‘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

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture -

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.”

Mary Ellen Matthews

Tak­ing a leap … (from left) Tim Kings­bury, Jeremy Gara, Will But­ler, Régine Chas­sagne, Richard Reed Parry and Win But­ler

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