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Win Butler on Arcade Fire’s new album, social media and the art of the infinite jest

Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler performs during the fourth day of this year’s Lollapalooza festival in Chicago last Sunday.

Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP

Earlier this week, Arcade Fire's wily frontman Win Butler declared he was "taking an extended break" from Twitter, explaining that he would return to the social-media platform "when I got something to say."

In a world of 140 characters, Butler is absolutely one of them. The self-aware ringleader and provocateur is the Montreal rock crew's chief conceptualist, polarizing figure and cheekiest monkey.

The band's fifth album, Everything Now, was rolled out with a curious online marketing campaign that involved phony "fake news" articles and the creation of a fictitious corporate entity: Everything Now Content Division, a subsidiary of Everything Now.

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And, while the band's online shenanigans rub some people the wrong way, it didn't stop the disco-tinged, socially commentative album from debuting at the top spot on the Billboard 200 this week, making it the band's third consecutive chart-topper.

The sales figures (some 100,000 copies sold) were boosted by a deal that bundled tickets to Arcade Fire's coming tour with a "complimentary copy" of Everything Now. "All your money is already spent," Butler sings on the album, "on infinite content."

As for Twitter, Butler was back on it Wednesday, one day after he had announced his hiatus. "Oh hey, I thought [of] something to say!" he tweeted. About a piece about the band on the taste-making music site Pitchfork, Butler said the story "isn't news."

Around and around it goes, then, where it stops only Butler knows. The Globe and Mail recently spoke to the controversial singer-songwriter by phone, about rock 'n' roll, conceited presentations and the art of the infinite jest.

You have another hit record, and the title-song single Everything Now is getting more airplay than you've ever received before. It's good to be Arcade Fire, yes?

You know, the thing that I'm really happy about with Everything Now having a more mainstream radio audience is that for me, when I was 15, I was exposed to the Cure and R.E.M. and Nirvana and all these bands that made the leap from whatever dumb alternative-rock station I was listening to. Even if 80 per cent of what I was listening to was garbage, when I heard that other stuff it changed my life.

How so?

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It gave me a way out of Houston. It gave me a way to find other people who I wanted to spend my life with and talk to. Before that, I'd be visiting my grandparents in Utah and if I saw an alternative-looking girl in a bookstore, I'd be like, "Wow, there's a girl with a nose ring and green hair." I didn't dress that way or look that way, but it was a beacon from another world. I was like, "Where are these people coming from? How do I find something else, something that speaks to me and doesn't feel manufactured and fake?"

And now your music is doing the same things to kids today that R.E.M. and Nirvana did to you. Do you think about that?

I think it's important. We're not making music for that purpose, but a lot of people have gravitated to our music and liked it. You can shrink from it and be embarrassed by it and try to control it, or you can let it be what it is and try to make something great within the context you're given.

What about the platform you and other popular musicians have? Can it be abused, by pushing your ideas on the public?

I think there's something inherent to all artists. They want to share their point of view. They want to share how they see the world, even if it's broken or negative or combative. There's still an element of communication to all art.

But there can be blowback when an artist's music comes with strong opinions. You and Arcade Fire have been accused of being pretentious, for example.

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I think it's inherently pretentious to think that anyone else should hear what you have to say. It's like, when you get on the bus, the bus driver is, "You know what, everyone on this bus needs to know how I'm feeling now. I'm just going to let everyone know that I'm driving them, but I have a lot of critiques about their behaviour."

Which brings us to social media, right?

Exactly. I think it's almost quaint at this point that people feel what they're having for breakfast is worth sharing.

What about things bigger than breakfast, though? Someone like Bono, with his grandstanding and pushiness.

I was friends with David Bowie, and there's a period in his career where he was addicted to cocaine and drinking milk and doing interviews about Nazism. He was kind of losing his mind. He was going through a phase. So, I don't think you can pick and choose qualities in an artist. I think if you stop doing what you think is right and saying what you believe, and if people aren't a little bit mad at you sometimes, I feel like you're doing something wrong.

The comedian's dream is to have half the room walk out of a performance and half rolling on the floor.

Right. I personally didn't have a problem with Bono talking to George W. Bush about AIDS in Africa. Obviously he knows he was assassinating his personal popularity, but for a very good reason. I mean, who cares? He knows he's a cartoon character to people, so he might as well be an extremely useful cartoon character.

You're okay with what people say about you online?

At the end of the day, you put your head on the pillow and you are who you are. Régine [wife and band-mate, Régine Chassagne] and I spend so much of our time and effort working in Haiti and working on causes in New Orleans. What our life is, and what we put our hearts into, music is just one little piece of it. I don't think you get on stage in the first place if you're supersensitive or worrying about hurting people's feelings.

What about the social media stuff, the fake news content and other things, that was part of the album's marketing? Some fans would rather you just put the album out and forget all the rest.

Some of the writers we've been working with on some of the Twitter stuff we've been doing are my favourite writers. It's supposed to be done with a sense of humour. I think if you don't approach things with a sense of humour, you may be missing 99 per cent of life.

The album reviews for Everything Now have been solid. Does that matter to you?

I'm proud of the record. I think the dream would be all five-star reviews and zero-star reviews. That would be the perfect reaction. That would be so … everything now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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