A cast of unlikely talents that make amazing music together, New York’s Hercules & Love Affair bridge the gap between early Chicago house and Salsoul. We caught up with the band in the middle of their European tour for the back-story on their instant classic DFA debut.
The myth goes something like this: Hercules, the strongest man on Earth, kills King Theiodamus and claims his son, Hylas, teaching him all the things he needs to know to be a warrior. The two fall madly in love. One day Hylas is fetching water, and a nymph living in the spring catches glimpse of him, swoons at his perfection, and sucks him into the water to live in a cave with her. Hercules never sees Hylas again and is so ravaged by the loss that he cannot complete his expedition.
Andy Butler, whose band Hercules & Love Affair takes its name from the Greek tale, explains, “I thought the image of the strongest man on earth being immobilized by his heart—and affection for another man—was beautiful and offered a poetic name for the project. It also sounds quite disco and romantic.”
H&LA is what might happen if Deee-lite were time-traveling English Lit majors or if Parliament were on E instead of LSD. Their self-titled debut on DFA forms a bridge from the opulent glory years of Casablanca and Salsoul to the acid house invasion of the late-1980s, and does so without seeming retro in the least. As it is, the New York City collective is comprised of Butler (programmer, songwriter and singer) and three other vocalists: DJ/successful jewelry designer Kim Ann Foxman; indie R&B singer Nomi (her solo album, Lost in Lust, dropped in 2005); and Antony Hegarty, the namesake of Antony & the Johnsons.
Their self-titled debut on DFA forms a bridge from the opulent glory years of Casablanca and Salsoul to the acid house invasion of the late-1980s, and does so without seeming retro in the least.
The group’s debut single, “Blind,” caused a huge stir earlier this year, a coming of age story about the tragic realization of lost love set to a backdrop that’s as rooted in disco as it is Chicago house. (They got Frankie Knuckles to remix it for good measure.) The richness of Antony’s voice is captivating as he sings, “To hear you now, to see you now, I must look inside myself…because I feel blind.” When the album surfaced in late-June, it was to no small amount of critical acclaim, and their tour is solidifying their appeal.
“I’ve really expanded as a performer since I’ve been involved with this band,” says Nomi. Hands down the most soulful moment on the album, an acid-laced cut called “You Belong,” belongs to her. She manages to make the bottom register of her voice simultaneously manly and vulnerable, desirous and filled with sadness. Whereas Antony’s performance on “Blind” reveals the slow unraveling of his psyche with the mounting hysteria in his voice, Nomi grips you with the sheer power of her restraint.
“I’ve been singing since before I could speak in full sentences, and I’ve been writing and working in the studio since I was 12. But my singing range has widened since working with H&LA,” she says. Part of the reason for that is Antony’s decision not to tour with the group, leaving the other three members to divvy up his singing duties. “‘Blind’ is a very difficult melody to tame,” she says. “Singing it every night has worked out my chops.”
Butler started DJing at the age of 15 at leather bars in Colorado. “Denver had a thriving underground dance music scene in the early ’90s,” he recalls. “I was around a lot of older DJs, and I think it occurred to them that it would be cute or ridiculous or something to let the 15 year old play, too. As much as I could, I was getting into nightclubs prematurely. Having me DJ or do a job at the gig offered me an easy way in.”
He moved to New York, and was throwing disco- and Italo-themed parties like Cazzo Pazzo (Italian for “Cock Crazy” or “Crazed for Fucking”) in the early ’00s with Foxman as part of a small DJ collective called Mad Clams. Meanwhile, Butler became friends with Antony and started working with him on tracks. “Kim Ann and Nomi came into the process while I was writing and fit in nicely and naturally,” Butler adds.
Repeatedly in our interview Butler asserts that he never intended or wanted a “music career,” that he makes music because it brings him pleasure and allows him to express himself. He also seems to have no use for the spotlight. “I have always had more of a romance with artists that exist more behind the scenes, or the person refuses the offer of a ‘cult of personality.’ I am also inspired by musicians that very clearly put their music before their own visual image. I appreciate a certain ambiguity and mystery in the popular music I enjoy.”
Nomi agrees, adding, “I still struggle to make a living with music, although from the outside things seem really glamorous right now.” And even though H&LA isn’t playing up their own star power as much as they could be (they didn’t even cast themselves in their first video), that doesn’t mean the band is entirely immune to the perks that come with fame. Says Nomi, “I won’t really feel successful until I’ve received outfits from Westwood and McQueen.”
Words: Christian W. Smith
as featured in Issue 23