Content And Connection: Arcade Fire On 'Everything Now'

Aug 4, 2017

Like many bands, Arcade Fire started out small: an indie band from Montreal, founded in 2001 by Win Butler and former member Josh Deu. Three years later, the band's debut album Funeral propelled it to fame: With its singalong anthems and soaring choruses, that album became the soundtrack of a moment. Fast forward to 2011: Arcade Fire's third album, The Suburbs, beat out pop juggernauts Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

In those years, Arcade Fire filled stadiums and won critical acclaim with songs that felt urgent and sincere. But when the band's fifth album, Everything Now, was released this July, some fans and listeners felt things had taken a turn for the detached and ironic. (One review called the album "joyless" and "riddled with cliche.")

Brothers Win and Will Butler of Arcade Fire joined All Things Considered's Ari Shapiro to talk about their childhoods, how they manage touring with family and how — despite what some might think — Everything Now is really a "direct and heartfelt" album about people and connection. Read on for an edited transcript and hear an abridged version of the conversation at the audio link.

Ari Shapiro: You've been side by side for the last 30-odd years. What were you like as little kids? How was your relationship as brothers — inseparable or constantly fighting?

Will Butler: Both. When we were young, we scrapped a lot. Actually, we both went to boarding school when we were respectively 15 years old. And actually, when Win left the house, our relationship improved. [Laughs.]

Was there a moment when you realized you could coexist, both in life and on a stage?

Win Butler: I think when I went away to school. We were living in Texas, and I went to boarding school in New Hampshire. Leaving the house, I think I really got a really deep appreciation for how close Will and I were; like, the second I left, I was like "Oh, crap — maybe I didn't appreciate what a good thing we had going!" We connected a lot on a musical level — like, we're kind of born from the same fire.

Will: Our mom was actually a musician. She grew up on a variety show on ABC with 40 of her cousins, and her parents, and six aunts and uncles and great- aunts and -uncles.

I interviewed somebody once who said the way he survived touring on the road was by turning his bandmate into a coffee table every now and then. Win, your wife is also in the band; the two of you are brothers. When there's this much family in the band, you can't just turn each other into a coffee table. How do you do it?

Will: [Laughs.] We're a big enough band — we've always been seven or eight or nine on the road. And, say, if I'm rubbing against Win the wrong way, I can go hang out with Richard, or Jeremy, or Regine; it tends to ebb and flow in a nice way.

As long as we're talking about family: The spark for this song "Peter Pan" came from your father. Tell us about this.

Win: Both of my grandfathers were 96 when they passed away, so we got a lot of really good time with our grandparents. And I have a son now. You start to realize that your parents are getting older, and the realization that they're not always going to be there: It's a different way of facing mortality.

I think [the character of] Peter Pan, in a lot of ways, is emblematic of the modern man: He's kind of the dream of being young forever, always dressing like a teenager and always feeling young. But [this song] was trying to get a more direct, less ironic take on the desire to not have the people you love die.

So much of this album is about stuff; it seems like a real contrast to that.

Win: I don't agree. I mean, even "Everything Now" is super emotional.

Tell me about that. To me, it feels like inundation.

Win: Take the lyric, "Every inch of road's got a town / Daddy, how come you're never around? / I miss you." It's not really about stuff — it's about longing for connection and longing for love. I think that a conceptual framework around the record is trying to come to some sort of understanding about the moment we're in, and trying to have some peace with it. But the actual record is really about people and it's really, I would say, very direct and heartfelt.

There was a line in a Salon article about this album that said, "To watch Arcade Fire thumb its nose at the world like this is like hearing a parent swear for the first time." I don't know if you think of this as thumbing your nose at the world, but that seems to be how people are taking it — and they seem to be surprised by a band that they think of as earnest relating to the world in this way.

Win: I don't know that we've ever made a more earnest record. Like, even "Infinite Content" is just, like, a dirge of pain, you know? [Laughs.] It's literally: I don't know what else to say except to say this, over and over again. It's genuinely an expression of pain.

Pain about what? What's the cause of the pain?

Win: Having everything that you've ever cared about just reduced to a piece of content is kind of painful to me, in a sense. Anyone involved in music [is told] "we need more content for this thing," or, "the content of these photos is amazing." You thought you were making records and then everything ends up being about content. It's like filling up a hard drive in a weird way, and you're kind of just trying to kick against it.

When you're creating a thing that you care about, a piece of music, and you have no choice but to do it from within this big old machine, do you have any small rituals, or practices, or something that helps you connect with the big invisible audience out there that wants to appreciate your art in the middle of this machine?

Will: In high school, I took a class on cathedral architecture. There were all these anonymous medieval stone masons carving gargoyles that go on the roof of the cathedral that nobody will ever see for 500 years until tourists start going up onto the roof of the cathedral to take pictures of it. And there's a part of making art that I relate to as a medieval stone mason where I'm just carving this gargoyle for God — or a question mark — and whatever happens in the next 500 years is up to everybody else.

The album ends with a ballad that sounds different from a lot of the other songs on the album: "We Don't Deserve Love." Will you tell me about how you built this?

Win: There's a synthesizer called a Hymnotron that I got for Regine for her birthday — it was a really good birthday gift! [Laughs.] It's a really cool synth — you don't really play it like a normal synth, it's just these weird buttons and knobs. And [I was] just turning it on and trying to figure it out how it worked. Our engineer at the time — our friend Korey [Richey], that worked on Reflektor — he left, and it was a really teary goodbye. He was like, "Well I'm going, I have to go take this other job," and I was like, "Well, I'm really going to miss you," and he was like, "Oh, well that thing you were playing the other day — I hope one day in my life I make something as beautiful as that." And I was like, "What thing?" [Laughs.] And he was like "That thing you played on the synth the other day!" And I pulled it up and I was like, "Oh, this is really cool."

Just you, figuring out how to use the instrument?

Win: Yeah. Korey was sitting in the corner almost crying, like "Oh this is so beautiful!" while I was like "How does this thing work?!" [Laughs.] Afterwards, when he pointed it out, I was like, "Oh, right" — and then that was the song, pretty much. The vocal is the first time I ever sang it, and everyone in the band just went in the studio and put on a layer, and then that was the song.

It also just feels like such a different and yet totally appropriate way to end the album after you've been talking about "everything now" and "infinite content," to come down to a sentiment as intimate as this: "We Don't Deserve Love."

Will: Yeah, it's our heartbreaker, that one.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're about to talk with one of the biggest rock bands of the last decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE UP")

ARCADE FIRE: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: Arcade Fire started out as an indie band from Montreal. In 2004, their debut album became the soundtrack of a moment, soaring anthems with a message. In 2011, they won album of the year at the Grammys. Arcade Fire didn't come across as cool, ironic rock stars. Instead they filled stadiums with songs that felt urgent and sincere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO CARS GO")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) We know a place where no planes go.

SHAPIRO: Two members of Arcade Fire joined me to talk about their newest album called "Everything Now." The album explores human connections in the age of connectivity. Win and Will Butler are brothers, and this has always been a family band. Win's wife, Regine Chassagne, is one of the lead singers. I asked the brothers what their relationship was like as kids.

WIN BUTLER: We were living in Texas, and I went to boarding school in New Hampshire. And, like, leaving the house, I think I really got a really deep appreciation for how close Will and I were. Like, the second I left, I was like, oh, crap. Like, maybe I didn't appreciate what a good thing we had going. We connected a lot on a musical level. Like, oh, we're kind of born from the same fire.

WILL BUTLER: But our mom was actually a musician. She grew up on a variety show on ABC with 40 of her cousins and her parents and six aunts and uncles and great-aunts and uncles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, we're going to have a ball and really do it right, and you're invited every Saturday night.

SHAPIRO: OK, as long as we're talking about family, the spark for the song "Peter Pan" on this album came from your father.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PETER PAN")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) In my dreams, you're dying. It wakes me up. I can't stop crying. I just want to live forever, keep my promises, keep it together.

WIN BUTLER: You know, like, both of my grandfathers were 96 when they passed away, so we got a lot of really good time with our grandparents. And I have a son now. And you start to realize that your parents are getting older - and kind of like the realization that they're not always going to be there. It's, like, a different way of facing mortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PETER PAN")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) Be my Wendy. I'll be your Peter Pan. Come on, baby. Take my hand. We can walk if we don't feel like flying. We can live. I don't feel like dying.

WIN BUTLER: But I think "Peter Pan" in a lot of ways - you can kind of - is, like, kind of emblematic of the modern man. I mean it's, like, kind of like the dream of being young forever and always dressing like a teenager and always feeling young. But it was, like, trying to get, like, a more direct, less ironic take on the desire to not have the people you love die (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So much of this album is about stuff. It seems like a real contrast to that.

WIN BUTLER: I don't agree. I mean I don't - even "Everything Now" is really super emotional. I mean...

SHAPIRO: Tell me about that. To me it feels like inundation.

WIN BUTLER: I mean, like, the lyric of, every inch of road's got a town; Daddy, how come you're never around? I miss you...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING NOW")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) Every inch of road's got a town. Daddy, how come you're never around? I miss you like everything now. Mama, leave the food on the stove. Leave your car in the middle of the road. This happy family with everything now...

WIN BUTLER: ...Is not really about stuff. It's about longing for connection and longing for love. And I don't know. I think that a conceptual framework around the record is trying to come to some sort of understanding about the moment we're in and trying to, like, have some peace with it. But the actual record is really about people. And it's really, I would say, very direct and heartfelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING NOW")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) And then you're black again - can't make it back again from everything now.

SHAPIRO: So I guess that makes me wonder, when you're creating a thing that you care about, a piece of music, and you have no choice but to do it from within this big, old machine, do you have any small rituals or practices or something that helps you as people trying to create art connect with a big, invisible audience out there that wants to appreciate your art in the middle of this machine?

WILL BUTLER: In high school, I took a class on cathedral architecture. And there's all these anonymous medieval stonemasons carving gargoyles that go on the roof of the cathedral that nobody will ever see for 500 years until tourists start (laughter) going up onto the roof of the cathedral to take pictures of it. And there's a part of making art that I relate to as a medieval stonemason, where I'm just carving this gargoyle for God or question mark. And whatever happens the next 500 years is up to everybody else.

SHAPIRO: But then you have to make money and go to the Grammys and win awards and things like that.

WILL BUTLER: Well, you don't have to go to the Grammys (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCADE FIRE SONG, "WE DON'T DESERVE LOVE")

SHAPIRO: The album ends with a ballad that sounds different from a lot of other songs on the album, "We Don't Deserve Love." Will you tell me about how you built this?

WIN BUTLER: There's a synthesizer called a hymnotron...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCADE FIRE SONG, "WE DON'T DESERVE LOVE")

WIN BUTLER: ...That I got for Regine for her birthday. It was a really good birthday gift. It's a really beautiful, like...

(LAUGHTER)

ARCADE FIRE: If you do say so yourself.

WIN BUTLER: It's a really cool synth that you don't really play it, like, a normal synth. It's just, like, these weird buttons and knobs. And it was me just turning it on and trying to figure out how it worked. And our engineer at the time, our friend Korey - he left, you know, like, in this really, like, teary goodbye. Like, I'm going. I have to go take this other job. And I was like, well, I'm really going to miss you. And he's like well, like, that thing you were playing the other day is, like - I wish - I hope one day in my life I make something as beautiful as that. And I was like, what thing?

(LAUGHTER)

WIN BUTLER: And he was like - he's like, the thing you played on the synth the other day. And then I pulled it up. And I was like, oh, this is really cool. You know, like, the...

SHAPIRO: Just you figuring out how to use the instrument.

WIN BUTLER: Yeah. And, like, Korey was sitting in the corner, like, almost crying. He was like, wow, this is so beautiful.

(LAUGHTER)

WIN BUTLER: I was just like, how does this thing work? And then afterwards when he pointed it out, then I was like, oh, right. And then it was - that was the song pretty much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE DON'T DESERVE LOVE")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) Been hiding my scars in broad daylight bars, behind laugh tracks on TV. If you can't see the forest for the trees, just burn it all down.

WIN BUTLER: The vocal is the first time I ever sang it. And everyone in the band just went in the studio and, like, put on a layer. And then that was the song.

WILL BUTLER: No, and then at the end of the record, we pulled up the song. We're like, oh, what are we doing on this? And everything was there. And it was like, oh, I guess we've already done this song. This song is done.

SHAPIRO: It also just feels like such a different and yet totally appropriate way to end the album after you've been talking about everything now and infinite content, to come down to a sentiment as intimate as this. We don't deserve love.

WIN BUTLER: Yeah. It's a heartbreaker, that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE DON'T DESERVE LOVE")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) And you say, maybe we don't deserve love. Maybe we don't deserve love. Maybe we don't deserve love.

SHAPIRO: Win and Will Butler of the band Arcade Fire. Their latest album is "Everything Now." Thanks so much, you guys.

WIN BUTLER: Yeah, thank you so much. Like - and hi to our parents, who are I'm sure listening in.

WILL BUTLER: Whose 45th wedding anniversary was today.

WIN BUTLER: Yeah, they just had their 45th.

SHAPIRO: Oh, happy anniversary to your parents.

WIN BUTLER: Yeah, yeah, not bad - 45, 45 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE DON'T DESERVE LOVE")

ARCADE FIRE: (Singing) Roll away the stone. The men you love always leave you alone. You hear your mother screaming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.