“I’m deliberately trying to make a good medium-length poem.”
If Arcade Fire were a baseball team, Will Butler would be the star utility player. At any given time, he can be found playing keyboards, synthesizer, guitar, bass, sitar, trombone, and/or percussion (for starters). He’s a veritable Will of All Trades, if you will. “There are so many strong artistic voices in Arcade Fire,” admits Butler of the Canadian-based indie-rock sextet that includes his older brother Win Butler on vocals, guitar, and a few other instruments as well. “It’s a strong musical collaboration that’s always fun.”
After the international success, widespread critical acclaim, and extensive touring behind Arcade Fire’s ambitious 2013 release, Reflektor — plus an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score for his work on Spike Jonze’s off-kilter 2013 romantic comedy Her — Butler felt like pushing other envelopes by making a solo record. The result: the quite stark and very much heartfelt Policy, which is out today on a variety of formats via Merge Records. “It was certainly exhilarating to step back from Arcade Fire for a minute,” Butler says somewhat modestly of Policy, which veers from the balls-out Americana thrust of Take My Side to the singalong electronic burble of Anna to the harmonic ethereality of Son of God to the minimalist ache of Sing to Me.
Digital Trends got on the horn with Butler, 32, to discuss Policy’s sonic intentions, reconnecting with the genius of Prince, and what might (or might not) be next for his main band. Out of The Suburbs, into the Fire.
Digital Trends: You cut Policy at Electric Lady Studios in New York City last May. How did that come about? What made you want to record there?
Will Butler: We mixed Reflektor there, with Tom Elmhirst. It was done in Studio C, on the very top floor. Tom doesn’t use the live room; he just mixes in the studio part. He said I could use the live room if I wanted — so I did. (chuckles)
Live is certainly the feel I get when I’m listening to this album. Were you and Jeremy [Gara, drummer] in that live room together when you were recording?
Yeah — all the beds are live, and a couple of the vocals are live. The goal was to do it all that way, but we didn’t succeed in that. But yeah, it’s very lively.
Did you and Jeremy have a conversation about how you wanted his drums miked?
We did. We really put ourselves in the engineer’s hands, a guy named Ben Baptie. Since it was so simple, we wanted to trust him. We shared what we were envisioning, and what we wanted. Sometimes we would tweak it and go, “Let’s open it up a little less.” He was a very good engineer.
“I want people to be able to take it as a whole.”
In terms of arrangement, I wanted to keep it simple and just have three, four, or five items to mix on an 8-track mixing desk. I ended up mixing back in our studio in Montreal [Sonovox Studios].
Those arrangements complement the songs quite well. We get to hear the character of specific elements on tracks like Something’s Coming, where each piano chord and notes resonate clear and true.
Yeah, very much so. I wanted it all to be pretty transparent and pretty identifiable for you to get what was going on.
The economy of the record [Policy runs less than 30 minutes] and its sequencing are very important in determining how we’re taken along on your journey.
Yes. I want people to be able to take it as a whole. I think it’s a short enough album that you can keep it in your head — like you get to the end and you can still remember the beginning, but you went on a trip. So, yeah, I was definitely trying to make it like a good, medium-length poem.
What were the blueprint benchmarks for what you wanted Policy to sound like?
The two that I used were the John Lennon solo stuff, like the Plastic Ono Band (1970), which is pretty direct. It’s such a beautiful record. And the other — do you know the band The Breeders?
Yeah — Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly….
Yeah yeah yeah! That first album, Pod (1990, engineered by Steve Albini), was really important.
I can see the connection with The Breeders on Anna, and then I can see the vibe of a Plastic Ono Band track like Isolation relating to Sing to Me, which is a very naked, emotional piece. To me, the echo on your vocals there gives it a timeless feel.
Oh yeah, thank you. We used a lot of that classic slapback. I was definitely shooting for that classic sound there.
Would you say your family background with classical music might have helped in terms of how you compose?
Yeah, very much so. I don’t have the skill set to truly do complex music (laughs), but it’s part of my heritage. My mom [Liza Rey] is a jazz and classical harpist, and her dad [Alvino Rey] is a jazz and classical guitarist, so we’ve always been about that world. It’s very deep, and very important. It’s part of my history.
You grew up in Texas. Did you get into any of the deep blues while you were there?
I more absorbed it than actively listened to it. But it was definitely present there. We were near Old Town Spring, Texas, and they do the Texas Crawfish and Music Festival every spring with real East Texas and Louisiana bayou music, rock & roll, and Cajun stuff. There’s a club there called Wunsche Bros. [Café & Saloon] that was definitely part of that world.
To me, this record screams to be heard in high-resolution audio, via a 96/24 digital download. Are you into that idea?
Yeah! Neil Young has been pushing for high-res listening for a while now, and I think it’s really exciting, particularly as the Internet gets better. (laughs)
You don’t want to lose any of the subtleties or details in these mixes, like you can with MP3s.
Yeah — you’ll get to hear the harmonics dying in the piano as the chord is held, and you can hear stuff breathe in a really satisfying way.
“Breathe” is a good word for it! You have some interesting effects that move in the stereo field on a track like Sing to Me, and I really like the way you use the background vocals. How did you put that one together?
That one was written really late at night, when I was trying to be quiet. I’ve got a baby at home, so it was originally written in that mode, and then I tried to keep that feel of something very still. It’s kind of a song you could fall asleep to, and then you wake up and you’re not really sure if you’re awake or not. (both chuckle)
Oh, I know that feeling. (both laugh) About a minute and a half into it, the vocals change and get a warbling effect, and things move over into the left channel. Do you like playing with the stereo field?
“Neil Young has been pushing for high-res listening for a while now, and I think it’s really exciting.”
Yeah, I like how it’s done on [The Beatles’] The White Album (1968), both the mono and the stereo versions — the fun and the experimentation.
Mono was the original intention for The Beatles, right up through The White Album. Do you have a preference between mono and stereo?
It’s kind of song-to-song. There’s something charming in some of the failings of their stereo stuff. But they did have some serious fun. (laughs)
That is true. What albums influenced you the most growing up?
(exhales) Whooo. I mean, for a long time, I didn’t listen to the radio or anything — I listened to classical music in my early teens. Then I went through my mom’s records and listened to the U.S. version of Rubber Soul (1965). And in my mid-teens, my brother [Win] really got into Radiohead.
What was your starting point with Radiohead?
Probably the first stuff I heard was The Bends (1995). I was 16 when OK Computer came out (1997). I was a giant fan, and was 18 at the peak of my fandom when Kid A came out (2000). That was so fine.
Radiohead is a perfect example of a band that continues to do whatever it wants, kind of like what Arcade Fire does.
Oh wow. Yeah.
Finish What I Started has an interesting intro before you go into vocal effects and other subtle things with the piano. What was your plan there?
It was one where I was trying to get that Lennon ’70s feel — tight, like the drums and bass being of the same world, and the piano too. I wanted everything having the same effect at the core, running through the same speakers. We owe a lot to Mark Lawson, who mixed the album.
For a while, I tried to make the record more “same-y,” but I actually couldn’t. I embraced the surprise of it. Anna, we did it in two takes. Jeremy had actually never heard the song or played the song, so I was playing bass synth and he was playing drums. We did a slow one, and we did a fast one. I would tell him when to stop and start. (chuckles)
The vocal sounds quite live on Anna, and I love that brief hiccup in your voice. You could have edited that character right out of the vocal and made it really septic, but I like being able to hear how you sing a few different ways on the record and don’t follow that “same-y” thing you were just talking about.
Thanks. I originally had a take where I was literally still writing the lyrics. I almost kept it in, as it was the first time I stepped to the mike for the song, right after I finished it. I just rambled it out. I almost kept it, but I decided to finish it instead. But I wanted to preserve that spirit.
In the writing process, did you know you wanted background vocals on certain tracks, or did that come later?
It varied from song to song. I did one session in Montreal with my wife [Jenny Shore Butler] and an artist named Laurel Sprengelmeyer, who’s also known as Little Scream; she’s really great. And I did another original New York session with my wife and her sister [Julie Shore], who’s actually going to tour with me, and some other musician friends of hers, one who’s been on Broadway.
“It’s kind of a song you could fall asleep to, and then you wake up and you’re not really sure if you’re awake or not.”
For songs like Witness or Take My Side, it was present from the beginning. Some of the other stuff developed in the studio like, “Oh, let’s try a take of this,” or, “That was interesting, let’s figure that out,” and then we would develop it a bit. Like the background vocals on Son of God came late in the game: “Oh, let’s experiment with this. Let’s play around.” We found some good stuff.
And we have a sax solo on Witness. Was that you, or…?
It was a guy named Matt Bouder, who’s the touring saxophonist for Arcade Fire. He’s actually going to open for half of this March solo tour, with a really great sax, drums, and organ setup.
After the stark, ethereal vibe of Sing to Me, Witness is a nice album closer.
Oh, cool, thank you. I wanted to end on something a little frisky. The record is short enough where you can be excited, go out and run a lap or two, then listen to it again.
No, you should run some laps with it! You have to take it anywhere you go.
(laughs) Yes, you should!
We’re getting Policy on 180-gram vinyl. Vinyl must still be an important medium to you.
Yeah. I’m so heartened by that. It’s still a small part of the music world, but it’s kind of vibrant and growing, and people think about it, buy it, and listen to it enough that it doesn’t feel like just a novelty. I came to that late in life where I went, “Wait a minute, is that what cymbals are supposed to sound like?”
I know what you mean. Vinyl is not just a “talisman,” as some people like to think. Listeners actually do spend time with it. You pay more attention because you interact with it differently and more directly with the ritual of putting the needle down and turning the sides over.
It’s really important. It’s very important for an artist to create for the segment of people who do that. I certainly think so.
What are the best-sounding records to your ear, the ones in your upper-echelon?
Oh gosh. (pauses) It just changes over time. More and more production gets redeemed the further in time you go. (chuckles)
On this last [Arcade Fire] tour, I listened to all of the Prince albums, from the beginning. And around the third one, Dirty Mind (1980), it just coalesces where it sounds like a guy on his own, but it sounds perfectly technically proficient. There’s a home-made aspect that’s really powerful, but it’s also like the greatest hits of all time, played in the basement by a genius, and wow, you can kind of hear it all.
It’s the literal one-man army on those first few albums of his. But I always come back to Sign o’ the Times (1987) as his grand opus.
Yes, that’s a really amazing record. I really never dug into it until this last year.
Will you do another solo record at some point?
Definitely. It’s not a one-off. We’ll have to see when I have time for it. My dream is to finish touring and run right into a studio and bang something out. But we’ll see if I have the time and the material.
Now that you’ve done your own thing with Policy, will that inform what you do with Arcade Fire any differently?
I’m curious to see how it’ll go, going forward. It’s a mystery. We’ll see. We’ll gear up at some point.
We won’t be seeing you wearing any papier mâché heads on your own tour like we got on the Reflektor Tour, right?
(laughs) Not this time around!