Will Butler of Arcade Fire

The Northwestern alum on blending music and activism

After years of hard work, the members of Arcade Fire are in a very good place. They’re about to make their second appearance on Saturday Night Live Nov. 13, topped the Billboard charts with their latest record, The Suburbs, they’re selling out arenas left and right, and they are the modern model for success with integrity in the music business. They push that integrity past record sales, though, with well-publicized and intended actions like sizeable donations to Haiti, a pro-Obama tour of swing states in 2008, and general social consciousness.

As a multi-instrumental maniac in Arcade Fire, Will Butler lights up stages with the rest of the groundbreaking indie darlings on a semi-regular basis. He’s also a Northwestern alum, and has been invited back by the Center for Civic Engagement to talk about blending his music career with social activism as part of Civically Engaged Young Alumni Week. Butler speaks at 7 p.m. tonight at the McCormick Tribune Center Forum, but gave The A.V. Club a preview of his speech, as well as a look at when Arcade Fire will be back in Chicago.

The A.V. Club: How do you view the blending of activism and music?

Will Butler: I think, when you’re a performer, you’re already engaging with the public in a way that you’re not in a lot of other jobs. I’m sure other musicians would disagree with me on this, but I think talking to the public is a lot of the point in what you’re doing being in a band. You’re impacting how people think about the world already, even if it’s not in the most profound sense.

AVC: How do you try and integrate activism and messages into your shows?

WB: We try not to do too much from the stage, because we don’t want it to impact the art. We mention that everyone gave $1 to Haiti when they bought their tickets, and that there are Partners In Health volunteers in the building. All that stuff is happening, but we don’t want it to influence the show too much.

AVC: About that $1 ticket surcharge, how did that come about? How is it working?

WB: That was an idea our manager came up with when we were brainstorming on ideas to help Haiti. It was just so easy, and it raises so much money that it’s a crime not to do it. It’s just like an additional tiny Ticketmaster fee that no one really notices. I mean, I’m sure people notice, but a dollar when you’re buying a rock ticket isn’t all that noticeable. It’s raised maybe $600,000 or $700,000 at this point, and that’s all from our audiences. We haven’t had to do anything. It’s just something no one noticed, and then all of the sudden there was all this money going to Haiti.

AVC: Why is Haiti so important to you, personally?

WB: We originally worked on Haitian issues because [singer] Regine Chassagne is Haitian, and we thought we should do something because we have a connection to that place. There’s plenty of reasons to help them even if you don’t have that connection, though. Both the U.S. and Canada have a responsibility toward Haiti, I think. I know foreign policy-wise, you’re not allowed to be like, “You owe me because you did this to me 100 years ago,” or even eight years ago. There are no backsies, ever. Even then, people from the U.S. and Canada should feel tons of responsibility. It’s horrifying that all these things are happening there, on the same island as the Dominican Rebublic, and so close to where we’re all hanging out doing our things.

AVC: Do you think activism is something you’re morally obligated to do now that you’re doing pretty well?

WB: I’ve been thinking about this because I’m going to talk about it, so I should be more eloquent on the subject. We do make a very good living from what we do at this point, and we have for awhile. We’ve certainly earned that money, and I don’t feel guilty about having it, but I also don’t need all of this money. Why not do something useful with it?

AVC: Can you give us a little preview of your Northwestern speech? What are you going to talk about?

WB: I’ll talk a little bit about Haiti. I’m debating what points to dig into, and I went to Northwestern, so I’ll probably give a little history of Will Butler and the band, what all those connections were with school, too.

AVC: You were a DJ at WNUR during your tenure in Evanston. How do you think that influenced your worldview today?

WB: I think the radio station at Northwestern is very hardcore. It’s really thorough, and it’s student run. There are a lot of rules, like every Monday you had to meet for a history lecture, like “New York’s music scene: 1968-1971,” or “modern minimalism.” It’s very thorough.

I was also in the writing program, which was very thorough. It wasn’t like, keep a dream journal and tell us about your feelings. It was like, “Today you’re going to write 12 lines of Iambic pentameter couplets in the style of Robert Frost.” There just wasn’t a whole lot of grey area.

The band is also very thorough, and Partners In Health is very thorough. I think I just gained an early appreciation of thoroughness in the arts from Northwestern, and I think the arts are very important. They can change minds and influence people.

AVC: Has Arcade Fire ever been asked to or thought about organizing a charity event?

WB: We’ve tried to keep the artistic side of things a little separate, because we know that when you start to cross that line, different stresses start to enter into a band. You just never know. A lot of interpersonal relationships have been messed up in the history of music. People also start to do charity work when they get more success, and you see a lot of stories about the art suffering then.

I think we should work as hard as we can for Partners In Health, but involving the artistic side of things would be more of a step. We’re about working as hard as we can to put out albums and make a live show, and there’s just not a lot of energy left for additional projects.

AVC: So no big “Music For Haiti” fundraisers coming up?

WB: I wouldn’t be shocked if we put out some sort of release where the money went to Haiti in some way, or something along those lines, but we don’t plan a lot in advance.

AVC: Speaking of planning in advance, do you think you’ll make it back to Chicago for a show any time soon?

WB: We’re hoping to come back next spring. That would be ideal. If not then, then next summer.

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