Will Butler on Emily Dickinson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Björk, and Other Inspirations Behind His Self-Titled Album With Sister Squares

    After 2020’s Generations, Will Butler was thinking of making a weird solo album alone in a basement before realizing that, mostly, he wanted to do the opposite. Though he had been releasing solo records since 2015’s playfully eclectic Policy, it would be his first collection since leaving Arcade Fire after spending over 20 years with the band. He decided to team up with the band that had supported him on tour since that first album, Sister Squares – Miles Francis, Julie Shore, Butler’s wife Jenny Shore, and Sara Dobbs – for Will Butler + Sister Squares, which came out on Friday. It’s a record you can both dance and drift along to, as haunting as it is vibrant, brimming with beautiful vocal harmonies and rich musical ideas that attest to the group’s adventurous, collaborative spirit. But Butler is also in conversation with artists across time, from the record’s Shostakovich-inspired opening to the version of a Chopin Nocturne that closes the album. “I’m trying to reach the person who’s playing piano in the music underneath my voice,” the narrator says on ‘I Am Standing in a Room’, another track with a direct reference point. “If you can hear me, change what you’re playing.” The results are both a little alien and strangely resonant.

    We caught up with Will Butler to talk about the inspirations behind Will Butler + Sister Squares, including Emily Dickinson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Chingis Aitmatov, Björk, and more.

    Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them

    I know that reading Emily Dickinson was part of your morning routine during the pandemic, until you had read every one of her poems. What did you gain from that ritual?

    I didn’t realize how much the form of it mattered. There’s a lot of editions of Emily Dickinson that are just every poem in chronological order, but what she actually did is she actually wrote them on little booklets and sewed them together and made these little albums. I would take a morning and read an album that she had made – sometimes it’s 10 poems, sometimes it’s 30 poems, they’re all little different collections. It made me even want to have the actual thing, but it’s good enough to have the book. Sometimes poetry can be really hard to read, just because it’s really hard to get your brain to poem speed sometimes. It’s a very foreign way of taking in anything, I find. But if I read one of those little albums, it was long enough that you would get the rhythms and you would get her diction. Funny stuff would be a lot funnier, because you wouldn’t be struggling with the language; you would just get down to her speed. I didn’t do it as an exercise in empathy, but it’s almost an exercise in empathy, because you enter into the author’s brain enough to feel their rhythms and feel where they’re going. And to return to it day after day, it’s a very rich experience.

    What’s cool about that edition, too, is that Emily Dickinson left some stuff unfinished, or she’d write two words next to each other like she was still deciding on what word it is and you have both the words there. For someone who’s trying to make something, to see someone in that process of, “This word or this word?” and then a hundred pages later she rewrites the poem and puts it in another album – you see someone putting the pieces together.

    Having read them all, were there any themes in her work that you were particularly drawn to?

    Both her and John Donne, and a lot of poets, it’s really hard to parse out the romantic from the religious. It’s really hard to parse out when they’re talking about who they have a crush on versus, like, God [laughs]. Stuff can be read really compellingly both ways, and she has a lot of poems where she feels very bereft, and it’s unclear if she’s been romantically spurned, or if she used to feel like God talking to her and now God isn’t talking to her. That emotional landscape is really compelling, and I tried to steal a lot of that for the record. Like, what is this bereftness? Is it from a human? Is it interior or is it exterior? What is this feeling of loss? Is this feeling of loss real, is it made up? Is it in my head, is it in your head? Her sense of loss is very strong, very beautiful, and one aspect that I really dug into.

    The other one that’s huge on the record is just the natural world. She’s looking at the natural world, she’s talking about forests and grass and leaves and birds, and a hilarious amount of poems about bees. But using these images and using these things to make sense of a very interior drama, and I found myself doing that. I was also doing that before, but it was looking out at the leaves and at the trees and thinking about your life and using that as a metaphor and as a filter for understanding.

    We obviously have this image of Dickinson writing alone in her room, and originally you had this idea of working in a similar way for this album after Generations. The recordings went in a totally different direction, but do you think part of that reclusive spirit still echoes through the album?

    Whatever I’m working on, one aspect of my process is just trying to do opposites. It’s like trying to be Emily Dickinson with five people in a room around a microphone; the sense of joy of making something with other people, and, at the same time, something very solitary. I have a general instinct when I’m working on anything – it’s not always the right instinct [laughs] – to do the opposite of what I’m doing. It’s like, “I’m alone in a basement, what’s the opposite of being alone in a basement? Let’s go upstairs and let’s get everybody in the same room and do it all together.” But it’s trying to contain both things, to be both things at the same time.

    The Wild Iris by Louise Glück

    ‘The Wild Iris’ begins with the lines “At the end of my suffering/ There was a door,” which I hear referenced in ‘Good Friday 1613’, except it’s a broken door.

    That poem is part of a whole book called The Wild Iris, and it’s a real book of poems with a beginning, middle, and end. But yeah, that is the door that I entered it from, and it’s part of this beautiful cycle of all the seasons, and of life and death, and all these different flowers; sometimes it’s the flowers or the plants talking, sometimes it’s the poet talking and drifting through these voices and drifting through life and death. In some ways, it’s the same thing as with Emily Dickinson, where it’s just like someone so intently looking at some aspect of the natural world and then drawing something so beautiful and human out of it. It doesn’t feel separate from it. But still, in the brain, there’s an intellectualizing of it that I really relate to – I relate to brain work.

    In what way do you mean?

    I find with the poetry that I like, there’s craft and a construction to it that’s very intellectual – it’s less instinctual. There is some poetry that’s instinctual, but the craftsmanship of it is like a translation between a very heady sense of the world – like the world enters your eyes and goes through your brain and you’ve got all these words in your brain, and it’s a lot, and then it gets transmuted back into emotion. There’s simpler paths; some people just instinctually feel a thing or sing a song and it’s the most powerful thing you’ve ever heard. But to me, it goes through the brain and through the eyes and through the fingers.

    24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich

    Shostakovich – along with Morrissey and the Spotify top 50, I must note – is one of the artists you cited in the original press release. What significance did these pieces have on you in the context of the record?

    On this record, I was definitely at a junction in time, like: this is my past, and this is my future, and this is my present. In some sense I wanted to investigate – not to return to, but just to investigate who I was before I was consciously choosing myself, before I was consciously building myself. When you’re an adolescent, you have some germ of an idea of who you are, and you start constructing, like, “I’m the kind of person that listens to this, I’m the kind of person that wears this kind of T-shirt.” But when I was 10, 11, listening to classical music, it was just a very different phase – not better, not worse, just different. I was a band nerd, but I listened to a lot of Shostakovich, particularly the Fifth Symphony. Now, I’ll listen to the songs I used to listen to, but I was like, what’s a new relationship you can have with something?

    I’m not a great pianist, but I can play basic piano, I can read music very, very slowly. Shostakovich had done this preludes and fugues cycle; every key, he does a prelude and a fugue. The two simplest preludes I can play, everything else is too complicated, but it’s still Shostakovich chords, it’s still his point of view. When you actually play the music that’s written out on the page, it is a very rich form of time travel, where it’s like, he wrote this in the ‘50s, and these notes were then taken and printed on this paper, and I’m playing it. You’re doing the exact same thing that he was doing, and on Spotify, there’s ’50s Soviet recordings of him playing it. And you’re like, “I’m doing the same thing, but it’s now.” And it’s extremely now. It’s like learning to play a piano piece is almost the most present you can be in a moment. It’s very meditative, where you’re like, “I am here. My fingers are doing this. My brain is doing this.” It’s literally of this moment, and it’s literally of 1953 at the same time. I’m sure he had a thing he was thinking about and I have a thing that I’m thinking about, and there will always be a veil between those things, but there is a connection.

    And then on a very basic level, the prelude in E minor, the first four chords, they’re just the ‘Stop Talking’ chords looped. I played it with a friend on an organ and clarinet, and then we slowed the tape down, so it’s in C. The open to the record comes from that, but it’s all chopped up and it’s not the prelude anymore, it’s just one chord in the open. But it comes from playing those chords, and then ‘Stop Talking’ is those chords in C, basically.

    ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ by Alvin Lucier

    This is one of the most famous works by Alvin Lucier, who passed away in 2021. There’s obviously a direct thread between that piece and ‘I Am Standing in a Room’ on this album, which seems to relate to what you were just talking about with Shostakovich. Was it an idea that came to you around the time of Alvin Lucier’s death?

    Now that you mention it, I suspect that’s probably why I returned to that piece, when he died. I hadn’t put that together, but that’s probably why I had listened to it in the last couple of years. That piece is so experimental, but so direct, so simple, so comprehensible, and the results of it are so rich. It does that thing where it functions both as a document of an exact place in time and something that lives in the world. It is the sound of this room, but it also functions listening in digital headphones 50 years later. They’re very different experiences, but it still works in these ways. Making a record, we’re throwing it out into the world, and it’s kind of none of our business anymore, what becomes of it. 50 years from now, whatever technology someone’s listening to it on, hopefully it’s a true enough document that it still evokes a response.

    Do you mind talking more about why that was something you were especially preoccupied with during that time?

    I think part of it was just where I was in life – where I still broadly am in life – where I’d just made a break with the past, and so the past felt more like a concrete object. When you make a sharp change, it’s like, Oh, this is a box now. The last 20 years are a box, and this box is closed. So what’s in the box? And what are the things that are outside the box? What are the things that are inside the box? It’s a demarcation point, and I was interested in this record as a demarcation point.

    Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Stalker

    I didn’t watch The Mirror making this record, but it’s one of those movies that’s just very deep inside me; that sense of trying to build something mysterious from your past. There’s so much poetry in that film, it’s just very knotty and very complicated. He’s told stories for that film of, like, pulling out the crops that were growing in a field and replanting it with barley that was the barley that had grown there when he was a child, and waiting for the crops to grow before he filmed the scene. We did not go that far on this record, but knowing that feeling, like rebuilding the house from your childhood and then burning it down to document burning it down – there’s such madness in that. Knowing that you can go that far in a process and that the results can be so beautiful, it’s continually inspiring, but it particularly felt relevant for this record.

    I did watch Stalker, I book clubbed it with an old friend – we read the source novella, it’s called Roadside Picnic by a pair of brothers [Arkady and Boris Strugatsky], and then watched the film. Even having it be science fiction at a glacial pace, it’s like you’re in the future and it’s moving so slow. I feel like that feeling is on the record, where it’s trying to be science fiction but just moving at a glacial pace, trying to be really beautiful and still, and it’s the future and it’s too late to change anything, and it’s very slowly moving forward. There’s something about the pace of that – I mean, this record has a lot of beats on it, this record is fast-paced, but there’s something of the rhythm of that film that I can’t quite articulate what the influence is, but I definitely returned to.

    Chingis Aitmatov’s 1958 novel Jamilia

    It’s a great piece of writing, and what a joy to encounter a great piece of writing that I had no inkling existed. You read Tolstoy, and you’re like, “I’ve heard of Tolstoy, this is probably going to be good.” But I had not even heard of this Kyrgyz author, Chingis Aitmatov, until my friend, who’d lived in the Central Asian republics forever, was like, “You should read this guy, he’s kind of cool.” The framing of it is, the narrator is an artist, and you have the vague sense he’s a successful artist. My sense of it is he’s talking about the first drawing he ever made that felt real, that felt like real art. In some sense, the novel is just the story of this drawing he had made and how he became an artist. And it’s the story of his sister-in-law falling in love with another man, because his brother is off at the war in World War 2.

    Just on a basic level, to read about the Central Asian experience of World War 2 was just mind-blowing. I’ve seen many documentaries on World War 2 and I’ve never thought about the Central Asian Soviet perspective on World War 2. But the story of someone becoming an artist, and very self-consciously so, definitely gave me some sort of permission to think about, how did I become an artist? What is making art about becoming an artist? This is something you can do, and it’s great to do, because it’s this very beautiful exposition of where he came from and where he’s going.

    tI feels like 90% of the novel is set in wide fields of grass with a single train track going across an endless landscape. Those images really resonate in the American mind in a very different context the train track and the field of grass is, on a cultural level, very resonant with America, but it’s obviously very different from the Kyrgis experience. I spent my adolescence in a town that had train tracks. I didn’t smoke cigarettes, but teenagers smoking cigarettes down on the train tracks – there’s something very adolescent about it, and the book is about adolescents and about coming of age. It just stirred those emotions and that teenage experience of wandering down the train tracks forever, just the physical landscape of that and how it directs your thoughts. That’s literally what led to “long grass” as a lyric, but that feedback loop of nature and what you’re seeing and how it then directs where your mind is going was a big part of the record as well.

    Given what you said before about this album being a break from the past, how did that make you self-conscious about your story of becoming an artist?

    Self-conscious, but not in a bad way, just owning who we are and where we are as a group. None of us in this band is young. Miles is the youngest, they’re in their thirties. But something about being in classical middle age, I have the tools to think about the past in a way that I didn’t when I was younger, but I’m still peppy enough to go out and play the shows. In some ways it felt like lifting a heavy rock – it’s almost a physical satisfaction, the work of making the record. It’s just the pleasure of being alive and doing human things, the very tactile, sensual pleasures of singing with people, of being in a room around a microphone and hearing it in your headphones. Just on a sensual level enjoying it, and then on an intellectual level, shaping it, and that being satisfying as well. Not having it all figured out, but knowing who we are and being like, “This is what we’re doing,” was great. There are more tortured ways to make a record, and you can make a great record that way, but this one was a very enjoyable experience.

    Abbey Road by the Beatles

    This is one of those records that is an eternal influence for Miles [Francis], who I co-produced the record with. It’s such a complicated record, and it has such a complicated history – it has a place in history as well, it’s a historical artifact. And it’s a historical artifact that your relationship changes with over time. Just on a sonic level, there’s so many beautiful harmonies – it’s not as aggressively experimental in some ways, it’s very beautifully experimental. For some of these songs, we wanted to have it sound as good as if we recorded it at Abbey Road, and some of the stuff we wanted to sound like we recorded in a basement and didn’t know what we were doing. There’s something to the luxuriousness of how pleasing all the elements are of it. That’s what I was responding to with it; I know Miles has their relationship with it as well, but it really came from just absorbing it from Miles. You could tell it was on Miles’ mind.

    Björk’s Debut and Homogenic

    In a literal sense, on ‘Saturday Night’, we were like, “We should do the trick from Debut where the sound totally changes and it sounds like you’re in a different room.” But also, it’s such a party record, and Homogenic still has that spirit, but it’s so headphones and just emotional landscapes. I think those Björk records were a little bit the goal, like, I want to make a thing that is a party and a headphones record, and you can run for hours to it, you can play it really loud, you can dance to it, you can sit on a cliff with it.

    By Homogenic, there’s so many sounds you can’t identify that you just feel. There’s sounds that are just so emotional, just in the quality of the sound. It’s like sculpting in – I mean, that’s the name of Tarkovsky’s book he wrote about film, it’s called Sculpting in Time, and Homogenic particularly feels like sculpting in time. It feels like there’s something very sculptural in the audio itself, but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has beats [laughs]. It moves you in different ways, and the time pressure really changes over the course of that record, where it’s like a river: it’s wide and slow, and then it narrows and goes through the rapids and then widens and slows, but it’s still a continual flow. That was the goal in making our record. We wanted to feel that river tightening and broadening and slowing, but it being the same fundamental force pushing things down.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Will Butler + Sister Squares’ self-titled album is out now via Merge.

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