With a name like Win, how can you lose? Win Butler is the Texas born co-founder of Montreal’s Arcade Fire. Maybe his optimistic moniker is part of the reason that Arcade Fire, despite their notable occasions of musical cynicism, are doing so well; although, it probably has more to do with the fact that they make breathtakingly distinctive music with driving, dismal, demented and perfectly pertinent lyrics. Another thought: perhaps success is not a positive achievement for a band like Arcade Fire, whose musical accomplishment is a perfect soundtrack for a mad world.
After day four of touring on their freshman release, “Funeral,” I caught Win by phone while the group was lost in Philadelphia traffic. It was at 12th and Chestnut, and they just needed to go where the numbers got bigger…
Kaffeine Buzz: What enticed you to Montreal from Texas?
Win Butler: I don’t know, sometimes you do something stupid just based on some certain intuition; and, that was just kind of what it was.
KB: You don’t feel that it was a stupid move though.
WB: No, I mean at the time there was no real way to explain why it was a good idea, cuz I’d never even looked that far north on a map before I moved. I’d never been to Canada before; didn’t speak any French. A friend of mine just said Montreal is a cool city. I applied to a school like three months after the cut-off date and I got in. So I moved up there, and I really loved it.
KB: I understand that you sought out the group originally. Is that accurate, and would you consider yourself the leader of the group now?
WB: Kind of; me and Régine (Chassagne) write most of the songs.
KB: It sounds like your whole collaboration is pretty learned, musically. Were you and any of the other members of the group in other projects before?
WB: I’ve only ever been in my own band; I played in a cover band in high school; Cure songs and stuff like that. This is definitely the first rock band Régine has ever been in. She did electro-acoustic stuff, and she played in a medieval band before that. Tim (Kingsbury) and Richard (Parry) both have played in rock bands a lot.
KB: I’m curious about your writing process, because of the complexity of many of your songs. Do you do a lot of your writing in the studio where you have production tools?
WB: “Haiti” is the only one that came together in the studio. It totally depends on the song, but usually me and Régine come up with structure melody and lyrics and stuff.
KB: Where do you record to always achieve such a spacious sound? Even on the really thick numbers, it’s like you’re in a big open room.
WB: We recorded at the Hotel de’Tango in Montreal. It’s definitely a goal to have a lot of room sound at the base of a recording, and then we add a lot of stuff on top of it. We always choose to have some really roomy sound when we’re recording.
KB: Who do you identify with stylistically, and who is influential to Arcade Fire?
WB: Hidden Cameras or Wolf Parade or Danielson Famile…When I was a kid I was a Radiohead fan. I think for a giant band, the sound is great at their shows; they really manage to do a good job playing giant places that usually sound like shit. I think they invested a lot in having really good people do sound and getting really good equipment. A lot of times you’ll go to big outdoor shows and it’ll just sound like garbage. The couple times I’ve seen them I’ve been really impressed with the way it sounds. Most of ‘em are contemporary, like Jane’s Addiction, the Pixies – they’re some bands that, on a purely artistic level, we relate to a lot.
KB: Did you have a concept of your audience, demographically, and have you been surprised at the turnouts you’ve seen?
WB: One thing that’s been a little bit surprising is that 40- or 50-year-old people who come to the shows seem to be really into it. I was just kind of realizing that people who grew up with music listening to the radio in the ‘50s and ‘60s – not that it’s of that era—but artistically, it’s a lot closer. One of the security guards at our show, who’s a family guy said, “I really like your stuff. It reminds me of David Bowie.”
KB: Are you surprised by the buzz that’s sprung up around Arcade Fire?
WB: I don’t know. I think we’re just starting to get a sense of it. We don’t really have any expectations going into this. We didn’t really start thinking about record labels as a concept until maybe a year and a half ago. It’s never been the goal…The goal is to play for people, but it’s never like we wanted to be famous.
KB: I read that you referred to yourselves at the Mercury Ballroom in New York as “the flavor of the month.” That’s sort of reflective of the mood of your music, in that it’s very driving, but there’s an occasional sense of self-defeatism. Are you hesitant at all about popular success, or the music industry itself?
WB: Well, we’re hesitant about being miserable people. So, if playing in a band or doing shows starts to get to the point where we’re miserable as people, then I think we would really reconsider it, or we would consider not going through the motions of what’s expected of us.
I mean, I don’t really know what’s expected of us, but I know what we wanna do. We wanna play for people. We wanna write songs. We wanna make better recordings, and improve and try different stuff. It’s really not that hard for me to make the mental leap to see how all the press stuff, like the fuckin’ NME and stuff, can be a real distraction. But at the same time, I think the press is a way to turn people onto stuff.
It’s not a self-centered thing, but it’s like, once you just become the content for whatever crap people are spewing, it’s like…We don’t want to jump through hoops just satisfy that side of things. But getting our music out to people, and playing and having people be exposed to our music and liking or hating it…that’s all par for the course, and that’s all part of the job.
KB: Don’t you think that the distinctiveness of your musical style will naturally separate you from the general rock and roll drivel that’s out there?
WB: I think in North America people are so cynical. Like, someone said to me that other day, “What do you think about the trend of people writing political songs?” I thought, “Man, what in the fuck are you talking about?” Like, “Oh no, not another song about George Bush or blah-bitty-blah. That’s so last week to be worried about your country.” You know what I mean.
It’s the general attitude; I mean, there could be a band with the same basic sound as the Strokes that could fucking blow my mind. If someone is like—if the spirit of what they’re doing is right and they’re goods at writing songs…I don’t believe in the, “Oh, someone started using double-time high-hats like a month ago, so since you’re doing that—since you listened to New Order too when you were a kid, then the whole thing you do is lame.”
It’s true, there is a lot of lame, derivative Joy Division/New Order music being made now, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be an influence that results in really inspiring music.
KB: All music has to derive from something… short of beating on a piece of wood with another piece of wood…
KB: Well, I know you’re only on day five of your tour, but it sounds like it’s going pretty well.
WB: It’s going really good. It’s really nice to have the day off. We’re just trying to recuperate. We have a lot of stuff to do though.
KB: Well, I’ll let you go find your way out of Philly and enjoy the rest of your day. But thanks for taking the time. We’ll see you here in Denver in a few weeks.
WB: Alright, cool; take care!
Arcade Fire plays with Carrier, Friday, December 3 at Larimer Lounge at 7:30pm, and its all ages. At midnight, the kids go home for a 21+ Arcade Fire After Party with DJ Magic Cyclops.