In conversation with Will Butler of Arcade Fire

"What do I do with all these ‘Humans in a Room’ cards?"

For this week’s conversation, I had a chance to chat with musician and all-around good guy Will Butler of the band Arcade Fire.

Parker Molloy: Back in April, you wrote something for The Atlantic about your relationship to performance. I thought it was a really interesting piece, and in line with something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Because of the pandemic, bands that have been used to touring and being around all of these people suddenly had to figure out how to exist in this space where they're not surrounded by people. It’s just such a fundamentally different setting away from what they’re used to, which can bring both challenges and new opportunities for growth. Different groups have tried different things where they've done more streaming concerts or holed up in recording studios. In any case, the one thing everyone seemed to have in common was that they were forced to adapt to their craft without the usual surroundings.

I thought that was really interesting when it came to you, because any time I've seen you play with Arcade Fire, you have a lot of energy. In this piece, you reflect on the role audiences and tour employees play in creating the general idea of “performance.” So now that we’re emerging a bit from the pandemic, can you tell me how things have been since that piece got published? Have your feelings on performance changed at all, or are you still recalibrating?

Will Butler: Yeah, if I could just show up in a park... And I can show up in a park and play music, but if I could just show up in a park, and play a show, and just waltz in, it would be amazing. And to connect with people and to be in the springtime air and all of that feels great. But particularly for something Arcade Fire, it's still not the first thought, praise God, but the second or third thought, you start to get into logistics.

And part of what I puzzled about in the piece a little bit, and part of what I've had to confront as a grown-up is the part of being a musician that is being an employer. So just being a boss, which that's not what I'm good at... I didn't get into music to be an entrepreneur or to any of that. And we have a manager, we have a booking agent, we have a tour manager, we have a production manager, these things are managed, but it's still... Once you start thinking about shows, it's all the people around the shows and I feel like it's been a bad year for employees.

It's been a good year for bosses and been a bad year for... It hasn't been a good year. I have friends who have worked at cafes, and some cafes have great bosses, have seen their dreams destroyed, and all their income destroyed, and their investment totally destroyed, and they've been good bosses. And I've seen some people who own cafes had their dreams destroyed and this thing that they built totally destroyed and they haven't handled it well — which in some sense is fair enough. But it's been a rough year, particularly for employees. Particularly with those with less access to capital.

Will Butler of Arcade Fire climbs one of the stage towers during the band’s performance at Campo Pequeno on April 23, 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Pedro Gomes/Getty Images)

That was something that recently, I was writing something about all these complaints that I kept seeing pop up in mainstream media where people who own restaurants are like, "Hey, I have a labor shortage." But then when you look at what the people who have been working in restaurants have gone through in the past year, you can understand why there's some hesitancy on some people's parts to rush back to this employer that may have laid them off twice or three times in the past year. It's this weird cyclical thing that hurts everyone.

I'm pretty introverted as it is, so the pandemic wasn't a huge change for me. I've been working from home for six years. So when all of this happened, I had this feeling like, “Oh yeah, this is my element. I’m not stuck in here with you, you’re stuck in here with me.” That sort of thing. But as time went on, it just dragged on and on and on, and I felt myself disconnecting from things even more than I already had. It was just this natural impulse. And when I tried to expand that out to think about how it might affect authors on book tours or bands that would otherwise be touring or engaging with audiences and stuff like that, it was really fascinating to me in that morbid kind of way.

And one other thing that tied into this when it came to you, was I was thinking back to there was that... God, I think it was 2017, wasn't it? Was that when the last Arcade Fire record came out?

Yeah, I think so.

Yeah, so it was 2017. I saw you guys play three times in the span of two months. It was really weird, you had a bunch of Chicago shows. And then you did that one show at The Hideout that was just you. You were doing that... I forgot what you called it, the town hall type thing.

The Disco Town Halls.

Yeah! That was it. After you guys played at the United Center, you went and did a solo show at one of my favorite tiny venues in the city, which was an interesting experiment in communication in itself. You’d play some songs and then let some people tuned into local politics talk about issues they’re passionate about. Looking back on that, do you feel like it was a success? Is that something that you’d want to do again?

Yeah, the genesis for the Disco Town Halls was the realization that when we play an Arcade Fire show, we'd have 7,000 to 15,000 locals in a room. Our demographic is soft lefty, college-educated. We have all types of people who come to our shows, praise the Lord, but generally it's soft lefty. So we have these locals, they're not necessarily partisan primary voters, but they give a shit about stuff and they're here. And I don't need to make an Arcade Fire show into a political rally, it can be creepy when you too much try to tie something emotional to government. But I was like, "Well, let's go to a bar after the show and have..." My vision would be that it would be like an Italian communists meeting, just drunk people at midnight yelling about what the mayor is doing.

And it was great. The dream lineup was always a local politician and a local activist talking about something local. That was the saddest part for me about putting out my solo record this fall is because I put out my record in September and I was like, "Holy shit, I'm going to be playing... I'm just going to be driving in a van across America in September of 2020. Wow, what a time to drive through Pennsylvania, in the fall of this fucking election year!" This was back before March, just a daydream. I was very much looking forward to putting together something. It's such a resource to have humans in a room. I don't discount the internet and I don't discount internet-based communities — and all that shit is great — but it's just a different resource.

It's like Settlers of Catan. I've got a big pile of “Humans in a Room” cards. Like, "What do I do with all these ‘Humans in a Room’ cards?" And in my adult life, I've been increasingly drawn to politics. Not in a running for office partisan way, but just in how do we make this shit a little bit better? How do things actually work? How do we push this boulder up a hill? Oh, no, it's rolling back, again. How do we push this boulder up the hill?

You have a degree in something related to that, right?

Yeah. It's an MPA, a Master's of Public Administration.

Will Butler of Arcade Fire performs during the 2018 Forecastle Music Festival at Louisville Waterfront Park on July 15, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

That's it! Being able to combine that activism with music, and fun, and drinking, and people dancing and all that stuff. It's cool, it's different, it’s kind of your whole deal. The last concert I actually saw before concerts became a thing of the past was a Wolf Parade show here in Chicago. It was right before the Illinois primaries. And at one point they basically gave the stage to someone to be like, "Here's why you should vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary." It was really cool and reminded me of the Disco Town Halls. It was a smaller venue, but it was basically just like, "All right, we've got this audience that can't leave because we haven't played yet. So here, check it out."

Yeah, we played a show with Wolf Parade in Texas, and then we did a Disco Town Hall, and [Wolf Parade guitarist and singer] Dan [Boeckner] and [drummer] Arlen [Thompson] DJ'd at... What was the name of their DJ? It was like the Frankfurt Boys, that was the name of their DJ. But it was great. We had a city councilman come out and talk about paid leave, and it was so fucking grim. Austin had just passed paid leave, but the state [government] was shutting it down. And so they were talking about how the city of Austin had put in paid sick leave. It was still in the courts when the fucking pandemic struck. So Austin had a paid sick leave policy so that if you fucking got COVID you wouldn't have to go into work, but it was already disabled by the fucking state government by the time the pandemic hit. It was so infuriating.

Anyway, so yeah, Wolf Parade is great and they're very honest and engaged. They can do anything they want.

I really like those guys. Dan is great, Spencer is great.

The last thing I wanted to talk about here was just coming out of this whole experience where you've had a year to marinate in all of this. Have you gained a new appreciation for large crowds or do you appreciate small crowds now, in terms of both performance as well as just general communication? Because I've talked to some people who would do a lot of speaking events and have talked about how switching to doing these virtual events has been great because they've been able to do so many more than they would have otherwise, or they've reached this larger audience. But again, there's that difference between in-person and online that collides a little bit where they're different, and maybe not as effective in the same exact ways.

Yeah. I would say over the course of this year and over the last decade, but a lot over the course of this year — I've gained an increased suspicion of my own experience. That my own experience does not translate to other people's experiences in the same way. Once again, I believe in art, I believe in universality, I believe in all that shit, that's why I'm an artist. I'm super down with universal human feelings and all of those things. And we are all in this together. But, I am increasingly aware of the people that aren't in the room.

I don't know what that means for performance, but it's the question that we all have to ask. These are our employees, but who are we not employing? These are people coming to the show, but who can't afford to come to the show? Who are we not speaking to? Who are we speaking to? It's a very awesome thing to have 10,000 people screaming in front of you. And that's Nickelback's argument all the time, where they're like, "We don't suck, look at all these people screaming for us." But besides not wanting to be disconnected from reality in that way, there's also just particularly the way this last year has just shown how not all in this together we are. And once again, I don't want to be like... I am inclined to be paralyzed with thought. I'm inclined to be a Dostoevsky caricature of just of like, "You guys are stupid. I'm going to be over here being pathetic, but at least I know I'm pathetic."

I'm inclined to that sort of malaise. It doesn't have to rise to that level, but trying to think about who's not in this room is going to be something I'm hoping to keep a little sense of as we return. And returning is going to be great, and the shows are going to be great, and the people in the room are also going to be great. There are going to be some terrible people in a show, there's going to be 10,000 people, there's definitely going to be some horrible, horrible people there. But horrible, horrible people also deserve the grace of art.

So maybe, I don't know. Anyway, I'm a little bit off the rails at this point. But yeah, who is in the room who's not in the room? I'm certainly sensitive to it now and I don't think it's a bad thing. It can be a bad thing to a certain point, but I don't think it's a bad thing. And I want to keep that nagging feeling at the back of my skull.