Little White Earbuds Interviews Andy Butler

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Live photos by One Dragones

Many dance music artists are aptly described as producers, but when discussing Andy Butler the titles of songwriter or composer come to mind. He’s the brains behind Hercules & Love Affair, an ambitious project whose 2008 self-titled debut dropped jaws and shook asses with thoroughly composed, soul-baring disco/house hybrids. Tunes like the Antony-fronted club smash “Blind” or the wickedly propulsive “You Belong” illustrate an approach that is mindful of tradition without being shackled to history; the desire to create something new with disco and house templates is plainly apparent. H&LA is also a full band with whom Butler embarked on world tour in 2008; try to imagine your favorite house producer undertaking such a feat. These days he’s spending more time DJing (which has yielded the recently released Sidetracked mix CD for Renaissance) and writing the second Hercules & Love Affair album. We caught up with Butler by phone at his San Francisco apartment in anticipation of his appearance at NYC’s Electric Zoo festival. He filled us in on the sound of album number two, his take on contemporary production styles, and the vanishing influence of gay people in dance music culture.

Tell me a little bit about how the Sidetracked mix for Renaissance Recordings came about.

Andy Butler: They contacted me to start of the series they’re doing that’s, to my understanding, band members who also play records compiling mixes for the label. I knew Renaissance, I’ve known the name for a long time. I always associated it with the big room prog-house sound of…

[At which point the phone goes dead. Trying not to suspect Renaissance ninjas, I called back and the interview resumed.]

Along the lines of associating Renaissance with progressive house, I was curious if you had considered doing mixes for other labels like DFA or someone a bit more underground? I was just a bit surprised your first mix was for such a huge label. Not that you’re not huge, but…

(laughs) Yeah, yeah. There had been talks with some other underground labels about doing a comp, and I think timing was bad. I was touring, I was on the road with the band for the most part. So when this came about, it was like, ‘Oh, I actually am off the road, I’m kind of working on the new album and DJing a lot, so maybe this is a good opportunity.’ Renaissance did have quite a presence in the early and mid-90’s, you know? For me, I come from club culture, I come from dance music, I come from house music. So it was kind of fun and flattering for a label like that to ask me. Kind of felt like, wow, that’s really throwback. I remember the days of first buying records and hearing about Renaissance, so it was an honor to be asked by them.

When was the new Hercules & Love Affair track on the mix recorded?

Over the past six months. The bulk of the album has been written over the last… well, that’s not true. Maybe 75% of it has really been written over the last six to twelve months.

So it sounds like it’s near complete, or at least formulated as to what you want to do. Is that true?

Yeah, I mean I have a lot of — I call them sketches at this point. I have a lot of songs that are quite developed and a lot of the music done, so I’m pretty far along, yeah. With the initial production phase. But there’s a lot of finessing that has to get done.

I read in an interview you thought some of the tracks on the mix had a tech-house sort of feel; and that made me wonder, with you DJing a lot now are you keeping up with the new underground house and techno being released?

To a degree.

Because it looked like many of the tracks were older.

Yeah, to a degree I do. The new productions that really speak to me… I generally do have a particular taste. When it comes to contemporary production styles and stuff, it has to suggest that the artist is rooted in the tradition. I like it when it evokes a classic classic sound, which I guess is quite predictable coming out of my mouth. I don’t really get into tricky new production styles, and a lot of contemporary tech-house and music that might be available on dance music websites and stuff is so homogeneous sounding. You know what I mean? I don’t want to play filler, that’s something I can’t really get into.

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Who are some of your contemporaries you do admire?

Well I threw a couple of them on the mix. Obviously In Flagranti are probably one of my biggest inspirations and one of the artists currently making music that I really, really dig. And not just because they come from a cosmic disco background; they do something really aggressive and different with it. Of course Danny Wang, but he really hasn’t been releasing much, has he? Hard to call him a contemporary artist. Also Deetron is another artist in terms of the techno side of things, I really enjoy what he does. I’ve recently come into some Pete Herbert records I really enjoy.

A lot of dance music has moved away from songwriting in the last decade, and I wondered if you’d venture a guess as to why a “tracky” style has replaced the songwriting style, like what you’re doing?

I can only hypothesize. I think that it depends also on the kind of club you’re going to, the genre you’re interested in. I think a lot of more overground, overblown dance music, more main stream dance music is intended for just creating a sexy vibe, a sexy environment for people who want to go out and get fucked up. So there isn’t that much thought, there isn’t that much substance that needs to go into it. I also think that, there was just a real trend toward minimalism. And that’s fine, that’s good. I think minimalism really took over for a while. I appreciate minimal techno, I really loved the early Playhouse records, I like some of the early tech-house sound. But I don’t know; I started a love affair with disco and older songs early on, quickly after finding those [records], so my taste has changed. But on the whole people really embraced minimalism.

Do you think technology has anything to do with it? That the tools that are at people’s disposal now weren’t before.

I think what ends up happens is people get really caught up in the latest software, the latest studio trickery they can get lost in. There’s a lot of tweaking and twiddling of knobs that the focus goes away from harmony, melody and interesting rhythms and goes towards the crazy thing that this module can do. I don’t think that helps. I also think it requires a couple of different levels of consideration when it comes to writing an actual song. You have to get a performance out of somebody, you have to write lyrical content you feel comfortable with; you have to attempt chord changes that don’t feel one way or another to you, that feel like it’s not going to work on a dance floor, it might kill a dance floor. Once you get into the territory of chord changes and more involved music, you know, you run the risk of losing people. It’s just that way. I think there’s a bunch of reasons why, but I think people are taking more risks and just throwing vocals on more tracks more frequently. And even just in terms of minimal techno, I feel like a lot more artists are having vocalists pop up on their records, which I wholeheartedly welcome. I enjoy the song that much more that can stay as minimal as they want with just a kind of deep, interesting vocal on it — I love it.

How has making music in San Francisco been for you?

It’s been interesting, it’s been good. I’ve been working with an engineer that I met last year who’s a long time musician. He used to do a lot of industrial music and was in a band called Consolidated and Meat Beat Manifesto. As a kid I was really into both of those bands, and when I met him and went to his studio and saw all his gear I got really excited. He happens to know a lot of really top notch musicians around town, so San Francisco is a great music town. It has a lot of people who have just been slogging away for a really long time and take their craft really seriously, so there’s an abundance of really talented musicians, skilled people to work with. On that front it’s been really genius, it’s been really great. I actually really love San Francisco.

What besides your surroundings has changed about the new Hercules & Love Affair material?

There’s definitely some different emotional content. There was a bit more youthful optimism… not that I don’t still have that. I tend to be on the whole an optimistic person, but there’s just maybe a little bit more of the dark side on this record. Not so much in terms of the sonic quality even, but perhaps more in terms of the lyrical content and emotional content of the record. I think there’s even more of an emphasis on songs and songwriting on this record, so there’s a lot of really lyrical, really soft and pretty stuff going on. I just wanted the freedom to assert that — I want to write beautiful songs. It’s oddly softer sonically, at times, and harsher emotionally (laughs). I guess the contradiction, at this point, is OK. People were brought up initially to think, ‘It’s so weird to dance to such a sad song. It sounds so melancholy,’ but then it’s these uplifting songs. So there’s this emotional content that doesn’t really match the sonic quality of the track. I think kind of similar things are happening, but sometimes they’re very much married. There are some aggressive songs on the record.

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You were working on your first album for a long time before it came out; I know “Blind” in particular was a song for five years before it was released. So you had your entire life up to that point as material before putting out a record. Now you’ve got new blank slate and perhaps less time to put it together. What’s the experience like for you? Does that make sense?

Totally. That’s a very real experience; I’m definitely dealing with that. And it’s kind of daunting, because in the past — you’re totally right — I had this freedom to let life inform the art, let the songs be born from my experiences and there was no time line put on them. I was free to collaborate and have fun. But now it’s not like that. To a degree there’s some expectations and there is also a sense of timeliness that has to be acknowledged. But at the same time I feel like I’ve finally been let loose to do what I’ve always wanted to do and what I love to do. It’s really fun for me to just write, write, write, write, write. I still have the same process, you know? Like, what am I going to write about today? Something that’s most the meaningful, or something I need to address. That process is still the same. I’m no less fraught with crazy emotions (laughs), so it’s totally doable. But it is frustrating, and kind of like, ‘Man, I wanna see if maybe in six months I don’t want a live bass on this track at all.’ Right now there is live bass on the track and it sounds great, or it is what it is, but maybe in six months I’m going to feel differently, and that’s the way I really wanted it to be. Songs for me are living, breathing things that can endlessly be changed and remixed and redone, blah blah blah. When they make it to a record, like they did last time, that’s just the last form that they’re in before they were shipped out.

I understand you have a friend from Berlin with whom you’d like to work on this record. Have you had a chance to work with her yet?

Yes, I recorded a couple of songs with her.

I remember reading she was really into minimal techno. Is she someone techno heads would know?

She’s relatively under the radar. She’s more of a performance artist, but in Berlin she definitely has been on the scene, performing and stuff. She’s more of an artist, though, fine artist with an amazing voice. Her stage name is Aerea Negrot. She’s originally from Venezuela. She’s lived in Berlin for a long time and is classically trained, and just all out phenomenal and spectacular. She’s also a dancer and just oozing talent, so I was really keen, honored and excited to be working with her.

Disco and house — dance music in general — used to be a scene of gay artists and DJs. These days it seems that element has become all but invisible in dance music culture, especially on the artist side. As a gay man I find that really disappointing. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how we’ve receded into the background of what was once our habitat.

It’s a tricky question. I think that struggle we experienced, finding a place where we could congregate and celebrate and be ourselves, isn’t as depressing any more. In the 70’s and 80’s, we had a heyday, a golden era. It was a hotbed of creativity where we were actually coming together and expressing ourselves sexually and artistically. Now that public spaces have been much more neutralized and we can kind of be who we are, I think gay people have become complacent; I think gay people on the whole have reduced our identities to who we have sex with, how much we have sex, sex sex sex. For me, the identity is much more complex than that. Our experiences and life experiences are rich; and there’s still a struggle and still a lot to be mined in terms of… I don’t know, artistic expression.

I find it troubling when I look at the state of “gay art,” how reduced to our sexuality it is as opposed to more nuanced things that gay people go through, the nuanced experiences we have. For Hercules & Love Affair, for me when I was writing it, I wanted to write about authentically who I was as a child — which was a gay child. But also about the different way that I process the world, and it didn’t have to be just… as an oppressed person. You know what I mean? I also think you have to look at America and you have to look at hip-hop being the dominant club sound, which is not entirely welcoming to the homosexual community. I think DJing became very macho; it’s a very macho kind of thing. I think DJs… I could go into a bunch of things. I think people don’t value DJs as much as they used to. Circuit parties did something bad to gay culture (both laugh) I think, that’s kind of problematic. There’s a handful of things.

There are really cool gay kids doing amazing stuff all around the world, and I try to remember and acknowledge that. The guys in London, Horse Meat Disco doing really smart, really cool parties for a long time now. Here in San Francisco there’s a really cool crew of gay boys called the Honey Soundsystem that do smart parties: really fun, high quality, good music, focused on dancing, focused on educating a dance floor — as opposed to playing cha-cha, numb out hits. I do feel like the gays are coming around, I will say that. Pockets of them are saying, ‘Hey, gay culture is so boring now. Let’s not do that any more.’ Or, ‘Gay culture is so one dimensional, let’s not make it so one dimensional. Remember when it was colorful and remember when it was about diversity?’ I think potentially it’s coming back.

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