Q+A: Win Butler

Standing at 6-4, Arcade Fire’s front man Win Butler was once accurately referred to as “a Serbian basketball player” by Tina Fey on an episode of Saturday Night Live. Accurate because Butler is a serious hooper, once beating Toronto Raptors big man, Amir Johnson, in a three point shootout and even more impressive besting noted San Antonio Spurs three-point marksman Matt Bonner in another shootout.

Butler played center at New England prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, and his game has evolved since then as he told Rolling Stone in an entertaining profile back in January:

“I was always treated as a post player, because I’m tall, but in my twenties I realized that I could actually shoot. So I’m much more of a scorer now.”

Having played with Butler in two full-court pickup games before the band’s Boston area tour stop last week, I can attest that he can definitely score. Whether it’s pulling up from the three-point line or making the interior play, Butler knows how to put the ball in the basket. Butler’s love of basketball was never more evident when he revealed that he missed the band’s sound check because we were still playing.

After ending the day with a win, Butler took a drink of water and then graciously took the time to chat with SLAM about hoops, his desire to play in the All-Star Celebrity game, his upcoming charity game in Montreal, and plenty more.

SLAM: Is playing ball before a show a regular thing when the band is on tour?

Win Butler: I play in leagues in Montreal when I’m home so I’m always trying to play as much as I can. On the road, I don’t play every day but usually a friend in whatever city we are playing in is able to organize a run for me. Like that is what happened here with Luke (Matt Bonner’s brother Luke Bonner—Ed.), who organized today’s run. On this current tour, we have been playing in a lot more arenas, so like at the Verizon Center in DC, we played at the Wizards practice court, which was down the hall from our dressing rooms. Also we got to play in the Barclays Center, which has wonderful facilities.

SLAM: Out of all of these places you have played, what has been one of your favorite or most memorable?

WB: I usually play with my guitar tech so we often mainly play pickup at random courts. Like in Eastern Europe, Lithuania, you roll up to a court and there are like 10 guys who are 6-6 playing half court. There are some crazy pickup rules over there. For example, after every make, you inbound from the baseline and if someone missed whoever gets the rebound can just put it back in. Getting rebounds and scoring off inbounds are like my bread and butter so we end up owning a court for like two hours. I also like showing up to a court in a basketball city like Chicago, and people think you are a scrub but then you end up going on a crazy win streak.

SLAM: Do people ever recognize you when you step on the court? 

WB: Once in a while that happens but I’ve been trying to get in the All-Star Weekend celebrity game for years now, but for some reason I don’t count as a celebrity. I have the skill set to be in it so I don’t know.

SLAM: So how can people get behind you and let the NBA know that they want Win Butler in the celebrity game? Your buddy, Matt Bonner, was able to get into the 3-point contest with the #LetBonnerShoot movement.

WB: I was right behind that movement and got our fans involved by sending them the info. For me, maybe #LetWinPlay.

SLAM: Simple, but let’s work on getting that trending. So we were talking about how you are able to just show up to a court whether it is here in the US or in Europe and just start hooping. This speaks to the language of basketball…

WB: Yeah, man. Where I live in Montreal, my neighborhood is primarily made up of Haitians and Africans. I’ve been playing with a lot of them for years now and we established a friendship that is independent of music, independent of what you do for a living. It is camaraderie with people through basketball.

I was in New Orleans for three weeks and went to the same court basically every day. So I got to know the regulars and it was just a really cool way to connect with people and have a good time through basketball. But every year after 30 it is getting harder and harder. I’m 34 now, Kobe’s age.

SLAM: Ha, I hear ya. I was a little mad that I didn’t have time to stretch before playing today.

WB: It definitely doesn’t get any easier.

SLAM: Let’s say you get to play in a pickup game where the rest of your team is made up of NBA players. Could be current or retired players. Who are the other four players that would be on your team?

WB: I’m from Houston originally, so I grew up watching Hakeem every night. Hakeem is my all-time hero. Forget The Beatles, Hakeem has them beat.

SLAM: Nice, so Hakeem as your center…

WB: For the rest, I tend to relate to players that have a unique way of playing. They move differently or think differently about the game than your typical players. Like Rajon Rondo, he is a guy that just does things a little bit different. You can just tell that the wheels are turning in a slightly different way. I was never the most athletic player so I always relate to guys like that. Hakeem was athletic but it was more about how he moved, he kind of played like a dancer.

SLAM: So not a bad squad so far, Hakeem, Rondo and you.

WB: Probably also Pistol Pete, mainly for the razzle dazzle…

(Luke Bonner chimes in, “You have to have the all-time tenth man, Matt Bonner.”)

WB: Sure, got to have that stretch four in Bonner.

SLAM: So that is five…

WB: (Laughs) Wait, no dude that is absurd. Just put me on the ’93-94 Houston Rockets team. I will take Robert Horry’s spot—he can come off the bench. He can sub for me in the fourth quarter and hit all of those big shots.

SLAM: Here is another hypothetical, if you were the front man of a band made up of NBA players, who would be in it?

WB: Dr. J on the bass. That ‘70s rhythm section is a must have. Larry Bird on the cow bell, real simple, you know? Hakeem would probably be a pretty good drummer, he has that dexterity. Kevin Love on the keyboard since his Uncle is in The Beach Boys. Then I would also have Nate Robinson, just for the energy.

SLAM: Like your hype man?

WB: Yeah, Nate would be an amazing hype man. I think that is a pretty good band.

SLAM: That actually sounds like a very entertaining band. Have you played basketball with any other music guys before?

WB: I played with the Beastie Boys before; they have a run in New York. They are pretty good. There is this indie band called The Rosebuds and their guitar player is my height and played DII ball. He is like a true small forward type and is really good. I actually hold a charity game every year in Montreal called POP vs Jock, which takes places during the annual POP Montreal festival. This year’s game takes place on September 20 at McGill University. I get a lot of music guys to play in that. Justin Vernon [from Bon Iver—Ed.] is playing this year; he’s pretty good at ball.

SLAM: Right, I remember when you beat Matt Bonner in a three-point contest there a couple years ago. Who else is playing in it?

WB: With Matt, it was just all head games. I was in his head all day. He is not used to being the center of attention so that may have also gotten to him as well.

For the game, the whole concept is that one team is half college players, and the other team is musicians with some pro or ex-pro guys. So it evens out, competition wise. Matt played a couple of times. Brent Barry is playing this year. The rapper Stalley is going to play this year, he played college ball and is pretty good. Erin Heatheron, a Victora’s Secret model, will also be playing. She played serious AAU in Chicago growing up and she has that model height of six feet plus. Last year we had David Byrne play the halftime show, so it is a unique basketball event. It is kind of like the old MTV Rock N’ Jock games.

For more information on tickets for the September 20 POP vs Jock game, keep an eye on the POP Montreal festival website. To see Arcade Fire, check out their tour dates.