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Arcade Fire’s Win Butler: 'I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in David Bowie'

Mr. Nimbus | 05/05/2022

Arcade Fire’s Win Butler joins Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 for an extensive conversation about the band’s sixth studio album due out this Friday. Butler details the influences and challenges of making the record, why he needs music to survive, Peter Gabriel’s appearance on the album, and his brother Will’s departure from the band. He also reflects on David Bowie attending the group’s early shows and the late icon’s subsequent recurrent ‘supernatural visits to the group ever since, why Texas governor Greg Abbott “should be ashamed of himself”, and more.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About His Brother Will’s Departure From The Band…
I mean, I love Will. I mean, he’s my brother. He’s my only brother and he’s always had interests that transcend music. I think that he sort of followed his big brother into this band. It was his first job. I can’t really speak for him but this pandemic was… He’s got three young children, and Regine and I are able to bring our child on the road. But I think that if I wasn’t, there’s things way more important than music, so I mean…my brother has his own path. He took a year out in the middle of… To go back to school and he’s sort of done his own thing the whole time. I think that there’s things other than music that he has interest in. But I think fundamentally you only have one chance to raise your family and to kind of have a life with your family. I think it’s very extremely understandable… It’s easy just to get… I’m proud of him for doing his own thing. The whole band is my family and there’s family you’re born with, and family that you choose. I think sometimes the family you choose can be just as big a thing, because it’s love and life, all that s**t, it’s not a straight line. I’m not really scared of any of it. I feel really grateful to be able to play still and to be able to do shows. It was really dark not having access to that for me. This band is my life so there’s no out for me fortunately.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About The Band’s Reoccurring Supernatural Visits From David Bowie…
So our first real headline show in New York was at the Bowery, which we just played at the Bowery again recently, Bowery Ball Room. And David Byrne and Bowie came to our first headline show, which was insane.I saw him up in the balcony. He must have been like maybe in his fifties then, Bowie. And David Byrne, a little bit younger. Like, what the f**k were they doing at that show? Like, why were they going to an indie rock show at the Bowery? So much other they could be doing. But both of them are so hungry for music and excited by culture and genuinely, just hungry. And I think that sometimes, as I get closer to the age that they were when I met them, it’s important just to show up and just to be interested and just to be hungry and be curious. And there’s a song called Rabbit Hole, there’s sort of a Bowie reference on it. Plastic Soul is what he called the music on Fame. And there’s this sort of like lyrical reference to him… It was during the pandemic and we had this little, maybe 100 square foot studio in our backyard and there’s a portrait of him on the wall. It was a pretty heavy loss when we lost him. It definitely hit me pretty hard. When your heroes die and you’re trying to see your life through their eyes and… I was singing the first take, and I was just in there with my engineer, and I heard… In my headphones, in the back of the room, I heard this sort of whispery weird sound. We both heard it, and we were like, “What’s that?” My phone was on the other side of the room, and it just started playing of its own accord a song off Low that was in the same key. It wasn’t on a playlist. It was some random song on Low. We were both just like, “What the hell was that?” I don’t even believe in that sort of s**t, but it’s New Orleans and… you’re just like, “Okay, yeah, that was really strange.” So then the other day when we were playing in New York, we were playing Rabbit Hole for one of the first times, and I mentioned… I’m like, “Oh, this is where we met David, and he was up in the balcony,” and Regine’s playing the intro, this really still piano intro. I’m like, “Hi, David, hope you’re doing well,” and the digital piano just cuts out in the middle of the chord. So weird. It’s this big sustaining chord and the piano just cuts. There’s a video of it. I’ll find the video of it. I don’t even know if anyone noticed but Regine and I, and we looked at each other… I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in David Bowie.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About The Power of The Album Title ‘WE’…
George Orwell is sort of one of my great heroes, and he has an essay called “Why I Write” that I read when I was 15. And in it, he says, “Never use a long word if there’s a short word that means the same thing.” And to me, we is one of the most meaningful words with the least number of letters, so it’s a very potent word. It’s tough to define as well.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Starting To Make ‘WE’ at the Beginning of the Pandemic…
Well, we were in New Orleans. It was Mardi Gras and we hadn’t played actually at that point in a while. Régine and I have been writing a lot. And so we went in the studio and we had just started, we were working on… We had the Age of Anxiety, we had the kind of… We did a great version of the first three parts of End of the Empire. And then checked our phones, and they were closing the borders to Canada. And so it sort of felt like the plane had taken off, like we were kind of already going, and then the earth was on fire. But we were already flying. So yeah, it was the next… Régine and I, we’re with our engineer and we have a studio in our backyard. And we weren’t really sure if and when we were going to be able to get together with everyone. So we were sort of working as if that was it. But yeah, it was definitely very inspiring time, but also a lot of frustration. Like, in order to write music, you have to have this antenna up that kind of picks up little signals from the future and signals from the past. And so I think a lot of times, we’re just getting these like aftershocks of things that are about to happen, like in both directions.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Needing Music To Survive…
There’s different types of musicians. There’s musicians that are talented and have great voices and really want to play music, and when they’re done and people applaud, that’s what they’re there for. When they hear the cheers and the gratification of someone saying, “Job well done,” that’s ultimately what they’re in it for. Then there’s these other that will die if they don’t play music. They will just fade away and they will die, and I’m in that category, and most of the people I f**k with are in that category. It’s not a choice. It even transcends vocation. It’s like my soul and my body needs this to exist. Otherwise, I probably would have no function at all. I would just be wandering around and just totally useless to society.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About The Power of The Album As a Medium…
If I can sit down and listen to Hunky Dory and be David Bowie, like be inside of his head for 40 minutes, it gets me more in touch with my own humanity by being in touch with someone else’s humanity. And so it ultimately increases my humanity in a way that just listening to a single doesn’t, because it’s like you’re living inside the head of another artist. And ultimately, that’s one of the deepest ways you can kind of connect.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Peter Gabriel’s Appearance On The Album…
It’s Peter Gabriel. Yeah. I mean, he did a cover. We covered his Games Without Frontiers and he did a cover of My Body’s a Cage. Peter Gabriel for Régine is a massive influence as well. I mean, and for me as well. I think for Régine being Haitian in a kind of predominantly white Quebecois milieu and hearing Peter Gabriel’s music in the eighties, and just hearing African drums and something that connected to her family roots, I think was really profound. It was really hard to find anything like that in the eighties. It’s like almost like it didn’t exist.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Early Visceral Experiences With Music…
I believe the music is a spirit, is an actual spirit, not figurative, an actual spirit. When I was visiting my parents… My mum’s a harpist. My grandfather played with Duke Ellington and was one of the first jazz guitar players in the world and was the reason that I’m sitting here today. My mum is a beautiful harpist, and my whole childhood, when I would come home, she’d be playing the harp practicing. When I was really little, I would- I walked in the front door, and my mum would be playing Debussy or whatever. I’d be like, “Mum, that’s so annoying.” I was just the worst. But when I was really little, when we still lived in California, I would put my ear on the soundboard of the harp. It’s a big instrument, so I would lie like that and she would play. When I was just visiting my mum, I was sitting by her harp and I put my head on the harp and plucked a string, and it was the most surreal… You know when you smell something or you taste something and you go… It was like I was a child, and it was like the vibration of the string on my brain… It was like that’s where it entered me. It was like literally something got in me. When I did it again as an adult, this was just this last summer, it was an out of body experience …

Win Butler Tells Apple Music What Inspired “The Lightning II” and Why He Hates Texas Governor Greg Abbott…
What was in my head when I was singing that song was all the Haitians at the border trying to get into the US who had taken a boat from Haiti to Brazil and then walked or taken a train all the way to the Mexican border, which is like… You want to talk about some biblical s**t? Just to find a better life for your family, imagine what it would take, the bravery, and then to be met by… I don’t know. The governor of Texas can honestly… I don’t hate a lot of people. I hate that motherf**ker. I don’t even believe in hell, but if there’s a hell, that motherf**ker’s going there. Just to meet people with the absolute absence of compassion, these pretend Christian, fake f**king Christians, he should be ashamed of himself.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Singing To His Son in the Future on “Lookout Kid”…
So I was really just sort of thinking about my son and the world that he’s facing and how like, I was a very, very, very depressed kid, particularly in high school. I mean, in a lot of my life in general, I think that music is like my medicine in a lot of ways. But I was trying to imagine the way that I’m wired just chemically and the s**t that I’ve dealt with in my life, having to deal with that now in this era of like … and not to mention now, but like 10 years from now, whenever the f**k he’s going to be dealing with it. And it was just like, “Man, he’s going to need to have the thick skin and to just really be able to take a hit and have some just fortitude.” And I don’t know, I was just sort of thinking about that and just trying to sing to him in the future or to his kids even.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Exploring Hundreds of Different Drum Beats To Arrive at “Lookout Kid”…
A couple years ago … it’s really hard being in a band where everyone lives in a different city. But it’s like it happens sometimes as you … we’ve been playing for 20 years, so it’s like a certain point. Doesn’t make the job any easier. So, Jeremy was coming through town. He was like, “I’m down to do some recording, but I didn’t have any songs written or anything like that.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t want to waste, if I have a couple days with my drummer, I just certainly don’t want to waste it.” So I had this idea to basically, I took like maybe a hundred songs that I love and had Jeremy just play. Like I would play them to him and have him sort of play his own version, use that as a jumping off point just for different rhythms and stuff.Other people’s songs, just hundreds and hundreds of songs like Suetos songs, like different Latin songs, like disco, punk music. There’s like some Nirvana, there’s different things were just like, I like the drums. And I basically made like almost a rhythm box of Jeremy, just playing hundreds and hundreds of different beats so I could actually, instead of writing to a drum machine, I could actually write with my drummer. Just so it actually has a feel.

Win Butler Tells Apple Music About Being Excited To Tour…
I can’t wait to tour. It’s been… How many years off do you need in life? I’m ready to burn it, burn it down. I feel like music, there is an athletic aspect to it as well. I was really relating a lot watching LeBron play this year and he’s a little bit younger than me, but he is 37. I took my son to watch him play and watch him put up 37 points and you’re just, “It is possible.” You know what I mean? It’s possible. We’ve taken care of ourselves and none of us have any drug problems. I think there’s a lot of shit that brings bands down. And I feel we’re really like Dan Beckner, whos been playing with the band, whose from Wolf Parade, whose one of my hero songwriters and was in the band.

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Written by Mr. Nimbus

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