Andy Butler is on the road to domestic bliss. The mastermind behind the disco collective Hercules & Love Affair is calling from Europe, en route to a house in a quiet part of Ghent, Belgium, that he shares with his partner and two “beautiful cats.” “I came here for love,” he says of first moving to the medieval Flemish city a little less than five years ago. “I was living in Brussels, met my partner in Ghent, spent a few days in a row with him, and a month later I came back and never left.” It has not been a straight line to get to this settled life. Indeed, after the breakout mania surrounding the self-titled debut album of Hercules & Love Affair in 2008 — when he began DJ’ing and performing all over the world — Butler, 39, wondered if he’d ever find a moment to slow down. “I felt like I was being dragged around on a leash, like a puppy dog. I’d get on a plane, find my seat, and just start crying. I had no sense of home life,” he says. “So I started to fight for one.”
Butler’s winding path toward peace is the subject of the beautiful new Hercules album, Omnion. Its eleven songs range in sound from light dancepop to grinding industrial, and, as always on a Hercules record, a wide variety of vocalists bring the songs to life. Hercules & Love Affair aren’t so much a band as an idea: For each album, Butler rotates in new singers, which have included Nomi Ruiz, CocoRosie, and Kim Ann Foxman. This time out, Sharon Van Etten and Faris Badwan of the Horrors are among those making appearances. But because it’s usually been someone else singing his songs, it can be easy to forget that the pathos and soul of the music come from Butler, who writes the words. “I process all my emotions in my lyrics,” he says. As he shows on Omnion, he understands better than most that, though the club is often presented as a liberated, utopic place of abandon, the truth is that for people who spend most of their free time on the dance floor, the nightlife experience is filled with as many moods as life is: happiness, sadness, pride, shame, the thrill of conquest, the misery of rejection. “I find dance artists don’t want to provoke a feeling outside of ‘lose yourself,’ ” he says. “I like the idea of playing with sadness on the dance floor. Or anger. To inject a little bit of rage.”
The keystone track on Omnion is “Fools Wear Crowns,” a song that Butler says is about his lifelong struggle with addiction, and the only track on the album that he sings himself: “I’m a fool when I’ve been drinking/I’m glad that I didn’t today.” Butler has a family predisposition to addiction and first got clean at 21 years old when he was living in New York, working as a waiter and DJ’ing around town. But by the time his musical career took off some years later, he was abusing benzos, opiates, and alcohol to ease performance anxiety and the disruptive schedule and demands of an artist’s life. He became sober again about five years ago.
“That song is a step toward humility, a process that is unending. It’s an admission that I’m going to fumble — and I have fumbled. There’s more use in me raising my hand and acknowledging that than denying it,” he says. In a recent confessional interview with Pitchfork’s Matthew Schnipper, he details the time he had a drug-related seizure onstage and “bit [his] tongue in half,” the night he became the victim of sexual assault after inviting the wrong people into his hotel room, and various ER visits, overdoses, and near-death experiences. “It started to unravel,” he says. “It’s really easy to lose a center when you are in this profession.”
Butler has been crafting music in one way or another since he was a kid. He grew up in Denver, enduring what he calls a “chaotic childhood.” He started fumbling around on the piano and, at around nine years old, began memorizing the little songs he made up and playing them over and over, adding in new elements until they became compositions. “I had a big family, lots of boys, always a ruckus. I was really shy and creative and always kind of keeping to myself,” he says.
At some point, he was gifted a Casio SJ1 — “the first synth that every kid had” — and by his college years was enrolled in an electronic music curriculum at Sarah Lawrence. Around this time, he met Anohni, then Antony of Antony of the Johnsons, whose haunting, melancholic voice would define Hercules’s first album and lay the framework for the emotionally complex dance music that would make the group famous. His work quickly caught the ear of iconic dance label DFA Records, which put out Hercules’s debut, led by the popular Antony-sung single “Blind,” which epitomized Butler’s ability to make insatiable dance music that also had a brain and a heart. “Now that I’m older/The stars shed light upon my face/But when I find myself alone/I feel like I, I am blind,” Antony sang.
Butler began DJ’ing and performing across the globe, and his off-kilter music quickly became ubiquitous on dance floors, a sexy international soundtrack that mapped perfectly onto a newly emergent generation of worldly, alternative gay men, hipsters who traveled from Berlin to Barcelona to Brooklyn and who wanted to party, but maybe weren’t satisfied by the conventional Britney-filled mixes that saturated mainstream clubs. The same thing that made him a loner as a kid had finally helped Butler locate his place as an adult, and also turned him into a kind of an underground gay icon, the patron saint and symbol of an emergent subversive queer culture, symbolized by influential grungy pink magazine BUTT and dingy gay bars like The Cock. “I learned to embrace my outsiderness. I’m OK being on the fringe,” he says. “Hercules feels like a motley crew. The whole process throughout my life has been finding other outsiders and creating an inside.”
With so many different vibes, from the aggressive to tender, from sexual to introspective, Omnion is the sound of Butler having fun and seeing where his skills can take him. But the best proof of his hard-won contentment is in the man himself. He is a little trepidatious about hitting the road to promote the new album, as touring exacerbated many of his problems in the past. He calls it a lingering, as-of-yet unanswerable question, how he will deal sober with the world that conjured all of his demons.
“I have a ton of people around me who value my health,” he says. “I think having even the most modest positive impact on my surroundings is enough for the moment.” It is often said, almost to the point of cliché, that gay men are drawn to disco and the divas who sing it because it is a music of perseverance and strength. On Omnion, Butler has breathed new oxygen into this bromide, making a true soundtrack of survival. “When you’re born into this world and you realize early on that you are different, it can be really psychologically terrifying and terrorizing. That’s an aspect of the queer identity we all go through, and navigating it is really a challenge. Maybe it makes sense why suicide rates are as high as they are for queer and trans people,” he says. “When you know you need to assert yourself to live authentically, but you are doing it in the face of harm, there is a survival aspect.” After all, he did endure: Butler made it to the other side, and hanging up the phone from that highway in Europe, he’s quite literally headed there right at this moment, to the little house in a quiet part of Ghent with a man he loves and two beautiful cats.