Music & clubs

The Butler did it

Interview: Andy Butler of Hercules and the Love Affair. After the acclaim of "Blind", Butler and crew return with the moody Blue Songs. Butler and his reconstituted legion to glam up Berghain on March 3.

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Photo by Lindsay Isola

Featuring vocals by Antony “and the Johnsons” Hegarty, the transcendent breakthrough single “Blind” may have created the impression that the Andy Butler-led Hercules and Love Affair was updating Scissor Sister’s mid-1970s Elton John fixation a few years hence, all white boots and Sylvester’s disco balls. But their new album Blue Songs (Moshi Moshi) is a moodier affair, more Arthur Russell, Grace Jones and P&P than Cowboy, Lumberjack and Indian.

Still, expect Butler and his rejiggered legion to glam up Berghain when they show on Thursday, March 3.

Hercules is your persona?

When I went to university I studied, in particular, the myths about Hercules. He had many love affairs and he was heartbroken and torn apart by them. The contradiction of the strongest man on Earth – but with this weakness internally – was a beautiful poetic device to name a project. It takes the strongest man to love with all of his heart. For me, gender plays a big role – my own coming to age as a gay man, but also identifying myself as a masculine gay man and being comfortable with that.

Are you comfortable with fame?

It was an emotionally challenging year. I had a fair amount of resentment and anger toward the music industry. I had to recognize I was expected to put out a new album. All of a sudden, I had to create a product and it became work – people were keen to expect more banging house music from me. But creativity does not come that way: it is an ephemeral thing – it comes and goes.

I knew Antony and [singer] Nomi [Ruiz] would not participate in the future and I had to acknowledge the loss. This all got channeled into the new album.

I listened as much as I could to the most sensitive, peaceful, sort of meditative music: Sinead O’Connor’s early music, Brian Eno, psychedelic folk from the 1970s – and at the same time the more industrial sounding house records. And the influence of both came into the album.

The album is quite lyrical. Did you find more happiness in longing than belonging?

That’s a fair assumption. Happiness is something to be achieved, not just found. You have moments of joy, but happiness is not a permanent state.

We work towards happiness and I am in that process as a person. On the last song on the record, “It’s all right”, we did a very slow, melancholic version of a very uplifting song with a lot of optimism.

That was a hit for Pet Shop Boys, but you emphasize that you covered the original Sterling Void version. You don’t like Pet Shop Boys?

I love Pet Shop Boys! They are witty, have great sensibility, and write wonderful pop songs. But the Sterling Void version is something I grew up with. They were playing it every night where I was going out. I felt it was a DJ’s way to acknowledge, in a communal sense, that we, as a group of people, did something special tonight. Maybe we did not talk, we were not verbal, but we communicated and bonded. The message in that song is that music can bring people up and bring everyone together.

“Painted Eyes” on Blue Songs deals with seeing beyond the moment, seeing forever.

The song was written for the House of Chanel. It is devoted to the person who started it all – Coco Chanel. She was a visionary. She changed women’s rights. She changed fashion, forever. So I posed a question – how did you see forever? What happened in you that provoked such a lasting impact? Not many people can do it. Very rarely you see an artist causing such an effect.

Do you see art, then, as an opportunity to transcend into other periods?

That’s a wonderful and hard question. It makes me emotional. I am so entrenched in history, whether it be Greek mythology or the history of disco music, I cannot imagine myself being back there. So if it was to happen, I would be overjoyed.

In “I Can’t Wait” and “Falling”, you deal with freedom in a complicated manner – being free with yourself, but also being free of emotions.

“Falling” is a Greek myth put to music. A king sends his son on a dangerous journey and all he asks his son is to change the sail from one color to another when returning, to indicate that he is alive. But the son forgets. The father sees the wrong color approaching after the weeks of anguish, and he throws himself off of a cliff. In essence, the song is about falling, but he is free at last, as he knows what happened to his son.

And “I Can’t Wait”?

“I Can’t Wait” is a song that Kim Ann [Foxman] sings and it is basically about breaking free. We had a very difficult day, a tearful day – we had a fight. We went in the studio, and I told her, “I need you to just channel this into the song.” And what she wrote was essentially, “I am by your side all the time and you don’t show up as a friend the way I need you to. And I won’t always be here.”

Asserting that freedom can be a very painful experience for the other person. Freedom always happens after a relationship ends. Putting that on the record was very personal.

How do you manage to function as a team?

I just produced the single for Kim Ann Foxman: I want to build a body of work for her, and eventually release a solo album. She paid her dues. She did so much for Hercules and Love Affair, and I want to see her as a solo artist. [Singer] Shaun Wright will also have solo songs that I want to produce. Generally, they are all coming up on my label.

New to the team is vocalist Area Negrot, a Berlin-based artist.

Berlin is amazing to play now. We’ve always had an enthusiastic response. But with Area on stage now, people love her, and she speaks to them like, “I am home”. They give us so much love because they know we have embraced a Berlin artist, who is working with BPitch Control. I love BPitch Control! I am a huge Ellen Allien fan. Berlin is one of the most vibrant cities on the planet, we have to admit.

But what are you doing when relaxing?

I listen to music! I put on the softest music I can find. Or I listen to the most extreme death metal I can find. Or I exercise. I am into fitness. I like to get a massage or eat dinner with my mom.