Published on June 27th, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
Hercules And Love Affair
In 2010, I interviewed Andy Butler, head honcho of US dance colloective Hercules And Love Affair, from childhood to teen trauma, from DJing and working with Antony Hegarty to the release of HALA’s second album Blue Songs
Entering the photo studio down a cobbled muse in South London, it’s a small shock – OK, a fiery hose up the trouser leg – to be greeted by yer actual Hercules… in extremely skimpy undercrackers. In all his lean, broad, hirsute glory, Andy Butler seems completely un-phased by the experience. The body language says, I have nothing to hide. He even changes after the shoot is over (“no looking!”) and bares his bum. But as he pulls on his trackie pants, he reveals an anxiety is indeed brewing. What could be the cause? Why, his mum, of course.
“I just want my mother to say, “there’s my handsome son,” he grins. “She reads and takes notice of everything.” And he means it too. So what will Mrs Butler make of her son making like a go go dancer? Her library of Hercules And Love Affair media will also include an older portrait of Andy holding a large toy rabbit over his naked loins. He doesn’t shirk from discussing a precocious sex life embarked at the age of 13, under his parents’ very noses, and the drugs imbibed along the emerging path. And given the Butlers were a conservative, Catholic household, this seems funny, shocking and even crazy. That said, Andy’s body language says, I survived/ escaped/ advanced. And HALA, Butler’s joyous dance collective, plainly revels in its fluid approach to gender and genre, as if there were no limits, no hang-ups.
But this has clearly not come without a price. Which appears written all over Andy’s body, conveniently bare for the reading. Multiple tattoos, he says, “are an external representation of my identity during different periods of my life.” There’s happiness here; the word ‘Stacey’ is his best friend “who I had a sorta crush on when we first met.” Sweet. On his chest, a lamb wears a crown – “the image of the gentle leader” – and the word ‘Pistis’, “ancient Greek, meaning trust or faith.” His first tattoo was two anchors. “I just wanted something classic and gay and iconic. We had this gardener, an old sailor, who had these beautiful faded tattoos, sexy in weird way. I mean, he was 65 and I was 12.” There’s also an old Gillette ad of a man shaving, representing masculinity. But the tone changes the further down we go. On one arm; a poison bottle with skull-and-crossbones insignia – “a symbol of excess, in order to remember,” he explains. Woody Woodpecker chews two cigars, “another symbol of excess.” And on the inside of each wrist is one word; on the right, ‘Broken’. On the left, ‘Brother’.
“I loved this heavy metal band called Fear of God,” he says. “The singer was really extreme, she wrote these amazingly dark lyrics, all about processing abuse, rape and trauma. One went, “Just another broken brother, scarred sister, no one is going miss you,” which I really identified with.”
In other words, there’s a reason why the new Hercules album is titled Blue Songs. “I’m not blue,” Butler contends, “but I’ve had very challenging periods in my life. A lot of the content of the music is just stuff that’s gone on. That time in my teens was sometimes chaotic, and in some ways injurious to my psyche. But at the same time, I totally got to know who I was. It was a huge learning curve. You know how teenage kids, gay kids, commit suicide? If I didn’t have this release, these weekend parties, this other life and being a dance music fanatic, I probably would have been a very dark and sad character, and maybe not even around. I was definitely on a path toward meltdown. I was in bathhouses doing meth when I was 16. I still hear about people in my home town going to jail, or OD-ing.”
Blue Songs’ hugely moving finale taps that very memory. It’s a sparse, 90bpm cover of It’s Alright, released by Sterling Void in 1986 and covered three years later by Pet Shop Boys. A track with hope in its step “and the music plays forever”) but sadness in its soul (much like Go West). “My relationship to the first era of disco was those warehouse parties of the ‘90s, which was also a time of over-indulgence, and also a utopian vision, that this community and music could ascend to another place, and that message is in It’s Alright. I was given that track by the guy who threw the best parties in town. He said, ‘this is a really important piece of history’. I really identified with it, but I also have very blue relationship to that track because that same guy threw himself in front of a train because he was so drug-addicted. But it was always the last song played at the party, regardless of what party it was. Sadly, there are only a handful of people that really made it through that.”
THANKFULLY ANDY WAS ONE OF THEM. He is Last Night A DJ Saved My Life made flesh.
In conversation in a café around the corner, he is buoyant, bright, occasionally goofy, but shows a vulnerability that makes you want to look after him (something he says he likes: Not a lot, but a little”). You can tell, in his spacey manner, that he is no stranger to drugs. “Haha. When I was 15, and going to warehouse raves in Denver, they used to call me Acid Andy. I would be the one getting people LSD. Kids around me did worse, though, like eat weird plants on the side of the road and trip for four days. I took 26 motion sickness pills once to see if I would hallucinate, and I did! I still like to keep my world as trippy and colourful as possible.”
When he left Denver for New York, to study music composition, he was DJing (classic disco and house), but there he met Antony Hegarty, who showed him another side to queer NYC performance. Antony was one of three principal voices on HALA’s debut album, a sublime fusion of four decades of the rhythm divine; echoes rang out of Derrick May (who Andy once dated, it turns out), Giorgio Moroder, Studio 54, and Yazoo – Antony was clearly his Alf Moyet. Antony is now excused from the HALA party due to his own stratospheric career, and husky transgender beauty Nomi Ruiz has gone too. But Andy’s bessie mate Kim Ann Foxman returns, and taking on the diva androgyne mantle (and then some) are two debutantes, Shaun Wright and Aerea Nerot, from America and Venezuela respectively. But one thing has stayed the same. You still won’t find ‘diva’ vocal excess or belting gay anthems on a Hercules record.
“People want this brash, full-frontal thing from me, but I like a certain restraint and subtlety in my music,” Andy muses, picking apart a muffin. “One thing I encountered numerous times was people saying the first album wasn’t too sexy, but that’s OK with me. Hercules & Love Affair is more about a collection of very different people who have very marginal identities, and normalising them – but not in a bad way. That’s how it should be. We make jokes about us being the Benetton band; we have Latino, Afro-American, Philippino, a gay, a lesbian, a this and a that. And I’m a ging!”
Aha. It seems Hercules has an Achilles’ heel. “There’s a specific purpose for the photos we did; I’m just helping Attitude get some sexy content,” he argues, laughing. “I don’t mind the compliments and stuff too, or if I can get me some! But it takes a lot for a ginger to just take it off, I really think so. I was super-self-conscious growing up. I wouldn’t even try to make it like being a minority, but when you hear some comments and no one else taking the heat, you think, why is there not another fuckin’ redhead in the class?”
With three brothers, a sister and God in the equation too, childhood was a test. “My dad was a semi-pro (American) footballer, so there was this real macho thing going on in the house. We were sheltered and my parents sent us to an all-boys’ school. They thought it would make me a boy, rather than like boys! My younger brother, who’s two years younger, he’s gay too. One of my older brothers was a state champion wrestler, weightlifter and bodybuilder.”
Just one tiny gene removed from the gay Butler boys, then. ”Yeah, you get a muscle queen or a muscle head! My parents got used to really mouthy bad boys. My younger brother was the first person I told I was gay. He’s covered in sleeves [tattoos] now, he sings in two death metal bands. He’s six four, shaved head, muscular; he’d make a great centrefold! My mother’s desensitised to it all now but we were a bad bunch.”
He says there was one moment “when I thought I’d be a priest. Then I found the devil; he was pretty cool.” This was via his elder brother’s speed and death metal records. Then at 15, he came out – or rather, forced out, when his mum discovered his gay porn stash. “But I was busy before then [laughs]. Exploring myself, learning the trade. My parents kept a beach house in Rohoboth beach, Delaware, this east coast gay destination spot. I was 13, trying to pick up 20-year-olds. Who weren’t so interested. 30 to 35 year olds, yeah. And that’s where I learned. A lot. And a lot about music too. When I was 13, I had no idea who Siouxsie & The Banshees was, but I’d see kids walk around with jean jackets and Siouxsie or Front 242 or Celtic Frost patches. Bu then I had a spiritual awakening to dance music. I think it was the drugs,” and he cracks a big smile.
K and hallucinogens were his main drugs of choice, and excess ruled. “At 16, 17, 18, I was like, ‘Dick! Everywhere!’ But I got it out of my system early. Bathhouses and stuff now, whenever I’ve gone, I’ve never enjoyed them. I’m like, ‘euugh, clean up this place! Why does it smell like that?’ I feel really skeevy.” He feels the same way about gay clubland’s crystal-meth muscle myopia. “For me, going to a club is like going to church; I have respect for it. I know I might alienate a lot of readers but a circuit party would disgust me. The whole, ‘let’s rub bodies together and slather up’, it’s not my thing. I also don’t want to necessarily invite people to come talk to me. On one side, I’m complaining ‘Oh, I’m so different’ and on the other, I love it! It’s fun to be contrary for the sake of it.”
Which is perhaps why Andy will go topless for photos, but never in a club (“only once, at Horse Meat Disco, because I got really hot”). On top, he thinks sex in advertising and art is “an easy sell. But I’m the first to appreciate a good looking man, and I’ll do it fast!” What type turns this otter’s head? “Masculine guys. But I’m pretty easy. A good smile’s important. Sexiness oozing from the inside as opposed to visual.”
What’s his music soundtrack for sex? “I prefer complete silence. I literally don’t say a word. Which frequently makes people ask if everything’s OK. I don’t like much groaning and grunting.”
HIS STEADY BOYFRIEND OF OLD, BEN, IS NO LONGER. “It’s very hard being on the road,” Andy shrugs. What about groupies? No, never. I mean, not never. There have been a couple of incidents, but never related to a show. I always have some romance going on but that’s not to say I wouldn’t love a simple relationship with a hot dude and some dogs and a car. But I tried to assert that too prematurely. Ben was the first who I wanted to share everything with, but he moved from New York, to study. I followed him for a week, but it didn’t work out. I’m seeing someone now who I like a lot. He’s Spanish. He was head of logistics at this festival, and was wearing a headset, which I think is what attracted me! I went up to him right before we went on stage, and said, straight out, ‘Oh man, wish you were gay,’ and he said, ‘I am gay’. I said, ‘In that instance, would you give me a kiss after?’ And he said, ‘I’ll give you two’. We got to make out a bit, but I had to leave for the airport. But he immediately called the driver, saying ‘let me speak to the blonde one’. He wanted to make sure I got to the airport.”
And he called you blonde! “Yeah! But his assistant said, ‘did you see the big carrot boy?’ Carrot boy! He’s dated other redheads before. I don’t like competition [another wide grin]. Whenever we see redheads, Kim Ann goes, “Com-pe-tit-ion!”. As you can see, I have a conflicted relationship with it all.”
He says HALA, “this wild bunch of kids,” means he’s never truly lonely while they’re touring. He also got to hang out with Kele of Bloc Party, who sings Step Up on Blue Songs. “We were both in Vienna one night, and it happened to be Vienna’s biggest party of the year, called Drama. It sounded awful but Kele said, ‘come on, let’s just do it’. I wore a shirt that said Black Cock, after the record label, and he was wearing my Autopsy death metal shirt, so we kinda looked like a couple. We’d do this thing where we’d split up for 15 minutes and see who could get in more trouble. I’d say, ‘so – did you?’ And he’s say, ‘yeah I got some’. And I’d get some too! So some nights, I’ll get into trouble.”
“Trouble” seems as far as it gets. HALA have a Twitter account “but I only rarely involve myself.” He’s on Facebook, “but I haven’t checked it in two months. Someone recently wrote ‘Are you the Andy Butler from the Marines that I met on the beach in North Carolina?’ I should say yes, shouldn’t I?” He also has a Manhunt profile until he, “ran into Perez Hilton cruising the site,” and immediately deleted it. After shows, he says, he’s more deliberating that night’s performance than partying, or the day after hunting through crates of vinyl than bathhouses.
In other words, the music goes on forever. But two weeks later, we catch up by phone, and music is making Andy blue. He says he and the Spaniard are on a break. “I’m too much of a nomad,” he instantly confesses. “If not on a band tour, I’m DJing. I want to go gung ho with the new album, but I guess I’ll listen to as much [death metal icons] Slayer as possible and numb the feeling.”
We talk about the photo session, and his mum’s potential approval, and he laughs. “I put that on my mum but it’s just vanity. I want to have some game with British boys! I love the accent, I like the teeth too! And that they’re often boyish dudes. But British guys don’t get me.”
He tells the story about having dinner in London with Kele and, it turns out, supermodel Agyness Deyn, who Andy didn’t recognise and “going on and on at her about British guys, how they’re impossible to date, they don’t commit or show much emotion. Though Mediterranean men throw tantrums, which can be sexy but overwhelming. I want something in the middle, please.”
Let’s place an ad here, I suggest. “Good idea. Older is better for me nowadays. Preferably taller. Hairy is good. Gainfully employed. Dark hair, pale skin, handsome, well spoken. I’m asking for the world, aren’t I? They can be as stiff as a lawyer but not more interesting than an ad agency. I don’t want to date an artist. They’re in their own world. They need to be paying attention to me! Without making it sound like I’m looking for a dominant top, I‘d like someone assertive.” Come on, top or bottom? “With the older guys, sometimes I’ll pound a daddy but [laughs] it’s usually gotta be more versatile than that. I’m a bit more the object, as you’d put it. Now put that in beautiful literary terms, that don’t sound graphic or vulgar! So no ‘Power Bottom extreme, only wants 60-plus, you can double fist him’, please!”
Let’s hope Mrs Butler doesn’t get down to the end of this feature…