IN CONVERSATION WITH HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR
As Hercules and Love Affair, Andy Butler has long made music that sounds gloriously out of step with the present moment—drawing from the rich past of electronic music while pushing his work to new, unexplored vistas. In Amber, the fifth Hercules and Love Affair album and first in five years, represents the largest leap forward yet for Butler’s long-running project. A shocking break from the lush dance music of records past, In Amber is an up-close-and-personal statement that encompasses atmospheric pop, jagged industrial textures, and ornate primeval folk. It’s an album that stares uncertainty straight in the face, the most fearless music that Butler’s put together to date.
“Across this record, there are emotional fields I hadn’t ventured into previously with Hercules & Love Affair,” says Butler. “Destruction, rage, loss, but also redemption and journeying towards empowerment are all touchstones on the album. It has taken years to make, but I am happy to put it forward now, at a moment in time where we have all been confronted with such heightened feelings collectively and on an unprecedented scale”, Andy says.
Reuniting with Anohni for the first time since her turn on the eponymous debut in 2008, In Amber reflects this wide swathe of emotion and sound. “In some ways, In Amber is a record I didn’t know I had in me. From singing out to derailing some of the arrangements for more impact – Anohni definitely pulled much of it out of me.”
What has shaped and influenced you over the past years, and what issues and topics concerned you the most?
Let’s talk about the fact that we are swamped with so much information, that we have access to so much information, and that we can share so much by consequence, and then we end up finding ourselves sharing misinformation. When I was growing up, the news came out via respected journals, not always, obviously, you had some lousy gossip papers. But generally, the news was coming from journalists who studied journalism, they were vetted and abided by a code of ethics, and they made sure the facts they were presenting, were trustworthy. It just sort of eroded, and once the Internet came into our lives, we all of a sudden had Wikipedia and access to all of these databases. We were all given a chance to amplify our voices, using social media tools, and sharing these pieces of information or misinformation, things became more or less, much more chaotic, it created a lot more distrust and it just felt destabilizing. In Amber, and also Poisonous Storytelling, that song in particular, really speaks to this destabilization and the fact that you have to be careful with new narratives. Everyone is rotted from Poisonous Storytelling. I’m telling this in my own words – but the fact that you can’t trust this new version of history that’s being told to you on a news channel, or that’s funded and sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and advertisers, and not question it. We’re all getting used to seeing things that are sometimes just flat-out untrue. We have to be careful with new narratives. Because we’ve now been dealing with years of being confronted with manipulation, essentially the manipulation of the media and social media has been a big disruption in this way.
What’s the story behind ’Poisonous Storytelling’?
Anohni, as an artist has been someone who I’ve known for over 20 years, we’re like family at this point. But she’s always been someone who seems to name things that aren’t being named, she’s putting words to things that aren’t being talked about. And I feel like with Poisonous Storytelling she also has this really magical way of doing it, where she uses like two or three words, and it will conjure a huge idea. For instance, “eroticized disease”, just those two words conjure so much in the mind, like what is that? The listener could interpret that in many ways, but to my ears, I hear it as some people are selling a pheromone, there’s a fetishization of being unwell almost. There are many ways to interpret it, but she strings along these, very, very powerful three or four-word phrases, which conjure these sentiments. Poisonous Storytelling is definitely one that is asking you to question, literally in the lyric in the chorus, is saying, we have to be careful with new narratives because everyone’s writing it out by Poisonous Storytelling. You have to question what’s being put in front of you. And she speaks to a lot of very significant matters, especially, she’s been a champion of environmentalism, and she’s been very, very concerned with ego collapse. That is being addressed in the song, but also, how these things are all so interconnected. For instance, you can’t talk about the subjugation of women without talking about the collapse of the earth, like the two things are related. And I’m just lucky enough to have had a collaborator who has so much insight and such a magical way with lyrics, and that she brought that much to the table when it came to the song itself.
What are the core elements of the sounds of your new album?
Well, it’s maybe hard to define, in a few words, but I would say that the sound of the new album is sort of veering from extremes. So there is something very organic about it, I did mention that there’s a very powerful live drum presence. But I, of course, I’m an electronic musician, first and foremost. So I manipulated a lot of sounds in ways that I didn’t before. So there’s a much heavier, bigger darker drum and synthetic sound to the record. So parts of the record feel like totally chaotic with overdriven, distorted synths, and huge drum sounds. And then other parts of the record sound, incredibly, still, and intimate, and that kind of naturally happened because the songs Anohni is on, for the most part, speak to a different emotion. There’s a different sort of expressiveness on those songs than on the songs I’m singing on. Grace is the first single that we put out from the album. And it was the most up-tempo song that I sing, and the rest of it is also filled with really delicate moments. Very quiet. It’s still strings. Lots of space and ambiance and mood. And I guess it’s quite a journey. It’s definitely one of the buried records I think I’ve made in terms of the Sonic World and the emotional landscapes.
Where did you get your inspiration for ’In Amber’?
You’ve seen parts of Antwerp, which are really Medieval, and in Amsterdam, it’s the same way. The city I live in is very medieval, or very much architecturally an ancient world. I literally live in a neighborhood that’s only cobblestones with homes from the 16th and 17th centuries. And there are these cathedrals that are looming, they’re beautiful cathedrals, a number of them all in a row. Ghent has an incredible skyline of these buildings from a long, long time ago, and I definitely was inspired by the spirit of my surrounding. I’m learning a lot more about Belgian culture and Belgian history and just the history of Europe and bringing myself back to imagining myself at moments, hundreds of years ago in the city. And that was kind of part of the process of making this record. There are a lot of really incredibly serene and beautiful, but also very gloomy and dark parts of the city. I mean, most people when they think of that medieval city in Belgium, they think about Bruges. Bruges and Ghent. They’re very, in some ways similar in the way they look. So I can’t say that my surroundings didn’t inspire me. I started to listen to and learn a lot more about this kind of darker pop music that was coming out of Belgium, in the 80s. It was very artful and very inspiring. So there were artists from Brussels called Les Disques du Crépuscule. And they had, just all of these interesting artists that had a noir kind of elements to the music that they made. But there was a dreaminess and darkness, but also a classicism. So for instance, there’s a classical musician called Wim Mertens. And when Mertens was releasing music with Les Disques du Crépuscule, it was this darker period of pop music and a very experimental period of Belgian pop music. That was, also an inspiration for me. I would also say that, as you can see on my wall, it’s a lithograph from a female surrealist called Leonor Fini. And I started to absorb. I started to learn more about and get very interested in surrealism, but specifically the sort of late surrealism. Dealing with dreams, mortality, and death. This notion of waking life, and the sort of non-waking life, was very inspiring and interesting to me.
What inspires you in life?
I would say that there are two things, I at least, always try to integrate into my daily life. And one of those things is some amount of self-reflection or spiritual practice. And that’s a hard one. Because often I just want to get up and get out of bed and just watch something dumb on YouTube, but I really have tried to create discipline around putting myself in a space at the beginning of my day of self-reflection and spiritual practice. And so reading and learning got very important to me, and I’ve gotten more and more involved in that. I found a community that also is sort of doing a similar practice. And that’s a big part of my everyday process and the things that matter to me. And then the other thing that I would say really has helped me especially because I’ve been open about the fact that I’ve had mental health and sort of substance abuse problems in the past, is that I tried to have a regimented routine around physical fitness. So I’ve been learning a lot of martial arts. I now study, Jujitsu, and I study Muay Thai and English boxing. I’ve gotten in the past four years very interested in just the discipline around that sort of stuff. And it’s been great for me, because it’s taught me a lot of discipline, it’s taught me a lot of humility. It’s taught me a lot, you lose, and you win, and you lose. And this is the nature of life, so you adapt, and you grow. But then, outside of that, I love looking for old things. And I also, I don’t know how many of us during the corona period, started doing new things. But I started making jewelry. And that’s something I really love doing. Because I can get lost for hours, just making jewelry. And I wanted to start sewing so my mom gave me one lesson. But it didn’t go very well. We made one shirt, which is a little crazy. Also, I started drawing more. And I guess there’s another really big obvious thing – I started writing, like, literally really started writing fiction. And I have my sights set on publishing or realizing a work of fiction that I’ve been writing for the past couple of years.
What are you most proud of and grateful for?
I’m most proud of the fact that I’m opening up more, and I’m realizing the ability and natural capacity that I have to give. To be less selfish. I think that has taken a long time. But I feel like, finally I’m just seeing the floodgates of, what I already know, is inside of me, which is the ability to love more. I think that didn’t come without having to do some work if you know what I mean. Because, I could walk around being focused on work all the time, or I could just walk around, focused on, my own needs, and my own thing, and it’s been a lot less like that than it’s ever been in my life. So I’m just proud and proudest, in some ways that I’m growing up. I feel like that’s kind of what growing up is, learning to really honor and acknowledge other people and value them just as much as you value yourself. It takes effort. It does sort of take work, but I would say that’s probably the thing I’m the most personally proud of, and still I have a lot of work to do.
What can we expect from your live show?
The project Hercules has changed, as it’s evolving all the time, and it’s involving so many people, every record kind of features, a wide array of vocalists, or even just different sounds. I’ll start to explore a different sound, whatever direction the sort of sound and nature of the project has moved into, it kind of requires that the show represented us appropriately. So with the new album, it’s much more organic in some ways, there’s a lot of live drumming, and across the whole record, played mostly on the record. Mostly by Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees, and that alone, that sort of big drum sound was something that I definitely wanted to incorporate into the new show. So you may know, five years ago, I was touring with a purely electronic set. We were only working with electronics, drum machines, sequencers, and vocalists. And now on stage, we’ll have three vocalists myself included, but I’m on the guitar, and violin, someone playing violin guitar, we have pianos keyboardist, we have live drums. There’s a so much bigger production. We’re six on stage. It’s just reflective of where the sound has gone and where the project is gone. And I wanted to be able to represent the new material. I wanted to properly represent it, but I also wanted to interpret the old music with this new live band. So a lot of the old music is being reworked, in some ways darker, it’s moodier, but it’s very live.
Interview by MAGDALENA ROE
Catch Andy touring across Europe, where he plays a stellar live show, accompanied by Budgie, from Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Creatures fame, and many other great artists.
Upcoming Tour Dates: July 8 (DJ) San Francisco (US) – Rhonda July 29 (LIVE) Floreffe (BE) – Esperanzah! Festival August 6 (LIVE) Copenaghen (DK) – Stella Polaris August 8 (LIVE) Prizren (KS) – Dokufest August 10 (LIVE) Hamburg (DE) – Kampnagel August 13 (LIVE) Riehen (CH) – Fondation Beyeler Sommerfest September 10 (LIVE) London (UK) – HERE September 16 (LIVE) Burgos (ES) – San Miguel Tribu Festival