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WILL BUTLER + SISTER SQUARES
Sara Dobbs and Jenny Shore used to work summer stock theater in St. Louis, Missouri. They’d do the hand jive with TV stars past and future; they’d get coldly corrected by the ancient, legendary choreographer Gemze de Lappe. Sara went on to Broadway, including a run as Anybodys in West Side Story. Jenny went on to choreograph in the independent dance scene of early 2000s Chicago.
Julie Shore is Jenny’s sister. She’s always made music—playing Chopin, writing songs, making bands with her friends. She’s had the archetypal Millennial journey of entering adulthood in the ’08 financial crisis and figuring out what stupid series of jobs you have to take to pay rent while keeping an artistic life alive.
Miles Francis grew up in New York City with Backstreet Boys posters covering their walls. An extraordinary drummer since youth, Miles thrives in collaboration—whether producing artists in their West Village studio, performing with artists like Angelique Kidjo, or powering protests with a big marching drum.
These four—Miles, Julie, Jenny, and Sara—are Sister Squares. What made them a musical unit was working with Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Will Butler. They’ve all just finished a new record together: Will Butler + Sister Squares.
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“I met Jenny—my wife!—in college, the year before I joined Arcade Fire. She was a choreographer; my roommate was a dancer. He convinced me to come to an audition, though I had never taken dance. Jenny was impressed—but she didn’t cast me,” says Will. They went on to collaborate on a series of shows: Will (and friends) providing music, Jenny (and friends) providing dance. They married in 2007.
“When I needed a band to tour Policy [Merge, 2015], I asked Julie to join because I trusted her musically. And I asked Sara, Jenny and Julie’s childhood friend, because I knew she was super talented,” says Will.
“Antibalas (who I was drumming for) opened some Arcade Fire shows,” says Miles. “I was captivated by Will’s performing. He was creating all these micro DIY performance-art moments within a massive arena show, and I wanted to know everything about it.” Miles offered to play drums anytime Will needed.
Will, Julie, Sara, and Miles jelled on tour. Julie and Sara showed Miles how to do eye makeup backstage; everyone worked on vocal arrangements. All along, Jenny contributed to recordings and general performance ideas, and she joined onstage in 2019.
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“After Generations [Merge, 2020], I considered making a weird solo record. Me alone in the basement, etc., etc. Mostly I realized that what I wanted was the opposite,” says Will. He increasingly turned to the band for feedback on lyrics and song structures. He asked Miles if they’d produce the record.
“Will and I organically discovered our relationship as a production duo through making this album. We didn’t have to talk too much about things as they happened, because the music just flowed,” says Miles. “As a producer, working with Jenny, Julie, and Sara is the dream. They connect so innately. In one motion they can conjure a mood, or get at the root of a feeling.”
The band played a run of shows in August 2022, airing out studio ideas in live rooms. After coming home, the band regrouped at Figure 8 Studios in Brooklyn.
“I could tell from the physical energy that it was going to be good. We were dancing during takes, taking cues from each other. At one point, Sara and I had our tap shoes on,” says Jenny. The album, broadly, is equal parts from Figure 8, group experiments from Will’s basement, and sessions in Miles’ Synthia Studio.
“I had quit my band Arcade Fire very recently, after 20 years—maybe the most complex decision of my life. I had spent the preceding two years at home with my three children. I was 39 years old. I was waking up every morning and reading Emily Dickinson, until I had read every Emily Dickinson poem. I was listening to Morrissey, to Shostakovich, to the Spotify top 50. I had unformed questions with inchoate answers,” says Will. “But, honestly, I was feeling great about the record.”
The album projects widescreen emotional landscapes. Lead-off single “Long Grass” is like a Harry Styles song with 20 more years of life behind it. Standout track “Saturday Night” has a beat, according to Miles, “with that robot-alien-dancing-at-a-haunted-dive-bar feeling that we were going for.” The back half of the album is a danceable, weird choral record with harmonies both beautiful and dissonant. Closing song “The Window” is the comedown after the party—Julie playing a Chopin Nocturne on a three-years-out-of-tune piano, slowed to half-speed on tape with Will singing over it in a voice exactly as tired as he was. It’s a record with a warm, humane soul.
Miles, on a moment of synchronicity captured to tape: “It came out uniquely ours, a tiny bespoke musical bloom that can never be exactly reproduced. Those kinds of moments between all of us are embedded all over this album.”