This so-called disco revival isn’t some new thing: tons of artists have been toiling hard, playing the music that they love for a number of years. The question is: why now? One answer: Hercules & Love Affair, whose self-titled debut album has launched a thousand thinkpieces and scored just as many dance parties.
The album, if you haven’t heard it, is a communal celebration of disco’s infinite possibilities: numerous singers dot the album, most notably Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame); live horns color numerous tracks; a typewriter can be heard underneath the happy din of ‘True False/Fake Real’. It’s got enough formalist charm to win over new fans and enough innovation to keep connoisseurs coming back for more.
RA’s Todd L. Burns caught up with the man behind the project, Andrew Butler, to talk about the disco revival, the group’s Muppet song and thrash metal.
You were shooting a video yesterday?
Yeah, we shot a video yesterday. It was a long day. 10 AM to 2:30 in the morning. But it looks super cool. I’m really, really excited.
Is it the same director as 'Blind'?
No. We did it with a young Australian director this time. It was kind of amazing how the stylists, the director, cinematographer, choreographer, dancers…everything just really came together and everyone was really, really on it. It’s for the next single, ‘You Belong’. The thing that I’m most excited about is that two of our dancers that dance with us when we do live stuff, they got some amazing stuff of them freestyling, just vogueing on camera. And Nomi looks amazing, so...
You were studying dance, right, when you first came to New York? Are you dancing at all in the video?
No. I’m actually in one spot almost the entire time. There’s very little movement. I move my head and I move my hand. And that’s about it. You know, aside from the fact that I don’t have much technique anymore and I’m also a little out of touch with dancing…I mean, I still have rhythm and I did take a dance class recently, but I just have such a crazy schedule right now. Maybe in the coming videos, I will dance, but in this one we had pretty simple character roles.
When did you first become aware of electronic music?
Just through watching TV and the radio, to be honest. Yazoo, Vince Clarke productions in general. His work with Depeche Mode, of course. I loved those bands. I was really into Yaz and hearing ‘Situation’. The other thing that hooked me was Technotronic’s ‘Pump Up the Jam’.
I think that was a touchstone for a lot of people, in America at least.
Yeah, I remember going to the bus stop and everyone was singing it because they watched the video premiere on Club MTV.
Was that the first type of music that you really got into? Were you into other bands before that?
A little bit, yeah. I bought an early Jesus And Mary Chain record, a lot of REM and The Cure and then, by the time I was in seventh or eighth grade, it was industrial music. So, I guessed it was around then that I sort of got into dance music more heavily.
It’s funny to hear that and think about it, but I still walk around with an iPod full of really extreme thrash music and metal. [laughs] I have a real affinity for that kind of stuff. I think what it really boils down to is that I like music that has emotional extremes, so if an artist can really effectively channel anger or rage—and it works—then I’m just as liable to be into it. That music fills a need as well. It’s the same thing with overwhelmingly joyful music or overwhelmingly sad music, you know?
Are there any plans to release something a bit more aggressive?
Yeah, I definitely have plans in the future for projects that tap into that. But, my little brother actually is in a crusty thrash metal band in San Francisco. It’s interesting, he grew up going to warehouse parties and raves just like me. He was a really talented DJ, he had a significant record collection, some of which I still carry around with me. Now, he’s in this really intense subculture in San Francisco and focused on a very specific brand of punk and hardcore music from 1983 to 1989…or whatever it is.
Yeah, Crass. Nausea. He’s really interested in history and specific aesthetics. And he’s just now putting his band together and it’s really weird how we’re doing things in different worlds, but with a very similar interest in music history.
You came to Sarah Lawrence [College] for dance, but you also studied music as well?
I went to Sarah Lawrence for its general performing arts department. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to explore theater, dance or music. I knew I would take piano lessons, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.
I think that seems to play into a lot of what you’ve seemed to have said in interviews that I’ve read where you and a lot of the people around you seem to be artists, not necessarily just musicians. Is that an idea you’re actively pursuing? Are you trying to express yourself in as many different ways as possible?
I think that it’s very important, yeah. Studying dance for the time that I did in school, I started to learn a whole new language and intelligence that I had never tapped into before. I mean, I had played sports growing up, but after dancing for two-and-a-half years, I felt like I came to a much better understanding of my body and of movement. I don’t know if I ever thought, “I want to be an artist, I want to pursue any avenue of expression.” But I do think that studying dance made me a more well-rounded person and a really happy person at the time. When I was part of those dance classes, I was happy. When I was moving as part of a group, there’s something very therapeutic and amazing about that. Those experiences really inform other work. When you explore other mediums, you can return to your primary one and incorporate new things. I like that freedom.
What other forms have you engaged with?
Well, I write lyrics for Hercules. And when I write lyrics, I write poems. I don’t really sit down and write a phrase of music and then come up with words on the spot. I can’t do that. I have to sit down and write a poem in and of itself that exists on paper that will work as a satisfying read on paper. And then I have to go over to the piano and write music that can exist without words. Then I can bring those two things together. I don’t consider myself a poet, but I do write poems. And that kind of freedom of doing other things really informs the music.
I also studied a lot of art history in school, actually.
Were you studying classical stuff?
Classical, I studied Renaissance, I studied a lot of ‘70s conceptual art. The stuff that I studied in school is the stuff that I really still carry around with me. I studied feminist thought, feminist theory, art history, music and dance. Not to make my record sound like some college project or anything like that, but I guess it kinda is. [laughs]
It seems like you’re always writing songs that are dedicated to someone or something. Is that the starting point in the writing process for you?
No, not always. It comes in different ways, obviously. Some of my songs are borne out of intense emotional moments, where I just have to sit down and capture that emotion. I find myself writing music often as a means—this may sound a little bit weird—but as a means of making amends. You know, if I have a difficult interaction with someone that I care a lot for, sometimes the best way for me to sort my emotions out in my own head is to sit down at the piano. Then again, there’s also a couple of songs on the record that are just borne out wanting to have fun.
You’ve said that ‘True False/Fake Real’ was you acting like a group of Muppets.
Right, that was totally us taking on a child-like mentality. [laughs] We were just hanging out in the house and we were just bumbling and fumbling, just being silly. That’s just a case of our personal dynamic getting on record—I’m a huge fan of that way of working too.
Let’s talk about Antony for a moment. You’ve talked about how he was the impetus behind the record. Other than providing vocals, what has he meant to the project?
He was definitely the one, when I actually had a handful of demos, that told me that it was time to go to a label. At some point, he was just like, “I know that you make music and you make music for fun, and for your own personal reasons or whatever, but let’s do something with this.” My personal experience with music has also been having a personal need to do it. So, he was the one to kickstart that. But, also, he’s offered a really critical ear and support and encouragement. He was my one friend that was more seasoned in dealing with the “music industry”.
And based on his encouragement you ended up sending it to [DJ/producer] Danny Wang?
No, I’d been playing my music for Danny for four or five years too. He was also really encouraging me to take it to a label and he heard the demo of ‘Blind’ and when he’d known that I’d recorded live horns and drums and all of this stuff, he told me to send it over to DFA. He said that it was probably the only label that made sense for the stuff that I was doing.
something a bit more authentic and real."
You also hosted a party for a couple of years where you invited friends to come out and just play disco, right?
Yeah. It was loosely modeled off my friend’s party in England called Horse Meat Disco. It’s funny, I went to the very first night they had a Horse Meat Disco thing in London and that was the night that I met James [Hilliard] and Jim [Stanton]. From the moment that I met them, they just kept inviting us over to London to stay and hang out. So I made these really good friends, same age, gay guys, same aesthetic interests. I didn’t know many in New York except for Danny, so I just felt kind of isolated a little bit. So I kept going over there to hang out in Brixton, to have fun with my gay disco friends in London.
When I came back, I decided to try and do the same thing here in New York. I didn’t know if a gay party could happen here like it does in London, but I figured we should try. It was definitely a mixed party, though. So, anyway, I would approach DJs and producers that I respected a lot and invite them to come in and, basically, the policy was to dig deep and fun, really weird records for us. It was really fun for a little while.
Who all played there?
Eric Duncan, Morgan Geist, Darshan Jesrani, John Selway came over, Derrick Carter came and played an all-disco set. It was basically a New York thing, though, and then there were some happy coincidences. Like with Derrick, he was just in town at the time and we got lucky.
Do you think that’s coming back like everyone says? What is your take on the New York scene nowadays party-wise?
It’s healthier than it was. There are a couple of spots that have opened up, like Studio B and 205, that are focused on good soundsystems and not really all that focused on what kind of sofa you’re sitting on. Like, who cares what kind of sofa you’re sitting on? You don’t need a sofa. You get an empty room, a good soundsystem, cheap drinks and a room you can throw your coat in, and that’s all you need. It’s returning to that vibe a little bit. For a long time, it was all about the club and not about the music. I don’t know. I think that there is a return to something a bit more authentic and real. I think there is a bit of buzz going around, but whether it’s a phenomenon or not? I don’t know. I think it’s still pretty sub-cultural.
What can we expect from the Hercules live show?
Don’t worry, there won’t be any extreme metal. We may work on that later. [laughs] It’s definitely going to be up-tempo. It’s all about creating a healthy energy level and maintaining that throughout. It’s weird. It’s raw and rich sounding at the same time. I think there are moments that are pretty plush sounding with a 707, 727, and 101 set-up, with a dirty electronic sound coupled with live drums, bass, trumpet, trombones. So it’s a lot of live stuff, a lot of vintage gear. Lot of energy. I think it’s going to be really fun. We’ve had so much fun rehearsing it, I can’t imagine it not being a ton of fun when we actually get to play it out.
Hercules & Love Affair play live on July 5, 2008 at Wild in the Country.