Will Butler

Will Butler reflects a dark period in America on his new album Generations

“The doom chord was struck [in 2015], and it’s been doom and gloom for five years.”

Will Butler is not unique among the hordes of grounded musicians feeling frustrated right now. He would rather be out on the road.

Between Arcade Fire albums, Butler’s new solo album Generations was released by Merge Records on the last Friday of September. But given the timing and the political climate in the U.S., playing shows was only part of what the Brooklyn-based musician wanted to accomplish on tour.

“I was really scheming. I was going to be driving around America in the fall before a giant election and I’m very bummed to not be able to do that,” says Butler, who got his Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2017. “The greatest tool I have is I can get people into a room, and for people who like me already, I feel like I can present a good case for things like redirecting police funding or voting rights. I did that on the last Arcade Fire tour; I organized afterparties at venues near the arenas that we called ‘disco town halls,’ and I would find local people who were doing something actionable. 

“We did one in Tampa, they were organizing around felon disenfranchisement, pushing an amendment to the Florida State constitution so if you’d been convicted of a felony, you could vote. Something like 25 per cent of Black men in Florida are disenfranchised. In New York we had one about closing Rikers Island jail, which is a jail where people are held pre-trial — it’s kind of a Dickensian hellhole.

“Even before the killing of George Floyd, there was a world of things you could talk about in every city. There’s definitely shit happening in Pittsburgh and Iowa city, and there’s always someone really working their ass off to make things better. In a weird way, you can only act on what is already happening. Like now you can act on police violence in a way that you couldn’t even a year ago, but now it’s salient and you can push. New York passed five or six laws that are baby steps, but they’re steps towards reforming the police, because the time was right to push it.”

Considering these areas of interest, it’s not surprising that politics informs Butler’s music in a big way. His debut album was called Policy after all, and as it turns out, a lot of the songs on Generations had their roots in the year that record was released.

“2015 had Ferguson and the Baltimore riots, it had the Bataclan shooting (in Paris), Donald Trump declared his presidency and the Charleston church shooting happened the next day — in terms of ominous forebodings of the future,” Butler explains. “The doom chord was struck then, and it’s been doom and gloom for five years after that. I basically embraced the doom in the lyrics and then tried to not have the doom be embodied in the music, in that I’m not alone — it is a solo record but there’s so many voices. The background vocals are mixed as high as the (lead) vocals because (the message is) supposed to be, ‘You’re not alone.’”

As for his other gig, Butler agreed with my suggestion that the release of the next Arcade Fire album (already in the works) seems to be in line with the period when people in the industry believe live music will be possible again: roughly a year from now, post-vaccine.

“It’s weirdly on track. It always takes a year, a year and a half to make a record anyway but if we still can’t play shows, I doubt we would delay the record — but we will be able to play shows again in the next couple of years, probably, right? That feels right to me. Get a vaccine, figure out how it gets around, work that shit out.

“For now it’s obviously on pause, just like everything else.” ■

“Bethlehem” by Will Butler, from the album Generations

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