Arcade Fire Continues to Burn Bright

Band member Will Butler on how Everything Now found its sound and how slapstick comedy informs his performances.

Doing things on a small-scale has never worked for Arcade Fire.

From the moment the Montreal rock outfit first announced themselves with 2004’s Funeral, the motley crew headed by couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne have only grown bigger and bigger.  

It starts with a band that features seven core members, including Butler’s brother, Will. Then there is the fanfare, be it Arcade Fire’s noble philanthropic work in supporting the people of Haiti, or the noteworthy promotional campaigns that have preceded their most recent albums.

Still, when all is said and done, Arcade Fire is far more than the sum of their violas and glockenspiels and yes, hurdy-gurdys. They are purveyors of emotional catharsis, peddlers of hope with a product few, if any, can match. Fan favorites like “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go” are prime examples of the triumphant cacophony that has come to mark their sound.

While the band has landed on everything from disco to fugues in the course of its catalog, their central touchstones remain call-and-response choruses and the signature ballet of strings and keys that nimbly move among ferocious percussion and Butler’s voice.  

With Arcade Fire’s latest release, Everything Now, all the familiar ingredients are back once again, albeit in new recipes that may represent the farthest the group has ever strayed from familiar territory.

Speaking to SF Weekly ahead of the band’s performance on Saturday, Oct, 21 at Oracle Arena, Will Butler addresses how Everything Now found its sound and how slapstick comedy informs his performances on stage.

There’s aren’t many bands like Arcade Fire that are still willing to try new things sonically. You guys have long refused to be content with what’s worked in the past. Where in the process of writing and recording a record does it become clear what its sound is going to be?
I’ve always found that each of our songs has been radically different from one another. Sometimes even the halves of one song are radically different from one another. If you go back to “Wake Up,” the outro goes into Motown. On “Crown of Love,” it’s a Smokey Robinson song smashed into a disco song. To me, it’s always been incredibly diverse from the get-go, but it also makes sense as like a voyage. To me, there’s an evolution that certainly makes sense as someone who’s lived with it. For us, all of the changes have emerged pretty organically. They emerge out of where we’re living and how we’re living and what we’re listening to. There’s not a lot of pre-meditation to it.

So with [lead single] “Everything Now,” it wasn’t like Win was searching for a flute line that would work? He just came across that Francis Bebey song [“The Coffee Cola Song”] and created a song around it?
Yes. How “Everything Now” ended up — and we tried it fifteen different ways — was influenced by the songs around it as they took shape. That, to me, is why it works as a record — when the songs start to inform each other. But yes, it’s very much as you described. Win heard a song while literally working on a remix, just for like a DJ set, and then was like, “Hey wait a minute. Now I’m singing a song over this. Oops!”

Many folks would say that you’re the guy to watch at an Arcade Fire concert. You’re always so animated and running around like a madman. Do you see the performance you offer on stage as a reflection of how much you’re feeling the music as you perform? Is it perhaps a way to provide a little levity to balance things out when the songs are heavy?
First of all, I’m a great believer in physical comedy. I’ve only recently started identifying as a musician. Before that, I just felt like I was an artist or I was a human doing human things. I love physical comedy. I think it’s really primal and really powerful. There’s definitely an aspect of that that I try and bring to my performance. It reminds me of early American film. Those films are full of really stupid jokes but also really meaningful drama. Same with musical theater. There’s something to the absurdity but also the beauty and the craft and the staging. I feel connected to that world, I think.

On this tour, you’re hosting these Disco Town Hall events after select shows, where you bring in local policymakers and activists to discuss issues relevant to the city in question. How did that whole idea come together?
People are talking about politics and policy and what they can do all the time, and so Disco Town Halls felt like a good idea. People are already calling their congressmen and their senators all the time, so I wanted to do these events with an eye towards local issues and local politics, just because the federal side of things is such a goddamn shit-show and it will be for the next little while.

You recently held one in New York City after your Madison Square Garden show about closing Rikers Island, correct?
Yes, with my city councilman — I live in Brooklyn — and this group, the Katal Center, that’s worked on the #CLOSErikers Campaign. In Tampa, we had one about Florida’s crazy felon disenfranchisement law. Among the organizers there were people who have felony convictions. They’re telling their stories, and I’m like, “Jesus fucking Christ” — but they’re also working to fix it. It’s really inspiring.

On this current tour, Arcade Fire is performing in the round. What has that been like?
You really have to work. There’s no escape. You realize why there’s a back of the stage, so you can like take a break for a second. It’s exciting though, because you have to keep working. You have to work in a different way. You both have to communicate with the crowd differently, because it’s everywhere and you have to address different sides, and the different sides have different personalities. Then you also have to communicate with your bandmates in a different way, because you basically have your back to everyone. You’re not in a line. There’s not like that camaraderie of being in a line where you’re this force pushing outwards. It’s a little more complicated. You have to be looking over your shoulder and really listening and really trying to connect to the music, which is really good, but it’s a spiritual workout as well as a physical one.

Arcade Fire with Angel Olsen, Saturday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. at Oracle Arena, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland. $26-$206;

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