Are You Still Certain? An Interview with Hercules and Love Affair

"It means something that we're up on the stage playing the songs we're playing because it helps [queer people] find the strength to be who they are."
Hercules and Love Affair
Big Beat

Since their debut with “Blind” in 2007, dance music project Hercules and Love Affair have established themselves as one of the most original, sophisticated bands producing in the genre. Led by DJ/composer Andrew Butler, the band has become synonymous with thumping basslines, unexpected but pleasantly welcomed horn riffs, and poetic lyrics not to mention an incredible array of vocalists including Butler, Anohni, Gustaph, and Rouge Mary among others.

In 2017, they released their fourth studio album, Omnion, through which Butler channeled many of the issues he’d been facing in his life. The album opens with the title track, a stunning prayer in which Sharon Van Etten calls out to a supreme being asking for guidance. It’s an endlessly moving track, that like pretty much all of Hercules and Love Affair’s work invites one to almost meditate on the dancefloor.

The self-reflective nature of Omnion helps chronicle an epic journey through song, in which an assortment of characters seek absolution and strength to keep going. Even though it’s not a concept album, there’s a clear path in which songs about desolation are balanced by tracks in which we find enlightenment, such as the Middle Eastern-influenced “Are You Still Certain?” and “Fools Wear Crowns”, which also serves as a reminder of the political landscape on which the album landed.

PopMatters spoke to Butler about how he created this journey and his relationship with music.

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Omnion is so great. As with most of your albums, I find that I’ll be listening to it and dancing when suddenly a lyric just stops me dead on the tracks and break my heart. When did you realize that dance music had this power, to suddenly send you into an existential crisis?

I think a lot of ’80s dance music really did that, I grew up a child of the ’80s so I started learning about disco music and even if I didn’t get to experience it when it happened, I fell in love with it. But the ’80s had bands like OMD, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics and if you look at some of the lyrics those people were writing, which are sort of post-modernist, very emotionally present, those things struck me.

Perhaps it’s an easy route to go to, but if you think about provocative lyrics in dance music just think of “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics, and their lines like “some of them want to be used,” as a kid I was like: What is she talking about? What is going on? Or if you listen to some of Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s there’s a song called “Midnight” which I’ve always said would be the song I’d do if I ever did a drag performance. It’s just heart-wrenching, Alison Moyet talks about being soaked in the rain, staring at someone’s door. Stuff like that made me realize you could have really powerful lyrics in dance music, that make you think and feel.

You’ve mastered the art of delivering tears on the dancefloor.

[laughs] That’s so sweet of you to say. I was talking to someone about this, and how you’re dancing which is a celebratory movement and then you listen to the lyrics and they’re so sad, which is a strange juxtaposition. It’s been that way for me since day one, the very first song I wrote for Hercules and Love Affair was “Blind”, which was about such a personal experience. I was trying to figure out my life and felt at a certain age I should’ve figured everything and yet I was more confused than ever.

When I was little my mom would listen to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack nonstop and I ran all around the house singing “If I Can’t Have You” like Yvonne Elliman, and it didn’t strike me how sad it was until I was a grown up. Many people associate mourning with stillness, in your music you associate it with movement. Can you talk about how this came to be?

Losing ourselves in music on the dancefloor is such a great feeling. Feeling like you can be on your own among a whole bunch of people. Dancing is so telling, you watch how someone moves and how they express themselves and you realize they’re sharing so much of who they are. When I dance I feel so free, like I’m totally being me, it’s a healing experience. There’s also something very exposing as well, judgment goes out the window. Dancing has historically helped me make it through difficult times. When I went to university I studied modern dance, a little bit of ballet and African dance. I remember the first year a teacher asking me why I wanted to study dance, I said I wanted to make music for people to dance to, so I thought I had to study dance.

Speaking of movement, I love the arc on the album. In “Omnion” the very first thing the character asks is “Are you there?” and then proceeds to ask for help, but by the time we get to the “Epilogue” we hear you asking for help in order to help other people, “so we may offer a hand to those in need.” Can you talk about structuring this journey? It reminded me of something straight out of mythology.

I’ve experienced desensitizing from the world but also wanted to be less selfish and become more focused so I can contribute positively to the world. The songs touched loosely on the existential and spiritual themes I’ve experienced. The songs were written independently from one another, but what ended up happening was that since we have a question at the beginning of the album, and being led through life with some intuition, and then there’s gratitude that comes in “Rejoice” from Rouge Mary who is a player in my story and has inspired me to carry on and believe at moments when I didn’t think I could believe.

Then there’s “Are You Still Certain” which again starts to question and also says that the person who says they have the answers is the one who does not have a clue, and the one who admits they do not know, is the one who has the answers. It’s a mysterious, counterintuitive lesson, this championing of a humbling spirituality. There’s a sort of process that takes place on each of the songs independent of one another, the album was put together, I hate to say, but more bearing in mind the aesthetics of the songs, tempos and things like that. I put it more together for that reason, but it ended having this very nice flow from the content perspective. I didn’t know when I was writing, that I’d done two prayers, “Omnion” and “Epilogue”.

“Epilogue” from early on felt like it should close the album, it’s about that moment of questioning from a child’s mind sung from the perspective of a broken adult who is also a female, using traditionally male pronouns. Then I also had females sing another prayer, and it all happened by chance. I didn’t exactly conceive the arc, it was more intuitive, there were shared themes among some of the songs, all seen through my lens which offers a feeling of continuity too.

Since you’ve lived in Vienna I obviously thought about The Sound of Music and wondered if you were interested in writing a musical, and if so what would it be about?

Yes, I do, and I’m not at liberty to talk about it cause I’ve even started bouncing the idea around. It’s basically the story of a very, very unlikely queer hero, someone who imagines their life is larger than life and made it that way and invented themselves. It’s a real-life story a friend brought to me and it’s relatively unknown, there’s not much documentation about this tale.

We thought about making a play, but I said let’s make it a musical. I fell in love with musical theatre in my 20s, in my teen years I thought it was really corny, my parents got tickets for Rent and I walked out halfway through, I thought this modern musical thing was horrible. Then I made a friend in New York who happened to have been Liza Minnelli’s massage therapist, so he got tickets to everything on Broadway and he started taking me to shows. I discovered the magic of Stephen Sondheim and interesting alternative ways of putting on theatre and I fell in love with musicals. I thought one day I wanted to write a musical.

I hope your musical is like Xanadu!

It’s such a good story, you would die! I won’t tease you with it anymore.

You’ve mentioned before that you like going on tour because it’s where you do a lot of your writing, but on tour, it’s also where you’ve encountered problems with depression. You’re about to go on tour again, have you found a way to balance these mixed feelings?

I have found more of a balance. That has been largely through having very sympathetic, empathetic people around me who are working with me. I have a manager who very much values my mental health, and does not want to overdo it, who knows that I’m at risk of not being well if I overwork. That’s brilliant because I know someone’s looking out for me. The members of the band are busy on their own right, but they appreciate when we go on tour and they know it has to be at a pace that’s manageable. I also have a loving, stable home now. I have a great partner and that allows me to be really creative when I’m home. I have my studio here in the house and I can write a lot of music. I don’t do it so much on the road because we’re not away too long now. When I’m away too long things begin to get difficult, my mental health just deteriorates.

Your potential musical will be about a queer character. Given the political situation in America, has being a queer artist become more significant than before?

What’s amazing is going to places where people don’t have the same liberties that we have or even in parts of the Western world where certain legislations have passed that seem very backward. It’s amazing to see young people in the audience respond to the music and afterward having them tell us that it means the world to them that we came and played this music. It means something that we’re up on the stage playing the songs we’re playing because it helps them find the strength to be who they are. The music encourages them on a daily basis, they feel proud, they don’t feel alone.

We’ve played quite a few shows in Russia which looks like a really inhospitable place for queer people, but we have packed houses of young, queer people and I think it is an important role. With that said I do think this record in some ways is about not just focusing on my own specific identity, but rather talking about getting to the core of our humanity, and talking about parts that all of us should be concerned about.

There are issues that are quite significant and pressing that the whole world is facing. We’re looking at horrible things happening to the planet, terrifying wars taking place that are displacing enormous amounts of people, there are famines that make people become refugees, we’re looking at people parading around, pounding on their Bibles or Qurans, or whatever book of knowledge they might be carrying, saying they know the way everyone should live. They’re saying certain people are abominations or have no rights, hundreds of years of oppression in the US are affecting race relations. Hundreds of things are happening outside of one specific identity, they’re beyond me as a queer person, they speak to all of us as humans.

In the record, I talk about our souls and what we’re supposed to achieve while we’re here. Perhaps we’re supposed to connect to each other, find alliances, and it’s really hard to find allies or to adequately show up as an ally. Perhaps the voices of people who have historically been silenced need to be heard. They might have solutions for some of the bigger problems we’re all having. It’s been a long time coming, but it would be great to see a woman in power, perhaps a woman of color, or a transgender woman of color in power.

So we won’t end on a sad note, at least we have the joy of watching Rooney Mara dancing to “Blind” in Lion!

[laughs] You know what I haven’t seen it. I’ve had the opportunity to see it so many times but I know it’s a really heartbreaking story, and I keep finding myself in the moment where I don’t know if I can feel so sad, but it’s a good movie, huh?

It’s great! It’s pretty sad yeah, so until you’re ready for the whole thing, watch that scene with Rooney and your song.

[laughs] That’s amazing, maybe I’ll do that.