Ever since Arcade Fire roared out of Montreal in 2004 with the release of its instant-classic debut album, Funeral, the band has built a critically and popularly successful career as purveyors of emotionally earnest, musically galvanizing rock. So it struck some observers as a little discordant when, in advance of its recent Everything Now album, the band undertook a decidedly un-earnest prerelease campaign, flooding the internet for a brief time with, among other things, satirical music criticism, bogus marketing tie-ins, and fake-news stories.
The critical response to the campaign was not kind, and the album, too, was met with some of the toughest reviews of the band’s career. Front man Win Butler has suggested that skeptical critics — of both the promotional high jinks and the album itself — may be missing the point. For the first time in its career, a band with an undeniable gift for connection seems, both intentionally and not, to have crossed a lot of wires. Speaking from the tour bus on the way to a concert in Boston, Butler explained the thinking behind the Everything Now campaign, and his reaction to what he sees as the confusion surrounding the album.
I’ve seen you refer to the Everything Now campaign as an “experiment.” So what was the purpose of that experiment? And now from the vantage point of seeing the album out in the world for a few weeks, do you think the experiment was successful?
A big question for us was “How do you release a record post–Donald Trump?” Since we were making a record called Everything Now, and it would be coming out after that election, it felt like a real moment to try and address subjects like fake news and how the media works. The other part of it is that when you make a record in this modern context, it instantly gets refracted in the media. There’s all this side content, this trail that follows everything. So we thought that maybe we’d just make all that content, as opposed to just making the art. That stuff was going to get made anyway, so why not make it ourselves?
Those are sort of more practical explanations. What ideas and theories were you testing?
It’s a little bit like when you go to the doctor and they put dye in your bloodstream — we just wanted to see where fake-news articles about the band would go. The media is built for clicks now, and we were trying to see firsthand how it all works. I feel like I now understand on a much deeper level why Trump got elected. Negativity is what travels. So we learned more about how the internet functions, and how it’s an insane feedback loop. It’s like, we just played a show in London that was one of the best shows we’ve ever played there. It was honestly so fucking exciting. And at the show we sold a T-shirt where we put an ironic Everything Now logo on top of Kylie Jenner’s face. It was visually punk as hell. We knew doing that would get a lot of press pickup but every single news outlet in the world covered it. Somehow there’s a story in that, but there’s not really a story in Band Is Really Amazing at Music and Plays a Live Show and People Cry Because It’s So Beautiful. So it was really interesting to us to see what got picked up about Arcade Fire. That idea plays into what we were doing as well: We were providing the ammunition for people who wanted to write negative things about the band: Here you go! Here’s something to be outraged about!
Is it possible, just on a personal level, that you give too much emotional weight to negative coverage of the band? What you just said about providing ammunition makes it seem like Everything Now was being released with a preemptive feeling of defensiveness. But I think it’s fair to say that, on balance, Arcade Fire have been hugely successful with critics and audiences.
I understand that criticism. The success we’ve had is one in a million. But there’s an overall level of meanness online — I think it was worth pointing out the disingenuousness of that stuff. I remember when Lana Del Rey played Saturday Night Live. Say what you will about her, but she’s a real fucking artist, and the media reaction to that performance was like people were trying to ruin her career. Did they really want to ruin this person? Or did that stance play better online? Like I said, so much of it seems very disingenuous. And I’m not just talking shit about music journalists now. I know how lucky the band has been. But publications are tightening their belts and people have to churn out more stuff, and the media landscape has changed — it’s turned into a fucking meat grinder. The Everything Now campaign was happening in the context of all that and coming out of an election where we essentially elected Mussolini as president of the United States. It would’ve been hard for us to just be like, “So this is our new record!” I wouldn’t know how to not try and address what’s going on in the world.
Did the marketing campaign negatively color how people heard the new music?
I don’t know. I think some things were misunderstood. From my perspective, the album is musically one of the best things we’ve ever done. It’s also one of the most earnest. People have called it a cynical record, but I don’t think any honest attempt to listen to the music really supports that reading. So it’s hard for me to square that with the negative reception —which hasn’t been the case in Europe, where they took the campaign much differently. Obviously the French are not going to have as much of a problem understanding a meta news campaign; you don’t have to explain any of this to a French journalist. Everything we’ve done has been pretty obvious if you read past the headlines of the stories, which is something else we’ve learned people don’t really do. The other reality of it, for me, is that fans are enjoying the album and listening to it. So again, it’s hard to square what’s been written about Everything Now with my experience of Everything Now.
I can’t imagine there was a lot of backslapping and handshaking after you guys saw that fake-news stories you put out were picked up as real. Has it been at all emotionally satisfying to test your idea that the media is broken?
It wasn’t triumphant, but these aren’t exactly triumphant times. We’re not in a particularly feel-good mood. It’s extremely dire and extremely dark right now. When things are this shitty, sometimes nihilism is a good response. It’s like the punk-rock movement in the U.K.— the Sex Pistols cursing on TV. It’s not overtly political, but in the context of the politics of those times, it’s just “fuck this fucking shit.” We weren’t excited about making people feel weird. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a valid thing to do.
It seems like you have a clear sense of your intentions for the Everything Now campaign. Does other people’s being less clear suggest that maybe the band’s execution wasn’t as sharp as it could’ve been? Or that maybe the tone was coming off more snide than you’d hoped?
Maybe there was a certain amount of naïveté on our behalf about how things would be received. I guess at the very core of it, we were hoping that, at least among our fans, we could contribute to a conversation about thinking about what you read, not taking things at face value, critical thinking. Maybe certain parts of that got away from us.
The thing that really got away from us in the most fascinating way was when we played a show in Brooklyn. There was this kind of big story about how we demanded there be a dress code, which was completely false and was something that could’ve been corroborated by a simple phone call or email to our publicist. But instead of that, there was this sea of outrage: “How dare they do this!” There was even an article written in Canada slagging the band about the dress code after it was clear that we had nothing to do with any dress code. A journalist writing about something after it was proven fake was not something we’d anticipated happening. But I can’t say I was surprised, because that’s where the culture’s at now. Fake news becomes something that real news has to respond to. It’s totally insane. From my perspective though, the Everything Now fake-news campaign lasted about a week and a half, and let a lot of people know that there was a new Arcade Fire album coming out. So I’m not really sweating a lot of this.
Does the response to the campaign — and what I imagine was the difficulty of putting it together — make you at all want to go the Radiohead route and basically just let the music do all the talking from now on?
We only did something like five interviews for Reflektor. This is by far the longest interview I’ve given for this album.
Maybe you didn’t give a lot of interviews for Reflektor, but you promoted it with a special on network TV. The band wasn’t exactly shy about letting people know it had an album out.
But the thing is, it’s bad to me when a record comes out and people are like, “Oh my god the new Radiohead record! Yes!” — then it’s gone the next day. It might as well not have existed. Remember when Radiohead played the MTV Beach House for Pablo Honey? You watch that video and you can tell the band was in hell. That was some stupid-ass shit, but you know what? That’s where I learned about Radiohead. They suffered through that, but they did it because they wanted people to hear their music. Before OK Computer, they toured the U.S. opening for Alanis Morrissette — most British bands weren’t doing stuff like that, but Radiohead wanted Americans to know about their music. Now, 20 years later, they’re still here. We want people to hear our music too. I don’t think we’d go out and open for Taylor Swift, but we want people to hear our music, too.
Would you have done anything differently with the rollout? Or put another way, has any of the critical feedback you’ve gotten rang true?
Any criticism anybody else has had of the band — I’ve already had my own way, way harsher criticisms. Honestly, we’re talking about two weeks in the lifespan of this album. You listen to some of the albums Leonard Cohen made in the ’80s, and they have cheesiest-sounding keyboards, but those are such essential records. They’ve stood the test of time. If the songs are good enough and interesting enough, the music lasts. Time will tell if Everything Now holds up — everything else is ephemeral. And if ultimately the biggest regret of my career is that some people think maybe we made a misstep with an album rollout, I can certainly live with that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.