Artist of the Month: Hercules & Love Affair

Andy Butler, the thoughtful songwriter, producer, DJ and sometimes singer behind Hercules & Love Affair, chats with Ana Yglesias about the deeply collaborative collective, how he channels the early rave days in his DJ sets, and the liberating power of good disco.

12 min
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Jun 10, 2024
·
By
Ana Yglesias

Hercules & Love Affair was born out of an exploratory, collaborative creative space. This is where the project's leader Andy Butler has always felt most free to play, grow and express, be it at the piano, in the studio with friends and legends, behind the DJ decks or under the disco ball. Collaboration and paying homage to his favorite sounds are core to what Hercules & Love Affair is all about, and the project has given Butler the space to work with his heroes and share his expansive, inclusive, synth-laden vision of music with the world.

Hercules & Love Affair may be most associated with nu disco thanks to their biggest, breakout tune, but their catalog, which includes five albums along with plentiful remixes, singles and even an ambient project, offers a romp through Butler's rich musical inspirations, from early techno and soulful house ala Masters at Work to the eclectic sounds of '80s Brussels.

"The journey has always been organic—a passion-driven [one] in pursuit of the aesthetic I'm captivated by at the moment," the "Do You Feel The Same?" producer affirms, calling in from his home in a small French-speaking town in Belgium, where he lives with husband.

He's particularly inspired by the early genre-fluid era of dance music, like he experienced as a teen in the early '90s at Denver's underage clubs where he'd hear New Order and the Shamen the same night.

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"House music fans were going to see Lil Louis play at Medusa's [in Chicago], where he was playing for the industrial kids and the house kids, and they were dancing next to [each other]," Butler reflects. "That freedom is something that I try to bring into every DJ set I have. I'll play classic techno and house, industrial, EBM, disco, newish disco, Hi-NRG, Italo, Afro, Latin."

"It's just the nature of those really early, amazing DJs like Ron Hardy and Larry Levan and Lil Louis. They did not discriminate in terms of genre, and they were willing to go anywhere — if it worked on the dance floor, they played it. I love the eclecticism of the early days, when things were not clearly defined into genre. In the past 20 years, genre became so important. It had to be a tech house party or a minimal house party. We've experienced so many genres, and I'm like, 'Play them all,'" he says with a chuckle.

Hercules & Love Affair more or less exploded onto the New York scene in 2008 with "Blind" on James Murphy's DFA, yet it almost never saw the light of day. Butler asked his friend ANOHNI if she wanted to sing on a track he'd written, but they thought it was too on-the-nose and didn't even listen to it until four years later when she asked about it. Daniel Wang encouraged Butler to send it to DFA and showed him what music gear to buy. It took Butler several years to complete the final version – which DFA loved – waiting tables so he could afford to pay the trumpet player, etcetera.

The song was a supernova that brought with it swift "on-the-rise" fame and constant touring that didn't make Butler any money, since they were a new act and he toured with a large band. But it brought him home to music and music-making, which he'd found solace in from a young age.

"I was doing it for the love of it, the same way that I went to the piano as a kid, to avoid the chaos and be with myself a little bit. Little did I know that releasing the song would ultimately bring me a really beautiful life and career," he says on "Blind."

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It was also a full-circle moment, as "Blind" brought him from a loyal student of house music to someone who'd been remixed by the one and only Frankie Knuckles.

"I used to walk around as a teenager listening to the ‘Whistle Song’ and it would make my day so much brighter," the "Painted Eyes" artist says. "When I heard a reference to the melody I had written in the [remix's] piano riff, I had tears in my eyes. How amazing is that, that Frankie Knuckles actually listened to my song? It was a really magical moment."

He's used each subsequent album (which typically take him around five years to craft) as a sonic playground to work with more artists, producers and sounds he admires.

"I always wanted this thing to be a collective…For me, collaboration is play," Butler says.

"Every collaborator I've worked with has different methods, they have different insights. They've taught me so much. That's really the beauty of collaboration. The Hercules community is a bunch of authentic, beautiful, messy human beings and artists. We are incredibly talented in our own ways and flawed in our own ways. We've all brought ourselves to the table. We've never been manufactured."

The opening track of 2011's Blue Songs (Hercules' sophomore album), "Painted Eyes," featuring the heavenly vocals of Berlin's Aerea Negrot, sounds like it could be a long-lost Sylvester track. In addition to Negrot, Shaun J. Wright and Kim Ann Foxman (who also contributed vocals to the first album) feature heavily on the '80s disco/proto-house and early-'90s house-inspired project, which brought Butler to Austria to work with Patrick Pulsinger, as he loved Cheap Records, and Microthol. Bloc Party's Kele Okereke also offers his haunting vocals on "Step Up."

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"I made a bold decision on the second record, to not make only dance music. Even if you listen to the first record, it's not just dance music. People don't realize that, they think, 'This is a disco band.' No, [we're] not a disco band, because you didn't listen to the whole album. [For] the third record [2014's The Feast Of The Broken Heart], I decided, 'Let's have fun with house and techno.' Omnion was my journey back to myself; it was a record that was really about reconnecting with my virtue as a person, and the value and virtue of all people, and having some belief in something greater than yourself," the "Boy Blue" producer shares.

On his last album, 2022's In Amber, Butler steps away from the rich world of his dance music influences to excavate deep emotions. It found him reunited with ANOHNI as they cathartically explored "grief, grace, beauty, rage, solace and comfort," as he aptly put it. "It was quite existential. But a lot of my music has been diaristic and existential, in a way. That said, my albums don't represent me as a DJ," he continues.

"The album process is very different for me than the remix or a straight up club [track] process. I think I will probably color even further outside the lines on the next album… I probably will surprise people even more," he reveals.

Stepping fully outside of dance music in the studio helped him come back to it. In fact, he will be releasing "new, totally club-oriented" Hercules & Love Affair singles this year. He also credits a diverse list of artists who made him excited about dance music again. This includes Lipelis, Aerobica, Orion Agassi, Kris Baha, Helena Hauff, Ron Morelli, Paula Tape, Paramida, Lena Willikens, Vladmir Ivkovic, Stacy Christine, Zombies in Miami, and many more.

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It's not always been an easy ride for Butler, who has lived through the challenge of staying sober and grounded in an environment often filled with stress, late nights, alcohol and drugs. He got clean at 21, and seven years later, someone offered him a sleeping pill during the band's stressful early touring days. He felt ashamed and kept it a secret, sending him into a spiral of abusing sleeping pills and other substances. Now, he understands how interwoven self-care needs to be with his tour and work schedule.

"I just couldn't handle, honestly, the pressure of it all. And I didn't make a cent playing those 100 shows," Butler states. "Mental health and sobriety as a DJ are more important to me than DJing. Me being sober allows me to value the gifts and the life that I have. Even in the bad times, I can find some lesson or appreciation."

As a young gay boy growing up in a chaotic home, the piano was a place of solace. Butler taught himself how to play and compose early on; his mom took notice and signed him up for piano lessons centered on composition. He also fell in love with dance music around 11, via new wave (Eurythmics, Yaz) and early techno (Orbital, LFO), then industrial music shortly after. He loved the space-age sound synths brought to these tracks and wanted to learn to make them himself.

At 15, after discovering deep, soulful house at local raves, he learned to DJ with a pair of Technics and a mixer he bought for $500. His memorable first-ever DJ gig followed a few months later at a leather bar in his hometown of Denver. During this fruitful, youthful era, Butler met many local mentors, found the queer community (which he hadn't at his high school) and "soaked up a lot of history" at raves.

Two years later, he moved to New York City to attend music college, where he studied under Phillip Glass' piano teacher and learned modular synths, tape-to-tape and (then-new) Pro Tools. He even booked Honey Dijon for a party at his university. He graduated into New York nightlife, and befriended many lifelong friends, including many Hercules & Love Affair accomplices and fellow DJs.

In addition to having less rules about sticking to one genre, he appreciates how the early rave days required active, in-person participation. "It was much more of a body-to-body community connection thing, where you had to run into someone at the record store, rather than seeing a post on Instagram or Facebook, which made it feel also a lot more subcultural," he posits.

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As a gay man who has worked with many other queer people in dance music over the years, Butler is saddened to see homophobic and transphobic sentiment spreading in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"It is a sad state of affairs; it reflects a serious lack of education and awareness. Many of the establishments in government don't even know or have had experience with members of the LGBTQ community, and the overwhelming increase of evangelical Christian influence in politics is pretty disturbing. Pride to me means remembering where we come from, how diverse we are, and how important coming out and showing who we are to the world actually is," the "You Belong" producer reflects.

"The answers to the world's problems are really going to come when we care for each other."

Of course, disco and house music wouldn't exist without the queer community of color. For Butler, the essence of disco lies in the power of its euphoria — just as NYC's discos provided solace from the chaotic scenes outside, particularly for queer, trans, femme, Black, Latino and working-class people, disco music can still transport us.

"I look to people like Sylvester and think about how disco music has the potential to really lift people in a way that lots of other music doesn't. A heads-down minimal techno set doesn't do the same thing as an incredible, impassioned diva vocal that's full of longing and telling the story of being a human being. Disco can really, literally, make you feel real, like Sylvester said — I can't think of a better phrase. It also just makes you dance differently. Your body loosens. There's this freedom that I associate with disco, a sort of liberation, and it is attached to that moment of liberation."



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