Andy Butler, the central figure of dance music collective Hercules & Love Affair, is explaining his group’s latest album title to me. We’ve met at Hoi Polloi, the restaurant at the Ace Hotel in London’s east end, and when I arrive he stands to give me one strong handshake. Butler isn’t a tall man, but he’s broad and muscular, with closely shaved light red hair, and he’s dressed comfortably in fashionable sportswear. We’re sat in close proximity across a small table as lunch service goes on around us.
“So, Omnion,” he begins, looking straight at me. “I just was looking for a word that could sort of identify a spiritual entity that felt comfortable for me. When you’re a little kid and someone says, ‘God looks like this’ or ‘God looks like that,’ often it’s this image, at least in the Western world for a Catholic like me growing up, of Santa Claus in the sky. And that doesn’t work for me now.”
Having interviewed Butler on the phone before, I’m aware of the DJ and producer’s propensity for intense and thoughtful answers. However, as we sit facing each other his unbelievably blue eyes unwavering, taking in my face, he also peppers his lengthy answers to my questions with insecure “ums” and repetition, as he chooses his words carefully to get his points across. This careful consideration over what he says, paired with his piercing dedication to eye contact, is at times disconcerting and incredibly comforting.
Originally hailing from Denver and now living in Belgium, Butler started Hercules & Love Affair in 2004. Across four albums and a myriad of collaborators, Butler has ventured into the heart of electronic and dance music to create a truly queer experience. It’s unsurprising, then, that during these uncertain social and political times, he would be searching for some form of alternative outlet. “I was just overwhelmed,” he says, his voice soft, “and in a quite hopeless way, you know?”
A way to cope was writing the album’s title track, “Omnion,” featuring New Jersey-born singer songwriter Sharon Von Etten. An electronic prayer steeped in synthesized mysticism, the track sees Von Etten appealing to an Omnion asking, “Can you help?” “That appeal had to be targeted and directed at the right thing or person or whatever, and in this case, I needed to find a word that represented a god-like character,” Butler adds. “So, it was Omnion, and it indicates that it’s everywhere, it’s all knowing and it’s gender neutral.”
This isn’t the first time that Butler, and through him Hercules & Love Affair, have addressed religion and spirituality. The group’s last album, The Feast of the Broken Hearted, was described as a “celebration of [the] queer” a championing of flamboyance and the feminine and it certainly played with (mainly Catholic) religious imagery, most notably feast days and the pomp of religious celebrations. “I was engaging the idea that the club could be a sort of congregational spiritual experience,” Butler says.
Through four-to-the-floor house beats, The Feastelevated the club, creating an alternative space for many individuals Butler included who felt rejected by the church. If that album was an exploration of spiritual freedom, then its follow-up, Omnion, asks what happens to people when the club closes. “I think that, sometimes, that freedom ends there for them,” Butler suggests. “This [album] is more about that conversation outside of the club after you’ve had the spiritual experience. Because I wish people carried that spirit more into the day to day.”
That’s not to say that this spirituality comes easily. But then, as Butler says, perhaps it shouldn’t. “The most truthful thing I’ve ever heard about faith is that it’s not always there,” he says during one of many intense answers, his piercing blue eyes unwavering, “it comes and goes. And anyone who says they just believe and there’s no questioning I justI don’tI question their faith. Because faith is something that inherently escapes us at moments, and that’s very much what my experience of it is, you know? I’m lucky if I have moments where I really remind myself to trust and connect, and they happen more and more.”
What’s helped with this spiritual journey is the collaborators with whom he works with on Hercules & Love Affair, most notably the contradictory figure of Rouge Mary, who is featured on the anthemic “Rejoice” and “Wild Child.” “Rouge is Algerian French, she is a gospel singer, she is a ‘he’ – like, she is, you know, a genderfuck character. Yet, among all of those contradictions [there’s] still a serious connection and faith,” Butler explains.
“You’re told growing up [that] you’re abhorrent; you’re queer and you’re abhorrent. You’re hated. You will go to hell. In other words, you don’t get to talk to God. And I spent the past few years with someone who’s talking to God all the time. That meant to me, as an example, more than ever that it’s possible for me to access the spiritual.”
While Butler is clear to state that Rouge isn’t the only individual to have helped shape the identity and trajectory of Hercules (he also names long-time friend and collaborator Anohni, Gustaph, “and a group of regular collaborators” whom he says he feels “really lucky” to work with), he does suggest that Omnion is the first album where he deconstructed what it means to be himself: Andy Butler.
“I needed to address who Andy is. Any label – I’m a musician, I’m Hercules & Love Affair, I’m gay, I’m a man, I’m muscular, I have tattoos, I have red hair like everything; every descriptor at one moment or another just felt like I couldn’t keep it. And what ended up happening was at some moment I felt like, well then, what’s left? And in that moment, I think it’s really hard to not develop a sense of spirituality, you know? I don’t think you have many other options than to start having to deal with hard questions and meaning,” he says.
“If I’m not Andy, the gay Caucasian ginger muscular tattooed musician, what am I? That’s the harder moment. I don’t speak for everyone and for some people, it’s understandable that they want to reject going into that kind of a dialogue with themselves, especially because institutions that sort of pedal this kind of spirituality are often the same institutions that condemn queer people and want to see us dead sometimes.”
To linger on just the spiritual elements of Omnion, however, would be to do a disservice to a record that also asks questions on both a micro and macro level. Whether it’s resisting the constructs of genre clearly sonic symbolism for resistance on a greater scale or immersion in new opportunities, be it religious, cultural, spiritual or personal, the fourth Hercules & Love Affair album is saturated with a self-imposed responsibility to venture into unknown territory. It’s by no means a “protest record,” but a part of the movement.
Explaining one particular song, “Are You Still Certain”, which features the Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila and most prominently the vocals of openly gay singer Hamed Sinno, Butler tells me that it was, initially, a response to Trump’s Muslim ban, but soon became an inspection of anti-Islamic, anti-Arabic rhetoric in America writ-large.
“When I was introduced to Hamed,” Butler recalls, “here was a character, again, who had contradictions or at least evidently, from my ignorant Western-American self, I saw contradictions. How can you be out and successful and a gay Arabic singer? It was an opportunity for me to not only write beautiful music with people, but it was an opportunity for me to carry my ignorance, hold it out and walk towards a couple of individuals who were willing to help me process it. We wrote a beautiful piece of music that speaks to humility.”
Continuing, Butler explains that the ability to take a step forward and learn from other cultures and individuals countered the usual approach that people take, which is “self-professed knowledge as a means to oppress other people.” “It’s just senseless and self-serving and ego-driven horror,” he adds. “So, it was amazing for me to able to go into a studio, explore all of that in conversation, translate it into a song. And to have it presented in Arabic as well was an opportunity to immerse myself in information instead of saying, ‘’I don’t need to learn about that’ or like, ‘That’s not that important to me.’ It was like, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with the narrative I’m seeing in the news.’”
Along with a wider world view, Omnion also deals specifically with something closer to Butler’s own experience: addiction. Across Hercules’ four records, the DJ and producer has explored and spoken candidly about his hedonistic youth and sometimes dangerous immersion into the gay party culture. Writing a recent essay for Pitchfork, Butler shared his experiences with substance abuse in his youth, getting sober at 21 years old and how, following the success of Hercules & Love Affair, he found himself once again addicted to drugs. It’s something he addresses on “Fools Wear Crowns” the only track to feature his vocals and the one truly somber moment on the album. It’s a song not only brimming with remorse, but also a critical analysis of how, as human beings, we almost celebrate other people’s failures.
Thankfully, Butler is now sober and is moving away from those behaviors that motivated him both as a young person and as an addict. “My goals at the age of 15 were scoring a sheet of acid so I could sell LSD and make enough money to go to the rave that weekend,” he jokes, darkly. “I’m nearly 40 now, so my dreams have changed. But I can’t be alone in thinking that sometimes the same things that drove us when we were teenagers or young adults still motivate us to this day.”
What’s striking about “Fools Wear Crowns,” and a lot of Omnion to be honest, is that it doesn’t shy away from accountability; it ventures into that gray unexplored area of complexity. “It’s hard to be empathetic to people who choose drinking over their children. It’s hard to be empathetic to people who find themselves committing crimes because they’re addicted to a substance,” Butler admits. “I understand that. But I think, if anything, being honest about [addiction] and living openly can change that stuff from happening.”
“It was so hard for me when I was 21 years old trying to get sober. By the time I was 25, everything was so black and white, and I was in a lot of pain because I couldn’t do anything right,” he continues. “But I gave that up, you know, and sort of acknowledged that there’s no…that it’s never right. Life’s never going to be like this, you know? It’s not as simple as: you’re evil or you’re good.”
This realization, along with the other themes touched on across Omnion’s 11 tracks, doesn’t signal an end to Andy Butler’s journey, even if he did call the last song on the album “Epilogue.” “The album begins with a little prayer to an Omnion and, in a way, it ends with an appeal, again,” Butler explains, our time together ending.
“Essentially, it’s requesting that an external entity or the universe allows us to remain flexible and remain free and open-minded.”
Photography: pepo fernandez @pepostudio
Styling: Ben Hammond @benjaminhammond
Makeup: Carly Lim @carlylim_makeup
Assistant: Krystian Bukowski @krisbukowski