Arcade Fire’s Will Butler on Going Solo, TV’s Golden Age, and the State of Political Music

Will Butler tends to be the person having the most fun at Arcade Fire shows, onstage or otherwise. To paraphrase another big Canadian band, he has a history of taking off his shirt. This guy’s joy over being near big sounds can radiate through an arena, which is evident by the mischievous look on his face when he pounds a spare snare or climbs the scaffolding. Butler bottles a bit of that energy through rockabilly, new wave, and hints of political discourse on his debut solo album, Policy, which is out today on Merge.

“I think Arcade Fire is going to keep going for a long time,” Butler tells Flavorwire. “I hope this — my own music — will go for a long time too. I mean, this will go for a long time, whether or not it’s successful. [laughs]”

Butler seems hyperaware of the idea of Policy as a starting place. The album, which follows Butler’s Oscar nomination for the Her soundtracktempers the younger Butler brother’s interests in weightier topics. He’ll get there, he says.

“My greatest joy would be for the record to live in people’s artistic worlds right now,” Butler says. “Like, to have someone watch an episode of Broad City, then to put on their headphones and to listen to Policy as they walk to MoMA to see the Matisse exhibit. To have it be something that people find resonates with Louis C.K. or something they read in the newspaper. I’m interested in the connections for this record.”

Flavorwire: You’ve talked about Policy being influenced by all different types of American music, but specifically music made by teenagers. Unpack that a little for me. 

Will Butler: I think a lot of great American music is literally made by teenagers, like the Violent Femmes, Ritchie Valens, and Bo Diddley. Ritchie Valens was 17 when he died. It’s a young person’s game. I can’t help but make American music because just from a demographic perspective, it’s all I know. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, “La Bamba,” The Beatles, who were trying to rip off American music. There’s a lot of Motown from my youth, which is very teenage as well, about getting a job and all that stuff.

Policy strikes a little bit of this balance I’ve always appreciated in political music: it has messages about capitalism and religion, for example, but it’s not hitting you over the head with any singular idea. More than that, you can dance to nearly all of these songs — so there’s a duality to it. Arcade Fire has also employed these tactics with regards to commentary in your anthems as well. Do you think of yourself as making political music specifically?

Yes, very much so. I was conscious of this record as an introduction to Will Butler, so it’s less political than my fifth record will be, probably. [laughs] The album comes from a place of being engaged, politically, as a human. I wanted to present my ideas in a complicated way, and I think you can only do that by mixing emotions and themes, contrasting the words and the music. Essentially, I think you can only express complex ideas through playing with them. If you’re just hammering them in, it often flattens the idea. Of course, that sometimes is very useful and very powerful.

You said you see your solo work becoming more overtly political over time. How do you see that playing out? 

I want it to be a conversation, so I’m not sure quite what I’ll do next. I want the record to come out, and it’s not that want to know what people think in craven way or in a “let me please you way,” but I kind of want it to respond to the people who are listening to it. I want it to feel a little bit like an improv show — but not zany. [laughs] Just in response to the world, and I’m not sure what the world of 2015 is like yet.

I think one of the greatest political albums is Good Old Boys by Randy Newman. Like “Rednecks” is sooo gnarly. It’s layer upon layer upon layer of irony, but so passionate and so disturbing. I don’t technically have the skill to achieve that at this stage of my life, but if I did have a technical ability to achieve that at this point, that would be too gnarly of an introduction, certainly. But perhaps, down the road.

Sometimes I worry we’re in a slump for political music in America, at a time when our country could use those kinds of rallying points. There were a few powerful responses to Ferguson in song, but big picture, what are your thoughts on the state of political discourse in American music? 

I think part of it is just cycles of art. We’re in such a golden age of TV, and we’re in such a golden age of podcasting. A lot of the liveliness is there. I think there are great things happening in music, but it feels like music is not in a golden age. I feel like the general state of political discourse is pretty good, taken as a whole. There’s a lot that’s horrible and disgusting and depressing, but in terms of engagement — just ’cause I find myself watching a lot of TV and listening to a lot of podcasts — I feel like the whole picture isn’t hurting that much. But I agree with you that the political music is not in a golden age, nor in a silver age.

What’re you loving right now, in terms of podcasts and TV shows?

I listen to this podcast “Hardcore History.” They’re doing a six-part series on World War I, which has been really gnarly. I listen to “Planet Money.” There’s this music show I like called “Song Exploder.” I try to sample new stuff. I mean, “Serial.” I think everybody listened to “Serial.” [laughs] And, what am I watching these days? I really, really, really love Broad City.

Broad City is the commentary comedy of our time. 

I know. It’s kind of that same function, where it’s super political just by being alive.

Comedy, in general, is doing really well right now. There’s a lot of comedy stuff I’m big into now, from Louie to Girls to like, Chris Rock’s recent interviews. [laughs] I sympathize with people who have given up on Girls, but I still like Girls.

Your song “Anna” kind of reminds me of Girls, with its characters who don’t start out understanding the value of money.

Yeah, it’s very much that world. [laughs] That song was vaguely New York inspired, both sonically and philosophically. In no way does it sound like a song by the band Suicide, but I was trying to play with — but not necessarily embrace — their sort of nihilism.

You recently wrote a song based on headlines from The Guardian every day for a week. Why did you want to do that? 

Part of it was just trying to be conversational and trying to be casually political. People care about a lot of things really deeply, but you only act on some of them. And so, it was kind of just an art project to be like, “What if I just say what I think out loud and people will read it?” [laughs] People do that for a living all the time, so it’s not that radical, but it was interesting on a personal level to do it.

It was really bizarre to be like, “Here’s a song about the Greek debt crisis,” and then for people to be like, “You’re an idiot!” and get really mad about the Greek debt crisis. I got e-mails from Greek people being like, “Thank you so much!” And it’s like, “Whoa, that was just a song I wrote.” It wasn’t like a massive response, but that people responded at all helped me grow as a human.

Were you picking articles where you specifically wanted to have a conversation about these topics, or it was less meditated? 

The only topic I really had a background in was the Ukrainian thing [Ukrainian separatists celebrating a Soviet holiday], and that I barely even touched on. If I did this sort of thing again, I don’t know how I would adjust the purpose. I woke up in the morning and read the paper, essentially cover to cover. Then I wrote about what I responded to, so it was very much in the moment.

You and your brother Win are on a SXSW panel about “the celebrity economy” alongside famed economist Paul Krugman in a couple of weeks. How did that come about? 

I’m really excited for it. I had lunch with Paul Krugman. I cold-called him. Every once in a while, he’ll post something about Arcade Fire. And I was like, “Wait a minute.” So I just emailed him, and he was like, “You want to get lunch at the Fairmont [The Plaza] on the Upper West Side?”

So I take it the lunch went well?

It was funny! He was lovely, and it was great, really. Then he came to one of the Arcade Fire show at the Barclays Center. I don’t know why Paul’s at South By, but he is. It just came through: “Do you want to be on a panel?” Yeah, sure, why not? [laughs]