‘People have lost the ability to even know what a joke is’
Arcade Fire rolled out their last record, Everything Now, with a satirical ad campaign. Result? Mass confusion and bad reviews, says Laura Barton
In a corner booth, Win Butler sits beaming in a broad-brimmed black hat, at his elbow a large martini glass garnished with three fat green olives. It is Thursday evening in Manhattan’s theatre district and Butler has chosen a steakhouse once recommended to him by his late grandfather, the guitarist and swing bandleader Alvino Rey. When he began travelling the world as a teenager, Butler says, Rey would furnish him with tips. “The first time I went to London he sent me to this place that had been around for 100 years, to have the lamb chops.”
Tonight, Butler is fresh from a rehearsal for his band Arcade Fire’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. The day has seen several run-throughs of their single Put Your Money on Me, as well as a skit that references the band’s Canadian roots (though Butler and his brother Will are from Texas). It will be their fifth performance on the show, including the time they performed as Mick Jagger’s backing band, and Butler describes the series’ appeal. “Monty Python and SNL were punk bands,” he says, his voice quick and high and giddy. “They were part of that movement, but they just got on TV.”
It is surprising to find Butler in such open spirits. Last July, Arcade Fire released their fifth studio album, Everything Now, and while it debuted at No 1 on the US and UK charts – their third album to do so – and has helped sell lots of tickets for their upcoming arena tour, the critical response was more muted. Some were unconvinced by the songs. Others took issue with the album’s promotional campaign, an elaborate construct in which the band had become contractually bound to the Everything Now Corp, and were now obliged to promote marshmallows and fizzy drinks as well as their music. Simultaneously, they posted a glut of fake news stories about themselves online, from pretend album reviews to parodic lifestyle blogs.
Both album and campaign nodded to the times, but they also suggested disdain for the media; I expected to find Butler defensive and perhaps a little sullen over dinner with a journalist. Instead, he is forthright and enlivened, and close to defiant. Over oysters, crab meat and steak tartare, he discusses an array of subjects including satire, gun control and Angolan dance music, as well as the response to Everything Now. “Part of me hopes that this record is our stinker, our horrible record,” he says, eyes drawn sharp and wide. “Because if it is, then we may be the greatest band of all time. It’s pretty funny to me,” he adds, laughing. “If that’s the worst thing we can possibly do then I’m at peace.”
He seems genuinely concerned that people did not get the joke of the promotional campaign, cocreated by “really clever people” from the New Yorker and spoof news site the Onion. Had any of it simply appeared on the latter, he argues, its humour would not have been questioned. “That was what was interesting about it,” he says. “It seems that by changing the masthead to something real, it changes the context of what the joke is.”
Perhaps, in the era of Donald Trump and fake news, the joke becomes a little less funny. “Some of the critical response to the themes that we were talking about was: ‘We know this already!’” he concedes. “‘You’re worried about corporations? Boring!’ But I look at the moment we’re in. We’ve got a reality star in charge of the United States, and everything that we love and care about is filtered through this incredible corporate structure.” He gestures at my iPhone sitting on the table. There is something distorted, he says, in the suggestion that a corporation such as Apple could be so widely regarded as benign. “Like: ‘Hey, we’re not Exxon, we’re the good guys!’ We’ve all just accepted it.”
If SNL was the punk band of television, perhaps with Everything Now Arcade Fire made a stab at being the daring comedy troupe of rock music. “We felt very inspired by that golden era of [satirical 1970s magazine] National Lampoon,” Butler says. “By modern standards, some of that stuff does not fly: the photo spread saying they’d found Hitler in paradise. It’s so offensive, but so perfectly executed. You’re probably not doing it right if it’s not on that edge. A lot of comedians now say the same thing: they won’t play colleges now because you can’t tell a joke. People have lost the ability to even know what a joke is. It’s very Orwellian, it’s the canary in the coalmine. Comedians have always been at the frontline of what people have been scared to talk about, and as soon as you stop being able to do that it’s a downward slope.”
The evening prior to our chat, Arcade Fire appeared at Manhattan’s Gramercy Theatre before an audience of 600 fans, conducting a short Q&A with the director Spike Jonze, before unveiling their new David Wilson-directed video, Money + Love, starring Toni Collette. After the closing credits, the screen suddenly dropped to reveal the band ready to play a surprise show. For fans, it was a dream setlist, including Keep the Car Running, Afterlife, (Antichrist Television Blues), Rebellion (Lies), plus a cover of John Lennon’s 1973 hit Mind Games and a whisper of Radiohead’s Karma Police.
It was a reminder that Arcade Fire remain one of the most extraordinary, visceral live bands in the world. In songs from Neighbourhood to Sprawl II and Everything Now, they encourage the listener to live a life that is gutsy, physical and heartfelt,
‘We’ve learned to appreciate being in a room and seeing the whites of people’s eyes’
to resist the slow drift into numbed existence. It is a feeling they have always embodied live: from their first London shows at King’s College student union and University of London Union in March 2005 where the band marched off through the crowd, still playing; to more recent gigs, where they repeat the trick using a central stage like a boxing ring, exposed at the sides.
“We’re trying to connect, trying to get people in the back to engage,” Butler explains. “With the Reflektor tour one of the reasons for asking people to dress up for the shows was that we were then able to wear masks and be in the crowd and hang out and have a vibe of what’s going on. There’s a certain power in the rock star: they’re bigger than life and you can’t touch them. Being in the audience breaks that wall.”
But in a social media age when that wall is constantly broken, returning to the music has, Butler feels, become a difficult yet vital task. He tells two stories. The first involves the parade they put on in New Orleans (pictured below) following the death of David Bowie, a friend and supporter of the band. Announced at 24 hours’ notice, it attracted 10,000 people, turning the city into a joyous musical wake. “It shut down the entire downtown,” he remembers. “People in full makeup, little kids, dogs with the [Bowie] lightning bolt. It was the most beautiful, profound thing: all these people needed to mourn. We had to make a noise for this man. It gives me chills thinking about it.” The second involves a musician friend who plays with the city’s Preservation Hall brass band and made a documentary about the musical relationship between New Orleans and Cuba. When the friend had his tuba stolen, the story was reported widely, Butler says, but no one wrote a word about his film. “And when we made a T-shirt with Kylie Jenner on it [as part of the Everything Now campaign], it got more press than if we made the most beautiful thing. It’s a weird, weird moment.”
In a backstage room before the Gramercy show, I sit with three more members of the band – multiinstrumentalists Will Butler, Richard Reed Parry and Tim Kingsbury – discussing being musicians in the age of online entertainment.
“I think the online world has gotten a lot more brutal over the past few years,” says Will, who is a steadier presence than his older brother. “Both commercially and artistically, the way you get chewed up is so raw and radical. We were always a physical band, an inthe-room band, we always sought eye-toeye connection. But as Netflix has come along, and people have come to watch 30 years’ worth of work in a weekend and be, like, ‘Cool! B-minus!’, we’ve learned to appreciate being in a room and seeing the whites of people’s eyes.”
“We also got popular at the moment that people were starting to talk positively about things on the internet,” Reed Parry points out. “And people were paying attention to that positive talk, and that fed into us becoming a known entity. But it’s now such an insane horrible dragon chasing itself.”
Will loves Twitter, but sees it as “a place to shut up and listen”, where he can follow political activists and “a lot of radical Native American voices that you don’t get access to unless you’re online.”
Back at the steakhouse, Win Butler is talking about the home he and the band’s Régine Chassagne bought in New Orleans to live with their son, Eddie. “If you told me I’d be living in the American south again, where the prison system, healthcare and education is so crazy, a system set up to screw over poor people …” he shakes his head. “That part is really hard to get used to.
“But I think the American left are crazy, too,” he says. “I’m an independent, I’ve never been a registered Democrat. I voted for Obama, I’ve only voted for Democrats, but I have no horse in that race, no one I have any affiliation to. My heroes are Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I’m way more on the side of MLK than I am Occupy Wall Street in terms of my personal philosophy. The thing about the civil rights movement was it was about something very specific, and I find that the left is just devouring itself. Concerning itself with things that are not particularly healthy; not focusing on accomplishing actual things, just surface things.”
When Obama ran in the Democratic party primaries, Arcade Fire got in their van and drove to Ohio to play shows in support. “And then the second he got elected it was like: ‘We did it!’” He smugly claps his hands. “He was like: ‘OK, I want to work on healthcare’, but everyone was just like: ‘Cool, we did it! You’re the first black president!’ I don’t even count it as Obama’s failure. It’s our failure as a people.”
At the close of the Gramercy show, he encourages the audience to join the March for Our Lives protests against gun violence, but during our conversation he has a more muted take. “I grew up going to birthday parties in fifth grade where we shot guns. It’s fine. I know that seems weird to a British person, but it is what it is. Shotguns are quite different to semi-automatic weapons.” He is a little pessimistic about how much can change. “There was a mass shooting at a country music festival that didn’t even move the needle on gun control; I don’t know if we’re up to the challenge as a people. “Just putting in a hashtag is not enough,” he continues. “It does feel satisfying, and it’s a useful tool, but it’s really not affecting the thing itself, which is physical, completely human and not even political, really. It has to transcend politics. We’ll see if it can break through that noise ceiling.”
Butler ultimately finds a lack of patience in contemporary America. “I got Radiohead’s The Bends when I was 14, and it was my favourite record I’d ever heard. But I never listened to the second half of it for a long time,” he says. “It took me a year, easily, to understand it. And I don’t know if people have the patience to do that now, to listen to records like that now. It’s not a value judgment.”
Any exasperation fades when Butler talks about his son: how he loves Michael Jackson and the Clash; how he just learned to sing Mr Tambourine Man in French at school; how he heard the theme tune to Harry Potter just once but can nevertheless still sing it in its entirety, “all the movements and the boring part in the middle”. Eddie loved Everything Now. “We were recording it literally underneath his bedroom in our house in New Orleans; he remembered songs from going to sleep and hearing them through the floorboards.”
He smiles, a world away from promotional campaigns, hashtags and negative reviews. “I can’t remember reading a critique of anything I liked listening to,” he says. “You like what you like, in the air, when you hear it. I was lucky enough to hear the Cure and Radiohead and Björk and I feel like my life’s course was changed because I happened to be in that physical airspace. Because I accidentally heard something that made me question: ‘Maybe I don’t have to live in the suburbs of Houston!’ And even though I don’t see anyone around me caring about this, maybe me caring about it is enough to make a life out of it, to make a family, to make shit real. Maybe that’s good enough.”
Taking a leap … (from left) Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara, Will Butler, Régine Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry and Win Butler