Catching Up With... Arcade Fire's Win Butler

Music Features Arcade Fire
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By next year, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler will have lived in Montreal as long as he’s lived anywhere, and home is where he and his wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne will continue to remain for a little while. Despite getting his car broken into and his iPod stolen, things are quiet in Montreal. But while a new album isn’t forthcoming any time soon, a new film, Miroir Noir ("Black Mirror") offers fans glimpses of Arcade Fire backstage, recording songs for Neon Bible or playing a variety of traditional and non-tradititonal venues. It also shows a band with a goofier persona than their sometimes somber image, playing whirlyball, wearing Star Wars masks or frolicking on the beach. We talked to Butler about the making of the film and his plans for 2009.

Paste: When and how did you decide this was the time to do a DVD?
Butler: This is just how long it took us to finish. But we met [cinematographer] Vincent Moon the first time we went to Paris. He was standing outside our show with his girlfriend, holding a sign that read, “Please let me in.” And [director] Vincent Morisset is one of Régine’s best friends from college. We’d tried to finish a film before, but this was the first time we actually saw it all the way through.

Paste: What kind of aesthetic guidance did you and Régine and the rest of the band give the filmmakers?
Butler: They both just ran free. We didn’t want to do a full concert film because I’ve always found those kind of boring. And we didn’t want a huge setup on stage, always just one camera, two cameras max. But we gave them as much freedom to capture whatever they wanted. And some of those candid moments were recorded by us.

Paste: One of my favorite moments is when the orchestra is recording “Intervention,” and Régine just looks ecstatic, listening to the strings. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
Butler: I’d been to Budapest and it was one of my favorite cities. But we recorded with Michael Part, Arvo Part’s son and he was fantatic. Arvo is one of Régine’s biggest heroes. And the city is amazing. We’d visit the hot springs and see the city.

Paste: Seeing your song come to life with strings, was that a new thing for you on that scale?
Butler: It was our first time doing a full orchestral session. We recorded "No Cars Go" for the EP. Régine had always had kind of an orchestral sound in mind and had initially played it with an accordion. An accordion can kind of simulate how an orchestra works with all the counterlines and harmonies. She just felt that was how she imagined the song. It was several years in the making. We were in our apartment five years ago, and Régine was dreaming of an orchestra.

Paste: The film also captures you recording a men’s choir and rehearsing with a group of extremely soulful women singers. Plus there’s the power of the pipe organ. A friend of mine refers to you guys as indie arena rock. Was your intention to just make Neon Bible as large an album as possible?
Butler: To be honest, going into it, I think there’s a difference between trying to make a song sound big and trying to record what’s a big song to begin with. And when the theme started emerging in the record, it just all began to make sense. A lot of the bands we love are stripped-down punk bands, and a lot of our demos were kind of in that direction. Once we heard the pipe organ it really started to take a different direction. But I don’t really have a stadium ambition. We’ve played arenas and they’re kind of depressing environments.

Paste: Another great moment of the film shows your brother climbing a tower. When I saw you in Atlanta last year, he was climbing the stair railing. When and how did his habit of climbing stuff come about and what do you think about it?
Butler: There’s actually a scene in the film from that Atlanta show. Will was climbing up into the balcony. I looked up and I thought, “Oh God, Will’s gonna die at this show. He’s climbing up the railing and leaning over, and it just looked really dangerous. Luckily, he’s usually climbing something behind me so I don’t always see it. I just see the fans’ reaction to it. When Will started playing with us, he took a semester off from college. When he left us, it was just as we were getting into recording Funeral. We’d play shows and we had to be able to play without him, so he had to just play like tambourine or xylophone. He’d come in for a weekend if we were playing shows in New York, and he’d just be like this whirlwind of energy. A lot of his stage presence kind of came about in that era, I think. Now, obviously, he plays a lot more instruments and is a bigger part of the show.

Paste: What do you hope people understand better about Arcade Fire after watching this film?
Butler: We didn’t have any goals of putting across anything specific. But it’s more just a representation of how we just joke around when we’re just hanging out. It doesn’t really fit with our austere image that’s not really us. I think that happened when Funeral came out and we had like four photos, all with us just looking sad in our ties. And it just stuck. But, when I watch like a Rolling Stones documentary, the parts that I find most interesting are like when there’s a microphone in the background—the little moments from the recording process.

Paste: There are a lot of those in this film, like when you’re out on the balcony recording the vocal tracks to “Keep the Car Running” and all we hear is your voice.
Butler: I recorded out there a bunch since we really didn’t have an isolation booth.

Paste: So what’s next for you guys? It’s been a while since you’ve toured; are you buckling down for a busy 2009?
Butler: We’ll see. The last five years were so insane for this band. Our goal is to take a break and come back together when we feel like it’s right. When we recorded Funeral, we didn’t have a drummer at the beginning. We’d just get together and play in small groups. We’re kind of in that frame of mind again. Guys were just coming over in the afternoon and working on songs. The first time you play a song and it comes together, that’s just the most exciting thing.

Paste: You’ve been able to accomplish a lot from playing Saturday Night Live to getting up on stage with some really cool people. Any particular ambitions or things you’d really like to accomplish from here out?
Butler: Our ambitions are really for the songs. A lot of dreams are wrapped up in making some really great songs a reality. We came into this business at a really lucky time in that we’re able to retain a lot of control of what we do.

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