EVERYTHING WE LEARNED FROM OUR ‘REFLEKTOR TAPES’ Q&A WITH ARCADE FIRE
When you’re arguably the biggest indie band in the world, you’re allowed to open your documentary screening with a Bukowski poem. And that’s just what Arcade Fire’s Win Butler did to intro last night’s screening of the band’s new documentary Reflektor Tapes at The Theatre at the Ace Hotel in LA. Reading from a piece of notebook paper, Butler rattled off Bukowski’s “So You Want to Be a Writer” in lieu of a traditional speech to present the 90-minute work. A little hifalutin, sure, but the words were a fitting choice for both the famously impassioned band and the Khalil Joseph-directed film, a highly-stylized, nonlinear patchwork of the group’s travels and creative process leading up to and throughout their 2014 Reflektor tour.
The screening was followed by a Q&A led by Noisey’s own managing editor Eric Sundermann, who talked to Butler and bandmate Regine Chassagne about the story behind the film and fielded questions from the audience. Read on for the top takeaways from the night as well as photos from the event and afterparty DJ’d by Butler.
Director Khalil Joseph wasn’t a fan of the band before Reflektor. “We kind of invited him into our world and we didn’t really know we were going to make a film,” Butler said. “For Khalil, he knew a couple of our songs, but he didn’t know any of our records. He kind of got into the band through Reflketor. So most of the songs in the film were dictated by what he was gravitating towards. I think it appealed to us to have someone who didn’t have a bunch of baggage about what our band meant. It was kind of appealing to have someone just point the camera at what he wanted to point the camera at and we just kind of did our shit and let him do his shit, pretty much. We provided the show and the locations and let him have carte blanche to put his camera where he wanted to.”
The band and Joseph looked at making the film like making an album. “I feel like it’s a film where you can watch it again and get something different out of it [every time],” Butler said. “We kind of wanted to mirror the experience of listening to a record. Pretty much every time I listen to Blonde on Blonde, a song will come on and I’ll be like 'Right, this song is on here!’ It’s so dense that I forget even what tracks are on the record, even though I’ve been listening to it since I was 15. For  years I’ve been getting something out of that record. It feels weird speaking for [Khalil], but it seems like he looks at filmmaking like making a record. When we originally met him he was working for Terrence Malik in Austin as an editor. In terms of filmmakers I’ve met, I feel like Terrence Malik has the most similar working style to making a record. Because the whole thing is about trying to capture the essence of a performance, and the film kind of makes itself around the emotional truth of the moment that we get. I just feel like we had philosophical things in common, more than anything.”
Arcade Fire’s next album will be a departure from Reflektor. The band shyed from sharing much about future projects, but when asked where they see Reflektor fitting into the band’s discography, Butler played it coy: “[It’s the] fourth one. The one after The Suburbs and before…whatever the fuck we do next. Which will be different as well. Brace yourselves.”
If they could give their younger selves career advice, they’d take it a little slower. “Maybe, don’t do a double record and do the soundtrack to a film and have a child at the same time. It’s intense. Just pick one,” Butler said. “Or two. Because we were doing Reflketor and the soundtrack to Her and Regine was nine months pregnant and then you’re on SNL four months after. It was intense.” Chassagne saw it differently: “But we did it. [I’d say] actually, do even more.”
The band took away many lessons from their visits to Haiti. “When I go to Haiti it’s amazing to see a place that has almost no stuff, but all spirit,” Chassagne said. “It’s kind of something that’s really clashing when I come back. Because here’s there’s a lot of stuff, and not a lot of spirit.”
Butler’s time in Haiti was as influential to him as a musician as the first time he heard Radiohead’s The Bends. “I remember being in rural Haiti the first time we went and there was this guy, he was an arborist. His name was 'Tit Oiseau, which means little bird in Creole. And this guy starts singing and it was like getting in a time machine and going to like pre-Delta blues, a hundred years [back]. It was the deepest music I’ve ever heard, just this guy singing a capella. Regine was translating the lyrics for me and it was about heartbreak and how hard life is. I’ve seen a lot of bands play, I’ve been exposed to a lot of music—for me, it was one of the high points of my entire musical life. I remember buying The Bends at a mall in Houston, Texas. It was this shitty mall and there was a cardboard cutout of The Bends, it was the day it came out. I had maybe seen a music video and I bought it. And I went home and I put the CD in the thing and I listened and it completely changed the way I thought about music. And this experience in Haiti for me was an equivalent experience in my own personal understand of how music works.”
Becoming a parent has reshaped Butler’s perceptions of his own songs about growing up. “The song 'The Suburbs,’ there’s a line about wanting to have a daughter, which…we didn’t have a daughter. So it comes to my mind all the time. We did the Bridge School a couple years ago and seeing Neil Young sing 'Old Man,’ which he wrote when he was 22, it almost sounds more appropriate now that he’s older. I aspire to be able to write songs that good. I think that’s a pretty good sign of good song, that you can sing it when you’re 80 and the depth of it has kind of gotten richer.”
Arcade Fire had been trying to work with Reflketor producer James Murphy since Neon Bible. “I’d been a fan of James for a long time and we’d toured together and he actually flew up to Montreal about working on Neon Bible. We couldn’t get the schedules to work out because he was doing LCD [Soundsystem], so it was just kind of a matter of time before we did it. And then we got to be in New York with James and have David Bowie come sing on 'Reflektor’. Which, the first seven-inch that James bought when he was 14 was Bowie’s 'Fame,’ and we’re in the studio where he recorded 'Fame.’ And he was like, 'Oh yeah, the last time I was here I was in the basement and John Lennon came by and we recorded "Fame.”’ We were like, alright, cool. We’re at least in the [right] building. I hope we get to do more shit with James. It’s a pleasure.“
Writing a great song is about more than just technical prowess. "I went to jazz school for two years before I met Win,” Chassagne said. “You can use all these chords and make the craziest composition with all these extensions and substitutions. I was listening to really far-out stuff and intellectually I was like, 'Ok, yeah, five of a five of a five and a seventh and an eleventh…’ Ok, that’s cool. But my aunt thinks this is elevator music. For me, you just have to be sincere and you just have to mean it and express something through the music. Because you do all kinds of shit, and if you don’t mean it, it’s just shit, you know?”
The band hates having their picture taken—except by Aton Corbijn. “We really don’t enjoy having our picture taken as a band,” Butler said. “I’d say it’s one of our least favorite activities ever. It was always like the sacrifice we had to make to play music. It was like, we need band photos because there are papers and they need to advertise we’re doing a show. But then we met Anton Corbijn on the Funeral tour and he came backstage. We were used to these horrifying photoshoots where everyone’s really uncomfortable and they’re like 'Why don’t you guys hold these umbrellas? Why don’t you try this or that?’ and it’s like 'No, please, stop talking.’ But Anton came backstage and he just had his film camera and he took a lamp, told us to open our mouths like we’re singing 'Wake Up,’ and was like, click—'I got it.’ He took four photos of us and it was the best band photo of us that’s ever been taken.”
people will recognize Will Butler as the talented multi-instrumentalist
and younger Butler member of Arcade Fire, whose charismatic on-stage
persona makes him a hit at shows. But with the band’s hugely successful
Reflektor tour now behind him, Butler is ready to branch out. This time,
he’s going it alone with the release of his debut solo album, Policy –
an eclectic eight-track collection influenced by Butler’s American
roots. Butler recently talked with Georgie about political commentary in
music, the value of reading reviews, and his thoughts on selling out.
G—So what ultimately convinced you to do a solo record?
Butler—Arcade Fire was taking a little bit of a breather after the
Reflektor tour and the timing felt right after the Oscar nomination
[Butler was nominated for Best Original Score for his work on Spike
Jonze’s Her]. So I kind of knew I had a window and I had some songs I
wanted to put out there.
G—Has Arcade Fire encouraged your solo musical pursuits?
and there’s a lot of us doing a lot of creative things all the time.
Richard [Parry] is working on classical music lately and Sarah [Neufeld]
is doing solo stuff. There’s an element of a community of artists and
it feels very exciting to be in that community. Arcade Fire is very
aesthetically satisfying work. [Laughs].
G—How much does your writing feel like it’s personal, and how much of it is commentary?
album is like a book of short stories, so there are a lot of
characters. But you’re still working out your own emotions or your own
feelings or your own feelings about your feelings in something where you
aren’t the main character. And I really care about all the characters,
so it feels quite personal. [Laughs]
G—Policy has some light
satirical commentary on capitalism, religion and politics. Do you see
yourself making heavier political music as your solo career evolves?
think so. It’s just what I’m engaged with naturally, so it would be
surprising if it didn’t come out in the music. And I love a political
song that really engages you emotionally, that’s not just like major
punk rock, but that gets really gnarly and complicated – which a lot of
punk rock can do. But my goal is to try and write it in a really gnarly
G—As an artist, do you think reading reviews is helpful or detrimental when it comes to writing?
reviews by themselves are not that helpful when it comes to writing if
you’re just saying, “What do people think of me?”, but I think it’s part
of the larger exercise of being in conversation with the world – of
being in conversation with fans and critics, and people who like music
who aren’t fans, or haters who are hating. I think there’s value in
having a conversation about art.
G—What was the biggest takeaway of your pursuit of this solo album?
the responsibility and knowing if you screw up no one’s there to fix
it! [Laughs]. No, I’m certainly working with a safety net – I’ve got a
really good day job I can go back to. But it’s nice to have the final
artistic responsibility fall on my shoulders, and have it be on my name.
at South by Southwest you sat in on a panel discussion to discuss
artists making money off music in the digital economy. What’s your take
on the whole “sell-out” phenomenon?
WB—I mean, I’m 32. So I’m an
extremely grumpy old man. But what I said is I kind of don’t care about
selling out, as long as the art you make when you sell out is good. But
the sad thing about selling out is that it enables more people to have
careers making bad art. It’s a tricky thing to say.
G—Do you think you will continue releasing solo records in the future?
most certainly. We’ll see what the timing is like – it will depend on
what Arcade Fire is doing and what the world is doing and all that – but
Laying the glam, glitz and gaud of Arcade Fire’s latest album Reflektor to one side for a few months has paid real dividends for Will Butler. Whilst his band have continued to add much needed invention and ticker tape to the alternative music scene, those that weren’t blinded by the lights (or that were there in the beginning) know that it was all built upon a rock-solid foundation of Americana. And it’s to those roots that Butler returns with his debut solo record, Policy.
Holed up in Jimi Hendrix’s old living room for a few days between Reflektor tour dates, Butler assembled Policy from a catalogue of old ideas, a series of poetic and literary inspirations and a wry but loving understanding of America. The result is a little ramshackle. It sounds like a debut album should – rough hewn. Lyrically, it clatters through the USA offering snapshots of different characters as they chase the elusive American Dream.
We caught up with Will and talked politics in songwriting (including his recent project writing a song a day based on a headline from The Guardian), his plans for the future and post-revolutionary Russian literature
Lyrically, Policy seems to examine America - are you fond of the US? I’m very fond of the US. I would even use the term patriotic. I’m an American, so I’m engaged with America’s successes and failures no matter what my opinion is. It’s my heritage.
Does the American dream still exist for you? It’s worked for me. There’s a John Adams quote, and I’m paraphrasing, that basically says, “I have to work at politics and war, so that my children can be engineers and mathematicians. They should work at being engineers so that their children can be musicians and poets.” There is a generation aspect to it as well. It’s worked for my family. It certainly isn’t working for a large number of families, but I hope, I pray, that generationally it will start to work.
You’ve recently written a song a day based on a headline from The Guardian. Is it important for artists to make a political statement in the their music? I think overt political statement isn’t necessary. But look at Motown – so much of what they put out was love songs and party tracks, and they completely revolutionised America. Motown was insanely political, though the content – with some exceptions – tended not to be. I think if art is vibrant and alive and coming from a local place, it is by nature political.
Do you see yourself as a solo artist going forward? Or as part of a band? Both hopefully. For the next fifteen years I’ll be young enough that I can do them both, so there’s no hard decisions right now. Arcade Fire is very civilised in how it lives it’s life – it doesn’t go 110% all of the time so you don’t burn out. There is space to do multiple things. This is the Will Butler story part two!
You’ve made a few literary references in interview recently… saying you’d like to be like Yeats or Moby Dick? Reading is my first love. I would sit up late reading before I would sit up late listening to records. It’s very informative and it has hugely influenced my world view. Very much like music, the powerful works that I read as a teenager continue to resonate. One of the group of writers that has really influenced me is the the early early post-soviet Russian writers – people that were writing in post revolutionary Russia. There was an amazing explosion of creativity and it was totally wild and hilarious and dark and then it gets extremely repressed immediately. It’s this experimental art that is really idiosyncratic but passionately political and on a small level it works – really small poems and small stories but also it is such a big story in terms of its point in history.
Is the music industry going through (an admittedly much less significant) revolution right now? I feel like the industry sucks and has for a long time. I wouldn’t say that music is going through a golden age or anything like that. I would say TV is going through a golden age. And I would say podcasting is going through a golden age. I think we’re in a golden age of folk art – people being really individually creative in their communities. Some of that comes out in hilarious internet gifs, some of that comes out in podcasts, some of it comes out in music. I ‘m really excited that we’re in an age when there are so many people doing so much and we’re doing it in our own communities. I’m not that optimistic about the music industry. I’m fine for making money but it would be nice for more acts to make a living.
There was about ten years after napster when it was really bad for big acts, but kinda great for the small acts and medium acts – we really benefitted from that. Funeral came out in 2004 – there was the perfect confluence of internet, word of mouth and people getting excited. But since around 2010, everything has nosedived. Bands that sold 3000 records suddenly started selling 250.
What are your plans for the summer? The album comes out on March 10th. And I’m not doing a ton of touring, just the spring and then I’m taking the summer off to be a human. It would be good for the record to play shows this summer but I’d rather hang out with my family. By the fall Arcade Fire will have been off the road for about a year so we might be ready to do something again.