The Arcade Fire Algorithm

“We used to resist the technology—now we’re embracing it,” the indie band says.

Algorithms (not pictured) are the band’s newest studio tool.

In 2014, Win Butler of Arcade Fire had a very clear opinion about computer-using artists. The singer closed the band’s blistering Coachella set with a “shout-out to all the people still playing actual instruments”—a dig the ruffled the fur of Deadmau5, inspiring him to tweet, ‘dafuqs yer problem with computers?

Three years later, in an exclusive interview, Butler reveals a dramatic change of heart. Employing cutting-edge algorithms, the band has handed over key songwriting decisions to machines for their latest album, Everything Now. “What Deadmau5 said really got to me,” Butler says. “What was our problem with computers? After a lot of soul searching, we realized we needed to break free from our fear of technology and try something new.”

For a band that has built its rabid fan base off rock solid indie cred, it was a gamble. “We were really worried the computers would dilute our authenticity, but at the same time we looked in the mirror and thought, damn, we’ve been doing this for 15 years, and realized, we are ready to make [bleeping] money.”

The band partnered with Dorien Herremans, who made his name at the University of Antwerp developing the world’s most accurate hit prediction tool, Echo Nest, along with a third silent partner in Silicon Valley. The new algorithms analyzed over 200 musical variables, including length, tempo, time signature, key, loudness, and more subjective qualities, such as beat, energy, and danceability. The newest version of the software even measures more intangible qualities, such as vibe and how utterly euphoric and anthemic a song can feel. 

Instead of wasting valuable time during the recording sessions, creative conundrums—such as which esoteric and/or medieval instruments should be utilized and the precise placement of the band’s trademark “Millennial Whoop” - were determined for them by the software. The result can be heard in single “Everything Now,” which showcases a hip auto-tuned pan flute and an ABBA feel.

Was the new strategy a success? “The numbers speak for themselves,” says Butler. Indeed, the band is on a winning streak. “Everything Now” achieved career bests on multiple Billboard charts, including their highest rank ever: No. 11 on Hot Rock Songs, No. 17 and 26, respectively, on Adult Alternative Songs and Alternative Airplay, and No. 10 on Rock Digital Song Sales—Arcade Fire’s first top 10 there. Additionally, the track moved 6,000 downloads and 1.7 million domestic streams in the week ending June 8. That’s a lot of poutine.

“We just assumed we would go to our graves with this,” Butler says. “But we’re too excited about being part of the future to keep it secret. It’s not like the AI violates our creativity—our songs still convey the we-are-all-in-this-together intimacy we’ve become famous for delivering.” Details are under wraps, but sources say the band is experimenting with next-generation algorithms to help plan and structure their live show, too.