YOU don’t always need a reason to dance, but it helps, says Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair. “There’s always been two sides to proper underground subcultures,” he says. “It’s never just about getting together for fun. If it is, then it’s not a very interesting culture.”
We’re chatting to Butler backstage at Solar Weekend festival in Holland, two minutes after Hercules and Love Affair’s early evening set of defiant house and disco – celebratory dance music with a political edge that reaches a tangible hand out to the crowd. Affirmative chants of “you belong”, “my house is in order” and “I have my own space” from singers Gustaph and Rouge Mary, as well as a reclaiming of the word c**t in My Offence, sets them apart from other festival house acts chasing an infinite build-up loop of drop after drop after drop.
Butler doesn’t really do dancefloor nihilism. His songs – and they are songs – evoke the early days of the Warehouse and Paradise Garage, when these clubs were a haven for society’s outcasts. He’s from the school of thought that the most powerful disco and house is built on yearning, smudged mascara and one too many gins.
He adds: “The nightclub was a place where a lot of people needed to find a space just to be, to come together. In that space, the seeds of revolution were also built. So disco happened in a sense because disenfranchised people needed a place to come together. In that space they celebrated, but they also found solidarity. Also, movements were born out of nightclubs, like when AIDS happened, that was a key place where people came together, it wasn’t just a partying nightlife, you know.”
While Butler channels this idealised ethos, the Hercules and Love Affair project goes way beyond pastiche. He’s no bedroom dabbler who chanced on a few cheeky samples and got lucky. He studied electronic music under an artist from the John Cage minimalist school and his piano teacher was once Philip Glass’s pianist. And in the late 90s he dated Chicago house legend Derrick Carter, who taught him to embrace the limitations of analogue synths.
He loves the “punk feeling” of house music, but points out: “People just threw it away for a long time. You know, ‘Anyone can do it, it’s machines’. Well not really, actually. I’m doing a lot more to make that thing happen on stage and in the studio. It’s changing now though. People’s ears have just grown accustomed to electronic sounds, so the computer is not considered nearly as bad or as illegitimate of an instrument as it was in the past.”
Butler is constantly honing the band’s sound, toughening up when it’s called for, and clearing the decks by working with a different band for each of his three albums so far. The Hercules debut album in 2008 was embellished with horns and strings and he toured with a six-piece live band, while the latest incarnation is gritty, squelchy, stripped-down house, with live duties shared with Gustaph, Rouge Mary and industrial producer Mark Pistel.
He says “it’s all very considered, there is a vision”, but points out: “Depending on the artists and singers I’m working with, they inform the aesthetic at times.”
His first collaboration was handing a track to his friend Antony Hegarty of the Johnsons, before Hercules and Love Affair was even a thing. The song Blind became the lead single off the band’s debut album in 2008, a stunning soulful dancefloor track that topped many end of year lists. Since then he’s worked with singers like Nomi Ruiz, Rouge Mary, Gustaph, Kim Ann Foxmann, and most recently with Krystle Warren and John Grant on album three The Feast of the Broken Heart.
He seems to value songcraft above all else, saying: “When you’re working with a singer-songwriter you can count on their ability to write a song, they really impose, they do their thing.” He goes on to mention “these EDM fellas”, but interrupts himself before he disses them completely: “That said, if you listen to David Guetta, working with someone like Sia, Sia knows how to write a fucking song, she has written a million amazing songs, she definitely has the craft.”
But really, Butler has little patience for so-called EDM and its “four or five tricks”. He says: “The dubstep thing kinda fucked things up because the wobbly bass of course, and the big hyper drops. There’s also the pitched vocals and this horrible thing everyone did in the 90s, the big snare build-up.” He smirks and admits: “Although we did one of them tonight, we’re guilty too. I suppose they can be fun.”
After the first wave of Chicago house and Detroit techno in the 80s rewired DJs’ brains in Europe, electronic music in the US kept to the fringes, while acts like Orbital and Leftfield helped dance acts cross over from warehouses and illegal field raves to festival headline slots. Now that the States has caught up with Europe – commercially at least – Hercules and Love Affair find themselves elbowed out.
“Often if it’s an electronic festival in the States we’re like the odd people out, we’re the ones singing,” says Butler. “It’s funny, because we used to look at music like Snap or 2 Unlimited, and we would think, ‘That’s horrible Euro-dance or Euro-trance… but now that’s the sound of America… Lady Gaga is having these productions that sound like they could be a horrible Frankfurt-based production team from the 90s.”
There’s no doubt that Ireland has its own Love Affair with Butler and co. We’ve no problem with the odd ones out, and Electric Picnic 2014 has been their third invite to Stradbally, to throw another house party in the fields of Laois. Butler recalls: “Last time we played Electric Picnic it was really really crazy… we played this Bacardi stage… it’s small and had a really crazy energy. That festival has always been really good to us. The audiences are amazing.” And his prediction, which inevitably comes true: “I can only say that it’s gonna be crazy, energetic, over the top.”
Originally published in Irish Daily Star