We’ve Got A File On You: Win Butler

Julia Simpson

We’ve Got A File On You: Win Butler

Julia Simpson

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

In a year when a lot of our plans have been on hold, Win Butler has been busy. In April, the Arcade Fire ringleader let us know that the band had been working on music shortly before lockdown, and then he let us hear some of it. Last week, on the night of the election, the band debuted a new song called “Generation A.” Apparently, Butler was one of the people who found quarantine more inspiring than suffocating. Just a couple weeks ago, he amended his previous hints with the update that he’s written “two or three” Arcade Fire albums thanks to having to stay still all year long.

It seems like there’ll be a whole lot of new Arcade Fire goings-on to parse sometime on the horizon, but that isn’t the reason Butler and I got on the phone one recent October afternoon. Butler’s not quite ready to talk about forthcoming music yet, aside from saying this era of writing gives him flashbacks to that which preceded The Suburbs and promising “The new shit is about some of the best shit we’ve ever done” as we say goodbye.

In the meantime, there have been some milestones this year: The Suburbs turned 10; Butler turned 40. There is, of course, a whole lot of rich Arcade Fire history between their early ’00s origins and now. There are too many high-profile collabs to dig through, too many pop culture crossovers to cover, in just one conversation. But before Arcade Fire’s next chapter begins, while we both had a moment of quiet at home in the year 2020, Butler and I took some time to dig back through highlights and surprises from across his career.

Appearing In Bill & Ted Face The Music (2020)

How did this happen?

WIN BUTLER: They were filming in New Orleans. I’m kind of the exact age where Bill & Ted really has a soft spot in my worldview. [Laughs] That was just like, yeah, of course I want to be in the Future Council. That’s the part I was born to play. No, it’s funny, it was just one of these random things that come through the email. Usually, it’s, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.” But this was, “Tell me when, tell me where, I’ll be there.” It was on soundstages. When we were filming it, Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe was back there, and he sort of disappeared at some point. I got to bring my son, who’s six. He was hanging out and we were talking to Keanu about Canada and punk bands back in the day. It was a pretty sweet hang. It was a bright spot in 2020, let me put it that way.

You say you get these emails — is that random stuff they want Arcade Fire to do, or there’ve been other cameos you turned down?

BUTLER: Oh, no, it’s mostly random licensing or stuff that goes to the junk box. But every once in a while, it’s like, “Hey, that sounds like a nice way to spend the day.” I started out in film. I went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York around 2000. I had really wanted to go to film school, and I could never get in. [Laughs] Initially, the song “The Suburbs” was an idea I had for a film and it seemed easier to make a song than a film.

The Suburbs (2010)

That was a convenient segue. The Suburbs just turned 10. I was wondering if you have gone back and revisited it much amidst that anniversary.

BUTLER: The whole experience of Funeral was such a rollercoaster. We were on the road so long. We didn’t have much of a break going into the second record. For The Suburbs, Régine and I — I don’t think we saw anyone for a year straight before we even started demoing or anything for that record.

It was a time in my life… I don’t know, I was in my late twenties, and there were all these details of my childhood in Houston. You know, I moved to Canada when I was 19. [Houston] almost felt like this other life I had. I would close my eyes and imagine riding my bike through town and trying to find the edges of my memory. There was kind of all this emotion that came up through that, and I wanted to capture it. It’s funny, as a songwriter, most of the time I feel like my mind is living in the near future. You’re listening for these little signals in the air. This was almost inhabiting the emotional space of these memories but thinking about it as the future.

When you say it like that, I’m curious if the album feels different to you now that you’re a father yourself and another 10 years down the line. Like another layer to that refracted youth, sort of?

BUTLER: Totally. In a way, I feel like the last year has been a parallel to that year before The Suburbs. Then I was kind of a hermit by choice, and this has more been the world conspiring to make me a hermit, but it has been a really introspective. In a sense, the material that we’ve been working on feels the same way, this hybrid of your emotional landscape and the future.

It’s almost seasonal, like a trade wind that blows in once in a while. I remember we played with Neil Young when he was still doing the Bridge School Benefit and hearing him sing “Old Man” as an old man, almost like he wrote the song when he was 22 to sing when he was 80. I think there’s an element on that Suburbs record that’s like that as well.

Winning The Grammy For Album Of The Year (2011)

Obviously that was a huge turning point for Arcade Fire because you won the Grammy the following year. As a suburban indie fan at the time, I had no real grasp on how big certain bands were. From where I was, it was pretty trippy that you guys won that.

BUTLER: I mean, tell me about it. It was definitely pretty trippy.

There are very, very early moments of you guys getting linked up with some iconic artists. Arcade Fire got plenty of respect from the beginning. But at the same time, the Grammys is something different. That’s a moment of mainstream insurgency. Ten years on, you’re one of the big indie bands of your generation, but also one of the only rock bands to get to that level in recent times.

BUTLER: I don’t know it was the best record that year, but it was definitely the best record nominated that year. I mean, we were up against a Lady Gaga remix record and like, Katy Perry. We weren’t up against a great Eminem record, we were up against a not-that-great Eminem record. In a certain sense, I was like, “Well, I think we should win.” [Laughs] I think we had the best record.

I remember in high school Radiohead and Björk were the two [new artists I loved]. I bought The Bends the day it came out, I bought Homogenic the day it came out. And then everything else I listened to was artists that had broken up 20 years earlier. I remember watching the Grammys the year OK Computer was nominated and it didn’t win, and I was just like, “Oh, that thing must not mean anything then.” I remember Dylan won, and it’s a really great Dylan record, but objectively OK Computer was the best record. So if that didn’t win, then what the hell does that thing mean? After that, I didn’t think about the Grammys that much. It wasn’t on my list of my dreams of my career and what I could accomplish and what I wanted to do.

For me, I was looking more at a band like the Cure or New Order, these bands that were really just artistic entities but you would hear them at a pharmacy once in a while. Like, I’d hear “Bizarre Love Triangle” come on in the pharmacy in Houston and just be like, “Is this from outer space? What the fuck is this?” My dreams for our band was to do for other people what those bands did for me, which was just throw me a fucking lifeline. Because I was just like, “What is this world, and where are my people, and how can I feel OK existing?” My grandfather played in big bands and played with Louis Armstrong, and he bought me a guitar when I was 15. I held on to that thing — if I didn’t have that I don’t think I would’ve made it out of high school. It literally saved my life. I don’t think I could exist without that.

For me, the Grammy thing was strangely moving. Even up until the moment we won, I just felt like an interloper. Even when we won, people looked at us like aliens. Like, “Who? What?” You know, I’m a competitive person. It was really exciting. Cool, awesome, the universe makes sense for one second. It’s interesting, I didn’t expect it to mean anything until we won, and then it meant something.

David Bowie (2005, 2013, Throughout)

I alluded to this earlier but: The Grammys were like an industry stamp of approval. From the beginning, however, you guys were embraced by a lot of elder artists — particularly artists who were influences on the band. One I wanted to talk about was David Bowie. He was a very early supporter; you performed together in 2005, which turned into a live EP. Then he shows up on “Reflektor” in 2013. Somewhere around 2015, you talked about how you’d come to regard him as this professor-type character in your life. He came to your first New York show, right?

BUTLER: Our first headlining show, when we played at the Bowery, Bowie and David Byrne came to that show.

Wow, no pressure huh.

BUTLER: It sort of set the table. Like, “Well, I guess this is how it’s going to be right out of the gate.” [Laughs] It’s funny, I have a photo of David in my studio that I look at when I’m working sometimes. It’s just him in a dressing room with one of those kind of Hollywood mirrors behind him. He really… I don’t know, he felt some sort of spiritual connection with us. It wasn’t like he wanted anything from us. I just think he wanted to say, “Hey guys, you’re going on the right path, keep going.”

I was emailing him over all those years. I don’t know if you have anyone close to you that’s died and you go back and read those emails, it’s really these strange digital fragments of someone you care about. After he sang on “Reflektor,” Régine and I bought him a painting in Haiti as a thank you gift. We were supposed to mail it to him and we got busy and forgot about it, and in the interim he passed. I knew he wasn’t well, but I didn’t know he was dying. Maybe a couple months later I remembered the painting and I dug it out and it was a painting of a black star. A voodoo painting of a black star with rays coming out of it.

I didn’t know anything about his record being Blackstar or anything like that. Now it’s on the wall of my bedroom. Shit like that sometimes happens in my life. I take it for what it is. I don’t know exactly what that means and I just feel grateful… I don’t know man. Even just how inspiring, what he put into his art even in death. He’s someone I think about at least on a weekly basis.

Backing Up Mick Jagger On SNL (2012), Playing With The Rolling Stones (2013)

Obviously that was an ongoing relationship, and you’ve worked with David Byrne too, and you referenced playing with Neil Young. Still: Being onstage with the Rolling Stones seems particularly daunting.

BUTLER: We were Mick’s backing band on SNL. SNL is maybe one of my favorite American institutions. I don’t know if it’s the Canadian thing since Lorne [Michaels] is Canadian. The first time we did it, it was just like, “This dude is my friend.” I don’t know if Lorne’s kids like Arcade Fire or something. But I was in New York randomly and he was like, “Mick’s doing a thing,” and I said, “We do a pretty amazing cover of ‘The Last Time,’” and he said “Come on down, let’s do it.” Then we’re Mick’s backing band. I don’t know, pretty fucking cool.

What is Mick Jagger like to work with?

BUTLER: Mick is like: As soon as the light goes on, he’s a different person. When he turns it on, it’s like this muscle memory — like if you were with the greatest ballet dancer ever, and you say go and this energy comes out of him that is so practiced. It’s someone who’s an absolute master, after practicing something for decades and decades and decades. That was pretty amazing to see. You’re chatting with someone, we’re at the piano and we’re talking about an arrangement, “OK, let’s do a run,” and then, “Boom! Shit!” There he is.

It’s this other level. I feel like people at that level, music’s not something they’re fucking around with. [Laughs] Music is a spirit. You hear something, and if it strikes a chord with you, it connects something at your deepest core. People like that, when you see them do their thing, it really is this other plane. It’s not this show thing. It’s more of a possession. You can hear it in the music.

I feel like I’ve listened to more music during COVID than any time since I was like, 18. I had this moment when I was listening to these amazing records from the 1950s. You can hear the room. It’s almost like audio VR — you can hear the drummer here and the bass player over here. There’s a sense of space, particularly to that older music. It’s a snapshot. If you hear “La Bamba,” right now, that is what it is. It’s a spirit captured on vinyl, on a piece of tape. It’s alive within that.

With people like Mick, they’re a little bit closer to the spirit of rock ’n’ roll — a literal spirit, not a figurative spirit. Bowie was the same. When he played with us in Central Park, the second he hit the stage he’s illuminated. You’re like, “Oh, shit, that’s what it is.” He’s a human when you’re talking to him and as soon as he’s in it, he’s touched by another thing.

SNL (2007-Present)

I’m glad you brought SNL up, because you’ve been on it a bunch of times, but you’re also one of the musical acts they’ve brought into skits. Like, they actually wrote a game show around you. How does that work? Did they write that sketch with you guys, or you walked in and they’re like, “Hey, by the way…”

BUTLER: I can’t remember, I think we’ve been six or seven times. We’ve been there for a couple different casts at this point. The Lonely Island dudes, those are so my dudes. In another life, I would’ve been in Lonely Island, that would’ve been my dream to just fuck around with my friends; when we were first writing music we were kinda joking around because you’re too insecure to try. A lot of times [at SNL], we’ve played for the staff when we’re there, because you get so fired up to play one or two songs and you’re playing live so your endorphins are running so we just sort of keep playing afterwards. I feel like they appreciate that, it kinda feels like you’re on the same team or something.

I was backstage at SNL once last year, and it is pretty crazy to see it all from the inside like that.

BUTLER: It’s so crazy. They write it all that fucking week, and then to see the differences between the dress rehearsal and the live show. They do a little meeting in Lorne’s office. They’ve done the dress rehearsal and it’s still this tiny office and every cameraman and every cast member is crammed in this little office and Lorne’s like, “Make it a blue light instead of a green light at minute 23, and change this word to this word, I don’t think that’s funny, change that, OK, go,” and everyone’s got pencils writing this down. It’s still fucking that. And you know, it hits and misses sometimes, but they’re doing it.

How long did you have to work on your De Niro impression for that skit?

BUTLER: It’s actually more of a Billy Baldwin impersonation, but it seemed to work for De Niro as well. [Laughs] My only real impression is I can look exactly like Billy Baldwin if I want to. If there’s any casting directors reading this and you need a Billy Baldwin impersonator, I’m your man.

LCD Soundsystem’s Goodbye Show (2011)

You’re the one who ended up serendipitously coining the title of the live album.

BUTLER: [Laughs] That is true. That was genuine. He was being a little talky.

I moved to New York before I moved to Montreal, and I would go to the city and go to shows and I didn’t see one fucking thing that was good in the whole year. I was like, “Wait, I thought New York was the shit, where is it?” All I saw was bad, very industry bands. I couldn’t find anything, I wasn’t cool enough to figure out what was going on. There’s very few bands that I really think of, like bands of my generation where I heard them and thought “These are my people.” For me it was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD, and Wolf Parade. When I heard those bands, I thought, “These are my fellow pilgrims.” It was art, DIY, no bullshit, just trying to make something great that communicates to people. It’s real and emotional.

James is really just one of us. He’s just such a great engineer and really into the way things sound and really passionate about details. It’s rare to meet people like that. James was working with us when Bowie came in, when we were in Electric Lady. James had never met Bowie before. The first 7” he ever bought was “Fame.” We’re in this studio, and the last time Bowie was there he had cut “Fame” with John Lennon, in the same studio. We were all like, “This is the right place to be.”

James is just a man after my own heart. We did a tour with them on Neon Bible. We were playing to a thousand people in Salt Like City and I was like, “Man, in a couple years a lot more people are going to wish they were at this show.” What a fucking great live band.

Scoring Her (2013)

What kind of headspace did you have to get into for this vs. making an album?

BUTLER: Spike [Jonze] came to a bunch of our early shows on Funeral. The second I met him he was just immediately one of my best friends. He thinks about the world the same way. Even though we work in different mediums he was someone I knew I’d be working with in some capacity. I was visiting LA and I was staying with Spike just randomly one time, in the early days of him working on the script for Her. I was reading the script and immediately thinking about how it could sound, and I was like, “Well, we should fucking do the score to this movie.”

When you’re working on a record, it’s so rigid, what works on a song and what doesn’t work on a song. It can be so limiting in a way. Within the band, there’s so many different talents and color palettes and things people bring to the table, so it was cool to do something where the boss is the picture. It doesn’t matter how anyone feels about a piece, if it’s working for Spike, if it’s working in harmony with the picture, that’s what the boss is — the emotionality of the picture. It’s not about you, it’s in service to this bigger thing. It was a cool opportunity for all of us to use different aspects of things we do, and to work with Owen [Pallett], who had done a lot of strings on our records. It uses a totally different part of your brain.

Do you want to do more of that kind of work, or was it this specific story from Spike that spoke to you?

BUTLER: I can say pretty confidently that I’ll work with Spike in the future. It definitely takes a lot of energy. It’s definitely something I’m interested in, but I feel like while I’ve got the juice it’s good to spend as much energy writing songs as we can. It’s pretty fucking hard to make a record, believe it or not.

Future’s “Might As Well” Sampling “Owl” From Her(2017)

Are you a big Future fan?

BUTLER: I love Future. There’s something in the rhythm of the thing he does that actually reminds me of some music from Haiti, in this really deep, subtle way I can’t put my finger on. There’s something almost mystical in the way he sounds, and I thought that was really cool that they sampled that soundtrack. His shit does sound like the future still. I think it’s pretty special.

The Reach Of ”Wake Up” (2004-Present)

This song has had this big pop-culture reach over the years. U2 used it as their walk-on music in the ‘00s. It was used in the trailer for another Spike movie, Where The Wild Things Are. Macy Gray and John Legend both covered it. Microsoft ripped it off for a commercial. It was used in a commercial for LA’s bid for the Olympics.

BUTLER: That Microsoft money went to Haiti, by the way. They did rip it off. [Laughs] Thank you Microsoft.

As far as I know that’s far from an exhaustive list, too. It’s just one of those songs that’s gone out and become a part of the atmosphere. Even a lot of big bands don’t necessarily have a song like that. What do you think it is about “Wake Up” that’s registered in so many different contexts?

BUTLER: From the time we wrote that song to now, the biggest difference in my life is I’ve traveled the world and I’ve been able to play music in all these different cultures and feel the ways different countries feel music. Not only listening to the music in other countries but seeing how they feel the music I play.

I remember around The Suburbs we played in rural Haiti. It was our first time playing in a place where nobody in the audience had any of the reference points of the music we played. We were playing in the mountains, there were people walking in barefoot to the concert. We were playing these songs we had been touring the world with, and the energy from the crowd was so different. The things they responded to, the things they felt, it actually fundamentally changed the way I heard my own music. It made me start to think about music not just from my own perspective but culturally how people hear it and feel it.

I think the one thing that kind of transcends everything across all cultures is melody. Régine was playing that melody on piano in our rehearsal room. I hear it like it was yesterday. It was like, “That’s the shit.” [Laughs] Being present and being in the room, hearing something and really giving yourself to it, just singing that shit like it really meant it and feeling the power of that melody and trying to push it until it breaks. That’s something I think about, just how great it is to have people to play music with. To say it like you mean it.

I remember singing that song in Montreal, in these lofts. Most of our early fans, the first time we played that song, they were like “Fuck this shit, I want the acoustic shit.” People were so negative. I remember a lot of early fans didn’t come to our shows after that because we were suddenly screaming at the top of our lungs and playing electric guitars. It was like, “Everyone here hates this, that means we must be going in the right direction.” [Laughs] But yeah, don’t be discouraged if people hate something. It doesn’t mean shit.

    more from We've Got A File On You