Win Butler: ‘The first time we played Wake Up we lost half our audience'
The Arcade Fire frontman believes being an artist is all about change – changing audiences and changing influences
Win Butler of Arcade Fire: 'I guess failure to me would be phoning it in and not meaning it.' Photograph: Bryan Derballa/The New York Times
Accessing the 3Arena’s backstage area is like trying to gain entry to The Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City. Stand in front of the imposing metal gates on North Wall Quay and the top of the building resembles a kind of futuristic skyline that twinkles and glistens. This is where I’m perched, waiting for the equivalent of Oz’s Guardian of the Gates to grant me entry. Deep inside the building’s catacombs is the man that I’ve journeyed to see: Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, a fabled wizard of modern indie rock.
A few hours before the Canadian band are due to scorch the venue with their arena-shuddering sound, Butler enters its members-only 1887 Bar. The 6ft sorcerer is decked out in what a generous person might excuse as pre-gig relaxation clothes: a black hoodie, trucker hat, garishly bright runners and socks decorated with pictures of snowballs – an ice and syrup snack that, as Butler explains , is “a New Orleans thing”.
The singer and instrumentalist seems to know a lot about snowballs but he probably knows a lot about any subject he takes an interest in. He’s a deep thinker and philosophical about his art. Arcade Fire is probably the most critically slobbered over band of their generation and Butler’s natural inclination is to frame all topics of conversation within the broader context of their legacy. And why the hell not? If what you do as an artist doesn’t mean something in 100 years, did you really do anything?
The latest ripple of Arcade Fire’s brilliant body of work is Everything Now, which dropped nine months ago. The record’s jittery funk, blue-eyed soul and Big Easy bluster represented the sharpest stylistic swerve for a group that have always tested their audience. Though forever associated with the Montreal music scene, Butler lives in New Orleans now with his wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne, which has exposed the pair to different rhythms, particularly more Caribbean-style sounds.
“I find some of the centre of gravity of the band over the course of Reflektor and Everything Now has shifted,” says Butler, referencing their last two records. “We still have our same influences – our post-punk influences and British influences – but some of the music that might not make as much sense to a North American ear makes a lot of sense to a Latin American ear or a Caribbean ear.
“That’s one of the really profound things about playing new music and touring the world – you can feel the difference. When we play in Dublin and then we play in Birmingham, people come to the concert with a completely different conception of music, even though they’re so close to each other. So the way that songs hit people completely changes based on what you think music is for. I think the critical darling niche from where we were coming from was a lot closer to where a lot of these writers were coming from, and I think where we’re coming from now is something that is not trying to do the same thing.”
This is the first of a couple of occasions that Butler engages with the critical reaction to Everything Now without being directly prodded on the subject. For me, the album is an incredible achievement, yet it’s the first Arcade Fire album not received with an overwhelmingly gushing response. Butler insists he’s not bothered, though. In the future, he reasons, kids won’t discover his music through symmetrical album cycles. They’ll first be exposed to Arcade Fire in the same way Butler first heard The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love playing on the radio at his home in Houston. From there, he absorbed that band’s catalogue without caring about what order it was released.
“It completely changes the way that you relate to that music – it’s outside of an album cycle, it’s outside of a promotional thing,” says Butler. “That’s the part that gets really exciting to me this far into a band. You have kids hearing a song for the first time. They’ve never heard anything off Funeral, they’ve no preconceived notion of what it’s supposed to be... That’s where it started to get really interesting from an artistic perspective for me.”
Test of time
In three years’ time, Arcade Fire will be 20 years old. If you scour rock history, the bands that make it to the two-decade mark rarely go on to create a swell of new music that compares favourably to their earlier recordings. So how does Butler grapple with that prospect? By pointing to artists like Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.
I literally remember watching people running out of the room while we were playing it. They were horrified by it.
“Some of the stuff he made when he was 58 or 60 was just as good,” says Butler of Cohen. “I would be more sceptical if everything was positive all the time. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were like the most lauded band of their era and I don’t know who’s necessarily listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer records now. People listen to Abba and the Bee Gees, that’s the shit that actually stood the test of time.”
As Arcade Fire age, their audience changes too. First album Funeral was a huge college record. Those same students have grown up now. Their lives are different. They’ve got children of their own (later, I see parents and kids among the 3Arena crowd). So can Butler feel a tangible difference in his fans?
“Our audience has changed on every record,” he asserts. “There are people who’ve been there from the beginning. The first time we played Wake Up we lost half our audience because we were playing more acoustic music before. I literally remember watching people running out of the room while we were playing it. They were horrified by it. I knew right out of the gate that that’s sort of the deal. If that’s not happening, you’re not an artist… It’s complete pain and it’s like being born again over and over and over again. It’s like the pains of birth.”
A couple of hours after we speak, Arcade Fire enter the arena like pugilists entering a boxing venue. The stage, tonight positioned dead centre of the indoor coliseum, is even decked out to look like a ring. As Butler appears, his “boxing record” flashes up on the big screen: “Wins: all the time. Losses: never ever.” Everything Now came with the narrative that the band had taken a defeat. But can you really lose if you follow your creative impulses to the very end?
Earlier, I asked Butler if he was prepared to see failure in order to satisfy his creative urges. “I don’t know what it looks like,” he clapped back. “I guess failure to me would be phoning it in and not meaning it. That’s what failure would feel like to me.”