Win Butler of Arcade Fire
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The biggest little band in indie-dom, Arcade Fire went from unknown to ubiquitous shortly after releasing its first album, Funeral, in 2004. From small clubs to huge festivals, the Canadian band—led by American expatriate Win Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne—delivered exhilarating, breathless performances. In 2006, they retreated from the spotlight—which included opening for U2, befriending David Bowie, and stealing Lollapalooza—to devise Funeral's follow-up. Recorded in a Canadian church that the band bought and rehabbed, Neon Bible takes a dark turn into the worlds of religion and pop culture, which clearly wasn't the simplest route for a band potentially on the edge of superstardom. Though more challenging than its predecessor, the album pays off brilliantly, with incisive words and triumphant melodies. The day Neon Bible was released, Win Butler—on the phone from Dublin—spoke to The A.V. Club about the band, its new album, fame oh, and "evil and death and love."
The A.V. Club: Do you feel like you've been under a microscope these past two months?
Win Butler: Aside from being sick the past couple of months, it's been a little less chaotic than last time. Last time, we didn't really know what was happening; we just had a cell phone in the van and it was ringing and ringing. This time, we knew what we were getting into.
AVC: Why did you smash your guitar on Saturday Night Live?
WB: It was kind of in the moment, but it kind of fit with the song ["Intervention"], too. About halfway through the song, my string broke, and I was cutting my finger. At one show in London, a couple of strings broke, and the last half of the song, I was kind of miming playing the guitar. I thought it was a cool image with the song, like an emperor's-new-clothes thing—this obviously destroyed guitar and me still strumming along. I hated that guitar, to be honest. It was time for that guitar to leave this world, and what better way to go?
AVC: Have you considered the possibility that Neon Bible might be a number-one or at least a top-five record?
WB: It definitely doesn't consume my thoughts, but that possibility had occurred to me. It's pretty wild. It's pretty amazing for a band like us to be in that position. It's funny in kind of a satisfying way.
AVC: The pre-release publicity stuff—the toll-free number touting the album, the viral-video infomercial—seemed in that spirit, not too serious.
WB: We spent so long on the record, and it's all so meticulous—it's good to be able to do stuff that's really half-assed and off-the-cuff, from a creative standpoint. When we did that YouTube video, we had a rehearsal at my house, and we were going to release the track list, and I had Jeremy [Gara, drummer] do a little montage of some of the songs, and when we heard it, it sounded like one of those Greatest Hits Of The '70s compilations, so we thought we should make a fake Hits Of The '70s thing for it. I had a new laptop with the camera built in, so we learned how to use iMovie on the fly. It's fun to do something that half-assed and send it out into the world and have 50,000 people see it.
AVC: Your music is often dark, especially on the new album, but is that sense of humor in there somewhere, too?
WB: That's part of the visual side, an opportunity to bring in different ideas. Brazil is my favorite movie of all time; I really relate to stuff that's funny but also pretty serious. Funny songs aren't usually that good. [Laughs.] Like Weird Al and maybe a couple of Beatles songs, but it's kind of hard to bring humor into rock music in an interesting way.
AVC: How long did it take you to fix up the church you bought and recorded in?
WB: The whole process was really long. We bought it in October or November [of 2005] and did a couple of demos in December, but it was really bare-bones. Then over about a six-month period, while we were starting to record, we were building bedrooms in the basement and getting new equipment. By three-quarters through the record, it was pretty set up.
AVC: Presumably you had more time, money, and experience this time around. What were you able to do in the studio that you couldn't before?
WB: Even though we hadn't played live for a year or so, we were way better at playing together than we were before. There are certain songs on the record, like "Antichrist Television Blues," where everything was recorded live off the floor, which wouldn't really have been possible to do on the last record. We did a bunch of location recording, like the pipe organ. We went into this other little church and recorded "My Body Is A Cage" and "Intervention," and the beds of those were live. Our goal was to take the core of a weird little live thing and do whatever we wanted with it afterward. The last record, we were playing live a lot while we were recording, so I feel like the arrangements had a lot of time to develop, and we wanted to be able to do that with this record, so we'd work for two weeks, then take two weeks off and just go home and play and think about it, kind of allow the songs to evolve.
AVC: Are you a religious person? You studied religion, right?
WB: I studied scriptural interpretation, which is more about how people get meaning out of texts, looking at stuff in the Old Testament—Muslims, Christians, Jews, different interpretations of the same texts
AVC: Did that inform the lyrics?
WB: A bit. I think there's some pretty amazing language in the Bible. The thing that's always been interesting to me about religion is that compared to the more modern spirituality, the West Coast pseudo-Buddhist thing that people go for these days, actual Buddhism and Islam have been looking at these philosophical questions, at really hard questions, for a long time. There's a lot of stuff that philosophy doesn't talk about, and in the secular world, a lot of times, people don't talk about these ideas, and that was always really interesting for me.
AVC: What things in particular?
WB: The idea of evil and death and love. There's not really any scientific way to talk about it. Whenever you're talking about meaning, basically I think a lot of the human experience has to do with trying to understand what things mean, and there's not really any tools to do that unless you're thinking about it in a more spiritual or philosophical realm.
AVC: So are your songs more about searching, or more about offering those tools to people? Or neither?
WB: I think hope only means anything if it's in something real; otherwise, it's just kind of a dream. A lot of stuff is dark in a way, but unless you're really looking at a situation for what it actually is, it's hard to be hopeful—or meaningless to be hopeful about it unless it's actually based in a real possibility. I just saw this thing on Martin Luther King, and before he gave the "I have a dream" speech, he gave a lot of speeches that were about a more negative dream—that you had to face your broken dreams. He spoke about that a lot, the broken American Dream, seeing it for what it really is, the positive and negative. Sometimes religious thinkers can take that on in a different way.
AVC: You modernize it a little, though, don't you? Is it true that "Antichrist Television Blues" was originally called "Joe Simpson"?
WB: No comment. [Laughs.]
AVC: The lyric actually seems somewhat sympathetic to that type of horrible stage-dad figure, whoever he may be.
WB: It's sympathetic to the extent that it's thinking about something that maybe doesn't merit a lot of thought. I find that that aspect of the American dream—the American Idol world—actually takes up a huge part of American culture right now. I feel like a lot of people really relate to that way of thinking, so I thought it was worth thinking about for a minute.
AVC: It's insanely pervasive, even in the "respectable" media.
WB: There's this idea, particularly in pop music and a lot of these pop father/manager types, that you're selling the person instead of the song. You basically want to create something that the fans relate to because it's exactly like them. So there's a lot of art that's made to be in the image of the audience, but then the audience is imitating this version of themselves. It's a really weird cultural feedback loop, and it's kind of strange to watch. It's a new thing since I was a kid, really a different thing.
AVC: Where do you think it's leading?
WB: The whole Ultimate Fighting, WWE reality side of things—I totally get why people are into it. I find myself sucked into it; it's not going away. There's something about human nature that really sucks you in. It's the same thing with celebrity-gossip shows—there's something really powerful about it for people. I think it'll go as far as the law will let it go. I don't think there's any limit. The culture's definitely moving into that violent-porn direction. The most conservative countries always have the weirdest shit going on.
AVC: Is it that pervasive in Canada, or is it much worse in America?
WB: It's definitely its own thing, but it's in the same boat. I feel like Canada, the States, and England are partners in a sense, heading in a similar direction even though there are pretty significant political differences. Quebec is pretty different from the rest of Canada.
AVC: You mention MTV in "Windowsill"—"MTV, what have you done to me?"
WB: I haven't really watched MTV in a long time, since it kind of stopped relating to music. I feel in a way that it's kind of sold out a generation of kids. It's really powerful to youth culture. I found out a lot of stuff through MTV, and I didn't even have cable, I just saw it at friends' houses. But my culture in junior high was totally influenced by it. The thing that's a little depressing to me are these reality shows, like Laguna Beach. I think they're supposed to be kind of tongue-in-cheek, like "laugh at the rich people" shows. But I think the effect that it actually has is that kids emulate it. I don't think they're necessarily getting the ironic level, it's just "I want that, too." It's not that I'm like Tipper Gore, that I want to outlaw stuff. It's just a little sad to watch, because it's so easy for 90 percent of your brain to be filled with things that have absolutely no meaning. If you don't shake out of it, it's just a sad scene.
AVC: My Super Sweet 16 may be the purest expression of evil.
WB: It's insane. I get that it's a joke, but kids really eat that shit up, like, "I want Jay-Z at my birthday party! Fuck you, mom!" [Laughs.] It's pretty dark. We never really license anything for TV, and my joke is that any show that wants to play "Antichrist Television Blues," I will license it to, because I think it'd be so funny to hear in that context. As a performance-art thing.
AVC: Is it true that you refused to license a song for NBC's The Black Donnellys even though Crash director Paul Haggis asked you personally?
WB: That was actually a tough decision, because that's a pretty good show, compared to most of the crap on TV. We watched the pilot, and for primetime TV, it's actually quite good. The whole conclusion was completely built around "Rebellion," and I was like, "Oh no, you guys are fucked! What are you gonna do now?" Every cut was lyrically tied. The whole premise of the show gets revealed in the last four minutes to "Rebellion." We all kind of liked the show, but at the same time, it's still our song, and the song doesn't have anything to do with that. It'd be kind of depressing to have one of my favorite songs of ours be associated with this thing it's completely unrelated to. It's more about the context. This show was like a really good TV version of Goodfellas. If it was actually Goodfellas and that hadn't come out yet, I might've said yes. If it was the fucking Godfather, the best film I've ever seen, of course they could use our song.
AVC: The album isn't named after John Kennedy Toole's novel, right?
WB: No. It's kind of a coincidence, but I have read the book.
AVC: Why did you choose the title, then? What's the significance?
WB: I just jotted it down in my notebook and kept coming back to it. The song was very much off-the-cuff, written in one night and recorded the next day. Lyrically, there's a lot of stuff dealing with religion and culture, which I'm really interested in. It's an image that I kept coming back to that really felt like it was the title of the record. And everyone else in the band agreed. I loved A Confederacy Of Dunces.
AVC: Toole's The Neon Bible is always referred to as a lesser work that wasn't really intended for publication.
WB: I could see that. It's more inspiring that he wrote it when he was 16 than the book itself. I don't think I could've done that when I was 16.
AVC: But you were pretty young when you wrote the bulk of the songs on Funeral? Like, 20 or so?
WB: Something like that. But 16! That's when all the bullshit that ends up consuming most people's lives—that's when they start laying it on heavy. I remember having to buy Nikes, or else my life would be a living hell. I had these shoes called Turntecs, like no-name brand Wal-Mart shoes, and every day it was like [mocking voice]: "Turntec, Turntec!" I still remember thinking, in like fifth or sixth grade, that this was going to consume half my life. Like, I was going to cry at Christmas if I didn't get the right brand of jeans. It can take up a lot of mental space for kids. Kids are brutal.
AVC: It's strange that it can seem so funny now.
WB: It's so funny, and I felt so passionately about it. And not because I cared about it, because initially I was like, "Fuck that!" But kids would get tormented. There's a great story about Tim [Kingsbury, multi-instrumentalist]: His mom finally let him buy an Ocean Pacific shirt, because he always had these no-name clothes. He was so proud, and he went to school, and the asshole in school came over and pulled up the tag and said, "It's a fake!" [Laughs.]
AVC: It's got to be 10 times more intense now.
WB: Now it's taken on this Christina Aguilera porn edge, like super-sexualized. It's pretty extreme. I don't envy the junior-high kids.
AVC: Did it make you cynical at all?
WB: It's hard not to be cynical about certain things. I just finished reading this George Orwell book, Why I Write, and he's talking about England during World War II, the political culture. There are some criticisms he had of the left that hit me pretty hard. Not that I really consider myself left or right or whatever, but he was criticizing people who put down bravery. It really made a lot of sense to me. There's this negative approach to the world, and I definitely find myself falling into that at times. He was just saying that patriotism and intelligence need to coexist, or else the world really goes to shit. I thought that was a powerful idea. Actual patriotism has to do with loving a place enough to try and improve it.
AVC: Is there part of you that thinks we might be past the point of no return?
WB: All the time. I've seen Barack Obama speak a couple of times, and I really like him. There's something going on behind his eyes, and I think he's really intelligent. But part of me just knows it's going to be Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, which really bums me out. But part of me wants to believe that it could be Barack Obama and John McCain, and there'd be an actual debate. The country needs a real debate so badly. A lot of times, politicians try to overwhelm the general public with how complex an issue is. In a way, I think that's why the anti-war movement in the States isn't as big as it should be. People are overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation, but I don't think a 16-year-old should have to know how to solve the problems in the Middle East to be like, "Fuck, we should not be in this war." But there's this idea that you have to know how to solve the world's problems in order to feel that something is morally wrong. I'm always back and forth between optimism and depression about the situation.
AVC: It's an interesting time to be in a band that brings joy to people, but in a time where it's almost impossible to ignore the dark side.
WB: It's crazy reading this Orwell stuff, because it could be today. When you read Martin Luther King's speeches about Vietnam, it could be today. Just change the word, and you're talking about the exact same situation. We're basically causing spiritual death in our country by doing what we're doing. At a certain point, you become morally unable to do good in the world, because the country gets so cynical and depressed, there isn't the force of will to try and change things. I definitely feel that in my generation, this kind of fatigue. And I feel that myself. You've got to fight it.