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Hercules’ Andy Butler on ‘championing a queer experience’

By Attitude Magazine

Andrew Butler Portrait close up 30cm - Credit Alexander Nussbaumer

Since launching in 2008, Hercules and Love Affair have created incredible dance music, cutting edge yet nostalgic – and with two feet planted firmly in the sphere of the queer. For each of their three albums, the collective’s leader Andy Butler, who is gay and hails from Denver, has changed the line-up, teaming up with a diverse array of vocalists including Anthony from Anthony and the Johnsons and, this time around, the awesome John Grant. Intrigued, I gave Andy a call to find out how he and John met each other, and to find out more about Hercules’ new album The Feast of the Broken Heart.

Hello Andy, how are you?
“I’m OK. I’m in Cologne; we’re three days into a tour. I’m back on the tour bus with a new group of people, which is really fun and interesting. It’s a little bit of a learning curve, or an adjustment period or something, because six people in the same space with no privacy and lots of personality can be interesting. But it’s extremely fun.”

The new Hercules and Love Affair album, The Feast of the Broken Heart, is out on Monday (May 26). What can you tell me about it?
“Well, it’s something of a departure from the sounds of disco, which is what I guess we’re known for. That’s probably the most notable thing. There are four vocalists on this album who haven’t appeared on any other Hercules records. I would say that they’re the four best, most developed and talented vocalists I’ve ever had on board, which is super exciting.”

One of them is John Grant, of course.
“Yes! He is just amazing: super funny and super articulate. His musicianship is stellar as well. He brought all of that stuff to the collaborations. We also have a vocalist called Krystle Warren, who’s from Paris. She operates in something of a singer-songwriter world, kind of like John. She’s a really intense poet, and has an insane ability when it comes to singing – her range is enormous.”

What about the other singers?
“Rouge Mary is another one, but he isn’t operating in the world of singer-songwriter so much as gospel music. He comes from years of singing in gospel choirs and in a church as a gender-bending, in-between and ambiguous person. The thing I love so much about Rouge is that he participates in his faith – he shows up to his gospel choir looking how he wants to, which is hair to the middle of his back, make-up on and possibly a pair of heels. That, for a lot of people, is a contradiction. But it makes perfect sense. He’s something of a representative for the new wave thinking about gender and sexuality, and religion, faith and spirituality. All of this can co-exist.”

And the final singer?
“He’s Belgian, and he sings on the first single, Do You Feel the Same?. These singers all have very unique voices, and he happens to have the highest range. He’s definitely the most technical singer. He has something of an angelic falsetto that he can fall into really easily and it’s very strong. He’s also got a lot of soul which is very appropriate for a classic house track. His name is Gustaph, and he’s been doing dance music for many years in Belgium, but this is one of the first international projects that he’s worked on.”

Your choice of collaborators is always so eclectic.
“This is something that’s recurring with Hercules. Anthony [of Anthony and the Johnsons] was the first to participate, and in a way it was like taking a voice and persona that didn’t fit in nightclubs. When you talk to someone who might know Anthony and the Johnsons, and then talk about him being on a dance track, the response is like ‘What? That sounds crazy but it sounds amazing. I can’t wait to hear it’. So that kind of set the tone for bringing people in who might not normally exist on these kinds of soundscapes and rhythms.”

This record also seems to have been more of a joint effort.
“I’m working with singers who have really honed their craft. They’re also accomplished songwriters. I just felt more comfortable going into a bit more of a co-operative, full-on, let’s-co-write-this-stuff-together kind of creative process. You know, English is not the native tongue of all the participants. This record is more of a European thing; Hercules has become a lot more international. Of the four singers on board, two live in Paris, one lives in Antwerp and one lives in Iceland. Likewise, the record was recorded in Austria, so this whole album is something of a European phenomenon.”

Hercules&LoveAffair_02 - Credit Benjamin Alexander Huseby

How do you go about choosing who you work with?
“This record was different. John came into my life via a journalist at Mojo magazine who had become a friend of both of ours. It kind of occurred to this fella that, ‘Hey! You two should know each other. John likes electronic music. He actually loves house music, he’s from Denver, Colorado, he’s gay. Why don’t you work with him?’ It was the first time I’d even heard of John Grant and I thought that was kind of surprising because Denver isn’t that big. But they put us in touch after months of us almost meeting.”

Did you hit it off straight away?
“Yeah, we connected in a really intense way immediately. We have very similar psychological make-ups in some ways, and, of course, musically and aesthetically there was a sort of crossover and camaraderie that immediately developed out of a shared love for electronic music from the ’80s and ’90s.”

What themes run through the album?
“In terms of lyrical content, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of brokenheartedness. There are a number of love stories, there’s a bit of unrequited love – this album is full of details about an intense personal life, one that’s brought you to the place you’re at now.”

Some of the record feels a bit political, too.
“Yes, there’s also a certain championing of the feminine and flamboyance, I think. Krystle and I wrote the song My Offence; the message of the song is about that femininity or essence, which is most explicitly, offensively and reductively described in the c*nt, or the female sex organs. It’s also the thing that people sometimes try to beat out of gay men. Queer people are often accosted because of their gender issues, or their own fluidity around their gender. So the message on that song is about embracing that thing, that essence and letting yourself feel that flamboyance and femininity. It’s a beautiful thing. So there’s something of an agenda with some of the music, in terms of championing a truly queer experience and legitimising a truly queer experience outside of just sex. Rather, it’s about gender.”

There’s also some queer language on the album.
“Yeah, the song 5:45 to Freedom is about being yourself and being authentic – you can hear this sound clip of two queens having a banter, where they’re throwing around jargon from queer language. I guess it’s something of a celebration of queer language – the chance to be yourself while on the dancefloor, and to fully express yourself as truly and wholly as you are.”

IMG_4370-7A question we’ve been asking people recently is: if Madonna rang up and asked for a comeback hit, what would you make for her?
“I wouldn’t give her something so playful. I’d give her something with a little bit of a political message. I’d engage her in terms of provocation, which I know she enjoys and likes, but I would not present her with a track that was ‘kiddy’ – you know, aimed at the young people. I’d want something a little more serious. I feel like she’s had a number of albums that have come out and felt kind of fluffy, so I’d just put a little bit more of an agenda, message or substance into it. Or I might even write a really killer ballad for her, because I can get into her ballads sometimes.”

Is it quite important to you to showcase how dance music can be a vessel for something emotional or political?
“Absolutely. This is the only kind of music that is interesting to me. I guess I can get into music as a purely intellectual exercise, but this doesn’t really get me off. When you asked me what I look for in a singer, well, I definitely look for emotion. I look for emotion, passion and the manifestation of that emotion and passion in their voice. I think all the vocalists on the record are very emotional singers, some of them very intensely so. When Rouge Mary is singing, and is singing for a purpose, there’s nothing more emotional. And when you put music on the dancefloor that is intensely emotional it can be a really powerful thing; it can transform the nightclub. That’s a theme on the record, transforming the nightclub into a place of worship or a sacred space.”

Hercules and Love Affair release The Feast of the Broken Heart on May 26. Watch the video for I Try to Talk to You featuring John Grant below.