You’d never know it from his press photos, but Andy Butler is a big softy. The world knows him as the head and heart of DFA giants Hercules and Love Affair, but he’s also recognizable for his penetrating stare and imposing physique–and you’d imagine him to be a curt, monosyllabic beast.
He’d have reason to be less than friendly these days. Butler recently cancelled Hercules and Love Affair’s Coachella appearance, and with its members splintering off into separate groups, there are whispers, growing louder by the day, that this band is no more. But Hercules and Love Affair was never really a band in the first place, and Butler is a DJ first and foremost–which brings him to Hammerstein Ballroom this Friday, July 3 for Firecracker with Victor Calderone and Steve Lawler. Reason enough to get him on the phone from San Francisco, where he’s recently relocated and happily, effusively spoke with us about writing the new Hercules & Love Affair album, his forthcoming mix CD Sidetracked for super-serious techno label Renaissance Records, and disco edits.
You know I have to ask about the state of Hercules and Love Affair. You guys cancelled your Coachella appearance, and everybody is slowly starting to form their own little subgroups (Jessica 6/Deep Red, Midnight Magic). What’s going on?
[laughs] The situation is, for the next record, I’m involving a whole handful of new artists, and that’s how it was going to be, always. There are a lot of artists I want to work with. Kim-Ann [Foxman], [vocalist] Nomi [Ruiz], all the kids that were working with me on the first record and the tours, they’ve started doing their own stuff. Nomi has her band, [bassist] Andrew [Raposo] and [keyboardist] Morgan [Wiley] have their own band…
So it was more of a press misconception? Like, this solo project that happened to have a live touring band got cast more as a band when it wasn’t?
Yeah. I mean, these are guest artists. Like, someone like Kim-Ann [Foxman] is potentially ever-present; she and I have a long friendship and a long-standing creative collaboration. The other artists like Antony and Nomi both have solo careers, and when they went into it, they knew they had solo careers and that they would be doing their own thing. So basically, the vocalists are Kim-Ann and a whole new batch of people that I’ve worked with at various points…I’m co-producing with a new producer. The whole scenery has changed.
By the end of last year, Hercules and Love Affair was the poster child for disco’s comeback. Entertainment Weekly called “Blind” the #2 single of 2008. Have those kinds of things have affected your thinking about this next album?
To be totally honest, I take all those things into account. I think about those kinds of things. I’d be lying if I said, “Oh, y’know, sophomore album, I’m not thinking about what anyone’s thinking!” But truth be told, I write what I write, and I have to embrace that and leave people their own expectations. There are some pieces of music that’ll be coming out on my next record that aren’t dance music.
So get ready, America!
[laughs] They’re songs, y’know? I’m more just kind of interested in writing songs. And I think on the first record people thought there was a kind of schizophrenia going on, and there might be even more of that this time around. When I DJ, I know there are kids that come hoping to hear only obscure disco, or ALL this-or-that, classic house or whatever. But that’s why you go hear a DJ. You’re not going out to put money in a jukebox! [laughs]
There was defiance in there, in case you didn’t catch that! [laughs]
This mix CD you’re releasing, Sidetracked, is actually the first in a series for Renaissance. It’s designed to give musicians who are already in bands a chance to show off their DJ skills and tastes. You were the perfect choice, because really, you’re a DJ first and foremost. It must be nice to finally get a chance to helm an official mix, especially for a big-time heavy label like Renaissance.
It is. Because over the years, [though] I’ve DJed primarily. I was always writing songs, even before this project, I would hunt and collect music for months at a time, and then I would shift focus completely and not even listen to music for a while. I would just write music, usually for a month or two, or even longer, and then I’d want to go back to buying music that was inspirational or interesting to me, or that I would play out. So I kept flip-flopping, and over the years, I got to collect a lot of music. And just as any music fan does, I have that burning desire to find more, you know? Find side projects, find aliases; “Oh this artist worked under this alias!” I’ve always been very interested in that regard. So when they gave me the opportunity to put the comp together, I thought, “Oh, fun! I get to compile all these records that I’ve been so crazy about for however long.”
It’s interesting that you have to separate those two phases of creating and collecting. Do you use that creative period as an opportunity to address the stuff that really spoke to you during your last period of hunting?
Yeah, I think it’s more digesting the stuff that made me so crazy. You know how when you find an album you can’t stop listening to, you’ll listen to it six times in a row. But then a few days later, you’ll just think, “I don’t really feel like listening to music today. I have an urge to create.” So then I start to write. I really force myself not to listen to music at all, but I think what ends up happening is you hear the influence of what had been going on with me in the few months previous or whatever. But I think I’ve managed to put away other people’s music for a while and say, “Okay! It’s only harmonies and melodies and rhythms and songs that I create!” And it would just go for as long as it would go for. But lately it’s gotten more confusing, and we’ll see what the writing process brings for me now, because I’m in the midst of, well…It’s not as easily turned off, you know? I don’t have that luxury anymore.
Yeah, you’ve got a ton of extra responsibilities and pressures now.
Exactly. I have to DJ every weekend, so it’s like, “Gottathinkaboutplayingrecordsgottafindnewrecordsgottafbppblblbgah!” And I’m in the process of writing this new record right now, and it’s been…it’s been interesting. And challenging.
Tell me a bit about “I Can’t Wait.” This is an exclusive track you’ve included on this Sidetracked mix, and it’s a lot more aggressive and defiant than anything on Hercules and Love Affair.
It’s funny you should comment on that. In the process of writing new material, there’s been a lot of different emotional content that wasn’t there for the previous record. This year was a really blessed year for me, and I’ve had so much opportunity and so much fun, and I’ve had some things that were exciting, but I kinda tapped into anger a little bit during the writing process, which I kind of loved. I love when singers emote, and when you have a singer belting angrily, it can be as provocative as when they’re sad and ripping their hearts out or even super joyful.
It’s an exciting change of pace for you, then.
Yeah, it is! And I’ve written a couple songs mining that territory. But sonically, as well, it has a little more chunky, more muscular feel to it. It was one of those things, you know, where I wrote it with this compilation kind of in the back of my head. And Kim-Ann, who does vocals on this record, she’s kind of the other DJ in Hercules, [we] even before the album came out last time, put out a 12″ called “Classique,” with a B-side called “Roar.” And it had a real club-oriented, deep, dark kind of feel to it. So this was kind of an opportunity to say, “Hey, let’s do that again! Let’s do something that has more of that aggro-club feel to it.”
I was struck by the fact that, in this mix’s notes, you mentioned that you have an emotional attachment to each of the songs included. I feel like that’s pretty rare for official mix CDs, which tend to be just marketing tools. What does a song like “Weekend,” by Todd Terry Project, for example, mean to you?
I think “Weekend” is a good example of a track that I heard initially which brought me further into disco. A lot of the songs on the compilation are sort of like techno-house songs that feature disco samples heavily. Or, in the case of “Weekend,” a remake of a disco song, done in a more house-y style. And what I was going for, selecting those kinds of songs, was saying that, even as early as 10 years after the fact, artists were referencing disco music and other artists…I guess I was trying to speak to how dance music can conjure up, for me at least, almost this obsession with figuring out where those samples came from. Or in the case of “Weekend,” I knew I’d heard that song in another context, or in another way: “Why do I know this?! What is this about? I need to figure this out!” And then it’s like, “Oh, Patrick Adams wrote this song, and Todd Terry did a remake of it.” That’s the big conceptual aspect of it.
Given this fascination with getting to the bottom of where all those snippets come from, how do you feel about re-edits? They’ve been around forever, but recently disco re-edits–
…have become very popular.
Bizarrely, inexplicably popular! Do you think those have a similar kind of power? I personally don’t. It seems to me, as often as not, they take the magic out of the original. I know I’m speaking generally here, and that’s always dangerous, but what’s your take on how re-edits figure into that interconnected, shadowy world that dance music offers?
[laughs] I’m kind of on your side when it comes to this. Usually with edits, the bulk of a song–you know, chord progression, etc–has been removed. And for me, as you said the magic, comes from the journey, the questions being answered, the melodies, the progression of a track, or of a song, I should say. And what a lot of these edits do is take out a lot of the bigger musical moments and leave sort of a minimal groove. Which, I mean, in and of itself, may work on dancefloors, and I get that. But for me, I’m more captivated by the drama and magic that disco music has.
I’ve heard disco DJs complain that a lot of the newer DJs who have come up through the electro scene don’t have a very deep relationship to the music they’re playing. Again, I know generalizations are tough, but what do you think about that?
I feel like I’ve always felt that way. Since I was first going to warehouse parties, it was easy for me to decide, “These are the DJs that I like, and these are the DJs that I don’t [like].” The DJs that I liked were the ones who maybe weren’t playing the freshest cut, the hottest “thing.” I mean, they were always on top of their shit, but sometimes they were throwing classic things into the mix, or they were doing things that pushed against the conceptions of taste. So therefore, you’d think, “Oh this guy thinks about what he’s doing. He’s playing to keep everybody on their toes,” as opposed to a DJ who’s just playing the newest stuff and the biggest stuff, thinking, “Oh that’ll get the crowd off!”
But then again, I try not to think too much about taste and stuff, because it might mean something to them that I might not get. Like, for me, it’s hard to go hear a full minimal techno set. And some people think those guys are just genius, y’know? And they might be. I can’t say that they’re not. But it’s hard for me, because it doesn’t speak to me all that much, but there might be something very deep in there that they have some real connection to. Some people might get off on simple simple sine waves, y’know? But I’m a little different.