Read on esquire.com
Two weeks ago, Will Butler was onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater in a black tuxedo, receiving an “Oh my! How ’bout that!” and a hearty handshake from David Letterman. On Thursday morning at South by Southwest, he’s wearing a sweatshirt with his name on it, wandering the Austin Convention Center trying to get to the second floor mezzanine, lost. He snaps a photo from an industrial storage area with air ducts and stacks of 3M boxes. “I assume it’s not back here where I am currently,” he texts.
Four years ago, Butler’s band, Arcade Fire, played before 75,000 people across the river at the storied Austin City Limits festival. They were headliners, a large-font name on the bill next to Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, and Coldplay. That same year they headlined Coachella and walked away with Album of the Year at the Grammys for The Suburbs. Last year, Butler received an Oscar nomination for co-writing the score to Spike Jonze’s Her. And despite the fact that Butler is booked to perform at many high profile parties and showcases in Austin, here he is, wandering the carpeted convention center floor with his name on his chest in big block letters, unrecognized. When he gets to the escalator leading to the mezzanine, he breezes past the small group of festival volunteers in purple shirts.
“Sir, you need a badge to go up there.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
He keeps going.
Arcade Fire travels in a bus; Will Butler travels in a van. There’s four people in the band and a tour manager. Everybody takes turns driving (the driver gets to decide what they all listen to). Butler’s drummer favors Fela Kuti, Butler likes the Slate Political Gabfest podcast despite the fact that it can “get a little aggro.”
“So far it’s been very pleasant,” Butler said Thursday morning. “We had to drive across the whole South. So we picnicked in Georgia, then we swam in Biloxi, then we had a crawfish boil in Breaux Bridge, then we stayed in Beaumont. We didn’t do anything in Beaumont. There is not a lot to do in Beaumont.”
In lieu of staying in a hotel, Butler’s band rented an Airbnb outside of downtown Austin. They cooked dinner there Wednesday night—chicken tacos and a salad and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Butler’s brother, Win, the lead singer and recognizable face of Arcade Fire, was also in town, performing a few DJ sets under the name “DJ Windows 98.” On Thursday, both brothers appeared on a panel with New York Times columnist (and noted indie rock fan) Paul Krugman called “The Celebrity Economy in Music.” The goal was to answer “the big question” in the failing music industry narrative: How will artists even make money in the next decade? Krugman described the “1 percent” phenomenon of big acts getting the largest share of the pie, leaving next to nothing for the up-and-comers. Before Arcade Fire’s debut album, Funeral, broke through 11 years ago and sent them on the path to headlining arenas and mega-festivals around the world, they were playing tiny rooms in Montreal. And while he is still very much an Arcade Fire band member, Butler is now out on the road with his own band, billed under his own name, mainly playing for crowds of a few hundred rather than tens of thousands. Butler’s Arcade Fire affiliation no doubt helps him sell a few tickets, but the minutiae of his solo operation resembles that of an unknown act, not a band that once played Barack Obama’s staff ball. Everything is a hustle.
“It’s a totally awesome job, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But the physical constraint of it is crazy. It’s like being back in grade school. You have to ask to go to the bathroom, because you’re in a van. It drives you bonkers after a while that your basic bodily functions are under the control of other people.
“There’s no alone time,” he said. “But, to be honest, we’ve gotten into such a rhythm that it’s been totally fine. And in this world of headphones, you can always zone out if you need to. It’s a short tour. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s still getting to know each other.”
He’ll be home soon, and he’s looking forward to catching up on Broad City. One of his bandmates just finished The Jinx. “You don’t get any time in the cities in the van. You drive in, you load in, you do the show, you load out and you go to sleep.”
After the Krugman event, he’ll be right back here 24 hours later to speak on another panel, this one alongside Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. There’s also shows to play. Still, Butler seems more grateful than bitter or stressed. He chuckles and looks out through the big glass windows facing downtown.
“I thought it would be less fun than it is,” he says. “But still, you’re seeing America.”