Shrouded in mystique and lavished with critical praise, Hercules and Love Affair were without a doubt one of the most talked-about new acts of 2008. And deservedly so. Their self-titled debut spawned multiple disco-flavored dance-floor classics, their theatrical live shows continually worked rabid crowds into a lather, and they found a suitably loving home at like-minded DFA Records.
The brainchild of Andy Butler, the New York-based collective’s line-up includes vocalists Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), Nomi Ruiz, and Kim Ann Foxman, along with a half-dozen more musicians. Here, Butler discusses how the project came together, the added pressure of popularity, and why dance music may start looking up in early ’09.
Tell us a bit about what you were doing leading up to forming Hercules and Love Affair.
I had been writing music and playing records for most of my life, then I came to New York from Colorado for my undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence. I studied music and art. I stayed in New York but was only ever doing music as a personal endeavor. I found satisfaction in writing music and recording and DJ’ing. Sometimes I would play the music I was writing out in a DJ set, but really I didn’t have these lofty ambitions to put out a record and be a recording artist and all this stuff. I don’t know why, in hindsight. I don’t know if it was a lack of ambition or confidence, but I was just kind of content writing music.
So I was doing various jobs: My first job out of school was at an entertainment PR place, and then I worked in fashion a little bit doing more music-related jobs, and then I waited tables like every good aspiring artist in New York [laughs]. Throughout it all I was writing music. I was doing it for fun, more as a hobby. It’s kind of good that it was always that for me, because I just knew I’d always do it — it was something that brought me happiness and satisfaction, you know? I can imagine that if I was forced into it, it might be something I’d end up not wanting to do. It just so happens I wrote enough material and recorded enough demos, had Antony participate and got to put out a record. It’s all very lucky and exciting.
How did you get together with everybody else in the group? It seems like a pretty free-flowing kind of thing.
There is some sense to it. I became friends with Antony shortly after graduating from college — we met through mutual friends that were also artists. I was a big fan and wanted to help him out in whatever way I could — for awhile I was doing merchandise for him on tour. I’d play him music that I was writing. One day I just came in with a poem and asked him if he’d be interested in singing this song, and he was interested, so we went in two days later and recorded “Blind.” That happened five years ago, casually, just out of this friendship. Antony and I had many, many, many long serious nights conversing about art and music and disco and dance music. He’s a very passionate person and he knew how passionate I was, and so I think he was interested in participating because of that, too.
Kim Ann and I again met though other mutual friends: She was doing a party in New York at a place called the Hole and asked me to start DJ’ing for her. Just for fun, we started writing music specifically for the event. It was just a debaucherous night, and it was really fun. Kim Ann was doing so much more than what your average party planner or event thrower would do. They’d be projecting a film that 20 of the kids at the party made that week; we were doing performances, having people come and guest DJ. I think that the intention, the ambition, was a noble attempt at reviving nightlife, you know? So Kim Ann was hanging out all the time at my house. I just asked her to start singing, and so she did.
Nomi I met through Antony. I just had her come over and I was like, “I want to hear your voice on one of these songs I’ve been writing,” so she came and demo’d at my house. All the singers kind of came into place in a very casual, natural kind of way. Then the band just came in during the proper recording process — we really hit it off, had a lot in common, and formed good friendships based on that.
At this moment, it’s kind of an open-door thing. On the next record I plan on incorporating other voices and other musicians. It’s a very flexible and open, easy approach to it all. I like this idea that it’s bigger than just this fixed identity of four people. That’s also part of why it might be hard to understand initially as a consumer or something. I wanted to play with something bigger than just a band. I wanted it to be a concept or a project or something more fun and more mysterious, sort of like “Who’s on it now?” and “Who’s next?” and “There’s that person again.” Artistically and creatively it offers a lot to do it that way.
How does the group’s chemistry work?
It’s silly how good it works. We’re all on the same page in some regards — there’s not a McCain supporter amongst us [laughs]. There’s a certain base: We can all agree that it’d be fun to watch a Dario Argento movie, and there’s probably a beer of choice amongst the boys, and there’s a synergy, musical especially. On stage I think it works very well. And there’s an ease with which we all work together, which is remarkable, because we’ve been on the road for five months, and we’ve been in situations like this, in which the quarters are not terribly expansive, and it’s not like I won’t see Nomi 400 times a day [laughs]. I feel really fortunate that I have even-tempered, good people on the road. It’s good that the personalities work.
Musically, do you all come from the same place with influences and what you listen to?
In terms of the production on the record, it’s really solely my kind of aesthetic. For instance, amongst all of us, I’m the only one with a disco collection. Kim Ann comes from a clubbing background — she comes from San Francisco and classic house music, but she’s the only other person in the group who’s purely rooted in dance music. Horn players, keyboard — jazz musicians. Drummer plays primarily with jazz musicians. Nomi, her previous work and her own solo stuff takes the form of more of an R&B/pop/hip-hop sound, so she kind of comes from that angle. The bassist comes from a more indie-rock background. So it’s interesting, they all got it quick. But I was the one who was kind of like, “Guys, we’re going to play octave bass lines and do disco” [laughs]. And that was sort of my idea a little bit. We come from pretty diverse backgrounds, but it does work.
There’s obviously a heavy house/disco element to what you do — was that intentional or did you just find yourself gravitating toward that sound as you created music for yourself?
I started collecting disco records when I was 17. I got a bug. I just wanted to learn, learn, learn and collect all of it and learn the history of dance music. So, it sort of manifested itself in my own songwriting. I became more interested in this kind of classic sound and the sound of older instruments, rather than the sound of today’s newest drum machine or today’s newest synth. I started exploring authentic instruments, like a piano. Listening to as much disco and classic house music and singer-songwriters and new wave artists as I did, it definitely had an influence on what I was writing, but I didn’t set out to make a disco track necessarily, as much as I did.
It’s funny, there are maybe 25 different versions of “Blind” where I swapped out instruments, so there’s really electro-sounding versions of the song, there’s a really disco one — at one point there was a really, really distorted angry guitar version [laughs]. It’s shocking to think about in hindsight. It’s always about experimenting with songs. That’s another thing: The songs that ended up on the record, to me [they’re] just one version of those songs. There’s a million different ways that they could be realized, you know?
Do you try to mix that up when you play live, go back to some of the other ideas you had?
Yeah, I totally do. When it came down to do the live version, I was like, “All right, I want to stay true to the record. What should we do?” Then I was like, “This is going to be a pain in my ass if I try to stay true to the record. Let’s reimagine it.” And so I got kind of free with it, then I was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember on one of those versions, I did this part, so let’s put that in,” and “Oh yeah, on that old recording before it made it to the record, I can throw that part back in.” So I do revisit some of those ideas from the previous recordings.
Do you think the follow-up record will be in a completely different vein, or do you think it’ll still have that disco/house feel?
I’m a nightclubbing kid. I’m 30, [so] the golden days were coming to a close when I was just getting interested. Yeah, I will probably continue to write really rhythmic music that is at times directly intended to make people dance. But the process for me is a personal one, so it’s always going to be emotional and always going to take whatever form I feel compelled to. Like there’s quite a bit of soft, soft music that I’ve written in the past year, sort of taking cues from minimalist compositions and stuff, but still hooky, still poppy, so some of that stuff might make it on there. But yeah, I’m rooted in disco and house music, so I can’t imagine myself making music without a four-to-the-floor rhythm at least kind of being implied. I will eventually do a very, very extreme project, but it won’t be a Hercules and Love Affair project!
How did you get involved with DFA?
There was a producer Daniel Wang who lived in Berlin, who used to live in New York. I reached out to him a long time ago, because I was a fan of his. He was doing new disco probably starting in ‘95/’96, so that’s 12 years up on every other artist who’s doing disco nowadays. Back in the day, he was using old analog synthesizers, not using samples, trying to make disco music. So I was a huge fan and befriended him, and eventually I started playing him these demos I was working on. He said, “You need to call DFA; it’s the only label that makes sense for this.” [He] put in a word, I had a meeting, and they heard it and liked it.
Other than stuff coming off DFA and a few other pockets in the U.S., there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of innovation in dance music going on here. Would you agree with that?
I’m a little out of touch. For the longest time I just sort of gladly went in the other direction — time looped this way and I just moved that way. I started to say, “Oh, there’s a new record out? Gotta listen to that old one. . . .” It was old records, old records, old records. But in the past year I’ve been a little more plugged-in obviously, because I have to be. I think that there are a handful of artists in the country that seem to be exploring interesting stuff. The Portland, Oregon, kids. I’m not a fan of all of it, but I like some of the Glass Candy and Chromatics and that kind of disco-y stuff that Italians Do It Better has been putting out. I think that some of that stuff’s interesting. There’s a nice kind of cosmic sound in California that I can get into.
It’s interesting. We’re this huge country known for pioneering rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop, but I don’t know why there are so few dance artists coming out of the U.S. compared with Europe and Australia.
I would agree — I think dance music is more integrated into the mainstream in Europe. So yeah, you have tons and tons. I’m shocked that a little country like Belgium seems to put out so many interesting dance-music artists. I’ve been listening to so much new dance techno and stuff coming out of there I find quite nice. It’s true though, it’s quite spotty here — there isn’t much in the way of innovative dance music in America.
It seems like over the last couple of years, electro and dance music in general has been a bit more embraced, but it’s still not at the level that it is in other parts of the world. I think it is getting bigger, but the artists still aren’t coming from here.
I think that that’s an astute observation. I think that it’ll be interesting to see if it’s more and more embraced and if there end up being more and more young artists taking cues and trying to do it.
Maybe when we have a new president it’ll all change.
Seriously, what if that happens? What if all these amazing disco artists and house music and dance artists come out under Obama?
Were you surprised about how popular the record instantly became? Was there a lot of pressure once you realized that?
See, this is part of the thing that’s so great about when you just write music for writing music’s sake — that pressure stuff doesn’t really register. So many songs were written five years ago, like “Blind” or “Time Will” or “Hercules’ Theme,” and they’ve been sitting around in my house for years. When [the album] finally came out and people liked it, of course it was very thrilling and exciting, but at the same time it was like, Wow, it was really just done out of a labor of love, it was done for myself. The fact that someone likes it is great, but it wasn’t done for that purpose in the first place, to have people like it or have a critic say it’s good or anything. So it’s interesting. Initially I was like, “Oh shit, am I going to feel tons of pressure?” and “What if people hate it?”
When we were done producing the record, in my mind I knew that there was gonna be a fervent reaction from Antony fans [and] a fervent reaction from DFA fans, just because they’re intense loyal music freaks anyways. So those two factors alone, I knew that there would be some amount of response to it. Then I was like, “I wonder if people will like it. I wonder if people will hate it.” I’m glad people really liked it, but that kind of added pressure.
Did the pressure intensify when you had to start playing live?
It definitely hit me more when had to do it live, because we had to follow through, but I think thus far we’ve had a pretty good batting average. The live show has done well. There was a learning curve initially — it’s like eight musicians, some miked instruments, a lot of balancing the electronic and the live. There was a lot to try and figure out and learn, so initially I couldn’t be that hard on myself. I never imagined that we would have a live show — again, I didn’t imagine having a record out at some point. When I did have a record out, I was like, “I’m done, I don’t have to do anything else,” and they were like, “You have to do a live show.” I was like, “All that stuff, that was just trickery in the studio. I spent tons of time recording and layering and now we have to do that live?” So I had to kind of let go of the pressure, because it was such a daunting process in the first place. I shook that idea that we had to do it as perfectly as it was on the record and just embraced that it was going to be different, tried a bunch of different things, and after a couple months it got to a place where I feel like it’s pretty good now. But that added pressure, I do a decent job of shaking it off.
The fact that the band contains gay, lesbian and transgender members seems to be a focal point for a lot of people. Is it annoying that people even bring it up, or is it a good thing because it brings more awareness?
I’ve felt both ways, but initially I was like, “I don’t care.” It’s interesting, because I came out on a much different level. The coming-out process as a gay person never ends, you know? It’s not this thing that you just do and it’s done. Some people never have to come out on that next level, but I’ve been so comfortable and forward and upfront with my sexuality and who I am and my identity since I was 15. A lot of my record was about finding the strength in my being strong enough to assert who I was, and a lot of it is about finding strength in a feminine identity.
There’s a fair amount of feminist thought that ran through some of the songs, the music, the voices on the record. I wrote that discussion into the record, so I knew that it would come up, but at the same time I do think that it’s very silly to have to at this point mention that Kim Ann is a lesbian. [laughs] Who cares? It’s just dumb. It’s such an unnecessary detail, you know? And the whole Nomi thing — Nomi’s handled that situation as she wanted and she’s handled it beautifully. There’s an avid scrutiny when you’re putting yourself out there. I think the discussion does become a little tiresome, but I knew that it would happen. I mean, I’m not terribly affected by it.
Is it just in the U.S. that people seem focused on it?
No, other parts of the world have been just as bad, calling us a bunch of queers. [Laughs] But in a loving way.
What’s up next for you?
I am doing a little side project right now with a fellow producer who’s in Meat Beat Manifesto — Mark Pistel, who used to be in Consolidated and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. I’ve been working a lot with him in San Francisco and I love him, so I’m making kind of industrial-tinged dance music, really tasteful. And then working on the new Hercules album — maybe early summer; I have a lot of ideas laying around. When we’ve been on the road and have a day off, generally I book a studio and try to get in. So I’m not taking my days off, really, which many people around me are criticizing me for.
What’s the most surprising thing about Hercules and Love Affair?
Everyone in the band goes to bed before 8. That’s not true, but we’re the least party band in the world. We’re actually a very mellow, sweet kind of bunch of people, not very raucous.