Zoilus by Carl Wilson

A Win-Win situation:
Talking to Arcade Fire’s Butler

August 11th, 2010

I promised you a transcript of my chat with Win Butler of Arcade Fire last week, and my friend in Tehran was all, “Well, where is it?” So without further ado … Our discussion of The Suburbs.

How are you doing?

Good. We’re just back from being up in the woods this weekend - up north of Montreal. A little No Internet time.

Before you started work on this album, there was a year-long break. What happened during that time?

It was just kind of normal - Regine and I took a trip to Haiti, that was one big thing we did. We spent some time near my parents’ in Maine for a summer and just did a lot of songwriting. The first time we got together as a band to jam a bit was when we did the Obama shows during the campaign - but other than that it was everyone doing their normal life stuff, gardening and connecting

On a practical level there were a ton of songs. As soon as I have five minutes off I start writing songs, because that’s always how I’ve spent my time since I was 15. It kind of felt there was something really different - living through the seasons. Sometimes it gets confusing when you’re traveling a lot - it gets easy to be, “Was that 3 years ago or 5 years ago?” We kind of reconnected to each other through normal life in a way.

After that you had another year of recording - what effect did it have to have this more luxurious span of time?

We definitely got into it without a specific time frame or anything - but it wasn’t particularly leisurely. It was the most normal-work-week style that we’ve ever done, a Monday-to-Friday, early-afternoon-to-dinnertime kind of thing for the first couple of months - and then things always run away toward the end and you work 24 hours a day. I definitely drew a lot of life into the record - Half Light and Celebration were kind of based on demos from a year and a half ago, so there’s everything from that to Month of May which we just kind of cut and were done. Some songs are never better than the first time you play them and all you can do is screw them up from there, and other songs are mysteries and it takes time to puzzle them out. It’s hard to have both on the same record, but that’s what we wanted to do this time.

Did you do most of this at your studio at the church out in the country, or - ?

The initial recordings we did at our house, in the living room. We just had a tape machine in the back room. And we did some recording out at the church, and we did kind of a lot of - everyone’s basements were in full swing. We did a short string session at a studio in New York last fall, did a couple of weeks - and that was our first time in a proper recording studio. But a lot of it was done at home, and we finished it up at a small studio in Montreal.

Did you work with different producers in those different settings?

We’ve always produced ourselves. We’re working with the same engineer from the last record, Marcus Dravs, he’s kind of a super-engineer, so we gave him a co-producing credit. And we’re working with a guy named Mark Lawson, who did the live sound for the Unicorns way back in the day when we toured with them.

Why did you do so much at home when you have a studio of your own?

Last time we’d actually built a studio, so the beginning was a lot of plaster dust, and the setup became complex so it kind of felt like - the first time there was a lot more recording ourselves. And so I kind of wanted to get my hands dirty a little bit. So in the time off I got a little setup at the house, reminding myself how to record. And Richard [Reed Parry] had a setup at his house. Kind of the beginning of Richard’s relationship with us was him producing the first EP - recording together was how we’d gotten to know each other. So I wanted to be technically aware of what we were doing.

Each one of your albums so far has been organized around running themes, and on this album it’s so constant it almost reaches the state of a concept album. It seems like each album is a whole project, rather than song by song. How deliberate is that, at the outset, and how are the themes arrived at?

It seems like whenever I write a chunk of songs in a period of time they always interrelate. I don’t know this one’s more so than Funeral. It’s just kind of what happens when I write lyrics. I end up trying to get at a lot of the same ideas, and exploring them. I’ve tried to avoid becoming too self-aware - it’s too easy to start editing yourself. I think it’s better to let the themes emerge.

I’ve definitely had the most powerful music experiences around albums. I believe very much in the album as a format. There’s a lot of great pop songs in this world, but the great thing about an album is that if there’s enough information, you can hear different things every time, it can change a bit as you grow older, you can have a relationship to the music that’s more than liking the beat, or thinking the lyric is clever.

It seems tricky, the dynamics, because while you and Regine mainly write the songs, this is a group that’s in many ways a collective. So how do you get the whole band behind it, that these are the themes we’re going to be working with?

It’s not like that exactly. I think a record reveals itself as you work on it. In the past there’s always been a couple of songs where you know you have the heart of a record. it usually starts from having a couple of things you can’t wait another second to record, because it has to exist now, and the fine details emerge in the time you work on it. You need to feel, “We have to record this tomorrow, or the world’s going to end!”

The song The Suburbs was one that I’d been playing the music to for a long while. I’ve got recordings of it that are 12 minutes long, there are so many lyrics. I just started writing that song, refining it, purifying the song down. That one and Ready to Start were the two that we started to play as a band first. I had demos of No Celebration and Half Light - and that’s when it felt like we were making a record

It seems interesting that the first record felt very much about where you were at then, as people, and the second more about where the world was at right then, and now it’s as if you’re taking a step back in time.

There’s a lot on this record - something like Month of May is one of the more temporal songs I’ve ever written. There is a lot of material about trying to reconnect to growing up, but I very much see it as trying to connect where you’re from and where you are - to have that kind of make sense. Before making this record I felt the least connected I ever had to where I grew up and where I lived the longest. So from a creative standpoint, it’s like trying to make sense of where we are and where we’ve come from.

Do you think that’s a reaction to touring, and how much your lives have changed in the past six years or so - to feeling displaced?

I don’t know. I always felt kind of like a tourist even in my home town. My dad was from Maine and my mom was from California, so it definitely never felt like we were from there, in Texas. I grew up there and had these great childhood friendships, but there was always this sense of not belonging and yet it being real. So I think it goes back further than stuff from the band. And because I went away to boarding school as a teenager, even those high school years where you normally have the prom photos - it was even a little further disjointed.

Do you think there’s a way in which the political, social urgencies that you felt with Neon Bible were relieved a bit after the election of Obama, whom I know you guys campaigned for?

I don’t see the last record as super-political. But definitely a lot happened in the world between the two records. It’s hard not to be affected by the time you live in. All music is connected to the times you live in - it’s affected by the cultural moment.

There’s a kind of cliched approach to the suburbs in a lot of books, movies, music as a bastion of conformity and hypocrisy, and it seems to me that you try to balance that on The Suburbs, to get a more rounded view. Was that your intention?

I was just kind of inspired to capture some truthfulness in the experience of growing up in the suburbs, and not have a predetermined way of looking at it.

One thing that happened was that I got a letter from a childhood friend and there was a picture of him with his daughter on his shoulders at the mall where we grew up. I had this surge of feeling, the combination of memory and the present - if I didn’t try to get it down it would probably be lost. You start writing to capture something so that you remember it later.
In places there’s a much more “80s” kind of production style and sound - with the synthesizers and all here. Was that meant to be appropriate to the time period the songs are partly about?

My “oldies” are Depeche Mode and the Cure. That was the music that I heard when I was very young that kind of put a stamp on me. You know, John Lennon always wanted his vocals to sound like Elvis - he’d say, “Put the Elvis filter on there” - or to play guitar like Buddy Holly, the music he was listening to when he was 15. Artists never really escape that. You don’t choose what your inspiration is going to be - you’re disposed to something, you have the tools you work with that are given to you by other artists.

There’s a greater diversity of sound on this record than ever before. It must be a pleasure to feel like you’ve gotten to the place as a band where you can confidently move between styles that way.

I always wanted to be able to do that. You know, The Beatles can do a reggae-sounding song, but they’re not a reggae band. I always wanted not to be pigeonholed in the kind of music we do. It’s only our third record. There’s lots of music we haven’t gotten to yet. But it’s always been a goal to have that flexibility, but to play whatever we want to

How are you finding these songs translate live - do they have to change much? Do they integrate easily with the older songs?

It’s great to have so much material now - with our back catalog and the new record there’s kind of a lot. It’s always been the case that we could make a great set list from the two records but now it feels like there’s a lot of different directions we can go. You’re not stuck in playing the same set over and over again.

We’ve never been the type of band that tries to duplicate live what we do on the record - there’s some details we don’t even try to talk about re-creating.

Aside from the obvious - touring and so on - is there anything else coming up that you might want to tell me about?

We’re hoping to get back to Haiti next month, that’s one thing. But we’re really kind of focused on the album right now - we’ve only figured out how to play half of it live!

Oh, and we’re filming our show at Madison Square Garden, and we just found out that Terry Gilliam is going to be filming it. He’s a major life-long inspiration. It’s going to be a live YouTube thing - he’s going to come along for some of the tour dates and come up with some ideas.

It was really interesting, actually: He listened to the record the other day - he grew up in rural Minnesota and moved to the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s, so he had that primal American 50s suburban experience. A very different time. But he said he found himself connecting to different images, remembering his own youth. I didn’t really expect to see it as a transgenerational thing.

How did that connection with Gilliam happen? That’s pretty amazing.

Well, for better or worse we’ve been a band after the era of the music video, mostly. And since we pay for everything ourselves, we were never gonna make some crazy million-dollar music video. There was never any way of doing things that made sense.

But then this filming opportunity came up, and I thought, he’ll obviously say no but we’ll ask him. And then he said, “Sure, why not?”

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