Headlines from The Guardian on February 23 were of a typical variety, by which I mean that they were just as troubling, interesting, or sensational as any day’s worth of headlines.
A 94-year-old German man was charged with 3,681 counts of accessory to murder. A top U.S. security official defended the NSA’s plan to continue monitoring Americans’ data via “backdoors” in Silicon Valley. Egypt postponed the retrial of two journalist that have been detained for thirteen months on trumped-up terrorism charges. The Mayor of Jerusalem tackled an 18-year-old Palestinian to the ground after the latter stabbed an ultra-Orthodox Jew on the street in broad daylight.
These were the types of garden-variety nuggets of world history that Will Butler sifted through last week, drawing from them the inspiration for five songs that were each written, recorded, and posted on the London newspaper’s website in one day’s time.
On the Tuesday afternoon that I spoke with the Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist, he had selected two articles as the basis for a lilting, despondent song called “Waving Flag”.
“Ukraine Separatists Celebrate Soviet Holiday in Donetsk” detailed the ominous resurgence of aggressive Cold War-level nationalism among Ukrainian citizens. “Anti-Apartheid Hero Moses Kotane’s Remains to be Repatriated from Russia”, on the other hand, reflected on the life of a man whose Communist politics were not inharmoniously related to his lifelong pursuit of social justice in South Africa.
What emerged from his reactions to these stories was “a song about backward-looking violent nationalism contrasting with future-looking lift-up-the-weak nationalism,” he explained in The Guardian.
Ambitious subject matter to tackle in under three minutes.
The thing is, though, Butler doesn’t seem to really know how to deal with lighter topics, at least not without couching them in some sort of larger, much more serious pretext. That’s how his solo debut, Policy, shakes out.
The record consists of eight concise songs, the longest of which sprawls just past the four-minute mark. Each is situated within the broad context of religious anxiety, but distinguished by its own lyrical quirkiness and permutation of the rock and roll format.
On its sixth song, “What I Want”, Butler claims that he knows “a great recipe for pony macaroni” (read: mac and cheese with pony meat). Also, it would appear – given the context of the record – that he’s directing this statement to God. The line between the whimsical and the mystical is a decidedly blurry one throughout Policy’s roughly twenty-eight minutes of low fat pop.
And that makes sense when looking at the album through the lens of Butler’s childhood and educational background, which he discussed on our transatlantic call last week. The Mormon household, where Thriller was the family album and C.S. Lewis was the bedtime reading material, manufactured children with a more nuanced understanding of popular art’s place within our spiritually fraught historical situation.
Policy is a short record. Was any part of that a reaction to the length of the last two Arcade Fire albums?
Certainly, it was definitely reactionary. But that’s not the primary emotion. [Laughs] The Arcade Fire has always done short rock and roll songs in the mix, so I just feel like I’m kind of putting out fewer short rock and roll songs with this album.
You’ve been on a rotation of working for two years with the band and then getting a year off. Why not just sit on a beach somewhere in your free time?
Well, I did. I went to Arizona for two weeks in January. There’s no ocean there, but it’s kind of like one giant beach.
I’m in the prime of life, man. I’m only going to get older and more tired.
You went to really good schools [Phillips-Exeter Academy; Northwestern University], and it sounds like you were really into poetry. When did the accessibility that comes with the pop format start appealing to you?
I have the training to do high art and poetry, but I never had the training musically to be a high artist. It’s always been folk art.
All I grew up with were popular things; I read Shel Silverstein and The Chronicles of Narnia. There was always a long tradition of liking popular things. Thriller was a big album in our household.
You’ve described the record as equal parts serious and humorous, but the serious topics are big ones, like mortality and religion. How much of the humor is a hedge to deal with the more sobering subject matter?
I don’t feel like there’s any conflict when it comes to joking about horrifying things or really dark things. [Laughs] I have never felt any real distance between humor and seriousness. They’re both so primal.
Like, we do nervous laughing. We laugh to communicate – it’s basically just another aspect of language. So I’ve never actually considered not trying to be joking about everything all the time. I mean, that being said, it’s not like I’m an edgy comedian or anything.
Where are you at currently, with religion and mortality in particular?
I’m alive! [Laughs]
I think that history and culture and heritage are all really important, and my heritage is Christian, and specifically Mormon, so that’s really important to me because that’s just where I came from. It really informs my music and my concerns about life. Being concerned about heritage is totally a Mormon thing also. [Laughs] It’s just where I find it.
I was just reading a book about Cuban music, and they were arguing, you know, “How can you talk about Cuban music without knowing any of the history?” Because Americans can talk about American music; like we know about the blues, we know about slavery, we’ve just absorbed all this background information even if we don’t know the specifics. We have an informed view of American history.
So I just embrace what I know essentially – on the religious front, and on the musical front, as well.
You’re going back to playing some smaller venues. I know that over the summer you played your own show at Rock and Roll Hotel, and the next night you were at Verizon Center with Arcade Fire. Is there a rush that comes with playing more intimate shows on your own?
The Arcade Fire itself has always been pretty all over the place when it comes to venues. Less so on this last tour, but on the Suburbs tour, we went from playing arenas to playing a 200-person library to playing a couple nights at a theatre, just all over the place.
On this last tour, our cover band Phi Slamma Jamma was playing after shows in small venues. So with this tour, it feels very natural in terms of venues and the people that come to the shows.
A really fun part was playing music that nobody had heard or had any expectations about, so you could just see their minds turning while they listened, which was really interesting to see.
How much of the record have you exposed to a live audience at this point?
I’ve probably played four or five of the album’s eight songs.
Have you been sitting on some of these songs for a while at this point?
Only a couple. There’s elements that go back forever, but they haven’t existed as songs until relatively recently.
Aside from this week’s song-a-day approach [for The Guardian], how much time goes into a Will Butler track?
I’m a big fan of drafts; like, making an embarrassing rough draft, a less embarrassing second draft, then a less embarrassing third draft, and then a slightly more embarrassing fourth draft, but then ultimately going back to the third draft. [Laughs] I’m a big fan of getting feedback on my songs, both public and private. I find it hard to whittle stuff down without versioning to a certain extent.
A song like “Witness” went through a lot of drafts in a fairly short amount of time, like the lyrics went through about six drafts in about a month or so. And that was because the recording dates were coming up. Whereas a song like “Take My Side” or “What I Want” came out pretty whole-hog, but then were always getting tweaked in the details.
It sounds like your approach is to take things maybe one step too far before reverting to a less audacious iteration.
I think it’s good to find out where the line is, because sometimes you’re embarrassed to cross the line and then you realize after the fact that you could have gone a little farther. I think the only way to understand where that line falls is by crossing it, especially when you’re dealing with a song that you’re going to be playing for three minutes and then it’s over. [Laughs]. There’s like no harm in crossing it. It’s probably harder when you’re a comedian and you want to cross a racist joke line. When you’re making a song and your decisions are whether the verse goes here or the chorus goes here, you might as well be as experimental as you want.
It feels like a privilege to interview an Oscar nominee just a couple days after the Academy Awards. Did you watch it this year?
Yeah, I had a big party at my place for it, actually.
Any thoughts on this year’s winners, or reflections on your experience last year?
I was really happy that Alexander Desplat won this year for best score. Because he was up last year, too, and he’s been nominated, like, eight times, and he was up for two movies this year. Also he was so incredibly lovely to me and Owen [Pallett]. He was just the best.
What they do for the people without pretty faces is when your nomination’s coming up, they put you in boxes toward the front of the stage so it won’t take forever to get to the front. So all of the nominees are seated in an Opera box waiting to hear who wins. So, last year the Gravity guy won, who was also lovely, but Alexander Desplat put his arm around me and he said, “Now, I will go drink bourbon.” [Laughs]
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.