Will Butler: „I am very American and that is my thing I have to deal with“

In times like these, where some of us are reflecting on what the future will bring and what role we can play to make it more bearable, Will Butler uses his new solo record “Generations” to ask profound questions in a very intense and compelling way. 

As a member of the renowned Indie Rock Band Arcade Fire his fans quite often perceive the multitalented musician as an entertainer who likes goofing around with his bandmates and who gets carried away on all kinds of escapades on his instruments. Nevertheless, there is a very serious person behind that facade who is deeply involved in community work with a strong political opinion. Not only a Master’s Degree from Harvard in public policy can prove that, but also his engagement in countless events with political focus. 

It was a special honor to chat with Will Butler about his new solo record “Generations”. An album which sounds quite joyous at first glance but has a lot to offer when you listen closely. We talked about how the Covid crisis affected his work and life, how he deals with the political situation in the US and how it is for him as a live enthusiast to not be able to perform his new record on stage: 

Great to have you back with us! Last time you talked to my colleague Gabi about your first solo album “Policy”. That was quite a while ago.  

Oh yes, many years ago. Five years and a lot changed since then. 

How is life treating you, how is the whole Covid crisis treating you?

It’s been weird six month. This summer I am in New York. The summer felt pretty good, it seems we are through the worst and people were out and about and going back to living their lives. Now fall comes and we will see what happens. 

How does it feel to release an album in those times? We interviewed artists with quite opposite opinions. Some say people can´t focus on music at the moment as they are distracted with more important things while others say it’s especially important now to have the distraction of music. Which side are you on?

What I have been seeing is that people are very grateful for music that has come out, both a as a distraction but also as a spiritual nourishment, like some sort of comfort. Music sometimes works like food, where it comforts you and make you ready for the fight ahead. That side to me is quite beautiful. 

Honestly, I was very thankful that you released that album. For me music is exactly what you just described, it gives me comfort and positiveness. It often helps to escape reality, although I have to say that your album “Generations” pushes you right into reality. 

(laughing) Oops. 

I have the feeling it´s not an album for pure distraction, it´s music you have to dive deep into and confront. 

Yes, it definitely has an urgency to it. It is contiguous with the last four or five years which have been very intense, especially in the US but all around the world. So, it´s definitely coming from the same soil as this mad year. 

I think you already started working on the album before the whole lockdown happened?

I finished recording the album on March 9, I thought that was the perfect time, so it was marked in my calendar. It happened that just a few days later New York shut down and went into complete lockdown. Mixing then took probably the next six weeks; half the record was mixed in Montreal. And suddenly we had to deal with a lot of things like schools closing, people had to figure out helping their parents and how to get help for other people. It was suddenly chaos and a terrifying time. That itself was complicated even though only the mixing was left to do. 

Interestingly enough the record sounds as if it was written with all the things happening already in your head. It fits so much with the times. 

Yes, I kept checking in with the record and I thought yes, it’s still the same world. So much  has come out of the police crisis, the refugee crisis happening at the same time, which is still ongoing. These where part of the impetus for the world we are in right now. The pandemic is particularly strange and not what I was imagining. It just adds to the weirdness that was already there. 

I saw you live several times with your band Arcade Fire and also solo. You seem to be such a live person. The new songs sound to me like they’re made for being performed live. How do you feel about not being able to play them now?

I am really sad to not be touring this fall. I planned on touring the US before the election in September and October. I wanted to do political town halls where I can have local politicians and invite activists to talk about shit. Now I´m very sad to not be able to do that. It´s such a crazy time and I want to be useful, useful in a sense of being able to talk to people in different cities about important stuff. It´s hard to not have that toolbox. Also, the songs were very much written live. I booked shows before we went into the studio and we were trying to figure out how to play the songs live. 

That sounds tough, so it´s even more devastating not being able to do it. What do you do now to raise your voice?

It´s hard. I´m not that good at the internet. I do some stuff online but this is not my natural medium. So what I’m doing is I´m talking to friends, my wife and I are also very active in our community. I think it´s very important to have that intimate connection to friends and family and talk to them. 

Listening to your lyrics you seem to have a lot of questions but no answers. I think none of us do, but it makes exchange of thoughts even more important to make sure the head is not exploding.

Yes exactly. For me music is a force that is moving forward, by its nature it is a creative act. To me there is hope in the music and hope in the drums that are a bit of a propulsion. But there is not a lot of hope or knowledge in the head. I think that is a bit true for all of us these days. Our heads are completely toasted. Nevertheless, there is still hope in our friendships, there is still hope in our neighborhoods, there is still hope in our families. 

It´s great that you talk about hope. That would have been actually my last question, what gives you hope? I think we all need something positive to not go totally mental. 

Yes, very much though and you have to be grateful to see a lot of people around you being safe and remind yourself that you are not alone. Follow the ones who have a good common sense and surround yourself with the good ones out there. 

What I learned is also being thankful for the little things and everything we took for granted for a long time. I, for example, took concerts for granted. I could never imagine that there is a world without live music. When I see videos from gigs it feels like another life. 

You are so right. I could also never envision that this is going to happen and now I´m like what? It´s genuinely deeply confusing. It is going to echo in our lives for a very long time how strange this year was. 

Talking about how important friends and family are – you have recorded “Generations” with the same solo band as “Policy”. Do you need that intimacy of knowing the people well you work with?

Yes, my actual touring band consisted of my wife’s sister Julie, my wife contributed a lot to the record – she is a great musician, and Sara Dobbs who is a friend and was our neighbor in New York. My drummer Miles is also part of it. There is a lot there, we’ve been playing together for five years now. There is a lot of instinct and call and response, that’s hard to manufacture. That´s how it works; you always work with the people you are familiar with. 

You come from a very musical family with your grandfather Alvino Rey being a musician, your mom playing the harp, you and your brother in the same band. Is the title “Generations” referring to that legacy?

Yes, very much so. My mom’s grandfather was the last son of a Mormon pioneer from across the American west. He decided to be a musician and he encouraged his children to be musicians. My grandmother, who grew up in a family band, married the grand Alvino, they had kids who were all musicians, so there is a beautiful heritage that stretches back and such a deep privilege to have. But there are also very horrifying things you inherit, every country and every people inherit their different stretch of horrors, as part of why they are where they are. In America it is particularly situated around race and gender. I think we are starting to unpack those burdens as a country but this will take a couple of generations. 

Tackling those inherited problems will be even harder if Trump will be elected again. 

(sighs) That’s going to be really dark. I can´t predict anything anymore, my capacity for prediction is just gone but if it happens it will be really bad. 

So now we are back at all the questions you have in your songs about the past, the future and where we are. 

You are exactly right!

You have lived in Canada for quite some time. Do you sometimes wish you have stayed there?

No, never to be honest. I love Montreal, it´s one of the greatest cities in the world and I have friends and family there. I am very American and that is my thing I have to deal with – these are my problems, I´m a citizen here – let´s try to fix it to the extent we can. 

Do you see the future differently since you became a father? You have always been a very political person but did something change since you have a family?

Having kids didn´t really change my vision of the past or future in a particular way. It´s not like now I make sure my kids have a better world but I feel like I have learned a lot about humanity, about nature and nurture and where humans come from and particular reasons why they are cruel and why they are kind and something about fundamental things like human love. I learned a lot about all those things in the past years. I feel a great responsibility – not so much to make a better world for them but to make sure that they´ve got their shit together as much as I can. 

Unfortunately, we are running out of time. I could go on with you forever. I wish you all the best for the record. I really appreciate that you put some good music out, although it is something you have to get your head around and digest while swaying to the joyful tunes. 

Thank you. This is something very meaningful. Thank you for letting me know. 

I have to be honest I also need a deeper thought about your video for “Bethlehem” which you just have released. 

I´m thinking in metaphors my whole life, so I was like let´s just cook our way through this one. Let´s just cook some of our anger and fear into a big meal. 

To me at first glance it looked like a big feast inspired by Klu Klux Klan in a way. Watching it once I was not quite sure what feelings to have about the scenery; if it’s something positive or negative. 

Oh wow, I was not intending that but that is not the worst vision of it. It was part of the goal to create something beautiful but also horrifying. It´s a horror film kind of comedy. It should be contradictory, so you are absolutely right with your feelings.  

So again, good luck for the record and let´s hope that we can get all back together again at a concert and celebrate and sing and shout together and enjoy the moment. 

Thank you. Thank you so much. And yes let´s hope so (sighs). Fingers crossed on that one.