The 21st century’s cosmic rock scene has a new champion with indie rock band Arcade Fire.
The artwork for the band’s new record, “We,” includes an image of the monster black hole M87* and a song title and lyrics that include our galaxy’s supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*.
Band members Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, who are married, performed the songs “We” and “End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)” during a news conference held by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on May 12, 2022, for the release of a new black hole image captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — this one of Sagittarius A*. [Watch the performance above.]
Sagittarius A* in pictures: The 1st photo of the Milky Way’s monster black hole explained in images
The first-ever image of a black hole was unveiled by the EHT Collaboration in 2019, and a variation of it is the artwork for the back cover of the Arcade Fire record. The band has been together since the early 2000s, and “We” is their sixth studio album.
Space.com had the opportunity to sit down with Butler for a conversation about the band’s new record and recent performance. (The interview has been edited lightly.)
Space.com: Great to talk to you, Win. Can you tell us what drew you to black holes when writing the new record?
Butler: We have a song called “End of the Empire,” and it’s nine and a half minutes. We had the first three parts, and for some reason, I read this article about Sagittarius A*. I had written [its name] on an index card on my wall and would walk by it every day. I knew that there was a fourth part of the song that was going to be called Sagittarius A*.
Space.com: For me at least, the tone of the record sets the stage for a spiritual and introspective experience. How much of it was inspired by looking up into the universe and questioning our place in it?
Butler: I feel like there’s so much we don’t know about ourselves. And to me, the first half of the record is like this character wants to escape themselves and wants to escape all the problems of the planet — and sort of looking to this black hole, and maybe if I could just make it through the black hole, then that would be far enough away from all this. And when they actually get there, what they find is their own eye and everyone they ever loved and all of their memories and their family. It’s sort of like the thing that we’re trying to run away from is just ourselves and that it’s all sort of interconnected.
Space.com: How do you feel about the just-released image of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole? It must be surreal to see an actual visual of it so soon after the record’s release.
Butler: Yeah, it was a great surprise. I mean, people have been texting me and asking me if it was like an elaborate release strategy or something like that — which would be, I mean, I would love to be that smart. But no, it’s also just a sense of collaboration, having all these telescopes all over the planet, and teams from all these different countries and the sense of humanity, kind of working together towards a common cause. I just think, in this day and age, it’s like, we get so obsessed with the day-to-day issues that we’re facing; it’s really important to think about things much bigger than ourselves. And it doesn’t get much bigger than the black hole in the middle of our galaxy.
Space.com: Can you tell us how a 1921 sci-fi novel helped inspire “We”?
Butler: Yeah, my minor is in Russian literature. And I took a class on the ’20s, which is kind of the peak of the Russian Revolution, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel [“We”] is the first dystopian book that [George Orwell’s] “1984” is directly based on. I think when the revolution was happening, it was a very exciting, tumultuous time, and the world was changing really fast. And Zamyatin was just sort of raising his hand and saying, “Hey, guys, like, I know we’re all really excited right now, but there might be a couple of issues that I just want to flag that we should maybe think about.” Just to have such a prophetic voice — you know, somebody was writing 100 years ago that still has something to say to modernity — is inspiring.
Space.com: Do you have any other science fiction influences that you’re pulling from?
Butler: I love science fiction. William Gibson is a huge hero of mine, fellow Canadian. I’ve always loved [Neal] Stephenson. I mean, like, too many to name. Orwell is probably like my all-time hero.
Space.com: How did the performance at the ESO press conference come together?
Butler: It literally came in yesterday [May 11]. We set up some mics in our house, and we happened to be home for a minute. And it’s just the piano in our living room and just did this very small, intimate performance. But you know, it feels very exciting because the second song we played, “We,” is sort of an imagination of the other side of like this sense of unconditional love and kind of hope and rebirth. And so I think those ideas are sort of in short supply these days, so it’s sort of nice to actually have something to be inspired about.
Space.com: Are there any other aspects of the record that were directly connected to space?
Butler: I mean, I think it’s more like when we recorded in El Paso, like in far West Texas, and it was during the election in November; it’s like peak COVID. And just like, you know, crazy, crazy time. We were right next to the border wall; the property we were was like on the Mexican border wall. But at nighttime, we would sort of sit around the fire and this gigantic West Texas sky. And, you know, it’s like this moment in peak COVID, where we can kind of all be together and actually like eat dinner together and hang out outside and just be under the stars, and kind of just to have this sense of being overwhelmed by how precious this planet is that we have and this time we have together.
Space.com: Did you have a chance to look at the stars through a telescope or do any skywatching while you were there?
Butler: Yeah, when we were there, there was a crazy ring around the moon — the full moon with like this kind of crazy halo. I don’t even know what it’s called. It was like, we all have photos of it on our phones — just spectacular.
Space.com: That’s awesome. You can’t beat those types of experiences; it always sticks with you. That was a fantastic show today; it was really inspiring.
Butler: Thank you.
Learn more about Arcade Fire’s cosmic album “We” on the band’s website.