When Arcade Fire began to formulate as an actual, proper band, Win Butler knew he had to get his brother involved.
With wide ranging interests – a DJ, a student of poetry at Northwestern University – Will Butler added something distinct, something different to the group.
More than ten years on, the songwriter feels comfortable with stepping out into the limelight on his own.
New solo album 'Policy' is out on March 16th, featuring a plethora of characters each chasing the American dream – with varying degrees of success.
Clash caught up with Will Butler to explore some of the literary influences underpinning his work.
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What is your favourite book, and why?
My favorite book is Moby Dick. It's long (maybe too long), and complicated and boring and funny. It's a simple story: Ahab hunts whale. But it's infinitely surprising. You never know a) what's going to happen b) what the heck the author is going to do. Because he's not necessarily going to tell you what's going to happen next. He might embark on a 100 pages of describing different kind of whales. Super boring. But hilarious at a certain point. It's a foundational text for American literature, too—a lot of long, boring, complicated, funny work has been inspired by Moby Dick.
What other authors do you like?
I like Dostoevsky. Another fellow with long books. I like a lot of Russians - Tolstoy, Daniil Kharms, Bulgakov. For poets I like George Herbert, Dickinson, Yeats, Coleridge, Langland. I'm fairly conservative. From more recent times I like Karen Russell and Margaret Atwood and George Saunders.
What draws you to certain books?
I like to judge a book by its cover. I end of buying a lot of Penguin books - both new and old - on account of this.
Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? If so, what is it?
It's not really lost, but Dostoevsky's Demons is under-read. It's all about the Russian soul and the birth of modern terrorism. Both of which topics are still fairly relevant 150 years later.
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
Very much so. Books were my first love—when I'm trying to think of what to say in a song, my primal influences are all literature, all the written word. The music side of the equation is different, but lyrics come from the bookish half of my brain. I didn't really get into pop music until late in high school, by which time most of my brain circuits were already drawn.
What are you reading at the moment? The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
What was the first book you remember reading as a child?
I've got deep memories of the Robert McCloskey books: Make Way for Ducklings; Blueberries for Sal; One Morning in Maine; Burt Dow, Deep Water Man. I mean, they were originally read to me, but I read them myself as well.
Did you make good use of your library card as a child?
Yes. I read the whole Hardy Boys series from my library; lots of Beverly Cleary and Lois Lowry. Sometimes I would check out a long book from the adult section that I had no intention of reading, just to try to impress the librarian.
Have you ever started a book that you simply could not finish?
Pierre, by Herman Melville. He's one of my favorite authors - he wrote my favorite book! Pierre is super weird and boring, though. I've got intentions to finish it someday, but it's been a busy 10 years.
Do you read book reviews?
I go through phases. About five years ago I read the New York Times Book Review pretty regularly. A great book review stands on its own and gets your mind turning as good as anything. But lately, I've been reading less reviews. No explanation.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
Yes. I like to re-read easy, entertaining books - often popular non-fiction - because they remain easy and entertaining. I like to read hard books because you keep getting more out of them.
Have you ever identified with a character in a book?
The narrator from Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky is kind of a caricature, but he's a caricature I've always related to. Over-sensitve, incapacitated by thought, slightly angry at and jealous of everyone else. Sarcastic, smart, funny, pathetic. I mean, he's not me by any stretch, but I've always recognized those emotions.
Do you read just one book at a time, or more than one?
I try to read one at a time. If I'm traveling, I'll often leave a big honking book I'm in the middle of at home and start a new one on the road. But it starts to drive me crazy after a while.
Is there an author or poet who you’d love to collaborate with?
I don't think so. Not on music. If Karen Russell wrote a short film I'd do the soundtrack.
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'Policy' is out on March 16th.