Interview: Andy Butler (Hercules And Love Affair) About Questions Of Representation, Chicago House, Lady Gaga And The Mellow Side Of “Blue Songs”
The new Hercules and Love Affair album “Blue Songs” will be released in two weeks, and it’s really exciting to see how much attention it already got during the past few weeks. I met Andy Butler in December two interview him for a German gay magazin and weekly newspaper, to talk about him about the record and the team behind it. I was especially curious to see how much the many political implications of the project are actually intended. Here the full-length transkript of the intervew. Pictures by Lili Almog (F51) via The Fader.
CF: Just to get things clear here: What is Hercules And Love Affair right now? Who are the current band members?
AB: Right now it is Marc Pistel, who produced some of the record with me, Aerea Negrot, who is a Berlin-based singer from a label called bpitch control, Kim Ann Foxman, who is from the last Hercules record, and a young man named Shaun J. Wright. These are the people who contributed tons of time, energy, creativity, talent and love into this record.
So they’re not just collaborative partners.
They are. I have to except something about all this. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but you must let everyone go at some point in your life. And I recognize, Daniella (Aerea Negrot) already has a career and Shawn will become a star I think and Kim Ann as well – so only for now they’re helping me as the songwriter and producer realize my songs. And Mark already had this really lengthy amazing career doing music with bands like “Meat Beat Manifesto” and “Consolidated”. So they are collaborators but right now we are a family.
Do you feel comfortable with the fact that you are seen as the “speaker” of all of this – the guy who promotes it? I mean it’s always you who is mentioned first when someone writes an article about Hercules And Love Affair for example.
It kind of has to be that way simply because I’m the songwriter and the lyrical content is almost completely written by me, and the aesthetic and stylistic direction is dictated by me. I’m essentially the musical director of the group and it is my vision, they’re my words, it’s my concept. So I’m comfortable with it.
Is it important for you to promote people who maybe wouldn’t get as much attention as they get now?
I don’t consciously feel that way. But it’s been brought to my attention that that happens.
What does that mean?
Well, it means that I come from a very simple musical background and as I was writing songs I was in New York and I found myself around certain people, especially one notable person named Antony, who had an amazing voice and already had a career started. Antony is his own creation. He was already a cult figure in New York; he was being heralded by the press. His first record is unbelievable, so I was lucky enough to work with him. And Nomi Ruiz was a singer who was working in New York as well. Kim Ann Foxman had just moved to the city and we just started working together, but then this record took of.
For the next record I wanted to work with people who stimulated me and Aerea Negrot, who I met four years ago in Berlin – she didn’t have a record out or anything, but I knew that she was a really talented woman. She’s a classically trained ballet dancer, she was a singer and techno producer and for me it was was just like: “I have to work with her, I wanna see what she can do.” And then Shaun Wright is a young man who came to me basically on his own and said ‘I can sing’. The first thing Shaun and I did before really working together was spend about ten days together in Palms Springs at my father’s house where we just got to know each other. One thing that Shawn said to me that was very profound and I just didn’t realize, was ‘Andy, what you do is, in a way, to give voices to people who don’t necessarily have the position to have them’. And Shawn is very educated, has a master’s degree, I love being around him because I learn so much from him. He said to me, ‘You know, you have given a voice to a transgender person who maybe wouldn’t have had a voice, you’re giving a voice to a black man like me who maybe might not have had a voice and you’re in a position of privilege where you can do that’. And so in that way Shawn kind of made me realize that in a sense I do provide this form for them to express themselves on a large scale and I think that’s pretty cool.
I asked because I think there are a lot of struggles about representations going on in the gay/ queer community, especially in Berlin since Judith Butler turned down the prize from the gay pride committee after accusing some of the people from the committee of having made racist statements. This is what made me realize that aside from certain aspects of your music there is also a very political side in how you teamed up. And I’ve always been interested in whether this was a conscious decision.
Well, I studied feminist theory in college; I took feminist anthropology courses; I took a course on the study of whiteness; I had to analyze race, gender – all of these things in an academic context. And so for me, holding women up in the highest regard has been something that is very important to me as well as finding some sort of a unity between lesbians and gays and the fact that transgendered people should have the right to do whatever they want to do with their body and be whoever they want to be on whatever day they want to be. And recognizing that oppressed people – that there’s a common struggle, and generally marginalized people and people who have struggled and who have lived on the fringes and who had to find some sort of strength through that experience – they usually have the best stories to tell. They’re the ones that make Hercules and Love Affair as special as it is I think.
Do you make the same kinds of conscious decisions when you produce your music, when you pick out certain styles for example? Is there a method of “political songwriting” for you?
Sometimes. It’s funny because you are talking about stuff that I studied in school. I went to a small coeducational liberal arts college in New York City called Sarah Lawrence college, and so I just studied all of these things that were interesting to me. So what I studied were things like race relations and this “white studies” and feminist theory, but also art history of the seventies and I took a lot of interesting courses in the notion of the cultural concept of taste. One thing that I found very interesting and that drove me for that first record was that so much disdain and hatred was still embedded in our culture around disco music. The question ‘Why was that, why did we through away disco music?’ is a political debate – it is a political discussion.
And for this record I think that house music kind of really was on my brain, you know partly just because I grew up feeling free in clubs that played house music. On “It’s alright”, the last song of the album – a cover of a Marshall Jefferson / Sterling Void song, I was really trying to raise attention to these two young African American men in Chicago who bought second-hand vintage music equipment, or at least cheap music equipment, and made this really beautiful song that was speaking directly about world issues, while trying to promote some amount of optimism and hope for people. And so what I did was take a piano and a guitar and bring the focus back to these kids who made really beautiful songs that still mean something today. So in that sense sometimes the approach is political.
That’s interesting because I always thought that in some ways house developed the same way as disco – into something that today most people find as cheesy; and it became very white, especially when you look at what is left over of it in the charts today. And how closely connected for example voguing and the early house music were I just realized after listening to your album and doing my research. Is this the reason why you show these voguing artists in Kim Ann’s “Creature” video?
Well, within a lot of communities there exists an intense sense of homophobia still. There is for example a lot of homophobia within the African American community. To display this underground culture of men expressing themselves in a kind of flamboyant and graceful way is a political statement, you know, and it still exists, it still matters, it still should be shown.
At the same time there are artists like Lady Gaga who are using certain aspects of gay or queer culture to put in their videos to promote themselves. What do you respond to people who accuse you of the same thing – of trying to be cool by using queer signs? I mean, for example, these dancers in the “Creature” video appear to me to be a little like some sort of ornamentation.
Well, it is definitely a different story because Shayne, Tigga and Pta! – those three dancers dance with Hercules and Love Affair; they’re part of the crew, they’re not hired dancers. They’ve been coming to our events for years and I just recorded music with Shayne and Tigga a month ago for a new MR. INTl release. They are some of the most creative and inspirational people in New York and I have the deepest amount of respect for them. I love them. It’s not like a “Madonna/Vogue” sort of situation. But it’s a fair question, you know. And Gaga is different, too, I think. Because Gaga is really just utilizing gayness as a subject matter. We’re not utilizing gayness – we just are gay.
At the same time it’s funny to see what happens when people don’t know the whole context of Hercules and Love Affair and just don’t get it. Which is something that seems to happen a lot. Is it a problem for you that it may sometimes be difficult to communicate what Hercules And Love Affair is about?
You know, Kim Ann and I talk about this a lot, because we really would love to see Hercules And Love Affair – see our message and our music reach a big audience and it would be great if this would happen, because on some level what we’re trying to promote is raising the bar of humanity. Like acknowledging every one as equal, but also really encouraging everyone to be authentically who they are, you know? I think Lady Gaga for example is doing something a little different. She’s like “put on a costume and be something”. I think we’re like “be authentically who you are” and let’s do this. It’s just an ideal or something that we still have, we still hold on to. I don’t know if we will reach that modicum (not sure this is the right word) of success, you know? I’m really proud of how far we’ve gotten, I think it’s really remarkable. I’m also proud that we have stimulated people in the way that we have. But I sometimes think that it is a thinker’s project, it’s not so much a not-thinkers project. A lot of people enjoy music that doesn’t make you think too much and we’re sort of asking for something else of the listener.
You mean it could be kind of difficult to get bigger because there’s too much to…
… processs, yes. Like the lyrics, the stylistic influences of it, the queerness of it, the conclusion of it, the fashion aspect. I mean you really have to think about it and put it together, even the name Hercules And Love Affair – we’re not ‘The’ something, we’re not ‘The Jets’. It would be a lot easier if we were just ‘The Jets’, but we have a name where people ask themselves, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’. And then there’s this one guy who talks about everything but he doesn’t sing and then there are these three singers and they’re different from the last singers, and then the lyrics are about… You know, all that stuff. But honestly, what good is art isn’t like that!
What experiences did you have on a bigger stage, on tour with the Gossip for example? Were people irritated?
Well at first they were. But you know, we’re authentic people – we bring who we are to the stage and we’re sharing it and we’re like, ‘Get excited about who you are and your part of the party’. We’re having a party on stage and you’re part of the party and there’s no discrimination involved, there’s no ‘you’re too fat’, there’s no ‘you’re too this’, there’s no ‘you’re too that’, there’s no ‘you’re black’, there’s no ‘you’re Asian’, there’s no ‘you’re gay’, there’s no ‘you’re straight’ there’s no nothing. It’s ‘bring who you are, come as you are’, that’s the party. And I think that’s how it should be.
What do you do with the slower parts of the album, do you play them live as well?
No, we don’t play them live, that’s not really party music. But we’re gonna start when we get into a place where I feel like we have enough of an audience that’s captivated. I mean, when we do headline shows we already have a captivated audience. We could start doing it, but it needs to be done right, and we’re gonna start playing those songs when it’s right.
Tell me a little bit more about these slower songs.
That’s really just me asserting my voice as an eleven-year-old songwriter at the piano. That’s like ‘I wanna write a beautiful song’, like on ‘Boy Blue’ there’s a guitar riff that I wrote when I was fifteen years old that I’ve carried around for seventeen years and I wanted to put it on a record. That song is a devotional song essentially. It was written for Sinéad O’Connor (smiles) and ‘Blue Songs’, the first song on the album – that was written really by me in isolation and I sing on it about a really personal subject matter – about my youth. It’s just about personal expression. I need that freedom as a songwriter, I don’t want to be held in one thing or another. And I won’t be.
They represent the more melancholic side of the project…
… yeah, the pensive, thoughtful, slow, mellow side.
But even most of the dance tracks are melancholic, aren’t they?
Yeah, I mean that song “Falling” on the record is a song referring to a Greek myth where basically a man throws himself off of a cliff to his death when he realizes that his son is dead. And the song is like ‘I’m falling, I’m falling, but I’m free’. I mean it’s a very very tragic tale. But put to an uplifting disco beat.
“Blue Songs” will be released via Moshi Moshi on January 31. Kim Ann Foxman’s debut single “Creature” is out on January 25 via Itunes.