The Rolling Stone editors picked eight stars — from Bruce and Beyoncé to Radiohead and U2 — who not only made the best music but also led the way as Artists of the Decade in our decade-end issue. Here’s more of our conversation with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler.
Arcade Fire had every opportunity to sign with a major label, but chose not to. What does that say about the band?
I guess we were lucky that we didn’t have a lot of major labels wanting to sign us. We were an unknown band, and I feel like finding Merge was really fortunate, because I loved that they put out records that were great, like Neutral Milk Hotel. They’re one of the best bands of the Nineties, and they’re certainly not trying to be famous or anything, but I think their music really stands up with the Beatles and famous bands, but it’s not really trying to be anything more than it is.
What we’re doing now is very much an extension of what we got together to do when we first started playing in Montreal, so I feel like we’re really trying to stay true to that, just trying to write songs and make music for its own terms. I think what happens to it afterwards is largely accidental. You have such little control over that side of things.
How did you deal with blowing up so dramatically with your first album?
Before Funeral came out, I remember the first time we had our own headlining show at Sala Rosa in Montreal. It’s maybe a 200-person venue, but to me, that was making it. Being able to play Sala Rosa was the dream, and the first time that we played there, there was a line of people around the block — the show was sold out kind of on word of mouth from the shows and from the EP. I feel like everything else that’s happened in the band has been an extension of that initial shock of that night, of people waiting outside to see us play. That was truly shocking — in my hometown, people lining up to see us. Everything else after that felt like a different version of that same feeling.
At the start of the decade, what future did you envision for yourself? Did you think you’d have to get a day job and play music on the side?
My grandpa led big bands and was a musician, and he’s one of my great heroes in life. He’s the warmest, most beautiful man, and I feel like growing up and being exposed to that life [made it] a very normal profession to have, so in a sense, I never questioned whether I could have a career playing music, I never thought about it in those terms. Making a living playing music seemed like a really normal thing to do. I never had existential questions about, “Can I make it?” or whatever. It was more that I loved playing music, and that’s what I’m going to spend my time doing. If your dad’s an accountant, you don’t think, “If I become an accountant, can I really make it?”
What was life like for the band when you were writing the songs on Funeral?
The original lineup of the band had kind of broken up, and it re-centered around Régine [Chassagne], myself, my brother, Richard [Reed Parry] and Tim [Kingsbury], and we kind of found ourselves drummer-less. There was this really huge energy that we all felt, that we wanted to get out there and play, so it felt like a lot of the time we were writing the stuff on Funeral, it was dying to be played. Not being able to play was kind of channeled into a lot of the energy of the songs, and it turned out to be a really fruitful period in terms of writing.
How did crowds react to the songs when you started playing them live?
Before we had written those songs, when we were more of an acoustic band, I still feel like we had a combative approach towards the crowd, we’d always be in the crowd and playing and really trying to connect to what the audience. There was a lot of instrumental, shoegazer kind of music happening in Montreal. Every single show I went to was someone playing a cymbal with a bow, and it felt like the punkest thing we could possibly do in Montreal was play pop music at that time. It felt like every time we were playing, we were out to prove it. “Hi, we’re here in the room with you, and we’re playing our asses off.” We kind of always had that chip on our shoulder a bit.
You guys always manage to conjure up a certain amount of uplift at your shows — where does that spirit come from?
I just read a biography of Kurt Cobain, and there’s a bit at the end where it’s at his funeral, and Krist [Novoselic] said something along the lines of, “I feel like the great lesson that Kurt gave to the world is that if you just play music or do art, if you just bang it out and really mean it, then that’s all you need to do.” That if you really go for it and you really mean what you’re doing — that’s the great lesson of punk rock, that’s what you can achieve. I feel like that really resonated a lot with me, it summarized a lot of how I feel about music, as well.
Who made you feel the way people feel at Arcade Fire shows?
I grew up in the suburbs, and I was in boarding school for the end of high school, so I played more than I went to shows. The artists that were making music that really affected me when I was younger were probably Radiohead and Björk. Every time Radiohead played, I would have loved to have gone, but I didn’t know how to get tickets. I wasn’t on the Internet, prowling to join a message group to get the tickets six hours before they came out. I remember the Cure coming to Houston, and I was like, “Man, wouldn’t that be amazing if I could go to a show like that? How would I even do that?” The first times I played, it was like, “How would I want a band to be if I was going to watch them?”
The rock star establishment embraced you. What was that like so early on?
This is another area in which we’ve been incredibly lucky. One of the band’s greatest memories was when we met David Byrne and he sang with us in New York. I think we met David Bowie the same weekend. It was like, “How is this happening to us?” They were the first two dudes that came to our shows in New York and really reached out and were into the band, and it was amazing, it was like meeting these great professors. To be honest, I don’t really relate to musicians as celebrities in that regard. If I see someone whose music I listen to walking down the street, I don’t want to take a picture of them with my cell phone. I feel more that way when I see people on reality shows that I’ve watched. You see someone and you’re like, “I know them, they’re famous in some way, why are they famous?” I was never a big autograph collector.
This is the decade that saw your rise, but it also saw the record business decline. You’ve become one of the biggest bands to stay on an indie label. How much of the independence you were able to maintain is a product of the era you came up in, and how much of it is the band’s ethos?
We’re not in the age of music videos. I got turned on to Radiohead, Björk and Nirvana through the music video as a medium. We’ve kind of come through the TV era. When I was in high school, the Internet was just happening. I feel like the era has changed when we’ve been a band, and the way people find out about music and hear music, even the format they listen to music to is all completely turned on its head. I think that’s just reality, so that’s just when we happened to be a band. I think that it would have taken a lot longer for us to get known as a band if it wasn’t for the way music happens online and people share music and the nature of that. It’s also what happens, so it’s hard to know what would have happened.
What do you hope the next decade will look like?
I’m just really excited about writing new songs. There’s still nothing better in the world than writing a new song and hearing it for the first time and playing a song with a band, and when it starts to come together — that’s never going to get old.
Do you think Arcade Fire will continue to be your mode to express yourself?
I love this band, and I really have always. I feel like there’s no solo albums in the near future.
You guys seem to embrace the idea that music can be a force for social change.
I don’t know if it’s about necessarily believing that what you do effects change, but just that part of being human and part of being an artist is expressing what is in your life, and that sometimes the world is more present than other times. I think that a lot of artists oscillate between very interior and exterior thoughts. For me, for this band, I feel like a band like the Clash is our great heroes, and Springsteen and Dylan before them. I feel like a lot of the people who really challenged me a lot artistically and who I learned a lot from were able to make that kind of art… George Orwell is one of my biggest heroes, and all of his stuff is political. He says that all art is politics, so there’s no getting away from it.