Will Butler: “I think of the record as a complex and satisfying stew”

Five years on from his solo debut, and Arcade Fire’s Will Butler is pondering his place in America, past and present.

“I’m at the crime scene,” Will Butler conveys. “I don’t know that I am – I didn’t murder anyone,” he elaborates, “but I am at a crime scene. I’m there, and the evidence is all around us. So what do I do?” This setting is the backdrop to Will Butler’s new album, ‘Generations’. It’s a setting that seems to resonate through society as a whole. We’re in the throes of a global pandemic. There’s a worldwide cry of pain and of outrage in the wake of the murder of George Floyd that needs to be heard. Meanwhile, Trump is campaigning for a second term as US president. The evidence, as the musician describes, is all around us.

“The general shittiness and desperation of the last four years, three-and-a-half years, is the swamp from which a lot of these emotions took their shape,” Will portrays of the record. “I was trying to show some dimensions of that.” Drawing from his life, the New York neighbourhood he calls home, and their place in the world at large, these songs might not have been written in the current climate, but their dissatisfaction with the state of the world around them is an emotion that feels unshakably prevalent.

In the five years since the release of his debut album ‘Policy’, Will Butler has toured, released a live record, toured some more, released a record with Arcade Fire, toured again, and somehow found the time to earn a mid-career masters degree in public administration. It seems safe to say that a lot has changed since then. “The first [album] was kind of like trying to make a market fresh meal,” he portrays. For this new record, he wanted to do things differently, diverting from the “fast and furious” pace of his debut to take the time to let the songs grow. “This was a bit more like, okay, what do we do if we’re making a world class stew?” he poses, laughing.

Born out of a process he describes as “boiling the bones and the onions and the carrots and everything,” with ‘Generations’ Will Butler explores the history – specifically his family history – that brought him to where he is today, and wrestles with a keenly-felt desperation for something better in the future. “There’s a nostalgia, but for a different present,” he portrays. “It’s not ‘I wish we were back here,’ it’s ‘I wish now we had made another choice back then.’ It’s a nostalgia for an alternate future.” It’s an energy that prevails far beyond the context of this album. “Right now’s like, ‘I wish it was 2019, except 2019 was just utter shit, so I want it to be 2025, but only if in 2025 we’ve actually fixed a couple of things,'” he offers with a grim chuckle. “It’s this whole mess of emotions.”

This is the energy that flows through ‘Generations’, a record that balances between the realism of the moment and hopefulness for the future. “It’s been a batshit crazy world the last four or five years,” Will expresses. Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, New York, he might crack jokes about dreading a second Great Depression (if you can’t laugh… etc.) but the musician is in high spirits. “There’s something about hope, about being hopeful, about being oriented towards something – like being oriented towards a better future,” he enthuses, “while keeping your eye out and seeing all the shit that’s going to destroy you before you make it to your goal…”

“I think the head and the heart are in different places,” he distils. “You’ve got to know those things, but you’ve got to point your soul in that direction.” He pauses, thinking his words over. “You don’t have to,” he amends, “it’s just hopeful to point your soul in that direction.” That’s exactly what ‘Generations’ strives to do, shining a light to illuminate the shitshow of a situation we find ourselves in while offering hope for whatever comes next. “It’s a fine place to begin by acknowledging your power or lack of power and your position within the world,” Will conveys, “and then move forward from there.” As he sings on ‘Bethlehem’, “how does it feel to know the torch is in your hand?”

“Dark,” he offers in response to his own question, referencing events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 as an explanation as to why. “It’s embarrassing and shitty and terrifying, and you are probably doing something horrible.” He pauses and clarifies, “the ‘you’ is me in this.” The lyric – and song – in question is inspired by the (misquoted) poetry of William Butler Yeats. As he talks Will searches for one poem in particular – ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’ – and pauses to read the last stanza aloud: “The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time; Arise and bid me strike a match and strike another till time catch.”

“There’s something in that moment, this desire to burn it all down, and then this idea of striking the match and blowing it out,” he expresses. “Are we going to burn this shit down? Are we going to blow out the torch?” he asks. “It’s that moment now.” There are no answers. No one knows what the future holds. Instead, with ‘Generations’ Will Butler explores where he’s come from and where he hopes we’ll go from here. “I keep saying, it’s a weird moment we’re living in right now,” he conveys. “It’s a powerful moment, but deeply bizarre.”

“Are we going to burn this shit down?”
Will Butler

When he isn’t looking forwards on ‘Generations’ he’s looking back, delving into the history that brought him to where he is today. “My great grandfather was the last son of a pioneer, a homesteader in Utah,” he describes. “He made his children be in a band. They’d drive across the desert – before there were roads in the desert – and play music in churches. Those kids grew up to be musicians in a jazz vocal group. My mom grew up in that musical family, playing music and playing shows.” Performing in Arcade Fire with his brother, Win, and now readying to release his second solo record, it seems that music is in Will Butler’s blood.

This sense of tradition is most keenly felt on album closing track, ‘Fine’. “In some ways, it’s trying to be like a Kanye West folk song or something,” he laughs, quickly explaining that it isn’t hip-hop but rather “talking about important things in a crass way.” “There’s a genre of hip-hop where it’s like ‘I got rich selling drugs’,” he describes. “I’m like, ‘I got rich because my grandfather ran a small business’,” he laughs. “I got rich because generations of American policy have been oriented towards providing white men with a high standard of living that would be better than the generation before them,” he declares with a mock flourish. “How do you like me now?”

More than just reckoning with his family history, ‘Generations’ sees the musician trying to find his place in it in the now. “I’m kind of the oldest millennial,” he states. “I’m born in 1982: I’m not 40, but I feel like an old man. People that are six years younger than me, I see them through a glass darkly,” he laughs. “Something about being a millennial who remembers the Soviet Union,” he chuckles. “It neither has the standing to be an ‘OK, boomer’ person, nor the standing to be like, ‘I’ve got my shit together, I’m a youth’.” Exploring the tension of bloodlines and identity – and where that goes from here – is the river that runs through ‘Generations’.

“I think of [the record] as a complex and satisfying stew,” Will describes, in another culinary-inspired metaphor that gets more difficult to follow the longer he continues, “based off of some old family recipe that you did every goddamn step to make it into this very nourishing, very layered, uh, goulash.” He abandons that train of thought with a laugh. “My brain is so broken these days.” As for where Will Butler will go from here, your guess is as good as his [we mentioned there are no answers, right? – ed].

“Even before the pandemic I was like, ‘I’m putting out a record this fall, I’m going to play shows in America a month before the election, I’m going to go around the world, meet people and figure out what’s going on and provide some release’,” he enthuses, plans which are currently just not possible at the moment. He has hopes for being creative with ways of sharing the record (“I’m curious to see if I get better at it, living on the internet”) and for making a new Arcade Fire record (“God willing, pandemic permitting”). The rest is open to possibility. “For people that care about music, music feels very important right now,” he asserts. “Music is so nourishing and comforting by its nature that it feels good to be engaged in that, as weird as it is.” 

Taken from the October issue of Dork. Will Butler’s album ‘Generations’ is out now.

Words: Jessica Goodman

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