The Story Behind Every Song On Will Butler’s New Album Generations

The Story Behind Every Song On Will Butler’s New Album Generations

Will Butler has a lot on his mind. It has, after all, been five years since his solo debut, Policy. A lot can happen in half a decade, and a lot has happened in this past half-decade — much of it quite dire. Butler was in his early 30s when Policy came out, and now he’s closing in on 40. He’s a husband and father. And he’s shaken by the state of the world, the idea of being an artist and a soon-to-be middle-aged man striving to guide his family through the chaos.

At least, that’s how it comes across through much of Generations, his sophomore outing that arrives today. Generations is a big, sprawling title by nature, and the album in turn grapples with all kinds of big picture anxieties. Mass shootings, the overarching darkness and anxiety of our time, trying to reckon with our surroundings but the system overload that occurs all too easily in the wake of it. Then there are more intimate songs, too, tales drawn from personal lives as people plug along just trying to navigate a tumultuous era.

Butler is, of course, no stranger to crafting music that seeks to parse the cultural moment and how it impacts in our daily lives. Ever since Arcade Fire ascended to true arena-rock status on The Suburbs 10 years ago, they have embarked on projects that explicitly try to make sense of our surroundings. (Not that their earlier work was bereft of heavy concepts — far from it — but Reflektor and Everything Now turned more of a specific eye towards contemporary ills and trials.) But as one voice amongst many in Arcade Fire, there is a cinematic scope to whatever Butler’s playing into there.

On Generations, he engages with a lot of similar concerns but all in his own voice — often yelping, desperate, frustrated then just trying to catch a breath. Butler leans on his trusty Korg MS-20 throughout Generations, often giving the album a synth-y indie backdrop that allows him to try on a few different selves. There are a handful of surging choruses, “la-la” refrains batting back against the darkness, slinking grooves maybe allowing someone the idea of brief physical release amidst ongoing strife.

Ahead of Generations’ arrival, Butler sent us some thoughts on the album, running from inspiration between the individual tracks to little details about the arrangement and composition of different songs. Now that you can hear the album for yourself, check it out and read along with Butler’s comments below.

1. “Outta Here”

I think this is the simplest song on the record. Just, like, get me out of here. Get me fucking out of here. I’m so tired of being here. No, I don’t have another answer, and I don’t expect anything to be better anywhere else. But, please, I would like to leave here.

I can play plenty of instruments, and can make interesting sounds on them, but kinda the only instrument I’m good at is a synth called the Korg MS-20. That’s the first sound on the record. It makes most of the bass you hear on the record. It’s a very aggressive, loud, versatile machine, and I wanted to start the record with it cause I’m good at playing it and it makes me happy.

2. “Bethlehem”

This song partly springs from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats:​ “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Like a lot of folks, I woke up after the election in 2016 mad and sad and scared and exhausted. This song is born of that emotion.

My bandmates Jenny Shore, Julie Shore, and Sara Dobbs sing the bridge, and it’s a corrective to my (appropriate?) freaking out — this isn’t the apocalypse. You’re misquoting Yeats. Get your fucking head on straight. History has not ruptured — this shit we’re in is contiguous with the shit we’ve been dealing with for a long, long time. But still, we sometimes do need an apocalyptic vision to make change. Even if it’s technically wrong. I dunno. It’s an ongoing conversation.

There’s a lot of interplay with backing vocals on this record — sometimes the narrator is the asshole, sometimes the backing vocals are the asshole. Sometimes they’re just trying their best to figure out the world. This song starts that conversation.

3. “Close My Eyes”

I tried to make these lyrics a straightforward and honest description of an emotion I feel often: “I’m tired of waiting for a better day. But I’m scared and I’m lazy and nothing’s gonna change.” Kind of a sad song. Trying to tap into some Smokey Robinson/Motown feeling — “I’ve got to dance to keep from crying.”

There’s a lot of Mellotron on this record, and a lot of MS-20. This song has a bunch of Mellotron strings/choirs processed through the MS-20. It’s a trick I started doing on the Arcade Fire song “Sprawl II,” and I love how it sounds and I try to do it on every song if I can.

4. “I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know”

This makes a pair with “Close My Eyes” — shit is obviously fucked, but “I don’t know what I don’t know what I don’t know what I can do.” I’m not a proponent of the attitude! Just trying to describe it, as I often feel it. In my head, I know some things that I can do — my wife Jenny, for instance, works really hard to get state legislatures out of Republican control. Cause it’s all these weirdo state legislative chambers that have enormous power over law enforcement, and civil rights, and Medicaid, and everything.

The image in the last verse was drawn from the protests in Ferguson in 2015: “Watch the bullets and the beaters as they move through the streets — grab your sister’s kids — hide next to the fire station…” It’s been horrifically disheartening to see the police riot across America as their power has been challenged. I’ve got a little seed of hope that we might change things, but, man, dark times.

More MS-20 bass on this one, chained to the drum machine. This one is supposed to be insanely bass heavy — if it comes on in a car, the windows should be rattling, and you should be asking, “What the heck is going on here?” Trying for a contemporary hip-hop bass sound but in a way less spare context. First song with woodwinds — rhythmic stuff and freaky squeals by Stuart Bogie and Matt Bauder.

5. “Surrender”

This song is masquerading as a love song, but it’s more about friendship. About the confusion that comes as people change: Didn’t you use to have a different ideal? Didn’t we have the same ideal at some point? Which of us changed? How did the world change? Relationships that we sometimes wish we could let go of, but that are stuck within us forever.

It’s also about trying to break from the first-person view of the world. “What can I do? What difference can I make?” It’s not about some singular effort — you have to give yourself over to another power. Give over to people who have gone before who’ve already built something — you don’t have to build something new! The world doesn’t always need a new idea, it doesn’t always need a new personality. What can you do with whatever power and money you’ve got? Surrender it over to something that’s already made. And then the song ends with an apology: I’m sorry I’ve been talking all night. Just talk talk talking, all night. Shut up, Will.

Going for “wall of sound” on this one — bass guitar and bass synth and double tracked piano bass plus another piano plus Mellotron piano. The “orchestra” is about a dozen different synth and Mellotron tracks individually detuned. And then run through additional processing.

6. “Hide It Away”

This song is about secrets. Both on an intimate, heartbreaking level — friends’ miscarriages, friends’ immigration status, shitty affairs coming to light — and on a grand, horrible level: New York lifting the statute of limitations on child abuse prosecutions, all the #MeToo reporting. There’s nothing you can do when your secret is revealed. Like, what can you do? You just have to let the response wash over you. If you’ve done something horrible, god-willing, you’ll have to pay for it in some way. If it’s something not horrible, but people will hate you anyway, goddammit, I wish there were some way to protect you.

This song has the least poetic line on the record, a real clunker: “It’s just money and power, money and power might set them free.” But it’s a clunky, shitty concept — the most surefire protection is being rich and knowing powerful people. But even then, shit just might come out. Even after you’re long dead.

Came from a 30-second guitar sample I recorded while messing around at the end of trying to track a different song. I liked the chords, looped them to make a demo. And the song was born from there. This is the one song I play drums on. Snare is chained to the MS-20, trying to play every frequency the ear can hear at the same time on some of those big hits.

7. “Hard Times”

[Laughs] I sat down and tried to write a Spotify charting electro-hit, and this is what came out: “Kill the rich, salt the earth.” Oh well. Written way before COVID-19, but my 8-year-old son turned to me this spring and asked, “Did you write the song ‘Hard Times’ about now, because we’re living through hard times?” No, I didn’t.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, the narrator is a real son-of-a-bitch—contrarian, useless. Mad at the strong confident people who think they’ve got it figured out. And they don’t! And neither does the narrator — but he knows he doesn’t, and he at times yearns for some higher answer, and he’s funny, and too clever, but still knows he’s a piece of shit. I read Notes From Underground in high school and kinda forgot how it shaped my worldview until I sat down with it a couple years ago. The bridge on this song is basically smushed up quotes from Notes From Underground.

I was asking Shiftee, who mixed the record, if there are any vocal plug-ins I should be playing around with. He pointed me toward Little AlterBoy, which is basically a digital recreation of the kind of pedal the Knife use, for instance, on their vocal sound. It can shift the timbre/character of a voice without changing the pitch. Or change pitch without changing character. Very fun! Very much all over this track. Tried to make the bridge sound like a Sylvester song.

8. “Promised”

Another friend song masquerading as a love song. I’ve met a handful of extraordinary people in my life, who stopped doing extraordinary work because life is hard and it sucks. People who — I mean, it’s a lottery and random and who cares — could be great writers or artists, who kind of just disappeared. And it’s heartbreaking and frustrating. I don’t blame them. Maybe they weren’t made for this world. Maybe it’s just random. Maybe they’ll do amazing work in their 60s!

We tracked this song before it was written. Julie and Miles came over and we made up a structure and did a bunch of takes, found a groove. Which I then hacked up into what it is now! The bed tracks are lovely and loose. Maybe I’ll put out a jammier version of this song at some point. The other big synth on this record is the Oberheim OB-8, and that’s the bass on this one (triple tracked along with some MS-20).

9. “Not Gonna Die”

This song is about terrorism, and the response to terrorism. I wrote it a couple weeks after the Bataclan shooting in Paris in 2015. For some reason, a couple weeks after the shooting, I was in midtown Manhattan. I must have been Christmas shopping. I had to pop into the Sephora on 5th Avenue to pick up something specific — I think for my wife or her sister. I don’t remember. But I remember walking in, and the store was really crowded, and for just a split second I got really scared about what would happen if someone brought out a gun and started shooting up the crowd. And then I got so fucking mad at the people that made me feel that emotion. Like, I’m not gonna fucking die in the midtown Sephora, you fucking pieces of shit. Thanks for putting that thought in my head.

BUT ALSO, fuck all the fucking pieces of shit who are like, “We can’t accept refugees — what if they’re terrorists?” FUCK OFF. Some fucking terrified family driven from their home by a war isn’t going to kill me. Or anyone. Fuck off. Some woman from Central America fleeing from her husband who threatened to kill her isn’t going to fucking bomb Times Square. You fucking pieces of shit.

In November/December 2015, the Republican primary had already started — Trump had announced in June. And every single one of those pieces of shit running for president were talking about securing our borders, and keeping poor people out, and trying to justify it by security talk. FUCK OFF. You pieces of shit. Fuck right off. Anyway. Sorry for cursing.

I kind of think of the outro of this song as an angry “Everyday People.” Everyday people aren’t going to kill me. Lots of great saxes on this track from Matt Bauder and Stuart Bogie.

The intro of the song we recorded loud, full band, which I then ran through the MS-20 and filtered down till it was just a bass heart-pulse, and re-recorded solo piano and voice over that.

10. “Fine”

I kind of think that “Outta Here” to “Not Gonna Die” comprise the record, and “Fine” operates as the afterword and the prologue rolled into one. An author’s note, maybe. It was kind of inspired by high-period Kanye: I wanted to talk about something important in a profane, sometimes horribly stupid way, but have it be honest and ultimately transcendent.

In the song, I talk semi-accurately about where I come from. My mom’s dad was a guitar player who led bands throughout the ’30s and ’40s. In post-war LA, he had a band with Charles Mingus as the bass player. Charles Mingus! One of the greatest geniuses in all of American history. But this was the ’40s, and in order to travel with the band, to go in the same entrances, to eat dinner at the same table, he had to wear a Hawaiian shirt and everybody had to pretend he was Hawaiian. Because nobody was sure how racist they were supposed to be against Hawaiians.

Part of the reason I’m a musician is that my great-grandfather was a musician, and his kids were musicians, and their kids were musicians, and their kids are musicians. Part of the reason is vast generations of people working to make their kids’ lives better, down to my life. Part of the reason is that neither government nor mob has decided to destroy my family’s lives, wealth, and property for the last couple hundred years. I tried to write a song about that?

CREDIT: Will Butler

Generations is out now via Merge. Purchase it here.

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