Can Will Butler's 'Disco Town Halls' Save America? - Pacific Standard
The Arcade Fire star is using the tour to re-invigorate local politics, one town at a time.

A select group of Arcade Fire fans got two sets one chilly Sunday night in October in the Twin Cities. The first was a major arena show. The second was at least 10 times smaller, and decidedly more political, as Will Butler, a rock star, visited the Turf Club to talk politics.

Arcade Fire's "Infinite Content" tour, linked to the release of their latest album, Everything Now, features a stunning show with live and recorded video choreographed in time to a spectacular array of synchronized lights and the band's typical virtuosity on dozens of instruments. The tour is staged in the round, with the band rotating through positions on a mock wrestling ring of pure white. Following two-and-a-half hours of near-constant music, the band's last song segued into a rolling bass line, over which the lead singer Win Butler absently sang a few lines of "Stand by Me."

Rock-star after-shows are supposed to be frivolous, louche, pleasure-seeking affairs. Win's brother Will, though, held his after-party about 45 minutes later at the Turf Club, one of the Twin Cities' oldest and greatest music venues, with a sense of seriousness. He had replaced his branded stage attire with a white button-down shirt. He's a stunning performer on multiple instruments with a wildly antic stage presence, and was nominated for an Academy Award for the score to Spike Jonze's Her, but, at the Turf Club, he kept it simple. He grabbed an acoustic guitar and demanded everyone sing along to "Stand by Me" from start to finish. Then he got to work.

Butler addressed the crowd of maybe a few dozen local activists and spoke passionately about the need to focus on local politics and to vote in off-year elections, then called Erin and Alyse Maye Quade to the stage. Alyse is the political and organizing director for the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (the Minnesota version of the Democratic Party). Erin, her wife, was the only DFLer to flip a GOP house district in the 2016 election, and now represents a suburban Minnesota district. After each woman spoke, Arcade Fire's violinist Sarah Neufeld played a set.

The night at the Turf Club was Butler's ninth "Disco Town Hall," a series of post-concert gatherings intended to link local politicians and organizers to music fans. Arcade Fire has always been an activist band, donating $1 of every ticket to Partners in Health. This, though, seemed new. Pacific Standard spoke with Butler over the phone to ask why a rock star would rush out of the arena to host small community events like this.

section-break

How did you decide to go local with your organizing? What's changed for you that this seems like the necessary approach?

For a little over 10 years now, we've done a dollar per ticket for Partners in Health. And then, after working with them for years, I went to school, the Harvard Kennedy School Mid-Career Master's in Public Administration. I feel like I've been a good advocate for them [Partners in Health], but I felt I could be a better advocate.

They are both macro and micro oriented. They showed that you could treat tuberculosis in rural settings and AIDS in rural settings, and were pioneers in that movement. Their approach to development is tied into the community, what community needs, and to try and empower the community. But they also realize if you can change six lines of U.S. code you can save a hundred thousand lives. If you get three congressmen to agree to something, things can change.

So you went to Harvard to learn how to be a better advocate? To learn how systems really work?

I took a class with Paul Farmer, focused on history and how society works, and with Robert Putnam, who is all about social capital, and how communities work, and how society functions or not.

So I was taking this history and sociology, just thinking about my role in the world and America in a shitshow of a year, in a university setting. And I realized I was going [on tour] to every major American city and would have 4,000 to 15,000 locals in the room. I wanted to experiment with the Venn diagram of people who come to the show and have a powerful emotional-aesthetic experience, then come to the after-show and talk politics, then listen to Sarah Neufeld play and have another powerful emotional experience.

What have you found so far?

I'm trying to preach to the choir and radicalize them a little bit, not push them farther left, but make them a little harder. Part of it is a community-building exercise. You came to the show, and now you're here, and now we're talking about something important. I try to introduce a little bit of flour, a little bit of thickening, to the music-goers in that city. I will never be more influential than having just gotten off a stage with a show that people liked.

How do you organize these local events? Do you just call up and say: "Hi! I'm a famous rock star and want to put something together!"

Some of it is cold-calling! I live in New York. I wanted to do the the afterparty for the campaign to close Rikers Island jail. I like to have activists and politicians together. I literally just cold-emailed my city councillor: "Dear Mr. Lander. I am a constituent. I play in a band called Arcade Fire. We're playing Madison Square Garden. Would you like to talk at the show after?"

Universally, every assistant in a progressive politician's office knows our band. That's our constituency.

Who did you call to set up this Minnesota show? How did you end up at the Turf Club with this young power couple?

In school last year, one of my classmates is the minority leader in the Minnesota house, Melissa Hortman. I said, "Hey Melissa, what's going on in Minnesota?", and she connected with me Keith Ellison's chief of staff, and he said, "these people [Erin and Alyse Maye Quade] are really rad."

What's one particularly powerful story from the afterparties?

We did one in Tampa on the campaign to change the state Constitution about felon disenfranchisement [i.e. allowing people formerly convicted of felonies to vote]. There's a decent chance that a change to the Constitution will at least get on the ballot in 2018, and there's been a big organizational push. Two of the organizers had been convicted of felonies and told their stories.

One of them said: "I'm a middle-aged black man, I've got kids, I just want to be a full citizen. I want to come home and tell my kids I voted." That's heavy but really powerful, and it's one in the morning.

It's a pretty interesting self-selected group that comes out and stays up late to go to this kind of meeting.

My dream is that a bit of an Italian '50s Communist Party scene. It's late night, there's something about it.

Does Sarah always play?

Yes.

Did you approach her and say "Hey, I know we're going to pour our hearts out on the big stage, but then let's do another show!"

First, I wanted to keep it in the family. And there's going to be so much talking. Talk talk talk. But then I thought, she's such a beautiful player and her music is so elemental. The world is mysterious and has nothing to do with words, so let's get a little more universal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Related