Best known as the shimmying sideman for Canada’s biggest musical export since Neil Young, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler has returned to his all-American roots for his debut solo album. Hazel Sheffield finds him confronting god, money and death on ‘Policy’
When Will Butler was a poetry student at Northwestern University in Illinois, he used to liven up gigs with his covers band, Citizens On Patrol, by pretending to be in a whale and sliding off the stage into the audience on his back. But when his elder brother Win snatched him away to join Arcade Fire, things went south for Citizens On Patrol. “Will Butler has penned five songs but he is busy touring with The Arcade Fire, so the chances of COP getting together to record is low,” reads a sad message on the band’s website. Turns out the chances of getting Will Butler to record any of his own songs were nil for another decade. Call it an occupational hazard of being recruited to join the biggest Canadian act since Neil Young when you’ve not even finished university.
Now he’s done it, Will Butler’s first solo album slices a blade through the breastbone of modern America to reveal a rotten heart squirting fake blood. The cabaret of characters Will presents on ‘Policy’ have been coming into focus for years: in half-asleep imaginings on long flights, in the bottom of tea cups emptied in the dead of night, on scraps of paper tucked away for later.
One song depicts a man bargaining with his maker (‘Son Of God’), another imagines God himself with his feet up while the end of the world approaches (‘Something’s Coming’). Yet another tells the story of a woman called Anna, wasting her days working for money she doesn’t have time to spend. Will based the character on Anita in West Side Story, who sings of her love of America in the song of the same name.
“There are a couple of slapstick moments on ‘Policy’ that you don’t find on Arcade Fire,” Will explains. “To me, slapstick is primal. Kids and adults both laugh at it. American cinema is founded on slapstick: Charlie Chaplin falling into a hole with his pants down, or the saucepan handle crashing onto someone’s head in Looney Tunes.” He titled the album ‘Policy’ to link each of the songs to his vision of America, where his musical roots run deep.
Will was born in the mountains of Northern California to Utah Mormons on his mother’s side and New England pilgrims on his father’s side. The family moved to the outskirts of Houston, Texas, when Will was two for his father’s job as a geologist for an oil corporation. The suburbs, later chronicled in Arcade Fire’s album of the same name, were comfortable but dull.
Win and Will amused themselves with the musical instruments their family had inherited. Their grandfather Alvino Rey (the spit of Win) was a banjo player who grew up in Cleveland and invented the first electric guitar for Gibson by adding bits to a steel guitar. He married Luise King, one of the King Sisters, a big band-era vocal group from a Mormon family in Utah. “Religion is one of the only ways I know how to relate to music,” Will says. “God in music is important as any other element. It’s like the Johnny Cash album, ‘God Love Murder’. Although I have less experience of murder.”
At 15, Will went to join his brother at the prestigious Phillips Exeter boarding school in New Hampshire. Win went on to McGill University in Montreal, but Will stayed in the US to study at Northwestern University near Chicago, which he partly chose for its theatre scene. He worked on the college radio station, picking playlists from stacks of vinyl comprising original ESG and Liquid Liquid albums, world music resissues, and new labels like DFA. In the days, he would prepare notes for “very nerdy and deep” lectures on anything from American minimalism to Flying Nun, the cult New Zealand record label. Or write poetry, in which he majored with a collection of sea shanties inspired by his paternal grandfather’s work as a boatbuilder.
In an early Arcade Fire song, ‘Vampire/Forest Fire’, Win poked fun at Will’s poetry. In another, ‘William Pierce Butler’, he apologised for being mean “like our dad” and implored Will to make his own way through life. “Don’t follow me”, Win sang. “Not me, not me”. The reality was somewhat different. Will’s studies were frequently interrupted by calls from Win to join Arcade Fire on tour.
The band recorded ‘Funeral’ when Will was in his senior year and hit the road just as soon as he had slipped off of his graduation gown. Win loved Will for his energy on stage, while other members saw him as the glue, making sure everyone got heard. “You can trust Will,” says Arcade Fire guitarist Tim Kingsbury. “Even though I believe it was him who came up with the motto ‘never trust anyone’!”
From then on, Arcade Fire kept up a punishing schedule, putting out an album every three years even when the awards started coming in and the tours got bigger and longer. They learned tricks to make their jobs easier on the way – on the ‘Reflektor’ tour there was even a baby bus for Win and Regine’s son and their tour manager’s infant daughter. “In Arcade Fire, it’s always been ‘give me 115% until you’re nearly dead’. We’ve only recently got our rhythm right so between touring you have energy for something other than sitting at home drinking warm broth,” Will explains.
Win and Regine discovered they were having a baby at the same time at ‘Reflektor’ was being mastered in early autumn 2013. They were halfway through composing the score for the Spike Jonze movie Her, a project they became involved in while house-sitting for Spike in New York (he was in Shanghai, shooting the futuristic skyline that appears in the movie). Time was running out, so Will jumped in to try and finish the soundtrack for them.
Will said he spent a lot of time learning Spike’s language – if something was “too happy” it might mean “too many drums” for example – and translating that for fellow collaborator Owen Pallett, who he described as a technical and emotional genius. “Translating between Owen and Spike really broke my brain,” he says.
If Will struggled, Spike didn’t notice. “When things are at their most high stress – final hour, under deadline – he never cracks, which is how it happened at the end of our process. Will came through,” Spike tells NME. “Will is that rare combination of artist that’s very sensitive and attuned to what something should be emotionally, but also very calm and rational and easy to direct and collaborate with.”
The final soundtrack got a nod at last year’s Oscars, which convinced Will to get on with recording his own music. “It was kind of forced on me because I got the Oscar nomination even though that was none of my music,” Will said. “I felt like my name was already out there a bit. It’s not the worst problem.”
He squeezed in a week at Electric Lady Studios, Jimi Hendix’s old living room-turned-studio in New York, in a mid-tour mini break in May. Not long after, the album was in the post to Win.
“I’ve been playing it a lot actually,” Win says. “It’s interesting to hear the lyrics because I haven’t heard lyrics he’s written for a long time. They’re in this realm in between serious and poetic and funny and absurd – like Annie Hall, or The Simpsons. We used to watch a lot of the Simpsons as kids – a pop show that had a lot of deep literary references and sarcasm.”
Solo work meant Will could keep things really simple, for once. “When I’ve seen him perform he has this little tiny guitar amp and a guitar and he can just plug in and play,” Win said. “I can definitely see the appeal.”
“It’s hard to do something that bare with Arcade Fire,” says Will. “It’s hard when you have that many people around not to use them. ‘Policy’ is deliberately stripped back to guitar and drums. The horns and female vocal harmonies, supplied by Will’s wife and friends, hark back to the big band of his ancestors, while the synths that appear on ‘Anna’ are a reminder of his work on Arcade Fire tracks like ‘Sprawl II’.
He talks about finding inspiration in “the raw and in the room” albums John Lennon put out when he first went solo, when he was an immigrant in New York, the “assertive comedy and mindless violence” of Ghostface Killah, and the Violent Femmes, “where there is pure id”. Improbably, he’s also still invoking whales: “To me ‘Policy’ is like the world of Moby Dick – you think of it as a serious work of American literature, but it starts off with jokes about whale pensises,” he says. ‘Policy’ is Will’s attempt to lampoon America’s obsession with god and money and death without scaring away an audience he hasn’t met yet. “America is my heritage,” he ays. “America is all I know.”