Andy Butler, the leader of New York house collective Hercules and Love Affair, is surveying his petite bandmate, Kim Ann Foxman, from across the room of their London crash pad. 'The thing that's interesting about Kim Ann,' he says, 'is that of all of us, she's the one that boys, girls, all of us want to have sex with. She's the most universally appealing.'
'I have to accept it,' says the singer, shrugging coquettishly. 'It's a nice compliment.'
'I don't mean it in a pervy way,' Butler replies. 'People just find her very beautiful, and they're willing to express it.'
When it's suggested that Hercules may be the gayest band currently on the circuit, Bulter's immediate response is, 'Yes, I think we are.' Then he reconsiders: 'But I think what's interesting is that we're actually not. We're the most gay, lesbian, transgender, multicultural band probably, rather than just being the 'gayest' band. In some ways, I'd just say we're the most authentic band out there. You can't box us into one thing or another.'
Indeed, the muscular, redheaded DJ-producer is every inch a flamer, but he's also the group's butch figurehead. Foxman, half-Filipino and raised in Honolulu, escaped the beauty pageant world her mother tried nudging her into, embraced her own sexuality, and moved to San Francisco to work in a leather bar. The statuesque, androgynous singer Shaun Wright defies any notion of gender or sexuality imaginable. Token hetero, Mark Pistel, identifies culturally as gay anyway, and recent collaborators have included Antony Hegarty (who provided vocals to Hercules' sublime breakthrough track, 'Blind') and Bloc Party front man Kele Okereke, London's eminent out indie-guitar-group singer.
Where the gayness is undeniable is in the DNA of their music, a live-band strain of classic house and nu-disco. Their 2008 eponymous debut transformed them into the darlings of the cooler-than-thou DFA Records scene in New York City and was pivotal in ushering in a new wave of disco. But on Hercules' follow-up, the more somber Blue Songs (out on Moshi Moshi), Butler pushes his songwriting front and center. 'There was a conscious decision on my part to make less of a referential record,' he says. 'I was producing those songs from the first album over a period of seven years. I was driven by my passion for disco and house, going through phases of collecting records, and then writing my own music, but doing those things exclusively. We got compared to Giorgio Moroder and Inner City and Arthur Russell, blah, blah, blah. Great, but what's my voice?'
One of Blue Songs' emotional highlights is 'Boy Blue,' built around a guitar riff Butler first wrote at the age of 17. Back then, he wrote with heroes in mind (he says he still does) and imagined his songs being performed by Sin'ad O'Connor. Witnessing her aggressive The Lion and the Cobra period was a seminal moment in Butler's life. 'The song was based on being thankful I ever got to see that,' he says, 'because it provided me strength to come out at the age I did: 15. It was just because I saw a woman rebelling against her gender and saying 'Fuck you' to a lot of people.'
That rebellious spirit stuck, and Butler remains active on the vanguard of gay politics. But of the music of a certain other gay rights advocate, he says: 'What is the first thing to come out of a baby's mouth? 'Gaga.' And what is it but children's music? It's middle-aged gay men dancing around to music for 11-year-old girls.' Madonna, he says, had more about her, but he thinks she's lost touch a bit herself. His advice? 'She needs to make an age-appropriate record that still appeals to young people. There should be no rapping on it. She should acknowledge the people that grew up with her, but she needs to hook them back in. Deep house is having a revival. Why doesn't she do a deep-house track? But a sophisticated, subtle deep-house track. I could help her with that.'
For the record, Butler is entirely serious in his offer of services. But with his thriving dance label (Mr. INTL), an international DJ career, Blue Songs now out in the U.S., and the next Hercules record already being 'conceptualized,' Madonna may find herself at the end of a very long waiting list.