The list of reasons why Andy Butler decided to revamp his sound is seemingly endless.
Speaking to Billboard via Zoom from his new home of Ghent, Belgium, the frontman for beloved dance project Hercules & Love Affair acknowledges that In Amber (out now via BMG), Hercules’s first proper album since 2017’s Omnion, sounds much different — gone are the lush, hyper-ecstatic soundscapes of unrestrained joy that course through early songs like “Blind” and “Raise Me Up,” now replaced with moody, ambient production and stark lyrics depicting a darker, more complicated worldview.
“Having put out a lot of music that’s helped people celebrate on the dance floor, I was like, ‘Wow this is a very different mood,'” he explains of his writing process. “I kept the focus on beauty, on a certain elegance with what we were putting out. The sign on the door might suggest heaviness and scariness, but there are still some pop-oriented structures and beautiful melodies.”
When asked why the lyrics and mood of In Amber became more somber, Butler begins reading out his list: right-wing ideologies becoming mainstream, the rise to power of Donald Trump and his allies in the United States, mass shootings, racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and much more.
Within the context of the larger, geopolitical events influencing the way the album sounds are a series of personal ones as well — Butler specifically calls out the “limitations” of dance music as one particular reason why he felt compelled to recontextualize his sound. “There is this four-on-the-floor constancy of rhythm that I’d been working with a lot since the beginning of Hercules,” he explains. “As a musician, I wanted to push myself and work with different time signatures, different moods. I ended up pushing myself a lot.”
The result is an album filled with songs that feel simultaneously chilling and warm — songs like “Christian Prayer” and “Contempt For You” are filled with rage-fueled lyrics and discordant melodies, while maintaining a certain aesthetic of hazy, vibe-driven indie-pop music that stays constant throughout the album.
While there is plenty of change on In Amber, Butler points to one change in particular that worked not as a reaction to the world around him, but as one that finally connected him to a fellow artist he has admired (and worked with for years) — chamber-pop superstar Anohni.
The pair’s relationship dates all the way back to the project’s debut single and breakthrough hit “Blind,” which the duo co-wrote and Anohni sang on as part of the collective. After going their separate ways, the two finally met up again in 2017, where Butler happened to show the artist a few of his demos, leading to a collaboration that would help reshape the album’s sound completely.
Anohni served as an executive producer on In Amber, even appearing as a featured guest on six of its 12 songs. Butler says that it felt like the two simply fell back into their old patterns, with their industry experience over the last decade also creating some interesting changes in the studio.
“When it came time to sit down and record, she just handed me the microphone, and said, ‘I’ll be back in an hour,'” he recalls with a laugh. “I was so confused! That moment was super important, because I was forced to kickstart the collaborative process, and she immediately pushed me out of my comfort zone. Working with her has always been really impactful in terms of my creative journey.”
Butler acknowledges that oftentimes the pair’s differences created stark contrasts between the their approach to working — he, for example, calls his style of songwriting “linear,” and “traditionalist,” while saying Anohni has a much more “improvisational, spontaneous” approach to the art form. But when it came down to it, the “interesting combination” of their came artistic processes helped create something completely different than he’d ever anticipated.
It was also refreshing for the star to be in a partnership with another member of the LGBTQ community throughout the writing process of this album. Preaching queer acceptance and joy since the start of his career, Butler cares deeply about making sure his community is represented in the music he makes, and in the genre he makes it in.
Butler has been keeping track of LGBTQ representation throughout the dance genre — when it comes to mainstream dance (or as he calls it, “overground dance music”), Butler says even just the presence of openly queer pop acts helps give way to more opportunities of queer DJs. “When you see a Kim Petras, a Lil Nas X, it gives you a lot of hope,” he says. “It also makes you look back to people like Le1f and Mykki [Blanco] who were really pushing boundaries and paving the way for people like that.”
The fight for that same level of representation in the underground music scene has taken longer, Butler says, but the payoff is finally beginning to happen. “It took a lot of work in the last few years, and that work was largely done by queer and non-binary people of color, who were pushing to make enough noise and enough music to demand more accurate representation,” Butler explains. “You have a lot of these underground artists — like Eris Drew, like Ash Lauryn — who are working so hard to make sure that a lot more voices are heard now.”
But just because we’re seeing more queer artists in the dance space does not mean that the problems have been solved. “It has felt like a boys’ club, and to this day, a lot of the top DJs are just straight white dudes,” Butler says. “It just got very boring at a certain point! So, while there’s a lot more queer people killing it in dance music than ever before, there’s also simply so much more work to be done.”
Butler hopes that his music, especially that of In Amber, can help the push for more empathy and inclusivity in the dance space. If his latest string of shows are any example, he says, then we’re headed out of the dark and into the light. “To be communicating with the audience, and seeing them smile and dance again…” he says, taking a short pause. “It’s just a beautiful thing to be with people again.”