A dollop of disco, an earful of electronica and a sprinkle of stardust in the form of Antony “and the Johnsons” Hegarty. Hercules & Love Affair founder Andrew Butler tells Jim Carroll how he nailed an old-new sound
A SK Andrew Butler about the first time he fell in love with synthpop and he’ll talk the legs off you. You see, Butler, the main man behind the delightful, euphoric disco anthems of Hercules & Love Affair, caught the electronic music bug a long time ago.
The memories flow. He remembers Yazoo and Situation, and how Vince Clarke’s production and Alison Moyet’s voice made perfect sense together. Butler knows it’s not cool to admit to the next one but . . . Ah, to hell with cool, he says. It made so much sense at the time, he says, and he talks away about the excitement of seeing a video clip for Technotronic doing Pump Up the Jam.
When you’re a 12-year-old kid from Washington DC getting hooked on synths, these are your markers. Without those markers, he wouldn’t have Hercules & Love Affair.
Butler is the kingpin, the one who brought together a bunch of New York scenesters and music-makers (including Antony Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons doing his best Moyet impersonation) to set the glitterballs spinning.
Their self-titled album is a back-to-the-future ride that will you finger-poppin’ and hipshakin’. It recaptures disco’s innocent hedonism and promise of better days, mates it with the various strains of electronic music that have emerged since, and reconciles them all with the realities of the big, bad world. The grooves are glorious and the arrangements divine.
But Butler is still remembering the old days. “When I moved to Denver as a teenager, I remember hearing Frankie Knuckles’s The Whistle Song and Orbital’s Belfast and seeing clips of Inner City on MTV. These were formative moments and I got really excited about what I was hearing and started hanging out with DJs and picked up on a bunch of stuff.”
All this time, young Andrew was hitting buttons on his tiny Casio synth. “Getting that synthesiser was a big moment for me. It was the tone which did it, it sounded so pure. That delayed synth hook, the Vince Clarke sound, just sent me into raptures.” Butler and his dad spent two weeks driving up and down the US east coast checking out colleges. When he turned up at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York, he quickly clicked that he’d found the perfect fit.
“The night I went to check it out, there was a bunch of musicians playing live with a load of DJs scratching and people dancing like crazy. I thought that was cool. Then I went to the Roxy to see Armand Van Helden spinning that night and moved to New York right away to study music and art history.”
Butler was immediately hooked on the Big Apple’s buzz. “Right away, I was buying records and going to clubs and participating in the scene.” He began to spin new-wave electro disco at house parties before moving to clubs and bars.
“When I came to New York, I was expecting one thing, but the clubbing landscape had changed a lot. The focus was changing from the big clubs to more of a lounge scene because changes in licencing laws made it very difficult to get a proper club going. The lounge scene was a little sterile, to be honest. People were more likely to go mad in someone’s living room than in one of these lounge settings.”
When Butler wasn’t playing other people’s music, he was making his own. “College was my first time to work with sequencers and samplers and with other musicians.” One night, he was having dinner with friends and one of them brought along this big strapping fellow called Antony.
“I didn’t know he was a singer but afterwards my friend played me his first record. I ran into him a few days later and was gushing about how amazing and beautiful his voice was and how much he reminded me of Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins and Alison Moyet and Yazz.”
When Butler finished the music for a track called Blind, he thought he’d ask Antony to sing on it. “I really wanted to hear what Antony’s voice would sound like against electronic textures and he said sure, he’d do it.”
Four years on, the most recent version of Blind is the centrepiece of the Hercules & Love Affair album. Antony croons and Hercules swings to make it the most soulful and funkysounding torch song you’ll find this side of the Salsoul back-catalogue.
The rest of the album is just as fun. Butler and his various accomplices (Kim Ann Foxmann, Nomi and the DFA folks) sprinkle stardust on a beguiling bunch of melodies.
“Most of the people who worked with me on the album are friends. It really was a case of me saying coyly, ‘will you come and play on my record?’ and thankfully, they all said yes. It was very casual and came out of an interest in participating and collaborating rather than ‘we’re going to record this album and release it’.”
Best of all, the sound of the album is what he wanted right out of the box. “There’s nothing wrong with disco – it’s still as exciting as ever. I remember going to clubs and hearing sampled disco songs put to house beats. But when I heard the original versions of those songs, they just sounded so much better. That was the effect I was after, and I think and hope I got it.”
Hercules & Love Affair (left to right): Nomi, Antony Hegarty. Kim Ann Foxman and Andy Butler