ON MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — What is it like to be the mother of two rock stars?
“The highs can be very high, when you’re at the Grammys, when you’re at an event sitting next to David Byrne, or Peter Gabriel sends your grandchild a mobile,” said Liza Rey Butler, whose sons, Win and Will, are at the core of the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling rock band Arcade Fire. “The lows are very low. They’re gone a lot. And when they’re here, I can’t show them off. I can’t always call them directly. They don’t come to our Christmas party anymore.”
Arcade Fire is about as hot as a rock band can get. The band’s latest album, “Reflektor,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in November. In September, they performed on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and then appeared in their own concert special on the network. This month Will was named as an Oscar nominee for the band’s work on scoring the film “Her.”
The band is written about and photographed so often that Liza now saves only the magazines that feature the band on the cover. She used to save every clipping they were mentioned in, but now there are just too many.
There is likely no good way to prepare for having sons so famous they have to sneak into your house, who are constantly in demand, who have teams of people guarding their privacy. But if anyone can be prepared for such a thing, it’s probably Liza Rey Butler.
BORN INTO STARDOM
Her father, Alvino Rey, helped develop the electric guitar in the 1930s and had his own big band. Her mother, Luise King, was a member of the King Sisters, a singing act that became a big name in radio and film in the 1940s. Later the King Sisters had families and expanded the act, so young Liza become a member of the singing King Family. ABC aired “The King Family Show” sporadically for about five years in the mid-’60s. As a teenager growing up in Hollywood, Liza sang backup on recordings by Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Johnny Mathis.
She took to music easily and instantly, but she didn’t take to the music business.
“For us it was like any chore you have, doing the dishes or something,” said Liza, sitting in the 1940s Cape Cod home she shares with her husband, Ned, on Mount Desert Island. “I knew what it was like to have (Hollywood costume designer) Bob Mackie make my dresses, and what it was like to fly in private jets, and not have boyfriends. I knew I wanted another kind of life.”
On a camping trip with her family in the mountains of Idaho in the early 1970s, she met and later married Ned Butler. Ned, who was working as a geologist, had grown up on Mount Desert Island. His family had a boatyard there. The couple moved to Maine about 10 years ago to care for Ned’s parents, and they now live in Ned’s childhood home.
After she married Ned, music remained Liza’s passion. She played harp in a jazz trio in clubs and hotels. The family lived for many years in a Houston suburb called The Woodlands, where Will and Win grew up.
The first things a visitor notices in Liza and Ned’s Maine home are the grand piano and the three harps at one end of the living room. There is Liza’s six-foot-high concert harp, which is worth at least $30,000 and is more than 40 years old. Once, when he was young, Win knocked it over and caused “$9,777 worth of damage,” his father remembers.
Another harp belonged to Liza’s mother. The third harp is small enough for Liza to take on the couple’s sailboat. That is something she does often. “She plays and we sing and have a wonderful time on their boat,” said Martina Herries, a friend of the Butlers who lives in Blue Hill. “She’s a fantastic sailor too. She says it’s because she takes great direction from Ned.”
There aren’t many mementos of Liza’s own musical career in the Butlers’ living room. There are black-and-white publicity portraits of both Liza’s mother and her father during their performing days. And she has a couple of her father’s guitars.
There are family pictures, such as a framed Christmas card shot in the 1980s that shows Liza, Ned and their two blond sons, all dressed in red.
On Liza’s grand piano, prominently placed, is a picture of her two sons hugging on stage after winning a Grammy in 2011.
“That was an amazing moment,” she said.
MOM’S MUSICAL INFLUENCE
Liza didn’t steer or push her sons toward show business, but she encouraged music and creativity at every turn. Win remembers his mother’s music being a constant presence in his young life.
“Music was definitely super normal to me,” said Win, 33, speaking on the Australian TV music channel (V) earlier this month. “Like I’d always come home from school and my mom would be practicing Debussy, or whatever, on the harp and you’re like, ‘Mom, shut up, I want to play video games.’ You really take for granted that you’re listening to this incredibly beautiful music in the background all the time.”
“In my family it’s kind of like being an accountant, being a musician. It’s the most normal thing I could have done,” Win said.
As a young adult, Liza reinvented herself. She went to graduate school at the University of Arizona for a master’s degree in performance harp. Then, while living in California, she started playing jazz harp in clubs and at hotels, making a name for herself on her own.
“There wasn’t anyone else playing jazz harp at the time. She’s very talented and she was gorgeous. People loved her,” said Alan Waite, a longtime friend who worked as a publicist for The King Sisters and for Alvino Rey. “I remember her as a teenager, running rehearsals for her father’s act, and for her mother’s. She was a real prodigy, probably the most talented musician in the whole family.”
Liza and Ned were living in California when Win (Edwin Farnham Butler III) and Will were born. The family later moved to The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston, where Ned was working for Pennzoil.
Will, 31, says he and Win didn’t listen to much recorded music while growing up. But he can recall in a flash specific pieces his mother played regularly, either on her concert harp or on piano.
“I really strongly feel for the classical pieces she was always playing when I was a kid; ‘Concierto de Aranjuez,’ though she plays it jazzy, ‘Song in the Night’ by Salzedo, ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,’ which she always plays fast, happy, not ponderous,” Will wrote in an email from Australia last week, where Arcade Fire is on tour through January. “I was raised to care exceedingly much about music, and I’ve never really cared too much about the music business. I think I may have inherited that attitude from my mom, and from her parents.”
Liza formed a neighborhood band in The Woodlands, the North Millbend Gang, with herself on harp and her sons and their friends on a variety of other instruments.
She also played in music education programs, visiting schools, and often brought her sons with her to play along. Win played trumpet then, Will clarinet. Liza says her sons were both creative from an early age but that Will was more focused on traditional musical pursuits, like school bands. Win played music, but he also painted, drew and took photographs. He was into outrageous fashion at an early age.
“He was always a trendsetter, going to secondhand shops when that wasn’t cool yet,” said Liza of Win. ”He wore garage jumpsuits, work shirts. He had this pair of tuxedo pants he wore a lot.”
Both boys played sports, including basketball and soccer.
Both also attended the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Win played in a rock band there that did original music. Liza thinks it was also called Arcade Fire. She says she recalls someone in The Woodlands telling Win a story about a fire at an arcade when he was a teenager. The story, which may or may not be true, inspired the name.
Liza remembers going to New Hampshire to see Win’s band play, and Win had arranged for a projector to shine various images on the T-shirts of the band members as they played.
“Even back then Win was as interested in the whole experience as he was the songs,” Liza said.
BAND’S MONTREAL ROOTS
An Exeter classmate, Josh Deu, went to college at McGill University in Montreal, and encouraged Win to enroll. Win did, and got his degree in religious studies.
It was in Montreal around 2001 that Win and Deu founded the present version of Arcade Fire. The duo met Regine Chassagne in Montreal, who joined the group and would later become Win’s wife. Deu later left the band, but the band is still based in Montreal.
Will joined the band about a year later, when they were recording their debut EP at the Butler family farm on Mount Desert Island.
“We had this 1830s barn, where they did a free show, and that’s where they recorded,” said Liza, who played harp with her sons that summer as they recorded.
Later, after they had a major record deal, Win and Will asked their mom to play harp with them again, including their 2007 “Neon Bible” album. Her harp can be heard on the tracks “Black Mirror” and “The Well and The Lighthouse.”
Will, though, is quick to point out that his mother was not given the gig just because she’s related to two band members.
“It’s hard to find good musicians that you can relate to. So if you know a good harpist that you relate to musically, like, for instance, my mom, you try to find a way to work with them,” wrote Will in his email. “My mom and her family are very pragmatic, musically. Like, they enjoy playing music together not necessarily because they are family, but because everyone is a good musician. The family aspect is a bonus.”
Will says his mother never tried to give the band music-business advice. She was often with them for moral support at various stages of their early career, but as a spectator. Finally, when they were going to meet the band’s first accountant, her sons told Liza and Ned that they needed to begin doing things on their own.
The band’s first album, 2004’s “Funeral,” was inspired by Alvino Rey’s funeral, and it immediately garnered critical acclaim. “Neon Bible” was also a critical and popular success, helping Arcade Fire cement its position as one of the top rock bands in the business. The band’s 2010 album, “The Suburbs,” won the Grammy for Album of the Year. “Reflektor” came out too late in 2013 to be considered for Sunday night’s Grammy nominations.
“We usually watch the Grammys, but this year we’ll watch the Oscars instead,” said Liza, referring to Will’s chance to win Best Score for “Her.”
GENRE? IT’S HARD TO PIN DOWN
Growing up with a mother who played jazz and classical harp all the time is probably part of the reason why Win and Will make music with Arcade Fire that is hard to restrict to one genre.
Win, especially, seems to have developed his musical talents quite naturally.
“Musically, they don’t play regular rock ’n’ roll chords. Win doesn’t read music, so he plays these chord clusters (on guitar) like Joni Mitchell did,” said Liza. “His hands are so big, he has to play a little differently.”
Arcade Fire’s songs can be high-energy indie rock, or lush and orchestral and moody. Instruments, besides the staple rock instruments, have included viola, cello, xylophone, glockenspiel, French horn, accordion, mandolin, hurdy-gurdy and, of course, harp.
The band takes most of its instruments on tour, and the current tour will take them to Maine this summer. The band is scheduled to play an Aug. 20 show at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor.
When the Butler brothers come to visit their parents in Maine, they try to do so quietly, to avoid a crush of attention. About three years ago Will showed up to watch his mother play harp at a summer pops concert in Blue Hill.
“All the kids ran over to get his autograph,” said Herries, the Butlers’ friend in Blue Hill.
Both Win and Will have children of their own now. Win has an 8-month-old son, and Will’s boy is 2. Liza says her sons have asked her not to put their children’s pictures on Facebook.
“They would just like to not have the kids involved,” Liza said.
Like a lot of new grandmothers, Liza wants to make her grandchildren something. Since she’s a musician, the birth of her first grandson two years ago prompted her to start making an album of lullabies.
“The band has babies now, and they’re thinking of putting out Arcade Fire merchandise for babies,” Butler said. “Everyone has babies on the mind, I guess, so I thought I’d do these lullabies.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: