Andy Butler has issues. “There are definitely moments when I’m like … is this message falling on deaf ears?” I’m sitting with the Hercules and Love Affair main man in the warm Portuguese sun, backstage at the Rock in Rio festival in Lisbon. In a few hours, HLA will storm the festival’s stage devoted to electronic acts, designed to resemble a giant white spider with a low platform for a heart, unveiling new songs and new singers for a small but wildly enthusiastic crowd. Curator Miguel Marangas has rather aggressively programmed them against Queens of the Stone Age and Linkin Park, and while aesthetic juxtapositions are part of any well-curated festival’s charms, their flamboyant disco-house anthems sound particularly queer and vital against the main stage’s exercises in machismo.
Butler continues, laughing. “But I’m not going to give up saying what I have to say just because there’s a seventeen year old bloke in front of me who’s wasted and not really interested in a message about opening your mind and embracing tolerance and letting yourself be cunt!”
Since their 2008 self-titled debut, Hercules and Love Affair and its rotating cast of players and singers have offered up flashes of this overtly political stance, which builds on the draggy Kevin Aviance sense of the word, the gender unspecific British insult, and the riot grrl-inspired reclamation of the misogynistic slur. But in “My Offence,” a highlight off their new album, The Feast of the Broken Heart, singer Krystle Warren goes all the way, channeling both Kathleen Hannah and Martha Wash to call down the patriarchy while robots turn cunt into a mantra. If the blokes aren’t listening, it’s their loss.
In person, Butler is giggly but thoughtful, with a wicked glint in his eye and fuscia dye in his ginger beard. This breezy Lisbon hilltop—where on the previous night Rock in Rio offered the Rolling Stones singing with Bruce Springsteen as Bill Clinton watched, and where on the following night Justin Timberlake will blend the entire 20th century of American popular music into an amiable smoothie for almost 80,000 screaming fans—is a world away from the Denver leather bars in which a teenage Butler got his start DJing in the 90s.
He’s brought that nightlife demimonde along for the trip though. His 2014 cast includes the Parisian Rouge Mary, a wild, gospel-trained combination of Gina Lollobrigida and Diamanda Galas, along with the small-statured but big-lung’ed Belgian singer Gustaph. On tour, they’re tasked with filling the shoes of previous HLA comrades like the trans icons Antony and Nomi, the playfully butch Kim Ann Foxman, and underappreciated avant-guard chanteuses Aerea Negrot and Shaun Wright.
On Feast, Rouge Mary and Gustaph are joined by queer hero John Grant, whom Butler first met almost twenty years ago at one of those pillars of communities that, like the leather bars Butler cut his teeth in, are rapidly vanishing: the indie record shop.
“John worked at [Denver landmark] Twist and Shout, and I was a fifteen year old, going in there and buying music. Fast forward twenty years and I’m doing press for Blue Songs [HLA’s occult-tinged, orchestral disco second album] when an interviewer asks me if I know John Grant, because he’s also from Denver and loves house music and is gay. I thought, hmmm, well, there’s not THAT many of us.”
Grant had just released his debut solo album, 2010’s wrenchingly decadent Queen of Denmark, which Butler loved. “We eventually connected in Vienna and spent a night playing music for each other and talking about all the people we knew in common. We went into the studio the next day, and by that point the social lubricant had been poured all over us, so it was really easy to just dive into collaboration.”
Butler’s commitment to collaboration is counter to what he dismisses as “the cult of personality, where audiences thought, I’m going to latch onto this person. Antony was on so many songs on that first record, and then we hit the road and immediately everyone was like, Where’s Antony? And then they were like, Where’s Nomi? Where’s Kim Ann? And now, it’s like, where’s John Grant? And I’m like: they’re not here! Accept it!”
Butler bursts into laughter, rubbing his eyes. “I like the idea that Hercules is bigger than a band, it’s a concept. You have to start from scratch over and over again.” He started from scratch a few times in the making of Feast, largely abandoning the organic instrumentation of the previous records.
“It originally started in a completely different place, with sort of lofty ambitions of making some sort of intellectual statement. I was really interested in creating a kind of ambient music? Can you imagine?” He tugs at his beard. “People would have been like, fuck that guy, he’s gone crazy! But maybe I was a little crazy at the time. I was reading Anais Nin and listening to Radiophonic Workshop and Wendy Carlos and sampling Camille Paglia. I was going to make this feminist ambient techno.”
But instead, Butler simplified and went back to his roots. After meeting Gustaph at a gig, they made the buoyant “That’s Not Me” together. “It’s kind of just a standard house track,” Butler says, raising his hands in defeat. “I was like, nope, that’s it! We’re just doing house! We’re just doing house tracks with a gritty underground feel, a trackiness with solid pop structures. I decided to just get my inner warehouse party going and throw it onto a record.”
After sundown, Butler and company bring that party to the stage in fabulous costumes—Rouge Mary in a sweatshirt-cum-minidress bejeweled with a ruby and sapphire cross; Gustaph in boldly-patterned matching shirt and shorts; Mark Pistel, of industrial legends Consolidated, in all black; Butler himself in a bonkers caftan-esque confection under an anorak and neon orange doo-rag—and thank the crowd for following them through this latest reinvention. “Rock in Rio?” Butler hollers as Rouge Mary waggles his tongue and throws jocular devil fingers into the air. “Let’s make it Disco in Rio!”
The crowd obliges, and for an hour or so a kind of temporary autonomous zone forms under the spider’s legs, bringing past sounds into the future and demonstrating just how good the present moment should feel. As the John Water’s Mondo Trasho-sampling “5.43 to Freedom” marches toward its epic climax, in which Rouge Mary sings “Be yourself! Like there ain’t nobody! Freedom!” Butler waves his arms and shakes his ass and sings along. Afterwards, he points at Rouge Mary, triumphant, and says to the crowd: “We need more people like this. We need more people like you.”