My Exclaim cover story: an interview with Win Butler of Arcade Fire!
1. Arcade Fire The Suburbs (Merge)
Anything you think is great, half the people think is bullshit." As the lead singer and co-songwriter of Arcade Fire, arguably the biggest indie band in the world, Win Butler knows a thing or two about maintaining perspective. "There's been backlash since we put out the first EP," he says. "It's been a normal part of my life for the better part of a decade. I think we learned pretty early on that the way people perceive you is outta your hands."
The few months have done nothing to quell the outraged masses. It's been a phenomenal year for the sprawling, Montreal-based outfit. Their third album, The Suburbs, debuted at number one on all the major charts following its August release, and earned critical raves for its compelling narrative structure and the surprisingly fun sonic left turn towards '80s influences like Depeche Mode. Now Arcade Fire find themselves poised to take the top spot on many year-end lists, as they do here, while on the receiving end of thinly-veiled potshots from bands like Kings of Leon, quoted disparaging large bands with members "doing everything but contributing musically" and being "dicks."
You know, go back and read articles on the Clash and people were slagging them," Butler says. "Almost every record I've ever loved, the band was already broken up or it was ten years removed from reading any press about them. Really, the music has to stand for itself. I love that idea that in ten or 15 years, you hear how it holds up and that the album speaks for itself."
The Suburbs could be one of those that stands the test of time. It speaks to generations of people who identify with the album's varying themes of isolation in commonality and loneliness in superficial communities. It's a perfect actualization of the suburbs as metaphor for the classic North American dream: a smoothly perfect veneer covering up the lush complexity of motivation. It's not just metaphor, but goes a step further to exemplify the quintessential Arcade Fire sound ― a controlled frenzy, pushing and reaching for something more.
The album's visceral qualities are no accident. Until the age of five, Butler lived in a small hippie town outside of Lake Tahoe, but the rest of his childhood was spent in a Texas suburb following his family's relocation to Houston. "I really remember being a little kid and getting off the plane in Houston and feeling this incredible heat," Butler recalls. "It was the summertime, and there it's always like 95 percent humidity and 100 degrees and I really remember ― just the landscape and the feeling of the town and the weather, it was so extremely foreign."
It was a feeling that came rushing back to him just a few years ago. "It would always rain a lot in Houston, but it was this warm rain that doesn't happen much in Montreal. We were down last summer in Louisiana and it started raining and all of a sudden these crazy memories came back that I hadn't thought about in a long time, just because of a similarity in weather. It's interesting, the things you hold on to."
Butler's reluctant to overanalyze his songwriting process, declining to say whether he and his wife and bandmate, Regine Chassagne, dug deep into their own suburban childhoods while writing the record. But he does admit that they found it "interesting" comparing their experiences of growing up.
"Regine grew up on the south shore of Montreal, and I've been to her childhood home over there, and it's dramatically different from Houston, but there are a lot more similarities than you would think. The emotional landscape is very similar at least," he laughs. "There's something similar about growing up in the suburbs. You can have your first kiss in a T.G.I. Friday's, but it's still your first kiss. There's a universality to it you can appreciate."
It's Arcade Fire's ability to capture and translate those moments meaningfully that recently sent fans into an early-grieving process when Butler was quoted saying he couldn't see himself doing "this" in ten years. Butler sighs.
"People take stuff like that pretty out of context," he says. "I can't see us doing exactly what we do indefinitely. Once you lose that connection to the songs, I don't think there's really any point to doing it exactly the same way. The reason people connect to this band is that when we play live, every night we really try to connect to the songs. If the audience connects to the songs, too, we kind of meet in the middle."
Butler alludes back to the Kings of Leon comment, a sentiment he's heard plenty of times before. "Sometimes we get flack for the kind of theatricality to the way we perform, but it comes from a very real place," he insists. "It comes from the music. Our band, we're like sprinters. We put this insane amount of energy into our shows. We can't really tour and behave exactly the same way as other rock bands often do, because it takes so much out of us to do the show."
Butler says he's excited to find new ways to relate to the material and the other musicians, evolving as they go. But, the longevity of Arcade Fire remains a question that's never fully answered. "It's not like there's an expiration date on doing it, but it's like being an athlete. People stop playing hockey at a certain age. You can't be getting punched in the face forever," he jokes. "That being said, it's been really inspiring seeing Springsteen playing and he's probably in the best shape of his life... But our band is busting our ass a lot harder than the E Street Band, you know what I mean?" he asks, laughing.
With no plans to call it a day in the immediate future, Butler hopes to spend the winter writing, giving Arcade Fire a chance to break up the touring cycle. "The greatest thrill in the world is the first time you play a new song, bringing a new song into the world," Butler says. "I'm really excited to get into that head space again." Excited but guarded, of course. Asked if he can offer a sneak preview of the fourth album's direction, Butler's reply is succinct but perfectly pleasant.