Will Butler seems, somehow, relaxed.
Early on a weekday in March, less than a week before Durham's Merge Records issues his debut LP, the 32-year-old songwriter and bandleader isn't concerned about his full day of interviews and a subsequent band rehearsal, nor does he seem to sweat the three-month tour that starts tomorrow—in front of a sold-out crowd at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom, no less. Reviews and interviews have already started to arrive through The Wall Street Journal, Pitchfork and The Guardian. But he sounds unfazed by both the schedule and the hubbub.
"I don't really get nervous doing anything, to be honest," he says with a chuckle. "If anything, I'm overconfident."
Then again, Butler is used to such rigmarole, if not for his own records. For more than a decade, Butler has been a key utility player in Arcade Fire, offering central support during one of the highest-profile, critically adored and publicly ascendant careers of any indie rock band. Though he's played a host of instruments and earned a reputation for enthusiastic onstage antics, his role tends to be overlooked. The married pair of Régine Chassagne and Win Butler, Will's brother, are the unequivocal faces of the band, and behind a keyboard or an amplifier, Will Butler is simply not as recognizable as other Arcade Fire members—say, for instance, fellow multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, a 6-foot-5 redhead.
Butler isn't the only second-fiddle member of the group to strike out on his own, as Arcade Fire have launched an entire constellation of associated acts. They helped give the solo saxophone pieces of Colin Stetson a platform, as well as the strange pop fantasies of Owen Pallett. Arcade Fire instrumentalists Parry and Sarah Neufeld have launched composition careers, too, and the mothership afforded them instant name recognition beyond classical fans.
Indeed, it's one of the most familiar stories in the full-band ecosystem. From Bon Iver and dozens of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys to 9th Wonder and scores of players who supported a jazz titan like Miles Davis, a member of a popular act takes some of their own ideas, workshops and records them and strives to build a career all their own. Some make it big and move on, while some retreat to the flagship's steady pay.
But Butler is perhaps this decade's ultimate parenthetical. He's not just a member of Arcade Fire; he's the brother—the little brother, at that—of the band's frontman and co-figurehead, a musician big enough in stature and star appeal to be invited to play in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. Hell, he and Win Butler practically share a name and a face.
Butler insists he doesn't feel as if he's operating in his big brother's shadow. And since he's not sweating his upcoming record release and tour, why would whatever expectations for Policy that might stem from his association with Arcade Fire daunt him?
"When people are like, 'Oh, you're the guy from Arcade Fire,' I'm like, 'Yeah, it's awesome,'" he jokes. "If people are like, 'Oh, you're Win Butler's brother,' I'm like, 'Yeah, that's my brother! Isn't that cool?'"
Policy supports Butler's unflappability. His solo debut doesn't overcome comparisons to Arcade Fire because there seem so few to make. For one, Policy is a taut affair; at 28 minutes, it's just more than a third of the length of Arcade Fire's bloated 2013 double-album, Reflektor.
Policy is mercurial, too, while Arcade Fire's arty rock and mighty bombast have always seemed carefully plotted. From Parry's recordings for classical music vanguard Deutsche Grammophon to Pallett's string-quartet-heavy work as Final Fantasy, most of its members' extracurricular pursuits have seemed to be corollaries to the band's own sweeping grandiosity. But Policy is an unbuttoned rock 'n' roll record that revels in messiness.
Butler largely takes a pass on the Arcade Fire's high-concept poses and theatrical artiness for a mélange of styles—rowdy, saxy garage rock on "Take My Side" and "Witness," hiccupping new wave on "Anna" and "Something's Coming," sullen piano balladry on "Finish What I Started" and "Sing to Me."
And as if to further distance himself from Arcade Fire's self-seriousness, Butler eschews grand themes for vague satire, deploying a sharp sense of humor and peppering the record with keen bon mots and flippant non sequiturs. Jesus Christ shows up, but only briefly and as the target of polite blasphemy. On "What I Want," he turns a couplet about buying and cooking a horse—he knows a good recipe for pony macaroni, it seems—into a cornball come-on. And if he could fly, he puffs on "Take My Side," he'd "beat the shit out of some birds." A loose, lively and likeable listen, Policy asserts that Butler may need little name-dropping to succeed, though it might help.
Association with a successful indie rock outfit doesn't guarantee instant success, anyway. Kid Trails, for instance, has yet to cash in on the membership of bassist Patrick Jeffords and drummer Andy Woodard in Toro y Moi. The band has self-released three EPs of charming, grainy lo-fi pop to modest acclaim, but they've generated nowhere near the attention of Toro y Moi's other offshoots, like leader Chaz Bundick's dance outfit Les Sins or the music of Keath Mead, which Bundick produces and releases. Mead is opening a leg of dates on Toro y Moi's upcoming, large-room tour. Kid Trails has played mostly living rooms and dive bars.
But Kid Trails has seen some concrete dividends from Toro y Moi, especially with the press: Bandcamp has featured Kid Trails twice, both times making the link to Toro y Moi. Many of the shows Kid Trails plays come through connections made by touring with Toro y Moi.
"It's different if you have a PR person and a label than if you're just making music. [Butler] has the Merge safety net, but I don't really have that," Jeffords explains. "I'm putting my own records out."
In that regard, Butler knows he's essentially playing with Merge house money. His debut record is on a cool independent label with major distribution and promotion networks, and his membership in the Arcade Fire guarantees at least some curious onlookers, to which the sold-out crowds in New York City and Boston attest. And if Policy flops, Butler laughs, he'll just go back to his critically acclaimed band.
"The odds are I'll break even if there's enough people who'll buy it out of curiosity because they know Arcade Fire. For better or worse, I'm working with quite a comfortable safety net underneath me," he concedes. "Even people who don't like Arcade Fire, I still actually feel like they have goodwill toward me. They're like, 'Oh, I hate Arcade Fire! But whatever—at least he's not Win Butler!'"
In the last two decades, a few of these five rock parentheticals—that is, members of bands who went on to start projects of their own—have gone on to build reputations that equaled or outstripped the fountainhead. But not all of them.
Long before she topped best-of lists with her bracing self-titled opus or a string of earlier solo records, Annie Clark was a member of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring band.
There's a whole generation of listeners who know bandleader Dave Grohl for this alt-rock powerhouse (and maybe that obnoxious HBO show), not for his drumming in Nirvana.
Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy feuded in their seminal alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo before splitting to form Son Volt and Wilco. They've both done well, but Tweedy is the one whose star has truly transcended the old act.
RICHARD REED PARRY
The Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist proved himself an exemplary, Messiaen-like composer on last year's Music for Heart and Breath, getting a little help from Kronos Quartet and yMusic in translation.
Bridwell was once a second-class citizen in the dour chamber-rock outfit, Carissa's Wierd; now, he's the frontman of chart-topping bros Band of Horses. —Patrick Wall
This article appeared in print with the headline "No reflektion"