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A Quietus Interview

Push And Pull: An Interview With Hercules And Love Affair
Patrick Clarke , May 17th, 2022 11:31

Hercules And Love Affair are set to release a highly unusual and persuasive album, In Amber, which sees them depart from their disco roots and head into more abrasive gothic and industrial waters. Patrick Clarke speaks to Andy Butler and guests, Budgie and Justin Broadrick

Andy Butler is in good spirits as he joins me on Zoom from Belgium in the early afternoon. Just a few hours earlier he was sitting in an immigration office, where he was told that after 12 years of living in Europe, and six in the picturesque city of Ghent, that he’s been living there long enough to be registered on the government’s official systems. “Things are great,” he says with an easy smile. “I live in a very special and beautiful place.” Today’s most pressing concern seems to be whether what he calls his Strawberry Switchblade cap – which is bright red with white polka dots – is working for him or not.

To speak with tQ, he’s taken a break from rehearsals at the studio of his friend and frequent collaborator Reinhard Vanbergen, where they’re planning the live tour that will accompany Hercules And Love Affair’s new record In Amber. “It’s been such a strange day, after two years when creativity didn’t have to involve leaving my house.” Our conversation is long and pleasant. “I have a tendency to blab,” he warns at the outset, a statement soon proven true, but he’s also choosing his words precisely and thoughtfully. “I want to articulate myself properly. No incendiary language,” he says when conversation veers to the political shift that’s occurred back in his native United States. For an artist for whom brash and provocative statements in interviews were once common, and whose early career was accompanied with a tumultuous relationship with substance abuse, it’s heartening to find him so settled. “It’s a very special and beautiful place that I live,” he says of Ghent. “I’m feeling more and more accustomed to the idea of being at home here.”

That is not to say that he doesn’t share in our collective unease. “I am an American at heart and I love the American people,” he says, but adds that every time he returns to his homeland – he performed a run of DJ sets there last year – he feels “more and more alienated by the experience. I feel constantly bombarded by advertisement. I feel tension.” We’re speaking shortly after news has broken that the US Supreme Court intends to overturn Roe Vs. Wade. “This is as political as I’m going to get,” he says, firmly but politely. “To think that states are going to choose whether abortion is allowed or not… America is a different place now. I wouldn’t call it a country of complete civil unrest but there’s something more ethically sound within the European Union. Granted, Belgium couldn’t work out what government they had at one point for over a year, but the United States is chaos.”

It is a sense of tension that has come to define In Amber, too. It contains songs that drag the listener downwards, songs about death, decay and war with thunderous and gothic instrumentation, but also songs that haul them back up again – moments of huge, heavenly beauty. The divide is made clear by the fact that unlike previous Hercules And Love Affair records, which might contain a different featured vocalist for each song, the vast majority of the singing on In Amber is by either Butler himself or Anohni. “Tension is a very applicable word” when it comes to the album, says Butler, “because there’s tension between the songs that Anohni appears on versus the songs that I appear on.” Midway through the record is the Anohni-led ‘Christian Prayer’, a stampeding rejection of salvation: “Don’t call heaven when I’m passing/ Let me sleep inside the dirt, let me rot,” she sings. Butler counters it almost directly on ‘The Eyes Of The Father’: “When you meet your maker/ Will you show your face?” It’s the communication between the two, the way they both approach the same central themes but from different angles, that makes the record so engaging. “One might perceive disconnect, but here’s a dialogue taking place too,” says Butler.

Although close friends for many years – Anohni sang on the band’s breakout hit ‘Blind’ in 2008 – they are very different as singers and as people. To grossly over-simplify, Anohni’s energy pushes outwards – “I break you with my nature/ Mouth and volcano one” she sings on ‘One’ – and Butler’s pushes inwards – “You’ve won this war by laying your arms down/ your submission, your humble sound” he sings on ‘You’ve Won this War’. “For me she’s always been a confrontational artist,” Butler says of Anohni. “She’s capable of generating and projecting this powerful outward momentum with her work. Whether it was around gender, the environment or in some cases directly political, that confrontation was always there.” With his own songs on the album, “they come more from personal exploration and reflection, my lived experiences that have brought me to precipices, and points where a lot of evaluation and sincere and deep reflection on life had to take place.”

Again, the two extremes were in dialogue, not disconnect. Butler encouraged Anohni to look inwards, and “[she] really pushed me to utilise my voice. She’d explain to me, ‘We’re just animals, we’re meant to make noise and no noise is to be judged. We don’t judge a howling wolf.’” The result is a record that often mingles micro and macro. “We’re dealing with mortality on the personal and immediate level, but also facing a crisis on a global scale and staring annihilation in the face in multiple ways,” Butler explains. On the day the album’s lead single ‘Grace’ was released, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. “If we’d released it six months earlier, we’d be talking about the amount of projected climate refugees,” Butler says.

In Amber presents a complex web of conflicts and dialogues, between micro and macro, inward and outward, life and death, salvation and rejection, Anohni and Andy Butler. It is not the result of any grand plan put in motion before recording, however; the record’s genesis was fairly mundane. “Anohni got in touch, only in a passing kind of way, like ‘Hey, we should do something!’” At the time, Butler happened to be exploring the idea of incorporating heaver sounds into Hercules And Love Affair. In the same way that, with ‘Blind’ all those years ago, he had thought it would be interesting to hear Anohni’s intensely emotive voice over electronic textures, “It was like, it would be so cool to hear her voice against these intense, driving, furious tracks.”

Anohni is not the only collaborator on In Amber. The work of the record’s third vocalist, Icelander Elin Ey, should not go ignored, for instance. Her subtle and soulful backing on a number of tracks adds intense emotional depth; her lead vocal on mid-album track ‘Dissociation’ provides a beautiful and melancholy counter to the record’s abundance of intensity. Budgie, meanwhile, who provides the record’s thumping drums, was absolutely pivotal. “When Budgie came into the picture, everything changed,” Butler says. “All of a sudden I had something that sounded, for lack of a better word, like a rock record.”

It had gradually become clear that the new album would be a sonic departure from previous Hercules And Love Affair material, many of the songs were written in unusual time signatures that, as Butler puts it, “were asking for some sort of particular percussive contribution” that they couldn’t put their finger on. It was Anohni who first suggested the similarity between the songs and Budgie’s project with Siouxsie Sioux, The Creatures. “We thought, who better in terms of a sensitive, experimental, brave percussive instrumentalist than Budgie?” Fortunately, Budgie is also the drummer for Butler’s friend and previous collaborator John Grant, so “it was an easy ask”.

Budgie speaks to tQ in a separate call. He first met Butler when he tagged along with Grant at a lunch “in a very nice brasserie just outside of Ghent”. With Budgie being based in Berlin, they stayed in touch, and he was staying with Butler when he first played him the drafts of In Amber. “I was just blown away by his voice, at the sound of the music.” They stayed up into the early hours discussing them, Budgie growing more and more excited by the possibility of contributing. “I just imagined him standing alone in a big darkened studio, echoing, very alone, from the heart and soul. I just felt, this is where I’m supposed to be.” He could sense the maelstrom of conflicting emotions at the work's core. “There was softness and there was a kind of suppressed anger, a lot conflict and self-examination,” he says. “Heaviness was certainly there, the feeling of hearing Pretty Hate Machine for the first time when Nine Inch Nails and I were touring the first Lollapalooza together, and then the soul-searching drama and storytelling of Lou Reed at his best. It prompted me to think a little of my own journey. I have a young family and a completely different life now, but each time I set foot back into the music world, it is like I have been a fish out of water, but am now back in again.” You can hear that sense of ease in his playing, which swings effortlessly between the music’s extremes. “He just saw it, you know?” says Butler. “And I know he saw it because the moment he started playing it was like, ‘Oh. He sees it.’ He made it so much juicier, so much more compelling.”

Heavy music has always been a part of Butler’s life. For more than a decade, he has been collaborating with heavy metal vocalists including his brother Daniel who is the frontman of the death metal band Vastum as “an outlet [for] projects that never saw the light of day”. With Hercules And Love Affair “I was wearing Bolt Thrower shirts onstage.” In tour vans he’d try and get others in the project to listen to Swans with him – “They’d manage about two minutes.” On the band’s very first tour, he would ask venues to play Slayer’s Reign In Blood before they came onstage.

Butler traces a clear link from heavy and industrial music to the dance music with which he made his name. As a gay adolescent in Denver in the 1980s with a troubled home life, “before house and techno music, the place that I found safety was in underage goth clubs where I was able to dance to Skinny Puppy or Ministry or Front 242,” he says. “I could put eyeliner on, I could wear tights with Shakespeare’s face printed on them and have long hair and it was OK.” Gradually, his tastes evolved. “I went from industrial dance, then found myself captivated more and more by the purely electronic sound of techno and house.” Hercules And Love Affair might not have incorporated heavier music in the past as directly as they have with In Amber, but it’s always been an influence. “The level of intensity and heaviness achieved by Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle, without employing guitar to the degree of someone like Carcass or Bolt Thrower,” he cites as an example.

That an artist like Justin Broadrick, who is living proof of the malleability of the boundaries between heavy music and electronic music, should have provided a remix for the album’s second single ‘Poisonous Storytelling’ is particularly fitting. “It was on my bucket list,” says Butler, who has always looked up to “those artists who took those really drastic leaps. Justin started with grindcore, he experimented with electronics, he veered into drum and bass, he put out shoegaze records… those kinds of artists are my main inspirations.”

Speaking to tQ later via email, Broadrick says he “wasn’t fully aware” of Hercules And Love Affair when approached for the remix, but found Butler’s passion to be “inspiring". He adds: "His music says many, many things. Working with Anohni was also an obvious draw; to contextualise her voice within my mood was an exciting prospect.” Broadrick’s take on ‘Poisonous Storytelling’ is suitably dramatic, submerging it in a tsunami of overdriven metal guitars. “Sometimes my remixes are a complete restructure of the original, from the ground up,” Broadrick continues. “With this I already really enjoyed Andy's composition and wanted to keep his structure intact and work within it. Adding my guitars was central to the remix; my reinterpretation of the melodies to fit my guitar was exciting, everything else fell into place after that.” Broadrick doesn’t think In Amber sounds like anything in his own discography, but he can see the lineage that runs from him to Butler. “I love that what he has taken as inspiration has been moulded to his own sensibilities. I find the album to be essentially a pop album but with a myriad external underground music influence, making it a very original work, but also a mood work. Much like my own music in that regard.”

Butler did have his reservations about the course In Amber was taking. “At a certain point we had this collection of songs and I was thinking, ‘What are we actually gonna do with this? It sounds really different to Hercules And Love Affair.’” He considered releasing it as a side project, “but at some point Anohni was just like, 'This is a Hercules And Love Affair record.' At points I was anxious, and Anohni was just like ‘Stop! You let your audiences decide if they want to come along on the ride. You have intelligent fans, and they’ll come along if they want to.'” It is telling that Budgie, a relative outsider compared to old friends Butler and Anohni, also defines the creative process in terms of the emotional connection that the musicians experienced with one another during the sessions. “If there was a moment that stood out during recording, Andy would have come in from the control room with tears in his eyes. Because it had worked, and I knew it had worked before I saw him. These things don’t happen very often.”

Due to the pandemic and its related scheduling difficulties, In Amber has taken half a decade to finish. The luxury of time and space provided, combined with the joy of working closely with Anohni for the first time since the very beginning of Hercules And Love Affair, gave it the feel of a debut album. “We just started experimenting again,” Butler says. “I’m glad she pushed me out of my comfort zone, pushed me to create a record that I feel stands out from the rest of the catalogue, and also just acknowledges a lot of where I truly come from and where I’m at mentally and spiritually in my life.”

In Amber is out via BMG on June 17