards making each generation of my family's life better insofar as they're white men. It's been very good to my family, but that is as much of an undeniable generational heritage as music, which is this beautiful and faultless and glorious thing.

Do you see that musical tradition in your family as storytelling?

It's never been explicitly storytelling, though that is part of it. It's more about building community or building a society through entertainment. Entertainment is almost too light a word. My grandfather and grandmother did all these broadcasts during World War II, and some of it's jingoistic, some of it's incredibly moving, some of it's just dance music for people who don't want to think about the war for a minute. It's all these emotions, but still with this aim of trying to get us all in it together–which in a war context is fraught. But there's that element of always trying to make a family, make a community, learning how to bind us all together.

That reminds me of the call and response vocals you've got throughout the record. It has an especially gospel-y feeling on "Close My Eyes," which is such a clever way to paint a song about surrendering to something bigger than yourself, that communal feeling. What was the impetus for that narrative voice?

Part of it is just rooted in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. [Laughs.] Years ago, someone mailed us the complete Motown singles on CD, just every single starting from day one. Even though there’s some garbage mixed in there, it just feels so human with those gang vocals and great singers that sometimes they just pulled off the street. You get the sense of humanity. Having backing vocals be so integral instead of just having my voice layered feels like having a community and feels very natural. It's hard for me to not just rely on that every third or fourth song. [Laughs.] It just feels like that's how it should be.

Those multi-part harmonies must be especially potent live in a room. Do you write in a way where you’re already picturing these songs live?

We played almost every one of these songs live before we recorded them. My solo band played "Surrender" live on the Policy tour for years. But even before we went into the studio last summer, I booked a weekend of shows. We did the Merge 30th Anniversary festival just to have us feel it live and have that communication. And then we went down to the basement to try to iron it out.

Speaking of "Surrender," that song took on an entire new life in the video. It starts out with videos of your band in the studio, but then quickly and powerfully gets replaced with messages mourning the deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor and emphasizing the need for prison reform. You never know what life a song will have when you’re writing it.

That song is very nostalgic in a certain way. It’s looking towards the past, but not wishing to be in the past. It's wishing that we were in a different present because we had already chosen a different past. So when I was editing the video, I started it as a "making of" video. But the footage is from January of this year—five, six months old. There's this feeling of nostalgia, but also 2019 was not good enough to look back at. [Laughs.] 2019 was also horrible.

It's not like I want to go back to 2019. I want to play music with people. I want to be having fun with my friends. I want to be making a record. But I don't want it to be 2019. I'm nostalgic for a different future. And as I'm editing the video, there have been six weeks of protests of people trying to build something, and it just felt crazy to not acknowledge that. It was what people were focused on, at least the people around me.

Do you feel like you'll be infusing more overt social and political commentary into your music going ahead?

I think so. It's important that it's organic. It's part of the world I live in, part of my family and my friendships. Before the coronavirus hit, I was very much looking forward to touring and had vague plans to do town hall meetings and discussions. It felt like a rich time to do that around America, and around the world. I'm sad to not get to do that, but I think it will happen someday.

You produced the album yourself in your basement, so were you writing with the production choices already in mind or were you writing while in the studio?

I had the band come down and record for a week. And at the end of that first week, we had seven or eight songs that could be real. Some of them were clear. Some of them are simpler, like "Surrender." Others were trying to figure out where they would go. "I Don't Know What I Don’t Know" was more trial and error, trying something crazy. We'd turn everything off for two days and then come back to it and try something else. You try to be surprised by it.

I love revision. Well, I don't love it. I hate it. [Laughs.] I love the process of editing, of making a version of something and then finding something that's either better or worse. It's fun when you work with an editor that you trust, but when you're just doing it yourself, you drive yourself batty after some time. But I still love versioning it until it makes sense.

It feels like you're not too precious. You just want to service the song at the end of the day.

Yeah. I try to not be precious. I feel like the songs mostly came out with a fresh spirit. I didn't massage any of them too much. I'm very conversational in how I think of the world. Nothing is the final statement. You say something and then someone says something else and then you say something. And you have to finish what you're saying in order to hear what the other person says. So if that means putting it out into the world without rounding everything off, to me that feels right.

The record begins and ends on the same burning synth tone, like history ready to go around the loop again. What does that synth tone represent for you?

Not to get too mystical, but there's something about the bass that is so embodied. There's something about a really powerful bass that is fundamental, something that just gets to the core. I wanted that core to feel a little uneasy. It's not like the hit at the end of "A Day in the Life" where it’s this clear conclusion. It's a little bit gnarly. It's a little bit not in the right key for the song. It’s something disturbing at the very core of everything.

What has writing and producing this record taught you about yourself?

I found that while I still prize quickness and thoughtfulness and conversational life, this record took longer and took more effort than Policy. It was way less casual. It was not casual in a very good way. I realized this shouldn't be a casual undertaking—even though it can have lightness and humor and breezy elements. Even then, the whole undertaking can still be serious and grounded. It can even be quick without being casual. In the past, I've fallen into thinking, "Just do something first before you think about it too hard." But this was a reminder that you can do something more thoroughly.

Were you writing these songs while working on the next Arcade Fire album? Speaking about intention, how do you compartmentalize those two sides of your creativity?

Yeah, Arcade Fire is always very cyclical. We record for a year and a half, we tour for a year and a half, and then we're off for a year and a half. I was very conscious to do this in a moment when I wasn't distracted by something else. I wanted to focus on this.

I'm still figuring it all out. Right now I'm making a video for the song "Close My Eyes." I have children, two-year-old twins and an eight-year-old, so the spring was just complete family time—net positive, but total chaos. [Laughs.]

On 'Transmissions,' Beverly Glenn-Copeland Looks Back On A Long And Varied Musical Life

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

Mumu Fresh On What She Learned From Working With The Roots, Rhyming & More

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Ladies Antebellum And Gaga, Jeff Beck, David Frost, John Legend Win Three GRAMMYs Each

Arcade Fire wins Album Of The Year; Esperanza Spalding wins Best New Artist

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(To view a list of 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards winners, click here.)

The evening began with a tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, but by the time the last of the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards was handed out on Feb. 13, several other singers and bands looked something like royalty. Foremost among them was Lady Antebellum, who walked away with three trophies while the group members earned two more each for songwriting categories.

Lady Antebellum at the GRAMMYs

 

During a show memorable for its range of fully fueled performances, the country superstars sang a pitch-perfect medley of tunes that ended with a quiet rendition of the song that launched them, "Need You Now," and shortly afterward collected the Song Of The Year GRAMMY for it (along with co-writer Josh Kear, with whom they also took Best Country Song). But there was plenty more to come for the trio. They also took home the GRAMMY for Best Country Album for Need You Now. Accepting that award, lead singer Charles Kelley said, "This song has completely flipped our world upside down." By the time Lady Antebellum stood up to collect a trophy for Record Of The Year for "Need You Now," they were in disbelief, and possibly discombobulated: "Oh my gosh, we're so stunned we started walking the wrong direction," said singer Hillary Scott breathlessly.

Also racking up awards was Lady Gaga, who claimed three: Best Pop Vocal Album for The Fame Monster, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Short Form Music Video for "Bad Romance." Never one to miss the chance to make an entrance, she hatched herself onstage from a giant opaque egg. That was a riff on her new single, "Born This Way," and perhaps her bared shoulders, which sprouted a pair of pointy elbows, were too. Her dancers and outfit gave off a Cleopatra vibe, but Gaga can't be stopped from seeming ultra-modern, and her performance of "Born This Way" reflected that; it was a warp-speed whirlwind.

Lady Gaga at the GRAMMYs



 

In keeping with that same modernist — or maybe futurist — spirit, she accepted her award for Best Pop Vocal Album in black body armor. But Gaga also proved she can be an old-fashioned girl with a soft side. In an emotional acceptance speech for that award, she surprised the audience by thanking Whitney Houston: "I imagined she was singing…because I wasn't secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar. Whitney, I imagined you."

Leading the nominees with 10 nods revolving around Recovery, an album that detailed his struggles with addiction but also reestablished him as a rap force to be reckoned with, Eminem took home trophies for Best Rap Album — a triumph over rivals including Jay-Z, Drake and B.o.B — and Best Rap Solo Performance for "Not Afraid." Onstage, his swagger proved undiminished.

A flame-haired Rihanna opened Eminem's performance with a searching rendition of their duet "Love The Way You Lie," but it was Slim Shady who came out blazing, spitting the lyrics to that song before raging into "I Need A Doctor" with Dr. Dre and singer Skylar Grey; Adam Levine from Maroon 5 handled piano duty.

Closing the show and likely lifting the Sunday-night spirits of indie kids everywhere was the Canadian collective Arcade Fire, who won the Album Of The Year GRAMMY for The Suburbs and, before the night's final performance, turned in a frothy and fierce rendition of the rocking "Month Of May."

Arcade Fire at the GRAMMYs

 

Other multiple winners for the evening included classical music producer David Frost, legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck and R&B artist John Legend, who each earned three awards. Among those who won two each were alternative rock band the Black Keys, jazz giant Herbie Hancock, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, urban/alternative group the Roots, Keith Urban, and gospel singer BeBe Winans.

And in a bit of surprise, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist over teen phenom Justin Bieber, as well Canadian rapper Drake, and adventurist rock outfits Florence & The Machine and Mumford & Sons.

Esperanza Spalding at the GRAMMYs

 

The show also featured a few firsts, including a first-time ever GRAMMY performance by Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger, who helped pay tribute to fallen R&B singer Solomon Burke.

But if there was also a constant, it was the annual, high-profile celebration of music that the GRAMMYs represent, and the 53rd GRAMMYs fit the bill once again, with performances, pairings and awards presentations that were full of pleasant musical surprises.
 

Click below for more GRAMMY content:

GRAMMY  liveblog
GRAMMY quotebook
GRAMMY Week photos
GRAMMY Week videos

 

Music Festivals 2018: Forecastle To Host Arcade Fire, Chris Stapleton

Chris Stapleton

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

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Music Festivals 2018: Forecastle To Host Arcade Fire, Chris Stapleton

Courtney Barnett, Father John Misty, Jason Isbell, Jimmy Eat World, Vic Mensa, Modest Mouse and many more round out a powerhouse three days

GRAMMYs/Jan 18, 2018 - 04:31 am

Forecastle Festival have announced Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Chris Stapleton will headline its July 13–15, 2018 line-up at Louisville Waterfront Park.

One of the nation's top festivals, Forecastle began in 2002 with changes in venue to accommodate what has swelled to more than 75,000 fans who like their music and their environmental activism together.

Kentucky-born Chris Stapleton's humbly titled 2017 album From A Room: Volume 1 earned three GRAMMY nominations for the 60th GRAMMY Awards. Like Stapleton, Arcade Fire are also GRAMMY winners and bring their family-spun, Montreal indie-rock to Forecastle, while alt-rockers Modest Mouse make the lineup soar with the weightless spirit embodied in their 2004 classic "Float On"  from their GRAMMY-nominated album Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

Other acts giving a small taste of the big line-up include Courtney Barnett, Father John Misty, Jason Isbell, Jimmy Eat World, Vic Mensa, T-Pain, and Kurt Vile. Various festival ticket packages go on sale via Forecastle's website on Jan. 19.

Arcade Fire's 'Everything Now' Has Historic Debut

Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website