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Hercules and love affair
Nine Songs
Hercules and Love Affair

Andy Butler talks the songs that defined his outlook on gender roles, identity and music.

10 November 2017, 09:00 | Words by Leander Hobbs

It might have occurred to Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair to choose nine amazing songs that fully explain his project’s obsession with sampling.

But the straight path isn’t something Butler follows willingly. Instead he shares moments from his life where music helped him to carve his own way through an upbringing loaded with gender stereotypes and expectations. This is a story of the music and encounters that changed his world.

“A lot of moments in my life have been about coming to terms with my identity and speaking out for the right to be different. I studied feminism in school and got really excited about it at university, so when I started making music I knew I wanted to channel some of that feminist thinking into my work but from my own perspective. These artist choices are about that, about how I found strength in my vulnerability as a male.”

Butler has an encyclopaedic understanding of 80s’ and 90s’ music, borne out of a love and reverence for bands who pushed the boundaries at the time. In particular, he was a huge fan of the new Wax Trax! Records, founded in Denver in 1980, and the innovation the label brought to bear on his own music.

“Strength, real strength comes in different forms. It was exciting for me to see women take the wheel during the 80s’ and 90s’, but also that as a male that I could take the wheel too, through my vulnerability and femininity and explore and present that to the world. These choices are about showing empowerment through stepping across traditional lines of gender and being just a bit bad ass.”

“Troy” by Sinéad O'Connor

“I am fascinated by women who explore emotional worlds that ‘women aren’t supposed to’ and this song was one of those, it had that impact on me. I guess as a queer boy growing up I was told I was not operating in the right kind of gender role, I was expressing too much sensitivity and crying easily. I was very uncomfortable with violence and told by a lot people ‘you’re not supposed to behave like that, you know boys don’t cry.’

“So when I saw the strength of a woman’s wrath and the kind of self-empowerment that Sinead was assuming with her identity and in her art, it really disrupted things for me. She was going to burn everything down and she was taking back her power. She could so honestly channel her life experience through her music and that is something I will always applaud and love her for.

“(Her recent issues) are just so emotional and it makes perfect sense that her brilliance is coupled with this challenge. She has a very complex emotional world and whilst I don’t know the specifics, I do know what it’s like when you’re struggling with mental health issues and you don’t find support where you hope you would or that the people that you thought would show up just don’t.

“It’s not easy dealing with mental health issues, particularly when you are a public face, because of the time we live in. Things are so public and mediatised, so everything is regurgitated and re-energised. It’s a really public suffering she is going through and I wish her all the best. She gave me my ‘fuck all your expectations of me’ attitude and I needed that at that time in my life, so I hope she gets what she needs now.”

“Heaven or Las Vegas” by Cocteau Twins

“Listening to this I am transported back to my first encounter with Cocteau Twins. It was at the point in their career when their music was perhaps more easily digestible, although I think their whole body of work is brilliant.

“What amazes me most is how the vocal delivery changed so much over the years, Elizabeth Frazer just got noisier! Like Sinead, her vocal instrument can access certain timbres and tonalities that evoke special emotions in me.

“It was also all about the words that I couldn’t hear. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear every word or understand what she was singing about, because she was so emotional; you would get glimpses of words and they would be provocative enough that it really made me think.

“Also, you get everyone singing their own version of what she is singing and putting their own words into the melodies, it’s like you are putting yourself into the song and sharing that emotion with her. What you think she is saying is probably what you need to hear at that moment in time.

“From an artistic point of view that was inspirational for me, I love the idea of the audience injecting something of themselves into the music and it shaped the way I write lyrics now, because I always want people to access the words from their own position, in their own time and way.

“I love the universality that comes with Cocteau Twins. Everyone can find something in it and it pushed me into exploring music and other artists where you have to investigate the song, in the end you build up this really deep personal relationship with it. This song is just magical and fascinating, the wall of sound, the psychedelia and dreaminess of it. I got to convey in person what an inspiration she had been to me, and to fan boy out a little bit.

“I saw a film called Mysterious Skin by Gregg Araki, based on Scott Heim’s 1995 novel about two boys that both experience abuse in their life. It’s about how they both deal with it really differently. The most critical scene in the whole film uses Cocteau Twins’ “Crushed” on the soundtrack and I asked myself, why does her voice also speak to my queer experiences? I don’t know why, but I feel like this music might have impacted a lot of gay people.”

"Big City" by Spacemen 3

“I put this in because it came out at a time when people were starting to flirt with dance music and there was a real retro feeling to music production. Boys had shaggy hairdos but were into rave culture and they were also really into the Mod look and Manchester.

“I wasn’t really into it that much, although of course I liked Inspiral Carpets and Happy Mondays. But when I heard Spaceman 3 I really got what they were doing; it was this lo-fi, tripped out thing that had a nod to electronic music, in a kind of trance way, that I most aspired to. Their whole obsession with the letter S was captivating, I spent many nights tripping out and listening to their music. To me I think they represent the fetishization of things past that in a way was almost cult-like and I now see it’s also a core part of my own music.

“There was a moment when I too was really excited about looking back and celebrating what existed and what had come before. A lot of bands of that moment, of the 80s’ and 90s’ were doing that, but Spacemen 3 did it better for me.”

“Burning Inside” by Ministry

“The artists that have inspired me the most are those that turn out a whole catalogue of meaty music and Al Jourgensen did this more than anyone.

“I was so confused that this guy could start in a new romantic, slightly poppy, synth band and in just 10 years start making music that was arguably some of the heaviest on the planet, that had a big impact on Death Metal and all of these other burgeoning rock genres that were just coming into their own.

“That ballsy and fearless approach towards his artistic vision was inspiring and he was almost always unapologetic, although he did say he regretted his new wave beginnings to which I always thought ‘Why did you say that? You didn’t need to do that.’

“I chose this song because it was one of the ones that said, ‘Oh my god, I am bursting out of the closet’ when I first heard it. At the time I was really exploring an alternative way to be than what the world had presented to me and the paths people were pushing me down, like acting like a boy, doing the things boys do and looking like boys do.

“This song coincided with my choice to say ‘No, I will wear makeup if I want to, wear tights if I want to and wear my hair long.’ So it feels like a special moment for me and like me, Ministry was odd. I loved the chaos they put on stage and I really admired the fact that Jourgenson was interested in a total band of misfits culled from other bands. You had people at moments on stage from Public Image Limited, Suicide and Front 242. It was a very collaborative project and his interest in collaboration was something that always fascinated me.

“When people say ‘Why do you have an untraditional band, why is it a project and not like a ‘real’ band?’ I point to Ministry as one of the first models for this way of thinking. It felt like this bizarre, larger than life thing. It wasn’t just a band, it was about all of these other people, collaborations, side-projects and crosspollination of scenes.

“Jourgenson was doing things with all sorts of people and the work he did on the whole Wax Trax! thing was instrumental to so many scenes. I was DJ’ing in Chicago about a year ago and they put on a festival called Cold Waves, which is an industrial, noisy festival. Revolting Cocks played and I got to meet Luc Van Acker, who did a lot with Jourgensen in Ministry and I asked him what the House scene was like back then. He described these nightclubs, where in the same venue you could hear early Wax Trax! records and then there were DJs dropping industrial music. There was a real mishmash; goth kids and wild characters hanging out with the African Americans and Latinos, a real crosspollination.

“’Burning Inside’, from their 1989 album, The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste has everything; tribal drummers, rhythmic delivery, lots of samples, a really relentless guitar line and hyper processed, freaked out vocals which at that moment in time was totally great for me.”

“Like Rats” by Godflesh

“There’s not much to say on this one, which is unusual for me because I can babble on! Have you noticed that?! For me Godflesh really got me into sampling, so I had to include it here, but it was the next band Meat Beat Manifesto that really took that interest and turned it into an obsession for me.”

“Psyche-Out” by Meat Beat Manifesto

“The first piece of vinyl I ever owned was “Helter Skelter” by Meat Beat Manifesto and on the flip side was a song called “Radio Babylon”. I remember “Helter Skelter” had some references to Charles Manson, which as a little Goth kid I was fascinated by. This is how I accessed it, through this dichotomy of dark and yet there was something clubby about it, like an amazing collage.

“Jack Dangers was a total genius when it came to sampling and there are certain sounds that are just so uniquely his. I guess as I started to develop a real affinity for dance music people who were able to present something quintessential were heroes. Dangers could produce just a single sound and you would instantly know it’s him.

“I became obsessed with him, even more so when he started touring with their live show, which included a modern dance company. The idea that a ballet was taking place, or that some pirouetting or otherworldly creature was performing in front of him, was cool to me. I was excited by the idea of incorporating bold works of art that are legitimate and untouchable into something grimy, rough and a little bit dangerous.

“’Psyche Out’ was the first Meat Beat Manifesto video I saw and it perfectly captured my spirit of rebellion; I think the lyrics go “and this is what it’s all about, sex, drugs and rock and roll” and that was really OMG at that moment of my life. Dangers was a pioneer of modern dance music and he was obviously influenced by hip hop and funk rhythms and of course sampling.

“In fact, I have just bought an original pressing of Storm the Studio, which is a record I had when I was 15 and incidentally their debut album on Wax Trax! It opens with a report on how the government was responding to the AIDS crisis. As a gay teenager, with an uncle who had died of AIDS not long before its release, I was really impressed by artists that were tackling big issues and taking risks and speaking up for me. I felt that there was an advocate out there for me in some weird way.

“When I first came out as a teenager the first thing that my family said to me was ‘I just don’t want you to die of AIDS’. I thought back then that that was my lot and that’s what was going to happen to me, how the world has changed! I heard that record and I thought I don’t know if he’s gay or not, but he isn’t going to let this happen to me, he is making music about it.

“Years later I had someone from Meat Beat Manifesto in Hercules and Love Affair, so I got to meet Jack Dangers and I got to have my sampling moments with him, it was cool.”

“Weird Gear” by Ultramarine

"Ultramarine were a kind of an outsider techno ambient band that proved to be a big influence on my music, with a succession of albums that engaged music outside of pure electronics and had interesting vocal collaborations.

"They soundtracked my early mornings after heavy nights on dance floors in the 90s' and their knack for curious sampling and idiosyncratic melodies affect me still today. ‘Weird Gear' is a great example of this."

“Pennies From Heaven” by Inner City

“When I first got into House music I found people who were living their lives, thriving as out and proud gay men and women. I was making my trips to the gay and lesbian centres, going to the youth meetings and trying to find support groups and stuff and people would say to me, ‘There’s this great music that’s played in the clubs we go to.’ Inner City was house music 101.

“Inner City is really the best of the best, a pioneer who figured out how to make great pop songs. When I heard ‘Pennies from Heaven’ I guess it was one of the first times that I heard in House music such a pure and no frills positive message. The lyrics are so pure without being over poetic or metaphorical and it talks about how we can all lift each other up. There’s a line in it that goes something like ‘if you see someone who has lost their way do the best you can to help them out.’

“I have always liked authentic expressions musically, but this song was the first time I heard something so naïve but so sincere and that option to convey something that could encourage people to envisage a better world or build a community interested me, particularly as it was played on a dance floor and could offer a celebratory moment for people.

“I just thought that kind of a pure and positive message can be just as valid and special in terms of an artistic statement as any scathing political commentary or post-modern poetry. I almost feel like today there’s a collective turning your nose up at that kind of artistic expression and output. I get it, it doesn’t have to be a ‘We are the world’, moment but I don’t know, there was a moment in my life when I listened to folk music of the 60s' and 70s' that was selling peace and it was such a beautiful idea, I did look at the world differently and was a little bit happier. What’s wrong with beautiful intentions in art?”

“Betrayed” by Fear of God

“As I started this by saying, female vocals in music have always been interesting to me, particularly voices that transcend the traditional roles of gender. So I included a band that was fronted by a female vocalist, but was an extreme rock band.

“When I was a teenager I was like ‘Wow this woman (Dawn Crosby) terrifies me’, she’s kind of doing everything she shouldn’t be doing. It was an off-putting experience, but it’s weird when that happens with a piece of music because I must find out why it’s pushing buttons. It might be an aesthetic choice that the band’s made, a lyrical choice or vocal delivery - it can be any number of things that can be alienating, but it’s an interesting moment when you take the time to figure it out, because it’s usually in that moment of reflection that you sort of get it.

“With Dawn Crosby it was like that. I asked myself, ‘Why is she screaming so loud? Why is she so pissed off? And what the fuck, there is so much rage and pain.’ Then I started really listening to it and the vocal dynamic she had; the range was insane. On one song she might be talking like a little girl and then in 30 seconds she could be growling and screaming at the top of her lungs and wailing. The suffering was so apparent and it was mind-blowing for me.

“Then when I started looking at her lyrics she was singing about political injustice, repression of women and abuse. In fact, in 1986 she was singing about radicalism, religious fanaticism and the plight of sex workers, that was so forward thinking it’s difficult to measure just how disruptive she was. We often associate heavy metal and certain genres of rock with bone-heads that just go and act like idiots and throw themselves around and smash things up, but here was this person offering very accurate political and sociological critiques and doing it in an interesting way with her vocal delivery.

“She also sang a lot about her struggles with addiction and that is something, since I have identified that problem in my life, that has resonated with me. In some ways people look at Courtney Love as the trailblazer bad ass from the 90s’, but for me I look at Dawn Crosby as the one. For me she was the legitimate version of it.

“She was making her own way in the boy’s club and saying ‘fuck you all.’ And perhaps that’s what this list of songs has really been all about!”

Omnion is out now via Big Beat
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