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A Poetry Major With Prospects

Will Butler of the Arcade Fire juggles his burgeoning career in rock and his studies at Northwestern University.

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This weekend the Arcade Fire will play the Coachella festival in California, a two-day, 90-band blowout headlined by Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails. Three days later the band will kick off a three-week tour of Europe and the UK with a show in Manchester, but when they cross the Atlantic they'll be leaving a member behind: 22-year-old Will Butler, who plays bass, keyboards, and percussion, is finishing his senior year at Northwestern. "There's not a lot of rock stars that have to hurry back to class on Monday," he says.

In the seven months or so since the Arcade Fire put out its first LP, Funeral, the Montreal-based band, led by Will's older brother, Win, has become one of the hottest indie acts in the world. The group has appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, the front page of the New York Times arts section, even the cover of the Canadian edition of Time. David Bowie raved about Funeral on his Web site, calling it the "album of the year," and told Rolling Stone he'd bought a "huge stack" of the CD to give away to friends. According to SoundScan it's sold more than 130,000 copies, amazing for an indie debut--it unseated Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as Merge Records' best-selling album ever.

Born in California and raised near Houston, Texas, Will and Win Butler have been playing to crowds since they were children. They often backed their mother, Liza, when she visited grade schools to demonstrate the harp. Liza's parents--vocalist Luise King, who sang in a pop group called the King Sisters, and jazz guitarist Alvino Rey--hosted a family-oriented TV variety show on ABC between 1965 and '69, and she and her siblings often appeared on it. "Grandpa used to describe it as the only show more white-bread than Lawrence Welk," says Will.

Both brothers went to boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire; Win attended college in New York and then in Boston, where in late 1998 he began performing in the first of several bands he'd call the Arcade Fire. In early 2001 he transferred to McGill University in Montreal, where he met his wife-to-be, Regine Chassagne, and invited her into a new version of the group.

Throughout these years, Will would come home from prep school and work on songs with Win during holiday breaks. "He'd be like, 'Play this bass line' or 'I need someone to play piano.' So we kept doing that," Will says. "And it worked because we naturally shared tastes and a musical sensibility."

Will enrolled at Northwestern in fall 2001 and declared a major in poetry writing with a minor in Slavic studies. He DJed at WNUR, worked as the poetry editor of the school's literary magazine, Helicon, and in late 2002 started playing campus bars and events in a jokey cover band called Citizens on Patrol.

Meanwhile in Montreal the Arcade Fire was progressing in fits and starts. In summer 2002 the band traveled to a Butler family property in Maine, where it recorded material for a self-titled debut EP in a barn built by the brothers' great-great-great-great-grandfather. Will appears on the disc, among the members of two overlapping lineups, but within a month of the EP's release in March 2003 personality clashes had thinned out the personnel dramatically: it was just Win and Regine, with Will pitching in when he could.

That spring Will took a leave of absence from school and went to Montreal to write and demo material with the couple. He ended up staying for six months. "We weren't really sure what was gonna happen. We knew that me, Win, and Regine worked well together," he says. Multi-instrumentalists Richard Reed Parry and Tim Kingsbury, who'd both been in Win and Regine's orbit, came aboard as full-fledged members around this time, and later the group recruited studio owner and engineer Howard Bilerman to play drums.

Recording on their own dime, this new lineup finished Funeral in May 2004. They'd settled on the title after a rash of family deaths: Chassagne's grandmother in June 2003, the Butlers' grandfather Alvino Rey in February 2004, and Parry's aunt in April.

That spring the band signed to Merge Records on the strength of an in-progress version of the album they'd mailed to the label. Even before Funeral came out, the Arcade Fire had stirred up a formidable word-of-mouth buzz with its uninhibited live shows. (The group's wild man, Will uses everything within climbing range as a percussion instrument and likes to leap on his brother's back midsong.) In September the disc was released and became an overnight sensation. For Will the highlight of the first few months was a concert at New York's Irving Plaza in February, where David Byrne--who'd also been praising the band on his Web site--joined them onstage to sing Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)."

At the end of his winter quarter this year, Will took off during reading week--traditionally reserved for students to complete their course work and prepare for exams--and headed to Scandinavia with the band. He wrote all his final papers between gigs. "I got two As and two A-minuses," he says. "I thought, 'I wrote all of these on a bus in Sweden after shows at 4 AM. I can handle this.'"

At the beginning of this quarter he asked his professors for more time off to tour. "And they were incredulous, like, 'What are you talking about? Get out of my classroom!'" he says. "But I felt like, 'I'm on the cover of Time and I can't get off two weeks of school?'" With the help of an academic adviser, he eventually pieced together a band-friendly schedule, and since then he's made most of the group's shows. On June 17 he'll graduate, and the next weekend he'll head to LA with the band to perform with Byrne at the Hollywood Bowl. "That's like my entry into the real world," he says.

After that Will plans to relocate to Montreal to be with the rest of the group. The Arcade Fire will spend the bulk of the summer and part of the fall on the road, playing festivals in the U.S., the UK, and Japan--including the one-shot Lollapalooza in Chicago this July. In October, Merge will put out a live DVD of footage from three shows at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall this winter. After a string of dates to support the video the band will begin studio work on its second album, tentatively scheduled for release on Merge in spring 2006.

Rock 'n' roll isn't often a viable long-term career choice, but given that Will's other option was to make a go of it with a poetry-writing degree, he feels lucky. "If the band hadn't come along, I'm sure I would've figured something out," he says. "But I'm not complaining."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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