Four years ago, New York DJ Andy Butler began writing songs that harkened back to the sweat, carnal bliss, and escapism of the 1970s dance underground, then humbly “dragging” his friends into the studio to sing them. Antony Hegarty, who had yet to rocket to indie stardom with Antony and the Johnsons, dropped by to sing over a horn-driven stargazing number that would eventually be called “Blind.” Wrapping each verse in his androgynous, velvet-cushioned voice, he enticed listeners to let their minds and bodies drift into the track’s eerie, Gino Soccio-style disco groove. This was disco without the kitsch, recalling the cultural and sexual outer limits the genre explored before John Travolta and “Disco Duck” crashed the party.
After hearing the track, DFA ringleader James Murphy was so taken by the project, called Hercules and Love Affair, that he greenlighted an entire album. Quickly, Butler went from being a bedroom producer carrying on Arthur Russell’s legacy, to leading an entire band, which now consists of three vocalists–Hegarty (who does not tour with them), Nomi Ruiz, and Kim Ann Foxman–and a slew of players, including a two-man horn section, a live drummer and bassist, and Shayne, a dancer straight who could be straight out of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 voguing film, Paris Is Burning.
Though the group quietly debuted in September 2007, when DFA released their acid-house flashback single “Classique #2,” the explosion following the January release of “Blind” was intense. The single amassed a feverish buzz in Europe after it soundtracked the Chanel and Versace runway shows during Autumn/Winter ’08 Fashion Week. A video for the song–featuring British actress Jamie Winstone being lured into a bacchanalian Roman orgy–sent U.K. media into a frenzy. All this, coupled with underground club buzz and a remix by house legend Frankie Knuckles, led to tickets for this month’s overseas debut, at London’s SoHo Review Theater, being sold out months in advance. “I didn’t expect anything less,” Ruiz says nonchalantly about the reaction.
Aside from the fact that it “just has a nice disco ring to it,” Hercules and Love Affair’s unique name is inspired by Butler’s childhood love of Greek myths. “They were my fairy tales,” he recalls. “I almost, to some degree, believed in all of it.” Later he would come across stories of Hercules’ gay love affairs, notably a tragedy where he lost his lover, Hylas. “He’s wandering this island looking for him in total despair,” he says. “I thought that this was a beautiful image of the strongest man on Earth feeling his emotions to the fullest and feeling the most vulnerable at that moment.”
Strong yet vulnerable, danceable, decadent: all apt adjectives for the group’s debut, which is spookily faithful to the sounds of ’70s underground disco and ’80s house. The nuances of classic Chicago trax come alive on “You Belong,” where Ruiz’s R&B-seasoned voice gently floats out of the club speakers and weaves between fragments of melancholic synth riffs and backwards-looped machine beats. Foxman leads the locked, bass-oiled groove of “Athene,” which recalls trance-inducing space-outs created by Arthur Russell’s Loose Joints band somewhere in the back of storied NYC venue The Kitchen. And then there are the Loft-era strains of “Hercules Theme,” where Ruiz announces the ancient Greek hero’s entrance into the discotheque amid hustling orchestral string flourishes and live brass stabs.
Herculean arcs of melancholy haunt the record as well; lovesickness fills songs like the confrontational album opener “Time Will” and the fractured electro ballad “Easy.” “My music is about growing up and coming into an adult being,” explains Butler, who writes many of his lyrics about events of his youth. “My records are very personal. At moments [my music] does address being a gay man and growing up as a gay man.” But Butler also attributes the album’s power to the unique timbre of Hegarty’s vocals. “Antony is a presence with a specific voice that a lot of people have latched onto,” he explains. “He speaks for a lot of people who struggle and he offers a voice for people in between different orientations.”
No Way Back
Album co-producer Tim Goldsworthy–the DFA mastermind who has worked with The Rapture, Cut Copy, and LCD Soundsystem–says Hercules’ music recalls early disco’s interest in art, dance, and pushing boundaries. “There was a sense of freedom and experimentation, while keeping in mind that it has to make people dance and feel good at the end of the day,” he states. Goldsworthy was a particularly perfect engineering partner, thanks to his knowledge of how dance music from different eras was performed and produced. The ’80s sounds heard in “You Belong,” for example, were made using era-specific samplers, Roland drum machines, and the classic Yamaha DX-100 synth. “The whole thing could’ve been made in 1986,” Goldsworthy says.
“[Back then], they made things [with the thought] in mind that they were instruments,” says Goldsworthy, extolling the virtues of vintage gear. “Now stuff is made in the same way that they make a video recorder. It’s just a box with buttons rather than something you play with, it’s not as much fun. With the stuff from back in the day, even when it sounded shit, it sounded a lot better than the new stuff today.”
A Family Affair
Goldsworthy says that Hercules’ real secret weapon is the “years of knowledge” its members have amassed. Butler began DJing at the age 15 at a gay bar in his native Denver. He then moved to Brooklyn, and went on to host the NYC party series Cazzo Pazzo, where house and techno DJs like Derrick Carter and John Selway were required to play their best dusty disco records. The party was a reflection of the way Butler was drawn to disco in the first place: through house DJs who threw disco into their sets at the night’s end. He recalls a pivotal party in a living room where San Francisco house pioneer DJ Garth “played four hours of music, nothing newer than 1983.”
Ruiz, whose dusky vocals remind of Trax Records diva Xaviera Gold (of “You Used to Hold Me” fame), is a singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and CocoRosie. Ruiz, who grew up on hip-hop in Brooklyn, was a club kid throughout the ’90s, dancing the night away to Latin and tribal house. “I was addicted to being lost in the sirens, live congas, flashing lights, smoke machines, and sweat,” she recalls. “People really took their time to get dressed, create a scene, [and] represent where they came from. It’s a vision of nightlife that I hope to see in New York again. It’s definitely the spirit I’m going to be bringing when I’m onstage.”
Kim Ann Foxman, whose high, airy tones are a unique counter to Nomi’s deeper notes, is a Hawaiian-born DJ and jewelry-maker. She met Butler when he played her lesbian dance party, Mad Clams, held at infamous East Village bar The Hole; the two made “silly” background videos and original songs for the parties, many of which were themed. Foxman, a fan of strange disco and underground house, pines for the let-it-all-hang-out spirit of the disco era, though she is too young to have experienced it. “I just wish that people danced like they did then, with no guard up because [they] were really feeling the music,” she says.
Tour drummer Guy Licata, who has played with Bill Laswell and Santogold, says that what makes the group remarkable is its diversity. “All of us are invested and all breathe life into this thing, whether it’s in the studio or taking it out live. We can all relate in one way or another to Andy’s vision and his art, and are inspired by it regardless of our own life experiences.”
“It’s not like it’s just a couple of gay people with a studio session band,” notes Butler of the pansexual disco tribe he’s united. “[The other musicians are] an intricate and creative part. A group of people getting together and communicating in spirit in song and celebration–that’s what happens when people make disco.”
“I sincerely love disco music,” he continues. “I revere it. It’s a style of music that really embraced and championed musicians. And it’s about expressing yourself to the fullest and not having any shame. It’s about getting people together to dance.”
Groove is in the Heart
A few Herculeans share their disco and house influences.
“I tried to evoke Deborah Harry when singing ‘Hercules Theme.’ She was probably the first voice I heard over disco. She’s my first everything.”
Kim Ann Foxman
“My inspiration comes a lot from house music. Paris Grey [of Inner City] is legendary, and Lady Miss Kier [of Deee-Lite] gave me some advice and encouragement and that meant a lot to me because I was a huge fan of hers.”
“Truth be told, I got into dance music via jungle/drum & bass and breakbeat culture. I eventually got into disco through drummers. I’m an enormous Steve Gadd fan. He played on an incredible amount of records, including Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle.’ He’s said to have ‘invented’ the disco beat, and I really don’t doubt it.”