This has been a “mental” week for Andy Butler. Besides celebrating 10 years of the release of Hercules & Love Affair’s debut album, the mastermind behind the dance music collective is also getting ready to shoot a video for “Are You Certain,” the new single from the group’s latest album Omnion. He sounds almost worried. “Like, we don’t really know what we are doing,” he told us via Skype from Belgium. “We are still pretty punk-DIY about it.”
His concerns are clearly unjustified. If there’s one clear thing about Andy’s career, it's that he knows what he’s doing. And he does it better than anybody.
Hercules & Love Affair is a collaborative project that was born out of Butler’s passion for the dance floor, club culture and classic house music. It exploded onto the world scene in 2008 with the release of “Blind,” a song he wrote and recruited his good friend Anohni to record. Chosen by Pitchfork as song of year, “Blind” reached the top 40 in the U.K. in 2007, and it received virtually universal praise. It also catapulted Hercules into world fame and became a major factor responsible for disco-inspired dance music. Perhaps not coincidentally, the online electronic music store giant Beatport launched its nu disco/indie dance genre in 2008, the year Hercules’ first album came out.
“The response to 'Blind' was immediate,” recalls music publicist Aleix Martinez, who worked with Hercules & Love Affair for the album’s release. Their success drew on the “history of club culture across decades, and also queer culture,” though he admits he was a bit surprised at how much people embraced the sound. At the time, “everybody loved dance punk and indie rock, and it was hard to gauge how people were going to react to a disco and house record.”
It turned out that people liked it. A lot.
Becoming a genre superstar was never Butler’s intent (“I'm not a fan of celebrity as a concept”), but the mainstream success proved to be inevitable: It was just the right amount of house music, disco vibe and theatrics at the right time and city. “The joy of disco at a time [after] eight years of George Bush,” says Martinez. “People really wanted joyful music.” Plus New Yorkers, just a few years after 9/11, “had nostalgia for the New York before everything happened.”
Butler grew up around music. He started playing the piano and writing songs from a very young age, encouraged by his piano teacher. At 15 he walked into a rave in Denver where he lived, and it was love at first sound. “I was blown away at what these DJs were doing with two turntables, blending records and stuff, so I begged and begged [my parents], and I got a pair of turntables for my birthday.”
He became drawn to DJs who’d play original disco cuts instead of tracks that simply sampled those sounds, a celebration of dance floor heritage. “I was fortunate enough to encounter DJs who conveyed that house music came from somewhere else, and played the disco tracks that influenced and created house music.”
When he moved to the east coast in 1996 Andy was terribly disappointed at New York City’s dying nightlife, but tried to soak up as much of that energy as he could. “In my teenage years I heard these legendary stories about the Sound Factory; I moved there and shortly thereafter it’d closed. [Former Mayor] Rudy Giulianni was in full effect,” he says referring to a period in the city when most nightclubs were being closed down by the mayor’s Disneyfication plans.
He found solace at a Sunday afternoon party called Body and Soul (“a definite highlight for me as far as clubland goes”) where he’d finally find a place to exercise his love for the dance floor. “François [K] and Joe Claussell were constantly dropping a classic -- or an unclassic, to use a term that Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani coined, when they started re-releasing underground disco things in the early 2000s.”
Butler had moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College, a prestigious private liberal arts school located 15 miles north of Manhattan, where he began his formation as a future music visionaire by taking classes such as modern dance, women’s studies and electronic music. While there, he started scoring dance pieces for choreographers, “already exploring the sound of disco.” In his energy-seeking trips into the city, he “encountered cosmic disco in a really serious way.”
After he left school Andy met Anohni, then working under her birth name of Antony Hegarty, through mutual friends over dinner. The friendship would change his life -- and dance music -- forever. “Creatively, I just had this impulse on desire to simply hear [her] voice against an electronic backdrop.” They started collaborating, and in 2000 Anohni recorded “Blind,” a song that would only be released in 2007, when Hercules & Love Affair’s signed with DFA Records.
“I was making songs just really for the fun of it, and for the community-building exercise,” Andy says, explaining why it took him seven years to release the song commercially. “I really was not a terribly ambitious musician in that regard, [doing things] like schmoozing, and knocking on labels’ doors.”
While initially Anohni was the primary collaborator to the Hercules project, Andy knew he wanted the group to be a rotating cast of musicians. “It was kind of an anti-pop concept, this notion of a collective. And I’ve always been fascinated by that.”
For its initial formation, he recruited the singers Nomi Ruiz, whom he had met through Anohni, and Kim Ann Foxman, “this really cool girl who was a jewelry designer and who had just moved to New York City.” Other artists include !!!’s Tyler Pope and Automato’s Morgan Wiley and Andrew Raposo. Two vogue dancers also joined the band to serve New York City realness. One of the voguers, Shayne Oliver, who also designed Hercules’ “banjee” t-shirts (a slang used by black and latino gay men in ’80s New York that meant "in the hood”) would go on to become a renowned fashion designer, creator of the “Hood by Air” label.
In May of 2008 the group debuted at Brooklyn’s Studio B on a night MC’d by drag queen extraordinaire Linda Simpson before going on a North American and European tour. The super cool New York vibe struck a chord with the dance music universe. The eponymous debut album tour became a genre defining moment.
Ten years later, Hercules’ first album feels just as fresh and relevant, though Andy Butler now 40 years old, hopes to bring his attention to outside of the dance floor, as well. “It's too hard for me now not to acknowledge what's really happening in the world,” he says. “The utopian sort of escapism of dance music is less thrilling to me than it's ever been.”
“Are You Certain,” the video that Butler is about to start shooting exemplifies that. The song is a collaboration between Hercules with the Lebanese alternative rock group Mashrou’ Lelia, whose openly queer frontman Hamed Sinno sings about LGBTQ rights in the Muslim world.
Incredibly, the video is Butler’s second time working as a director, following last month’s “My Curse and Cure,” but we will be able to see more of the artist’s new phase soon. In June “we’ll have a new show that acknowledges the visual work that I've been doing,” he teased.
We can’t wait to see it -- and dance to it.