Joe Holyoake speaks with Andy Butler, head honcho of Hercules and Love Affair, about their soul-searchingly candid new album.
Of all the people who expected Hercules and Love Affair to still be making music nearly a decade on from their first release, Andy Butler, the creative backbone of the nu-disco outfit for all those years, is perhaps the most perplexed. “It felt like such a fluke in the beginning! It’s really been a bit of a pinch-me experience.”
The project was born in New York, after Butler moved there from his hometown of Denver, Colorado to have a stab at making it in the music industry. He wrote songs in-between waiting tables, but only shared them with the world after ANOHNI, then of Anthony and The Johnsons, prompted him to do so. She sang over a number of them, including the breakout hit ‘Blind’, and the first album came out to a tide of plaudits that all fell for its innovative and soulful approach to dance music.
And three years on from their third album, ‘The Feast of the Broken Heart’, they’re back with new release ‘Omnion’. It’s another slick collection of dance floor ready tracks, melding both old and new electronic influences, and always aiming to hit you in the heart just as much as the feet. This has always been his outlook for the group: “Sometimes songs are born out of an intense moment that has nothing to do with club music. I’m not just a disco-head or a house-head. I’m touched just as much by, say, Sinead O’Connor accompanied only by a guitar, singing an intensely spirited message.”
Despite being the lead figure in Hercules and Love Affair for nearly ten years, he still feels uncomfortable with being a frontman. “I really don’t like attention, in a weird way.” He sighs “I get anxiety when eyes fall on me. It might be post-traumatic or something, I think I grew up with the wrong sort of attention. I started very young with beatings. I was pointed at for being effeminate and they said ‘we’re going to beat that out of you”. However, despite this deep-rooted aversion to the limelight, he’s grown to be more comfortable up on stage, thanks to help from the revolving door of vocalists who have always been a major component of the band. “When it’s a team effort, it can be really fun! You get offstage and look at each other, it’s really affirmative, especially when you get audiences enthusiastically appreciating what you do. I’m very lucky”.
Much like his previous records and colourful live shows, Omnion has a fabulously eclectic group of vocalists he’s cajoled along to sing over his beats. Gustaph and Rouge Mary, the singers who have been accompanying him on his recent live shows, appear on many of the tracks, but there are other special guest features, ranging from recognisable figures to more unknown names. One such feature comes from Faris Badwan, lead singer of goth-rock group The Horrors, who adds a warped moan to the seedy, S&M-tinged stomper ‘Controller’. “For that song, I wanted a boy in a rock ‘n’ roll band with a dark and dangerous aspect to them, but as I was looking round, I realised there’s not many dangerous boys anymore! But then I came across The Horrors doing a cover of ‘Your Love’ and I was so taken that they would do a cover of a house track. That indicated that he was perfect.” I tell him that my sister had a teenage crush on him, going as far as naming her jet-black hamster after him. “I can completely understand that!” he laughs.
As well as Faris Badwan, folky singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten features on the slow-building title track after Butler heard one of her songs on an episode of The Walking Dead and was immediately obsessed. “My partner and I just looked at each other and thought this voice is so special.” After a year of fruitless tweeting at her, Van Etten eventually got into touch with him to remix her song ‘Not Myself’, which she wrote in tribute to the victims of the Orlando massacre, and she duly repaid the favour on ‘Omnion’.
There are slightly more unfamiliar faces as well, in the form of Hamed Sinno, the out gay lead singer of Lebanese indie band Mashrou ‘Leila, who pops up on the urgent ‘Are You Still Certain?’, singing in Arabic alongside Rouge Mary, and Sisy Ey, three Icelandic sisters who make house music and feature on multi-layered ‘Running’. “They’re just beautiful spirits with amazing voices. They all sing together and their voices interweave so effortlessly together, it sounds like one voice.” Those last two collaborators show just how international Hercules and Love Affair have become over the years. “I think it’s a pretty cool thing. It started off as this quintessentially New York band, but as it’s taken us round the world we’ve had people from all over getting involved.”
After talking a bit about the collaborations on the album, I bring up something that’s been bugging me: what exactly is an Omnion? I had googled it beforehand and the closest I could find was Omnium, a ‘multiple race event in track cycling’, which I quickly rule out. He smiles and instantly puts me at ease: “I’m glad you asked”. The title comes from the all-too-relatable feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the tumultuous events that have happened in the world over recent years. “There was a steady stream of news that made me feel totally helpless. The planet is at a stage where damage is irreversible, these insanely corrupt leaders are illegitimately put into power, queer people are being killed all over the world, there’s this totally twisted narrative of the Muslim world that’s being presented to us. At the same time we’re seeing terror attacks happening all the time, black kids are being killed in the streets by police, by people who are handed guns. It just makes you feel…wooah.” To cope with this relentless onslaught of bad news, he resorted to an escape mechanism that had always worked for him from childhood: writing music.
“So I was sat at a piano and I was like ‘if there’s anyone, anything, I can appeal to, what can it be?’ When I was younger, it was God, who was this old dude with a long beard sat in the sky, generally telling you that you were bad. That wasn’t going to work, so what did I want? The closest I can imagine is a universal spirit of love, but I need a word. Omnion indicates omniscience, all-knowing. It’s gender neutral, which is important to me. I checked online that it didn’t already exist and that’s the spirit I wrote the songs to appeal to. Omnion.”
You can definitely hear a lot of faith and introspection on Omnion, none more so than on the intensely confessional centrepiece ‘Fools Wear Crowns’. Despite his earlier protestations, Butler takes centre-stage on this track and reflects on his previous struggles with substance addictions over a pared-back beat: ‘I’m a fool when I’ve been drinking/ I’m glad that I didn’t today…allow me to raise my hand/and admit how much of a fool I am’. It’s a raw listen and really stands alone from the rest of the record. In the run-up to the new album, he has been refreshingly frank about his previous dependency on alcohol and drugs, writing a deeply personal article for Pitchfork detailing his lowest points and subsequent recovery. It’s a tragically familiar story for too many queer people.
I ask him if he thinks the LGBT+ community is more susceptible to addictions, which he considers over a long pause. “I have had to think about it before. If you don’t grow up in an environment where you’re able to live openly, it’s easy to develop patterns or habits that you keep in the dark. Whenever something is laced with shame, there is potential for dysfunction or an unhealthy pattern to emerge. As queer people who grow up confronting opposition and negativity, it’s easy to find a way to want to cope, and to numb also. We often have difficult, traumatic experiences in our lives. It’s not uncommon for queer people to encounter extreme violence at some point in their lives. When I finally found a substance that made all those internalised hateful voices go away, it’s not that surprising that I wanted to be that way all of the time.”
When we meet, he has been sober for almost four years and looks a picture of health, all cheeky grins and bulging biceps covered in tattoos and gingery fuzz. Omnion is the first record he’s made completely sober since the debut. “I was able to imagine way more this time, which is funny, because people seem to think that creativity and drugs or alcohol go hand-in-hand. But reality is enough to spin you out, in both a good and bad way!” He’s very quick to dispel the overly romanticised myth that artists need to have a myriad of problems to inspire their work. “People say you have to suffer to make good art, but that’s just not true. If you listen to people, you need to be this starving, malnourished, crack-addicted mess and then you’ll make something good. And if you’re not finishing a bottle of whiskey and slumming it, then you’re fucking Hannah Montana. If that’s the model, who would sign up to be an artist? It’s an unhealthy and dangerous farce to impose on artists.”
His newfound sobriety means that he now finds clubs a little tedious (“Don’t make me out that I’m no fun anymore!” he pleads in jest), but it’s not changed his outlook on dance music in the slightest. “I’m rarely on the other side of the decks anymore, because it’s work. There are moments when I feel quite alienated, but I just turn to the music now, which was the reason I was here all along really. My relationship with music is so solid.” Nowhere can you hear this more than on Omnion, which is the sound of an ambitious musician both pushing and enjoying himself once again. Ten years on, this Love Affair’s way more than just a fling.
Omnion is out now on Atlantic Records. Hercules and Love Affair play 02 Shepherds Bush Empire on Friday 8th December