Will Butler admits that he's always been quite happy, staying in his older brother Win's imposing shadow as keyboardist in Canada's kinetic alt-rock band Arcade Fire. And he was never really planning on forging out on his own.
"I'm very satisfied, artistically," he insists. "But I've always worked on music. Not even in my spare time — I'm just always working on music. And I kind of started to have a collection of songs that felt different enough from Arcade Fire that it justified its independent existence. It felt like it needed to live on its own."
Those tracks are compiled on Policy, Butler's first official solo outing, just issued on the Merge imprint. And they're as kinetic as his playing style, from the galloping proto-punk opener "Take My Side" through the New Wave-cheeky minimalist exercise "Anna," the propulsive rattler "What I Want," and a piano-pounding "Witness."
The record crackles with the spark of Arcade Fire, but it is, indeed, its own exotic animal, with Butler's warped, Tom-Verlaine-skewed warble tying it all together. It also made a nice follow-up to an earlier extracurricular activity — working on the soundtrack to Spike Jonze's futuristic film Her, which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
And yes, Butler did attend last year's Oscars ceremony (even though it was Steven Price's score for Gravity that ended up winning). With co-composer Owen Pallett, he went to Hollywood a few days prior, so his chum could conduct an actual orchestra performing selections from the film score.
The film assignment had started as an Arcade Fire project, but Will's role kept growing. The scoring experience would also prove instrumental for Policy. After helping shepherd Her, Butler says, "I was like, 'Whoa! That was fun! Let's do another project on my own!'"
So he set strict creative parameters for himself. He booked only seven brief days in the studio, then set aside seven more for mixing. He also played almost every instrument, save drums, clarinet and saxophone. "I mean, I did a lot of writing, a lot of drafts in the six months prior. But I knew going in that these songs were meant to be fairly simple. And I only booked myself a week so that I wouldn't keep layering, so that I would put a brick on the ego."
As for his Arcade Fire role, Butler says he's heard all the horror stories about notoriously scrappy rock 'n roll siblings, like Ray and Dave Davies from The Kinks, and Oasis' pugnacious Noel and Liam Gallagher. But he and his brother get along unusually well, he swears.
"We have a shared frame of reference, so we fundamentally know that the other person isn't crazy," says the 32-year-old musician of his sunny familial relationship. "You understand the roots of an idea, and that, to me, has always tended to defuse tensions. I'll be like, 'Oh, I see where you're coming from. I don't agree with it, but at least I see where you're coming from.' So I can discuss it with you instead of, say, hitting you with a frozen tuna. Or whatever other brothers do!"