Spotlight: Will Butler

Mike Greenhaus on May 4, 2015

As a core member of Arcade Fire, Will Butler helped define Montreal’s signature sound at the dawn of the modern indie-rock boom. But these days, he’s in more of a New York state of mind.

“I made a lame joke that John Lennon was an American musician because he was living in New York in the 1970s, and his music sounds like New York in the 1970s,” the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist says shortly before the release of Policy, his solo debut on Merge Records. “And I think there is a bit of New York in the 2010s on my album.”

Since Arcade Fire exploded after the release of their break- through debut Funeral in 2004, Butler has largely existed in the shadow of an older sibling who shares his initials (and, actually, most of the letters in his name). The product of several distinct North American regions, brothers Will and Win Butler were born in California and came of age just outside of Houston before moving east to attend the prestigious New England boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy. As a child, Will says he lived on a steady diet of classical music— his mother is a harpist—until he discovered The Beatles, which led him to Radiohead and The Cure. “Things went from there,” Butler says as he quickly scans his musical trajectory.

Will attended Northwestern University near Chicago, where he excelled in poetry, met his wife and was drafted into Arcade Fire by his brother and future sister-in-law Régine Chassagne in time for their full-length debut. Throughout Arcade Fire’s rapid ascent to arena-size fame, he’s carved out an identity as Win Butler’s slightly younger and more hyper brother, bouncing around the stage and switching between keyboards, guitar, bass and myriad of other instruments.

“The songs are really written by Win and Régine in Arcade Fire, particularly the lyrics,” Butler says of the ensemble’s creative process. “We all collaborate musically, but it is their world.”

In his corner of that world, Butler has always played around with song ideas and shared those fragments with his band— he describes himself as a “fierce drafter”—but until recently most of his extracurricular activities were outside the rock realm. (Last year, he racked up an Oscar nod with fellow indie-classical ambassador Owen Pallett for their work on Her’s score.)

“I’ve had bits of songs sitting around for the last 25 years, some more in the stage of completion than others,” he says of the scraps he’s played with on piano or guitar during his spare time. “I had 10 songs I had written in the last three or four years and, of those, I really liked three or four of them as the basis of the album.”

In May, between legs of an extended Arcade Fire tour, Butler booked a week at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, where his primary project recently mixed their chart- topping 2013 album, Reflektor. Along with Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara and a few other friends, like touring Arcade Fire saxophonist Matt Bauder, he crammed into a cozy section of the studio that once functioned as Jimi Hendrix’s apartment and laid down most of the album’s basic tracks. “There is an open window that looks onto Sixth Ave—rugs everywhere and a nice piano,” Butler says. “We’d work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and break for dinner, I’d go home and put my kid to bed and come back 9 p.m. to midnight. It was long git-er- done days.”

Butler recorded a few additional bits on the road, including some contributions from another member of Arcade Fire’s touring ensemble, Antibalas/Superhuman Happiness saxophonist Stuart Bogie, and after sitting with the songs for a few months, mixed and polished Policy with Arcade Fire engineer Mark Lawson at the band’s Montreal studio. A sharp turn from Arcade Fire’s orchestra-size approach, Butler played most of the instruments on Policy himself.

“It is not DIY—it is very professional—but there is something in the moment and consciously slapdash about the album,” he admits. “I wanted to make some stupid jokes and surprising contrasts.”

Lyrically, he also opted for a mix of highbrow humor and slacker delivery, namechecking witty writers like James Murphy, Violent Femmes, Randy Newman and, perhaps most surprising, Ghostface Killah as inspirations. “I always knew Randy Newman from Toy Story, but his 1970s albums are some of the hardest-core things I ever heard in my life,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted every line to paint a rounder image.”

Butler tested out his first batch of original songs between Arcade Fire shows—lugging his gear and amps to small venues while on the road and performing on his own. During Arcade Fire’s upcoming off-season, he’s lined up a series of club dates with keyboardist Julie Shore, Antibalas drummer Miles Arntzen and a few singers who earned their stripes on Broadway.

“Part of the Antibalas connection stems from spending so much time in New York where they are so present everywhere,” says Butler, who constantly travels back and forth between Montreal and New York with his family. “They aren’t afraid to be confrontational.”

The result is the first true “New York record” to hover in the Arcade Fire orbit; a punky mélange of 21st-century Downtown New York sounds that nod to Arcade Fire’s more biting moments like “Joan Of Arc” and “Month Of May.” “Take My Side” has the garage- soul swagger of an early Strokes song, while “Anna” flirts with the disco-revival beats popularized by recent Arcade Fire collaborator James Murphy and is seasoned with Bogie’s Afrobeat brass. “Finish What I Started” rubs right up against New York icon Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” and “Son Of God” is spiked with groovy, percussive handclaps that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Vampire Weekend or Dirty Projectors record.

“It is more Rubber Soul than Sgt. Pepper,” Butler sums up. “A short record that’s an effective punch to the hip.”