No matter how much professional rock critics and casual cultural commentators may find the Grammy-winning alt-rock act Arcade Fire exhausting, the group shows no signs of fading away. Arcade Fire’s fifth LP, Everything Now, was released a few weeks ago to some of the most negative reviews the band has yet received, with songs slammed for everything from earnest preachiness to clumsily ripping off old disco records. Yet the album still became Arcade Fire’s third straight to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, with some of the year’s highest sales figures. And after a successful European summer tour (which helped goose some of Everything Now’s initial singles up the charts overseas), the band’s about to begin a jaunt through North American arenas in September.
Days after Everything Now’s release, Win Butler spoke with The A.V. Club about making and marketing the record, as well as Arcade Fire’s fluctuating critical reputation and why he thinks people who’ve already made up their minds to dislike the band may be missing out on the wit, exuberance, and communal connection that fans enjoy.
The A.V. Club: It took about eight months to record Everything Now. How much of that time was spent actively working on it?
Win Butler: Well, we’ve ended up building a studio for every record, so that takes time. The space you make it in ends up being the first step of figuring out how it’s going to sound.
AVC: Wasn’t this one recorded in multiple studios?
WB: Yes, but I would say 80 percent of it was recorded in New Orleans, in our tiny studio. We did some sessions in Paris and a little bit in Montreal, but not too much. Just some finishing touches. Régine [Chassagne] and I moved to New Orleans, but my brother’s in New York, and the rest of the band’s in Montreal, so the guys would come down for a couple weeks at a time and we’d record for two weeks or so. Then they’d go away and we’d listen to stuff. It’s a process.
Every once in awhile you get a gift of something that’s super easy. Like “Good God Damn” is an example of one of the most stripped-down things we’ve ever done. We cut it at midnight, with the guys flying out the next day. I had Tim [Kingsbury] and Jeremy [Gara] play it with me to make a demo so I could figure out what the lyrics were going to be. We played it once and never touched it again. It ended up being this perfect take.
But most songs just take forever, to figure out how the pieces all fit together. It’s historically taken us about a year to make a record. Even the first EP. There’s just certain things that we have to go through.
AVC: Do you do a lot of tinkering with the style and arrangements? For example on the new album, you have multiple versions of “Infinite Content” and “Everything Now.” Is that a common practice for you, to record different styles of the same song?
WB: Sometimes. Part of the idea with “Infinite Content” was that we put a thing online that was just the MIDI files and a score, and we had a bunch of people submit versions. The idea of that was to end up with 150 versions of the same song. A friend of mine who plays in this amazing Cajun band called Lost Bayou Ramblers just sent me a zydeco version of “Infinite Content” in Creole. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve heard a Kraftwerk-type version of it. Pretty all over the place.
AVC: On both Reflektor and Everything Now you’ve worked with high-profile collaborators like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter. What do you get out of that process, bringing in someone not in Arcade Fire to work on a song?
WB: It’s mostly stuff we’ve done through friendship. James, we toured with, and we’ve been friends with him for a long time. We were actually talking about working together on Neon Bible, and it never really lined up. Markus Dravs first came in just to help us with our studio. We owned a small church outside of Montreal where we recorded Neon Bible. Markus had recorded Post and Homogenic, and our manager was managing Björk at the time, and Björk is one of my all-time heroes, so Markus came out to help us with some recording and ended up becoming a lifelong friend. Same thing with Steven Mackey [of Pulp] and Thomas.
These people all have just incredible taste in music. I think when you’ve been in a band for a really long time, sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s good about yourself. It’s easy to play something and get too focused on some small detail. It’s helpful to have somebody around who can say, “No, that was good.” Just so you don’t get too lost or forget what you do. You need somebody you really trust who has great taste.
AVC: Do you think that critics read too much into all that? If they find out that you worked with someone from Daft Punk, do they say, “This song sounds like Daft Punk?”
WB: Yes. [Laughs.] One hundred percent. I think probably everyone that has worked on an Arcade Fire record would be just as happy to do it anonymously. Five years from now, it won’t really matter, but during the promotion of a record, when people are writing reviews, I feel like a lot of people don’t take the time to understand it. It’s like people are still writing reviews of Reflektor with our new album. They say, “James Murphy is into dance-y music. James Murphy made Arcade Fire be dance-y.” And what’s funny is that an extremely large percentage of the world’s population has never even heard of Arcade Fire or James Murphy. That collaboration is really only interesting to people who write about music and the small part of the demographic who pay attention to those kind of details.
AVC: It’s not at all uncommon for people who write about music to be “over” a band that a large, large portion of the world has never heard of.
WB: Yeah, but maybe it works in the opposite way, too. If you were a critic when our first record came out, you kind of had to like it. I’m sure there were people who had to pretend to like it because it would’ve seemed uncool not to. It’s a cyclical thing.
So yeah, there’s blowback. But I’ve been experiencing that to some extent since we formed. I remember an early Arcade Fire show, where we played a song called “Headlights Look Like Diamonds,” which is kind of a dance-y, New Order song. It was our first hit, really. We played it, the crowd went crazy, and everyone was dancing. Even these super punk kids were just losing their minds, until like, a week later, when we played again and the context had changed. I saw them lose their shit, and then a week later they were all, “This band sucks.”
And it’s been like that for a long time. It wasn’t very cool to like Bruce Springsteen in the ’90s. When Nirvana was huge, there weren’t a lot of people saying, “You know who’s amazing? Bruce Springsteen.” You know what I mean? It’s very cyclical. And impossible for us to control.
AVC: I’ve had a somewhat different relationship with your band, in that I wrote a mixed review of Funeral and was converted by Neon Bible. More specifically, my mind was changed by your Austin City Limits performance. There was something about seeing the songs from the first two records in a live context. Suddenly, the music made sense. You’ve had a strong reputation as a live act from the very beginning. When you’re working on a record, how much do you think about how the songs are going to translate onstage?
WB: We’re essentially a live band, so they’re completely related. I don’t think about it like, “How’s this going to sound in an arena?” But we’re on our fifth record now, so we already have all the songs we wrote already, and with the songs we haven’t written we’re trying to do stuff that’ll serve a different purpose.
We’ve traveled the world so much and have played our music for so many different cultures and for so many different people. You can really feel how people react differently to different music in different places. Even within Europe, there’s such a big difference between a big French crowd and a big English crowd, or a big Portuguese crowd and a big Spanish crowd. There are different nuances in rhythm, and different feelings and different lyrics that translate differently. If we’re playing Coachella, a song that people are going to be really into isn’t the same song that people are going to be into if we’re playing Port-Au-Prince.
By the way, Austin City Limits is great. I grew up in Houston, and I still remember seeing Tom Waits on Austin City Limits. It’s still what I think about most when I think of Tom Waits. It really felt like he was from outer space. What is this music? Who is this person? I never got super deep into Tom Waits, but it still resonated for me.
I kind of feel the same way about The White Stripes. The White Stripes did a performance on one of Conan O’Brien’s shows, and I don’t even remember what the record was or the song, but Jack White was playing the guitar, and he went over to Conan’s desk doing his guitar solo, and I was like, “I can never talk shit about this band.” That one performance was so great that they could’ve honestly made 50 horrible records and I’d never talk shit about The White Stripes. Because I know they’re fucking for real.
It’s all really deeply related to the live thing, to me. The records and the concerts give each other life.
AVC: You played several of the new songs during the European leg of your tour before the album came out. Have you learned anything from playing them live?
WB: Everything Now is our first album where the songs have been played on pop radio in Europe. Radio 1 and Radio 2 in the U.K., which, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that. And it’s interesting, because when you really know a song, it’s amazing what your mind does. Your mind fills in all sorts of details.
When I went to see Prince play just before he passed, he was doing a greatest-hits kind of show. Like, every single fucking song he played the whole night, you’d heard a million times—and it almost didn’t matter what he was playing, because your mind knows the material so well that it fills in all the details. It’s really different.
So it’s interesting, because we got a really amazing energy playing in Montreal and in Europe, and a really great response. It’s some of the funnest shows we’ve played in a long time.
AVC: Even though the lyrics on Everything Now are often bleak, the music seems more joyous than Reflektor. Is that fair to say?
WB: I don’t know. I think we tried to make a funky record—something that we found satisfying rhythmically. I don’t really think of our band as dance music, although in the U.K., you’d hear songs from Funeral on some clubs’ disco nights, because we’ve always made music that favors four-on-the-floor. That’s one of our go-to things. If you hear the new record through a big system, there’s a lot going on in the low end. A song like “Good God Damn” sounds like a little song, but you put it in a big PA, it’s massive. There’s nothing in the low end fighting for those frequencies, which was something I was a lot more aware of on a production standpoint, just from deejaying and hearing music in different systems. You start to appreciate amplification.
I was deejaying at a party and they had this enormous PA, playing super-banging house music all night. I played “Use Me” by Bill Withers, and it nearly blew out the whole thing, because even though it’s just electric bass and a little bit of drums, the amount of low information in an acoustic bass is actually insane. Same thing with “Iko Iko,” which is someone playing a double bass and someone hitting some cans. Put it in a big system and it’s like, “Holy shit!” What is going on on the low end of these records?
That was definitely something I wasn’t as aware of, like, five years ago. I’d never heard a lot of that music on a real PA.
AVC: As I recall, there was a Rolling Stone magazine article back in the ’80s about the making of Don Henley’s Building The Perfect Beast, where the reporter mentioned that Henley insisted on taking the tapes of the final mixes to his jeep, to hear how they sounded coming out of those speakers. Do you do anything like that? Testing out the different ways an album will sound?
WB: We have a bar in Montreal, a Haitian bar, where there’s a really good sound system—a big, proper, Jamaican-style sound system. I definitely play mixes in there sometimes. Compared to the stuff you’re listening to on your laptop, it’s almost like 3-D versus 2-D.
AVC: The marketing of this record has been unusual, in that you released a new video of a new song every week or two, over a month in advance of the release.
WB: We put out four songs, I think every two weeks. So the whole thing was two months basically, from when we released the first song. And that was probably two months sooner than someone on the label would tell you to do it. But the speed at which things come and go has hit such a point that under normal circumstances a record doesn’t stand much of a chance to have people hear it. Everything seems like it’s around for forever now, but that’s just because news cycles are so fast and so early.
Look at Funeral. It came out in September in the U.S., but didn’t come out in the U.K. until six months later, because we didn’t have a record deal outside of America for those six months. It came out overseas, and we did the whole promotion thing again. Back then we were in a van, with one cellphone, and we didn’t have a manager. I don’t even fully understand how press people got our number. Régine and I did a press tour by ourselves. I think it was our first time to Europe. We thought, “Oh, it’s going to be fancy, and we’re going to get to see all of Europe,” and then it was just, like, traveling from city to city in a room from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., talking to journalists.
If that happened now, people would be like, “What went wrong?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Was the decision to put out these videos so early all guided by the band?
WB: Yeah, it was just a way to give people a chance to hear some of the record, because once it comes out, it’s like people are onto the next thing immediately. This was an opportunity for people to spend some time with songs they might not have paid attention to otherwise. Ultimately, that’s what it’s about, getting people to hear the music. That’s why you make it.
AVC: Were you tracking the response? Seeing what fans had to say, what critics had to say, how many hits it was getting?
WB: No. I mean, I think the internet is where negativity thrives, very easily. People get an emotional hit from it. It’s unhealthy to worry too much what people think—and particularly what someone thinks who’s just hearing something for the first time and writing a response as they’re listening. That’s not useful information.
AVC: Can anticipating the response affect your creative process? Multiple pop artists lately have put out records that have tried to make a social statement and have been mocked or even pilloried. Everything Now doesn’t shy away from sociopolitical commentary. Did you think about how it might be received?
WB: Whenever you do anything or say anything, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. But that’s okay. That’s part of the deal. We’re a political band. Like, we didn’t expressly make a record about Donald Trump, but I’m not interested in pretending like he’s not the president, or that it’s not an insane cesspool of nightmare reality that we’re all living in, all day, every day.
It’s no accident that Donald Trump is by far the most successful Twitter user in the history of Twitter. He’s the master—the Rembrandt of Twitter. But the hope with some of the social media stuff we’re doing is to work with some really funny writers and… I don’t know, just maybe have people be a little more critical about what they’re reading. It’s meant to be kind of lighthearted, in a somewhat toxic environment.
AVC: It’s not unusual for Arcade Fire to do something lighthearted, because your presentation is so theatrical and theatricality often demands a certain amount of whimsy. The band is often pegged as serious and dour, but do people miss your sense of humor?
WB: I think it’s possible that people miss the point. But what are you going to do?
It reminds me of an interview I read where Sacha Baron Cohen was talking about this insane French clowning school that he went to, to study the tradition of clowning. There was this very serious clown-master, and when people would get up onstage, he had a little bell that he would ring, and the second he’d ring the bell, you were done. You weren’t funny. You were off the stage.
So he’s doing his bit, and the teacher started ringing the bell, and he just kept ignoring him. The teacher got angrier and angrier, and kept ringing the bell more and more, getting more and more furious. He said, “In that moment, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The clown teacher yelling at me for clowning, ringing that bell and being furious, is the funniest, highest form of clowning that could possibly exist.”
I find that really inspiring. [Laughs.]
AVC: When a band’s starting out, people try to pigeonhole who you sound like, which means you’ll get questioned a lot about your influences. But you don’t get asked about that as much once you’ve established your own sound, even though your roots can become even more tangled as you evolve—especially if you’re as successful as Arcade Fire. So I’ll ask, have your musical role models changed, from Funeral to Everything Now?
WB: Well, there are different things you look up to about different artists. Look at someone like Tom Waits or Neil Young or David Bowie or even Dylan to a certain extent. They’ve all been so uncompromising. The real question though may be, who would I change careers with? And there’s no one where I’m like, “Man, I wish that was my life.” I’m very proud and satisfied with where we’re at as a band, and how we’ve done it.
Y’know, we’re just still in the middle of this thing. My grandfather was 96 when he passed away, and he was still playing until he was, like, 94, and still recording in the basement. He had ProTools on his computer, in the basement recording himself with an optic pedal on the guitar, making bass lines and shit. He’s my role model.