‘IT’S LIKE THE PAINS OF BIRTH’

Ar­cade Fire’s Win But­ler makes the case for never do­ing the same thing twice

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - INTERVIEW WIN BUTLER - WORDS BY DEAN VAN NGUYEN

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 I’ve jour­neyed to see: Ar­cade Fire’s Win But­ler.

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 singer and in­stru­men­tal­ist is a deep thinker, philo­soph­i­cal about his art. Ar­cade Fire are 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,” he says of their last two records. “We still have our same in­flu­ences – post-punk 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.”

Crit­i­cal­re­ac­tion

This is the first of a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions that But­ler en­gages with the crit­i­cal re­ac­tion to Ev­ery­thing Now with­out be­ing prod­ded. 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 the or­der of re­lease.

“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.”

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 such as Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and Leonard Co­hen.

“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. So can But­ler feel a tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence in his fans?

“Our au­di­ence has changed on ev­ery record. 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 later, 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 guess fail­ure to me would be phon­ing it in and not mean­ing it,” he said.

‘‘ 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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRYAN DERBALLA/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Win But­ler: “I guess fail­ure to me would be phon­ing it in and not mean­ing it.”

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