Photos by Tim Boddy.
Hedonism vs. lyricism; Omnion, the fourth album from Hercules & Love Affair, leans further towards intimate introspection than it does carefree music for the dancefloor. It’s no secret that front man Andy Butler excels in producing fluid, defiant and soulful club-ready music born of the heyday of Paradise Garage and Studio 54. Now, in an album he’s been working on for four years – the same four years he’s been clean after a long battle with substance abuse – he moves in a new direction, challenging himself and the listener with lyrics more profound and more personal than before…
“There is fun to be had. There has to be, or this life would be a joyless life. There is a place for losing yourself, for not thinking.” On the risk of losing the significance of his lyrics in the club, Andy laughs knowingly, he’s practiced in providing liberating and joyful musical moments, and recognises sometimes that’s all we need. With Omnion though, he wants to trigger a feeling, to exercise awareness of our humanity. For Andy, creating this record meant feeling raw and vulnerable, embracing moments of despondence and hopelessness in the process. He hopes Omnion will allow his listeners to look inward, even if just for a moment. “If they feel a deep human emotion, if it prompts them to go through some amount of emotional process, prompts them to question something, or they are coaxed into a moment of deep reflection no matter how brief, then I’m happy.”
There’s a sense of rehabilitated clarity listening to Omnion. An acknowledgement of living in a world deeply flawed is clear – the album tackles feeling used, feeling helpless, religious faith as problematic, the refugee crisis, substance abuse and the dangers of misinformation – but also evident is a sensitivity, and a feeling of compassion and optimism. Has sobriety offered Andy Butler a fresh perspective of the world? “If we can liken the eyes to the heart, yes” he says, telling me that for two years his brain was unable to function properly, causing him distressing confusion and uncontrollably scattered emotions. Now, with lucidity, he feels overtly sensitised to the world, “you’re forced to look at things when you don’t have a way to check out. I was made susceptible to pain and difficulty, but also joy, and a new found sense of gratitude for the things I had been ignoring, or even ruining.”
Andy Butler is, in a word, thoughtful. As we chat, there are long pauses as he carefully ponders his response to my questions. He is ‘think before you speak’ personified, an example for us all. His pauses are never laboured, never awkward, instead the silence is warm and considered and it’s comforting to be in his presence. Music has always served as therapy for him, and more than ever, Omnion provided an opportunity for cleansing, facing difficulty and processing it creatively. “It was an opportunity to walk towards difficult emotional landscapes and process them, exploring my relationships with myself, my loved ones, the outside world and the world at large.”
An artist with whom Andy has a close personal and artistic relationship with is Anohni. The creative process behind her solo debut – 2016’s Hopelessness produced in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never – served as inspiration for this Hercules & Love Affair record in its extreme sincerity, authenticity and vulnerability. “After removing drugs and alcohol from my life, I didn’t feel like I had many options in terms of what to write about, I had to talk about the difficult things, and Anohni was an amazing model for my artistic expression, we’re kind of kindred spirits in that respect.” Outside of the studio, Anohni’s work is amongst a collection of records he’ll turn to as a healer. “She can make me feel human” he says with admiration, also naming Moondog, Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins and Sinead O’Connor as artists whose material restores him. “Naïve minimalist instrumental music can make me feel human somehow” he explains, talking specifically about the work of Belgian composer Wim Mertens, “when he sings, he doesn’t have the most perfect voice but he does some really expressive and beautiful things with it, and he writes these simple cyclical motifs.”
Alongside Anohni, two of Hercules & Love Affair’s key collaborators have also been instrumental in Andy’s recovery. “We’re thick as thieves” he smiles as he talks about his relationship with Gustaph and Rouge Mary, two immensely talented vocalists who both feature on Omnion. Rouge Mary is a French Algerian gospel singer, an intensely spiritual person of faith who’s gender-fluid. Butler describes the first time they met, backstage at a show: “There was this shadowy character in a long black trench coat, black hat, black sunglasses and long black hair. I was like, who is this lingering Goth in the corner?” he laughs, “I had to know her story.” The two have been working together ever since.
“I was made susceptible to pain and difficulty, but also joy, and a new found sense of gratitude for the things I had been ignoring, or even ruining.”
In a particularly special collaboration, Rouge Mary is joined on Omnion‘s ‘Are You Still Certain?’ by Hamed Sinno, singer of Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. Accompanied by Hercules & Love Affair’s trademark bright synth patterns, the two sing together in Arabic. The lyrics translate to “You, who say you know the truth, how is the truth working for you?” It’s a poignant message about faith, driven by a conversation of consolation Andy and Hamed had shortly after the Bataclan attack in Paris. It’s clear that Andy is impassioned by Mashrou’ Leila’s work. Hamed Sinno is openly gay and supported by his bandmates, who are all self-proclaimed feminists whose work is both politically engaging and provocative. “For me, it displayed a level of ignorance” he explains, “in my brain I was like, how can this be? They’re from a predominantly Muslim part of the world, they’re out and successful and talking about the things they believe in.” The reality is that Mashrou’ Leila face death threats, they’re banned from performing in some countries. “They’re incredibly brave individuals, we really connected and we’ve written this beautiful song together.”
Omnion is Hercules & Love Affair at its most sincere, most contemplative and most complex. A deeply personal record that marks significant progress, reflection, discovery and awareness, it’s certain that Andy Butler’s own musical therapy will serve as therapy to others too.
It’s now closing on a decade since the first Hercules album – the self-titled debut that came out in 2008 on DFA – if Andy could go back to 2008 and give himself a piece of advice, what would it be? There’s a long pause and he says quietly, “You’ve had a lot of fun making this music, it means a lot to you and you should protect it. But other people see your music as an object, so you have to see it in that way to some degree in order to be more involved in the business side.” After another pause, he laughs, “Well I wouldn’t be able to say just one thing, so I’d also say… Don’t take things too personally.”