Arcade Fire’s Will Butler on mining his family history for new solo album ‘Generations’: “It’s not coincidental that me and my brother continue to be musicians”
As someone who plays alongside his brother in one of the most successful bands in the world, it’s clear that family has always been pivotal in Will Butler’s life.
For new solo album ‘Generations’ – out in September via Merge – Butler dug even deeper into generation after generation of his family, slowly coming to terms with his place as an artist, and an American, pouring the new findings into his second solo effort.
The Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist previews ‘Generations’ today (July 14) with first single ‘Surrender’, a joyous call-and-response folk-pop track. Listen to it below alongside our new interview with Butler.
Speaking to NME about the new single and album, Butler discussed the job of white artists during an era of Black Lives Matter protests, what to expect from ‘Generations’, and the future of Arcade Fire. Check out our whole interview with Butler below.
Your new album sees you dive further back into your family history – what did you find?
“My dad’s side has been in New England since the 1600s. The first Butler came over from England in about 1630 to Boston. They’ve lived on a handful of islands in Maine since the 1700s, and they’re still fighting over the old hay fields. Siblings and cousins still periodically fight over it. ‘No, that’s MY piece of the salt marsh!’
“My mum’s side were Mormon pioneers driven out of America by mob violence. Before that, the founder of my mum’s branch was a Portuguese sailor who washed up on the beach in New York in the 1600s. People had all these theories, but the one that’s most compelling is that it was a sailor whose last name was Rodriguez, and everyone called him Joe Drigs, so Drigs became the last name.”
And what about your musical ancestry?
“My mum is a musician, and her parents were musicians, and my grandmother grew up playing a pre-depression variety show in the American west, driving across the desert before there were even roads in the desert… just going from church to church and getting kicked out of towns. Her father was the last child of a polygamous Mormon and wanted to become a musician. That’s at the end of the 19th century. He said, ‘I want to be a musician!’ and he failed, but his kids did it. Very concretely, what I’m doing today is rooted in 19th century America.”
Is your ancestry something you and Win discussed a lot when you were starting Arcade Fire?
“The very first b-side of the very first Arcade Fire single was a recording of a performance by our grandfather. It was a ’40s radio broadcast that was recorded. There’s a whole line of musicians, and me and my brother continue to be musicians. It’s not coincidental. There’s something really beautiful about that, and something really poisonous about that. I think in generations of musicians, there is very little that’s poisonous about it, but it’s more about generations of power. Why I own a house is rooted in the 19th century and before. There’s great value in knowing the truth for its own sake, and then thinking, ‘What do you do with that truth?’. It’s about exhuming the truth and working out, ‘My god, how the hell did we get here?’.”
Does ‘Surrender’ feel representative of the whole album?
I think it’s one of the poles of the album. Both sonically and in attitude, there’s a joyous side and a guitar-based side, and this is the guitar-led, joyous, ecstatic portion. Then there’s a really sludgy synth-based side, and a ‘trying to be honest, despair-filled’ side.
The new single’s video sees you discuss the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter movement – has lockdown been a time of self-examination for you as a white artist?
I got a masters degree in Public Policy in 2017, starting at the end of 2016, and it was quite a time to be in a politics school. Partly, I realised that I am in the public sphere already, and I thought: what am I going to do with this? I’m a powerful person. I didn’t particularly seek it out, but I needed to work out what I was going to do with this [power]. That question, not shockingly, continues to be relevant. Back in 2015, people thought that you were so racist for saying Black Lives Matter, that was the default. Now, people see that it’s a serious problem, and the polling shows that. People see that how the police treat Black people is a problem.
And you and the band have done significant charity work before…
Arcade Fire had been working with [Haitian charity] Partners In Health for a decade, and I wanted to see how I could support what they were doing in a better way. If I have any power at all, it’s as an American. I can help Haiti, and donate money, but I don’t speak Creole and I don’t live in Haiti, so I’m fundamentally limited. I live in America, and I’ve got generations of experience in a certain type of America, so what do I do with that?
Since your album has been finished, how have you been spending your time?
Arcade Fire was recording. Well, we were recording… But now our drummer is in Australia, two of us are in Canada, and the rest are in America. Australia are having a crazy outbreak, the border to Canada is sealed right now… like, Jesus Christ. It takes more logistics to get together. It always took a certain amount of logistics, but right now it’s insurmountable.
How far had you got with a new record before you had to stop?
I’ll only know that when it’s done. Like, ‘Oh, half of it came from before [lockdown]’, or ‘None of it came from before!’. Who knows.
Are you able to do stuff remotely and send ideas back and forth while you’re all quarantined?
None of us quite have the file management skills for it to be creative at the moment. It’s hard, and that’s partly why I made my own videos for ‘Surrender’ and stuff. I wanted to go out into the world!
Will Butler’s new album ‘Generations’ comes out on September 25 via Merge.