Arcade Fire’s Will Butler Brings Solo Act to Phoenix

When Will Butler struck out on his own with his debut solo effort, Policy, it was expected that the Arcade Fire synth whiz would explore much of the same territory as his band. In some ways, he did.

In discussing Arcade Fire, it’s imperative to talk about the nature of human relationships. Everything from the Montreal sextet’s “Neighborhood” series to the themes in to the interactive music video “The Wilderness Downtown” all points to the band’s fixation on community, family, urban sprawl, etc. On , Butler is no stranger to these concepts.

“I have been lucky enough to grow up in a really great family. Great parents, great siblings — so I have always seen family quite positively,” Butler tells us when we call him up. “We also grew up going to church and singing songs in church. That, for me, was a positive experience — [but] it is not for everyone. I grew up enjoying community and family and thinking of them as positive and healthy.”

In that sense, the 32-year-old Butler is keeping true to his roots, but he is also able to transcend cliché. It does take a few listens to coax them out, but has many unique reference points, something Butler describes as simply “American music.” His varied stylings keep the album from growing stale or becoming too derivative of Arcade Fire.
“What I Want” mixes buzzing crescendo with the rambling lyricism of LCD Soundsystem (makes sense, given Butler’s friendship with James Murphy), and “Something’s Coming” perfectly balances post-punk with baroque pop.

Perhaps most interesting is the direct influence from gospel music. For Butler, the appeal of gospel music, whose influence is most noticeable on “Witness” and “Son of God,” comes from the musician’s love for the genre’s mix of history, culture, and tradition. Something tells me Butler and Joel Marquard of Gospel Claws would get along.

“I love how fundamental [gospel] is,” explains Butler, who says he still occasionally attends church. “All the music you hear on the radio today — everywhere, across the whole world — there’s something really beautiful about how it was such an important part of modern music and everything that came after it.”

Though was recorded in a week between Arcade Fire’s tour legs, Butler has kept up the momentum, recently releasing five songs on YouTube inspired by headlines. “Waving Flag” draws influence from “backward-looking violent nationalism,” specifically in Ukraine, while “Clean Monday” looks at Greece’s financial despair.

The morose starkness on the piano-led “By the Waters of Babylon” evokes Psalm 137, which describes “a song of sorrow and rage from the mouth of a refugee whose city has been destroyed.” The song was written in response to ISIL members’ destroying millennia-old artifacts in a museum in Mosul, Iraq.

Butler is careful to avoid strict political leanings and proselytizing in his songs, but he does feel entangled issues are important to discuss. He also struggles not to get overwhelmed by world news.

“I suppose it depends on what it is I feel helpless about. I’m deeply optimistic about humanity and about America,” Butler says. “There wasn’t a conscious effort to raise awareness, but [the YouTube releases] were kind of an experiment about talking very directly about the news with the thought that were there ever something I wanted to raise awareness for, that I would have some ability to . . . Kind of like how the Clash made a song about the Spanish Civil War, even though it was 40 or 50 years after the Spanish Civil War . . . I think of it as raising awareness in the future of the past.”

Will Butler is scheduled to perform Saturday, May 30, at Crescent Ballroom.
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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah