Interview: Hercules & Love Affair’s Andy Butler on Resolution, Redemption and Recognizing One’s Value

There’s something kind of just remarkable about the existence of Hercules & Love Affair, a bit of a curious proposition to begin with, but one that has carried on successfully on its own terms, despite apparently not paying a lick of mind to what would seem to be the proper strategies for a successful musical career in the early 21st Century. It is essentially the brainchild of Andy Butler, who had a troubled upbringing in Colorado, and threw himself into music as a kind of coping mechanism; he was doing classical composition by the age of thirteen, before launching his DJ career in a Denver leather bar at fifteen.

Ending up in New York City, he befriended Antony Hegarty (now known as ANOHNI) of Antony & the Johnsons, who provided the soulful vocal for the debut H&LA single ‘Blind’, a starkly honest examination of Butler’s struggles with sexual identity and acceptance. It would be released by James Murphy’s DFA Records in 2008, and ultimately end up as Pitchfork’s song of the year.

H&LA would go on to release four critically acclaimed albums, employing a fascinating rotating cast of collaborators, with 2017’s Omnion actually getting a major label release (Atlantic). Now after a five year wait, fifth album In Amber (Skint/BMG) is due this Friday, June 17; it features some of their most visceral work to date.

Indeed, the album opens with the beautiful, hymnlike ‘Grace’, a duet between Butler and Icelandic songstress Elin Ey, and there is genuine optimism shining through the sonic solemnity. ANOHNI provides a shiver-inducing vocal on the ominous ‘Poisonous Storytelling’, which takes direct aim at the malignant culture of disinformation and hate-spreading. But it’s the latest single ‘One’, with its galloping beat – courtesy of Siouxsie & the Banshees drummer Budgie – spectral synths and piercingly confessional lyrics (“I’ve come to know the taste of dirt / The rejection upon my tongue / Oh, I know my coat is black / I’ve been a threat since I was young”) that genuinely stands apart.

In the overall, the album is a deeply reflective meditation on these troubling times we are living through.

We caught up with Butler to try to dig a little deeper.

Hercules & Love Affair originally seemed like a very New York entity. You have since left NYC – how do you feel things have changed there since those days?

I am not entirely sure to be honest with you. New York is a constantly evolving place, attracting young people who have a strong desire to express themselves. I think it must be exciting for some people there.

You’re in Ghent, Belgium now – one of our favorite cities.

I love Ghent as well, I love the very medieval atmosphere of the city. The tradition of Belgian Surrealism is tangible and there is an esoteric quality to the city that I am very attracted to. I also love the contrast between the strong youth culture, as a university city, and the native “Ghentinaars” from the older generation

How would you describe the H&LA ethos or philosophy?

Follow your heart, learn who you were when you came into this world and recognize your value.

There’s a distinct sense of catharsis or purging on ‘In Amber’. What were some of the things that inspired the record?

Obviously we have been through a lot in recent years, but it has all been amplified by the nature of information and misinformation being disseminated at an incredibly rapid pace. We see chaos, destruction, injustice on a level not seen before collectively, and that has definitely made me reflect on existence in general.

Would you describe the album as a genuine collaboration with ANOHNI?

Collaboration has been key to Hercules and Love Affair since its inception, but ANOHNI was definitely the primary collaboration that defined the trajectory – her return is as undoubtedly impactful as it was on the debut album.

The album opens with the lyrics, “You laugh in the face of death and disaster / If you look for grace / After all these mistakes / I could still show my face.” It actually sounds hopeful – is that a kind of opening statement of intention for the album?

In some ways yes. Conflict is not the endgame in my opinion. Resolution is.

The track ‘Poisonous Storytelling’ contains the lyric, “Everyone is rotted out / From poisonous storytelling.” Do you feel like the current social media culture has enabled dangerous false narratives beyond reversal?

Those are ANOHNI’s lyrics, I wouldn’t opine on them. I personally don’t believe in the notion of a fixed concept around the momentum of human evolution, so I don’t think we are beyond “redemption” – but I do think there have been damaging consequences due to misuse and a lack of regulation around social media.

Budgie is a deeply under-appreciated drummer. What was it like working with him?

He is an incredibly expressive, colorful and distinctive musician. There is a signature to his playing and it can be heard throughout the album, I think.

What is your view of contemporary religion?

I believe faith and or belief to be one of the most powerful forces in the world. I have a deep respect for those that search.

Music kind of saved you from a troubled childhood in Colorado – does it still have that kind of therapeutic power for you?

Music will always be a place I go to, to slow down and recognize my self. Music affords me that, so yes.

With LGBTQ rights under threat once again in America, do you feel an even greater sense of the importance of your music?

If my music resonates with people, I am heartened. If it moves and motivates people, I am thankful. The importance of it is not something I try not to focus on.

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