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Arcade Fire talk employment, American Dream, 'Everything Now'

Arcade Fire perform at the Xcel Energy Center on Oct. 29, 2017.
Arcade Fire perform at the Xcel Energy Center on Oct. 29, 2017.Emmet Kowler for MPR

by Cecilia Johnson

October 30, 2017

Art-rockers Arcade Fire are trying to make us think. They've always tried to push their audience toward social responsibility and awareness. But with their 2017 release Everything Now, they're pressing even further, overinflating their lyrics and live shows with hot-air messages of consumerism, hoping their fans will once again wake up and pop the balloon.

In light of that prevalent issue, I wondered, what's their perspective on opportunity in the U.S.? Do they feel they have too much stuff themselves? How do they avoid working too much to fund their own lifestyles?

Ready to dig deep into all that and more, multi-instrumentalist Will Butler and bassist/guitarist Tim Kingsbury sat down to talk with me before the show.

Cecilia Johnson: Hey, thanks for talking with me. Between "Everything Now" and "Creature Comfort," you guys have been focusing on possession and overabundance on the new album. What's something in your life that you have but could do without?

Kingsbury: I just got rid of a lot of stuff. I moved houses, so it was a big purge. It felt good. Still feel like I need to get rid of more stuff. I could do without CDs at this point in my life.

I also think about consumerism and overworking as really linked -- more money to buy more stuff. How do you avoid working too much, or how successful are you at that?

Butler: We've always worked how we've wanted. Luckily, we've had success from the get-go. I mean, obviously, we've worked really hard. But from the moment Funeral came out, we haven't had to have day jobs. Which has been affirming of the work. It's like, "Oh, that worked, so just keep working as you are."

I mean, toward the end of a touring cycle, you start to feel a little crazy physically, and emotionally, and spiritually.

Kingsbury: Yeah.

Butler: But it's also [that] playing for people and putting on a show is quite meaningful. Like, nothing we do is a money grab. But we've definitely become more of a business. We're literally 70 [people] on the road, so there's six of us, and then the rest of the people are technically our employees. We're employing 64 people to go around the world, and build this crazy stage, and cook for us and cook for the crew. In addition to the local crew. Which is a funny feeling if you think about it.

Kingsbury: I do find that sometimes, further into a tour --
as I get a little more existential about what I'm doing -- I think, "Whoa. All this production. This is crazy." But then that goes away, and I'm like, "There's nothing better than playing these songs to people that want to hear them." It feels very good.

Do you try to keep in mind anything in particular about being a boss? Knowing that these 64 people are your employees, how do you take care of people?

Kingsbury: I just try to talk to everybody, partly. Stay tuned in.

I mean, we have a great tour manager, and our production manager's amazing. I think [it helps to] have a team that you know is communicating well together.

Butler: Yeah, a lot of the crew are rigging stuff at 6 in the morning, and then they rig down after, from midnight to 4 in the morning. We're on utterly opposite schedules.

But we're really intimate with the stage crew. The keyboard tech, Don Lee, has become our studio manager. He's been with us for...ten years?

Kingsbury: Since Neon Bible.

Really? I didn't know that. Do the same guidelines play into how you work with each other as a band?

Kingsbury: It's very different. It doesn't feel like an employee/employer relationship at all; it's more of a partnership. We're not hired to be here. So it's more challenging balancing it with the rest of our lives. Having families and doing all that stuff. It doesn't get easier to balance that stuff, I don't think. It's a constant negotiation.

I thought one of the coolest parts of Everything Now was the way it's sequenced: how it starts with "Everything_Now (continued)," goes right into "Everything Now," and ends with "Everything Now (continued)." Why did you guys want to play with chronology and sequencing like that?

Will Butler: I think we've always made records. We've never had a hit song; we've only had records, and we've technically had three number-one records now. [laughs] They've only lasted a week or so. But albums are the art we make. So we've always deeply thought and sequencing, and pace, and flow, and naming. All of those things really matter.

Tim Kingsbury: I don't know if you noticed, but at the end of the record, it loops straight back into the beginning. We get very nerdy and excited about that kind of stuff. [We like to] pay attention to the whole record as an entity.

Do you each have a favorite song off Everything Now? I know you think of the album as a thing first and foremost, so if that's the answer, that's cool.

Butler: No, it changes as you play them live. Currently, "Put Your Money On Me" is a technical challenge for me that I really enjoy. I have to twiddle a lot of knobs at the start of it, and it still feels a little panicky, and that's a good thing.

That's funny -- I saw your tweets a few days ago about messing up, and they were cool. It is genuinely cool to see someone working for what they're playing, even if they slip up once in a while.

So "Peter Pan" talks about a "dead-eyed American Dream," and there's "the white lie of American prosperity on "Creature Comfort." Do you think the American Dream ever existed? If so, where's it at now?

Kingsbury: Well, I'm a Canadian, so I don't know if I can answer this question.

Butler: What do you think of the Canadian Dream?

Kingsbury: The Canadian Dream is basically to not be America. [laughs] It was like, "Let's stay British. Britain doesn't want us? Oh. Okay, let's not be American." [all laugh]

Will, what about you?

Butler: I think you can have a complex and accurate relationship with American history -- the first Butlers came to Boston in 1630, and they've kind of fulfilled the John Adams idea, where it's like, "We're going to war so that our children can be mathematicians so that their children can be teachers so their children can be artists." That's very much been the arc of my life's path.

My great-grandfather on my mom's side was Mormon, and their family was literally driven from America by shotguns and pitchforks, and they went to Utah because of their religious belief. And then my grandmother grew up in a traveling band. Like, poverty wages. Pre-Great Depression. They would go camping in the summers. They're like, "Remember when we used to go camping and we brought the cow?" And then one of them would be like, "You know we were homeless, right? We weren't camping. We were homeless."

But then they provided for my mom who provided for us. So for us, [the American Dream] has been true. But I think you can also have a really keen eye as to how that has not existed for numbers of people. I think you can be of both minds -- it's a lot easier to be of both minds when you're a rich white person, like myself. But I have heard enough passionate defenses of [the American Dream] from people throughout history that I know there's some truth to it.

Yeah, how do you stay in the present? When you talked about your grandmother being homeless, it reminded me of how we like to romanticize the past. You can do that as a band; fans of the band can do that to your career, too. How do you stay in the now?

Kingsbury: In terms of the band, it's just 'cause I don't want to keep playing the same old songs over and over. It's compelling to explore new ideas. Do you mean in general, or just in the band?

Either or. I guess as a band.

Kingsbury: It's a little bit challenging, because not all of us live in the same city anymore. It takes more of a concerted effort to get together and be like, "Okay, we're gonna do something." When we started, Will was gone for part of it, but we basically all lived in the same place and could just get together.

Butler: On tour, playing the music, you can retreat into the music. It is actually creating stuff in the moment, and people are responding to it. It's rare to be in a line of work where you can actually do that. So there is a very distinct nowness to making music -- almost more than other arts. You're literally just shaking the air between you and someone else.

Kingbury: Mm.

Butler: It doesn't always happen. Sometimes you're just like, "I am doing a job." [sings and mimes punching synthesizer] "I'm doing a job. I'm doing a job." But I find you can retreat into the music whenever it gets dark.

The last thing I wanted to ask was whether Will, you had a favorite song on Tim's new Sam Patch album. Have you had a chance to listen?

Butler: Yeah, it's great. I actually really loved the opening and closing synth swoop of "Must Have Been an Oversight." To me, that's classic. It's like an archetypal sound of the world. That's so cool.

Now that I'm thinking of solo projects, I'm wondering: have you two ever been to Eaux Claires [Festival]? I knew Richard [Reed Parry] and Sarah [Neufeld] have played there.

Butler: No, we're interested. We'd love to do it someday.

Kingsbury: Yeah, it'd be fun. We talk about it.

Thanks for taking the time.