Hercules And Love Affair‘s eponymous debut album is that rare thing – a dance record you can think to. It features Blind, the year’s biggest dance number so far, and plenty of other chances to get jiggy on the floor. But there’s much more to it than its perfectly crafted beats, its Antony Hegarty vocal tracks and its DFA production sheen. This is a record that moves the mind as well as the body.
And as far as the Brooklyn outfit’s chief songwriter and originator Andrew Butler is concerned, it marks the start of a singular mission to raise up disco.
“Initially I was asked a lot, like, ‘Are you Hercules?’ ‘Is the band Love Affair?’ and I was always like, ‘There’s no Hercules, there’s no Love Affair, it’s just a poetic device. It’s just a means of putting a beautiful romantic idea to the project.”
Hercules And Love Affair, name of album and project, is the brainchild of Colorado-born DJ, producer and muso Andrew Butler. “It’s kind of my baby, it’s my voice,” he attests. Press shots for the group feature four faces: Antony Hegarty, of Antony And The Johnsons, is pictured alongside fellow vocalists and New York scenesters Nomi and Kim Ann, with flame-haired Butler lurking somewhere at the back. He pays the vocalists effusive compliments throughout our interview, yet he is very clear: in Hercules And Love Affair, he is the man.
So what’s all this about poetry and romance, and what does any of it have to do with this disco record? “It comes from a personal interest in Greek mythology,” he says, adjusting his baseball cap. “It started when I was a kid. At five, six years old I had schoolteachers that, instead of reading us fairytales during our fairytale hour, would read us Greek myths. I got kind of obsessed from the first time I heard a Greek myth.
“I just wanted to learn more and more about them. I thought they were these really weird stories that were sometimes super-super sad, super-super dark, but often very heroic. I just loved the notion that this myriad group of gods and goddesses could come down at any moment and interrupt your life or point you in a certain direction, or give you some kind of tool to use in order to help you achieve something.”
Picture Butler at school, all precocious and given the special tools to allow his imagination to run riot. “When I was little I entertained this idea a lot that Athene was my patron goddess. Looking back, I identified with and appreciated her because she was a strong, just woman.” He pauses. “I kind of equated her to my mum. She was the goddess of war, the goddess of wisdom.” Much later, Butler would write the song Athene that would kickstart a train of thought.
This early exposure to Greek mythology would sow the seeds of a lifelong interest that manifested itself at college and turned him into something of an academic. Butler enrolled to read up on “myths of homosexuality in Greek art – vase paintings and stuff. And I found this whole other layer or group of myths that were really interesting to me.”
At least part of that interest, it seems, stemmed from an acceptance that he was gay and that in Greek mythology that was not something earth-shatteringly unique. “I’d come out of the closet and it was interesting to me to read about the strongest man on earth (Hercules) losing his beloved, another man, being completely wrecked and distraught, vulnerable because of it. I thought that was a really beautiful myth, this idea of the strongest man at his most vulnerable.
“That always stuck in my head, that story. But it wasn’t until I wrote Athene, which I wrote maybe two years ago, as a prayer to this goddess who meant so much to me when I was little, that I started writing other things and decided on an overarching theme, something that represented who I was authentically. It was the idea of the Greek myth, that idea of the strongest man expressing his emotion to the fullest. And so I chose the name Hercules And Love Affair.”
All well and good, but how did we then get from studying homosexuality in classical mythology to ’70s gay disco spliced with a dash of Chicago house? “This was a pairing of interests,” Butler patiently explains. “Hercules And Love Affair also had a really wonderful disco ring to it. In the late ’70s there were a lot of, like, ‘orchestras’, or ‘experiences’, like the Mike Theodore Orchestra or… The Rice And Beans Orchestra, The Invisible Man Band. There’s a band called The Crown Heights Affair. It felt very much in the disco tradition. But also in classic house music there were a handful of artists who adopted classical identities. Marshall Jefferson had at one point a project where he called himself Hercules. There was an artist named Adonis, and he put out some really classic house tracks.” Butler had worked out where he felt comfortable.
He’s also had a bee in his bonnet since college, though not about mythology. He gets infuriated by people dismissing dance music, and intends to restore disco to its rightful place, as he sees it, amongst a pantheon of art forms. “It has been a focus and intention of mine since I entered into semi-advanced level academia,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I went to college and I started working in an electronic music studio, but the teachers there told me ‘that music you’re listening to, that isn’t legitimate music’.”
But as far as Butler was concerned, there was a relationship between disco and Philip Glass, Steve Reich and “any of those minimalist modern new music composers. I was constantly dealing with these people saying ‘this isn’t legitimate’. And, ‘stop making beats’. It got tiresome.”
As Butler doubtless informed his teachers, “the level of musicianship on a lot of disco records is super high. They never restricted themselves to one sound or another. Everything goes in disco.” Latin rhythms, classical music, jazz… you can do all of it. So, “for people to say that dance music is not legitimate, to me, is so preposterous. So I do have, in some ways, an agenda.”
“The level of musicianship on a lot of disco records is super high”– Andrew Butler
The next step to self-realisation and progressing that agenda through music was collaboration. “A producer whose work I’m fond of and who I got really close with in the late ’90s, Derrick Carter, used to name certain songs after really obscure myths. That was something I pointed out to him immediately on meeting him, and I told him I loved that he names his songs after demi-gods.”
Butler went one step further, referencing the gods themselves. “The Hercules Theme is a chorus of women singing to Hercules. The thought there was that I wanted to reference a myth when Hercules fights the Amazons. I wanted a group of women, the Amazons essentially, singing to Hercules about their struggle.” He wrote the track two years ago and has since replaced the synth parts with real horns contributed by session jazz players, a nod to those earlier disco albums’ musicianship.
It’s easy to get drawn in by Butler’s understanding of the myths as he weaves them as stories. On Iris, the refrain “Today is a day for someone else” turns out to be from myth too. “Iris is a song about the messenger to the gods, or the goddess of the rainbow. She travelled on the rainbow to come down to earth and deliver news. So I made up a myth of my own about a goddess coming down from heaven one day. And if she had something to say, what would it be?” It would be about putting yourself to one side, Butler explains, displacing your ego for a day, trying to be of service, of help to someone else. Iris being one of the benign gods, her song on the album is one of its more gentle numbers.
In addition to the music, Butler wrote the album’s lyrics save for those on Time Will and Raise Me Up, which were written by Hegarty. “Antony is phenomenal,” enthuses Butler. “It’s amazing watching him in the studio… magical. He has explored his voice so much and for so long that it’s amazing to watch him use it. He internalises every bit of rhythm he hears in music, so he was dancing the whole time he was recording. He physicalises the music he makes and the music he sings. He would work up a sweat!”
Hegarty’s unique voice is matched by his look. “He’s very unique looking, to me. He has an angelic face…” muses Butler. “I think he is the embodiment of the balanced person, you know, equal parts… He’s very comfortable in his skin as he is in terms of gender. He can address the feminine and the masculine and negotiate it actively and present it in their work confidently. It’s really admirable that he does what he does.”
“It really is a physical process for him. He would work up a sweat”– Andrew Butler on Antony Hegarty
Enthusing about Kim Ann, Nomi and the musicians on the record, Butler declines to accept the term ‘collective’ to define Hercules And Love Affair. “It’s very much like a community of friends, a group of New York goofballs,” he says.
The final goofball to come on board was Tim Goldsworthy of the DFA. “DFA essentially came in three years into the process,” Butler remembers. “I’d been demoing Blind for a long time and I presented it to a disco producer named Daniel Wang, who lives in Berlin and has a kind of cult, early disco record label. I was bringing him music constantly and asking him what he thought of it. Finally he heard a version of Blind and he said, ‘You need to take this to DFA, there’s no other group of people in New York City that are going to do justice to this, that are going to be able to give you what you need.'”
And so it was that Butler met James Murphy, Tim Goldsworthy and John Galkin. “They all really loved the songs,” he remembers, but “Tim was the one who stepped up and said he was going to co-produce it with me. I’d never met any of them but I could kind of tell that, oh, that one is the one that really gets it and really, really wants it.”
He reckons Goldsworthy was interested because of British references. “I mentioned Wally Badarou at one point, who was an amazing keyboardist for Level 42 and had been in a band with Herbie Hancock or something, and his eyes lit up.” It’s a first, I suggest – Level 42 and DFA in the same sentence. “Tim and I used to watch Level 42 videos on YouTube in the studio when we were making the record!” Butler confesses. “We would laugh a little, but we liked them. And other records, like Eurythmics‘ The Garden, that was kind of emotional, but synthetic… wonderful vocals…”
Anyway. “Tim and I were on the same page. The process was interesting – weeks of he and I and Eric Broucek who does all the arranging and production for DFA in general. We would be there and each day someone else would come in and lay down a track. It really wasn’t until the band started rehearsing that we were all together, doing it together. It was much more like it was a bits and pieces studio product until the rehearsals started, and then it started feeling like a band.” Much of the record was recorded in DFA’s studio and on their synths – what Butler calls a “really true-to-form analogue set-up”.
Butler takes the band on the road this summer, with a short UK tour and appearances at a selection of festivals, including Berlin’s Melt. But while Kim Ann and Nomi are along for the ride, Hegarty is not expected to join the group – he has commitments around his own new record. Quite who’ll get to sing Hegarty’s big diva numbers remains to be seen (and heard), but it’s a racing certainty that the show will not be done by halves. Having taken years to perfect his deity disco debut, rushing things just doesn’t seem to be Butler’s way.
Hercules And Love Affair’s eponymous album is out now on DFA/EMI. Hercules and Love Affair tour the UK in May 2008.