Will Butler Sister Squares

Will Butler flipped the script on his solo career by making Sister Squares his new band

We spoke with Butler about his departure from Arcade Fire, the dynamics of the new band, going Romantic on their new album and more.

Will Butler has a new band.

The former multi-instrumentalist for Arcade Fire left his old fold in late 2021, a move that was announced in March 2022, less than two months prior to the release of their album WE — and about nine months before the emergence of sexual misconduct allegations against his brother (which cast Arcade Fire into the shadows, somewhat, but didn’t cancel their career as a touring band).

Will calls his decision to leave “multifaceted” and “fundamentally instinctual,” “which is what makes every important decision so scary.” He also views his departure from the band he cofounded in the early 2000s as merely a tiny part of “a massive societal force.”

“Like, I’m not the only person who quit their job in the year 2020 or 2021. Plenty of people went through the pandemic and were like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna become a gardener,’ or whatever. So in an anthropological sense, it’s hard for me to not see myself as the same as every 39- or 40-year-old in North America.

“But it also felt right. We finished the record, and I loved working with Nigel Godrich — what a fucking dream. He was a teenage hero. I felt like, if that’s the button, then great. I think I should do something that’s a little scary for me.”

Ironically, what Butler ended up doing brought him back to somewhat familiar (and literally familial) territory: evolving his solo career into a band project, with his wife Jenny Shore as one of the members. Will Butler + Sister Squares features members of his touring band since 2015 (Jenny, Julie Shore, Sara Dobbs and Miles Francis), now promoted to a larger role in the studio as well as on stage.

“I was making a solo record, and I was like, ‘I would rather make a record with Miles. I would rather have Miles here making it three-dimensional.’ So I went to Miles and said, ‘Let’s make a record. I don’t know that it’s a Will Butler record.’ And it became a Will Butler + Sister Squares record.

“(On stage), sometimes the Sister Squares take lead and I will go back and play a synth and they’ll sing a song, which is literally different, but also the energy is different. It’s a little bit more like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, like, ‘Who is fucking Crazy Horse? Who is driving that car?’”

Butler says that his dynamic with this group has “always been fairly bandy,” even in the songwriting stages. However, he’s no longer presenting the group with near-complete songs to add to, instead bringing in fragments and saying, “This is nothing, let’s make this something.

“Then people get more invested in it. Julie is sending me voice memos, she’s taking a song and cutting it and being like, ‘I think the chorus should be there.’ When that starts rolling, it changes the vibe.”

The band’s self-titled album, released by Merge Records on Sept. 22, is upbeat and energized, danceable and thematically dreamy. While “Stop Talking” will absolutely appeal to Arcade Fire fans, the single “Long Grass” evokes the post-Bowie New Romantic era of the early ’80s without relying on retro synths to push specific nostalgia buttons.

“In some ways it’s literally Romantic in the 19th century way, like, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ like properly strong emotion recalled in stillness. Maybe it’s the great grandchild of 19th century Romantic, like, ‘I am looking at the cloud and I am drifting but I’m also calculating how to make pottery out of that.’ Some of the dreams are a little literal and some of them are just like what is this strong emotion? Is it a memory? Is it a memory of an emotion? Or is the memory giving me an emotion? It’s trying to investigate something when I’m not sure what the source of it is.”

Outside of the band, Butler wrote music for a play called Stereophonic that opened in early October in New York City (where he lives), telling the story of a feuding band making a record in the mid ’70s, and will be contributing music to an upcoming film project called Lips Like Sugar. Directed by Brantley Gutierrez and starring Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, the film is set during the 1984 Olympics in L.A. 

“I said, ‘Yes, I can definitely soundtrack that, say no more.’ That era is very much in my wheelhouse; you should see my playlists. I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I think it’ll be really awesome.”

Asked if there are any favourite directors whose films he’d like to score, Butler said he’d prefer to start a new relationship with the next hot filmmaker.

“I want to do the soundtrack for whoever is 36 years old, is this many years out of school and is working on this kind of feature. More like trying to get in on the ground floor to be the Jonny Greenwood to someone’s Paul Thomas Anderson.” ■

Will Butler + Sister Squares will play with opener Rachel Bobbitt at Bar le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.) on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m., $23.02. For more on the band, please visit Will Butler’s website.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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