NEW YORK DISCO STAR DOES NOT LIKE SEX ON MUSIC
Andy Butler has just released his first album. It’s a hip, danceable and melancholic record called Hercules and Love Affair by Hercules and Love Affair. On it, he turns his friend Antony, from Antony & the Johnsons, into a proper disco diva in a couple of songs. Blind was a smash hit this spring. The album manages to make a potted history of the last thirty years of dance music sound brilliantly thoughtful and modern. I described it to a clever friend as ‘The gay Blue Lines’ and he said, ‘What? Brown Lines?’ — which I loved. Andy is just off the Eurostar from Paris when we meet in London in his hotel room on a Saturday night. A really genius re-edit of Queen’s A Kind of Magic is playing in the bedroom when I walk in. He lets me make the tea, because he is American. Andy lives in New York and has a boyfriend called Ben.
Andy: What do you wanna hear? My life?
Paul: Totally. Tell me your life.
Let me see. I was born in Washington, DC, and then moved to Denver, Colorado, when I was, like, 13 or 14.
Was it like Dynasty?
My life wasn’t very Dynasty, no. It was more, like, suburban. It was a super-white-bread upbringing. There wasn’t as much drama or glamour as Dynasty, that’s for sure. I came out in Denver when I was 15. The porn mags drove me out of the closet — my mom kept finding porn. It was 1993. I was a graffiti writer. More of a street urchin. At 13, 14, I started getting into trouble.
Older men. I grew up going to this gay beach town near DC. My parents had a home in this really, really gay town called Rehoboth Beach. I’d set up the umbrellas on the beach and that was the first time I ever understood what gay pride was. It was all there: the rainbow flag and the stickers. When I moved out to Denver I started going to warehouse parties and raves, just doing various stupid, illegal things like spray-painting and…
Yes, a lot of drugs.
What were you doing?
Everything. By the time I was 16 I was a little…done. Maybe not everything. But a lot. The cool record store was in Capitol Hill, which was also where the gay strip was. I would go looking for music and the record store was next to, like, a fetish-wear shop. I started hanging out at these warehouse parties and got to hang out with a group of gay guys who were real house-music heads and club freaks. I left the street behind and started hanging out with, well, pretty much gay DJs. A lot of them were ex-San Francisco people.
Did the gay thing and the rave thing crossover a lot?
Yeah for sure, the main rave promoter in Denver was a gay dude called Merrick. But he died. I think he threw himself in front of a train. That was bleak. He was 40-something when I was 17, and he was the gay papa who threw the parties. The first time I ever got to hear an all-disco set, I was 17 and it was in Merrick’s living room. One of the guys called Garth played nothing newer than, like, 1983. I was on mushrooms and I remember dancing in just my socks. I became obsessed.
Why do so many gay men have an obsession with that late-seventies disco thing now, growing moustaches and wearing leather?
For me it’s purely musical. I’d been listening to house music before that. I mean, I was born in ’78. All I really understood at that age was that these were places I could go to be myself and be around other gay men and express myself fully. So I guess in that sense I had the same reaction that people in the seventies had to disco music.
Were other boys from high school raving with you?
My best friend was. But no, I had to sniff it out. I have a good nose for sniffing out trouble. These were the places I could leave behind my suburban Denver life. I was at an all-boys, suburban, Catholic high school.
Not at all. I played American football for two years.
That’s really hot.
It’s hot until you realise that not a single boy would change near you in the locker room. They all knew I was queer. I was the football-playing queer.
I like the dichotomy.
But it was always a little…intense. It was kind of not fun. After two years at that school I told my parents I had to go to a school that had girls. My whole thing to them was, ‘I’m lacking a female perspective in my life.’ And then my father was like, ‘Don’t you just want pussy?’ and I was like, ‘No. Not at all. I just want women’s perspectives on things.’ That was like a really mature argument, right? I left that school after two years and went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. It was funny because I had really got my partying done before I went to college, between the ages of 15 and 18.
Were your precocious party years just about drugs or did you get laid as well?
Oh yeah. I had boyfriends. Tons.
All older. It’s intense for me to look back at that, because the people from that era are really not in great shape now. Like Merrick, who jumped in front of a train, and other people have really bad drug addictions and people who are really like… Sadly, there are only a handful of people that really made it through that. The rest of them are all on the street and toothless.
Did you find older men hot?
Yeah. It’s changed now. I’m dating a younger person now.
Isn’t that just a gay cycle that happens?
I think sometimes it takes an older man to help you to put the words to your experience. Then you have a sense of what’s going on. You don’t need someone to hold your hand through it all anymore. When I moved to New York it was funny because the same thing happened. I started going out again and I just met another group of older gay dudes. I started doing the house music thing there. Larry Tee was one of the first people I met. Of course. Daniel Wang has a similar story about meeting Larry. Larry’s such a scenester. I met him at Twilo and he gave me a bump of K that made me forget my name.
’96 was a funny time to arrive in New York. The nighttime was kind of really hideous then.
It was hard house, Junior Vasquez had a superbig night at Twilo, The Tunnel was happening.
And Junior was playing 25-minute percussive house remixes of Whitney Houston songs?
Right. It was starting to get all pots and pans. Tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh. All the build-ups were a constant drum roll. I never felt at home.
And all those venues looked so ugly, but not in a good way.
It’s true. It was drab.
The whole gay thing just looked like one big Chelsea.
Face-less muscle boys? Totally.
Everyone’s fucked on drugs but not in a friendly way.
For sure. Once I went to a Junior Vasquez after-hours thing. I went with a dude that I thought was cute and we were out of our heads. I can’t remember what I was doing, probably K, because I was totally K, K, K, K when I got to New York. K really freaked me out. I remember being on a dance floor and the music was so aggressive, the dudes all looked like road warriors, they all had their shirts off. I did a bump of K and I felt, like, ‘Actually, this is disgusting. This has a gnarly, ugly vibe.’ It was aggressive and sexual but terrible. I played at Panorama bar in Berlin a couple of weeks ago and that was this huge, superindustrial space with banging techno. The vibe was so sexual but at the same time there was this whole respect thing going on. It felt human.
Unlike the old New York vibe.
Right. Those New York clubs had no humanity. There was sex happening in the corner in Berlin but it was way more relaxed and cool. In New York at that time it was gross and uptight. But then I met Derrick Carter when I was 19 and we started hanging out. I actually started dating him.
Well, we went out. For a year and a half.
I didn’t know that. How was that?
It was fun. I love Derrick. It was weird. It was a period where he was really, like, in high demand. Travelling all the time. It was fun and cool. To a degree.
Oh my god, you totally did the jockey slut thing? Had you dated DJs before him? It tends to be a pattern.
For sure. My first boyfriend in Denver was a DJ. Totally house.
What was he called?
(tells me his name) But don’t mention him please.
’Cause he’s a mess and he’s gross. He’s one of those people that I look back on and it’s a bummer. He got lost. Denver was a great thriving place for music for, like, a minute. Then it went.
What killed it? Too many drugs?
People just weren’t ambitious. It’s kind of like San Francisco. Which I love in a way, but it just felt like every time you went there in the golden house days of the nineties, you’d say to someone, ‘So what do you do?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, nothing. I’ve just been up for three days on crack. I’m gonna go to The Endup. Again.’ Everything was deteriorating.
Because of crystal meth?
Oh yeah. Gross. Really.
Have you done it?
Oh yeah. Like, of course.
Didn’t it make you totally sex crazed?
I was a teenager when I did it and I stopped early. My experience of it was never related to sex.
You must be the only man in the world who didn’t get off on it!
I had a sort of non-sexual relationship with it. I had a much more facilitate-the-party attitude to crystal. I was primarily a hallucinogenic person. I was way more interested in cerebral, mental things. I didn’t get the confusion. I think a lot of people confuse crystal with their sex lives too much and they get a little crazy, and I never had that happen.
Let’s get back to Derrick. That’s fun. How did you two meet?
I met him at Twilo. I had an old mix tape of his on which he’d played a cassette tape on the top of his sets where his mother was interviewing him as a baby. In the middle of the mix this deranged voice would come on, going, ‘What’s your name?’ And this baby would say, ‘Derrick William Michael Lamont Carter.’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Four years old.’ It was all over total acid house. We’d trip out to it. It was fucking crazy. Supercool. I asked Derrick about it and he invited me to some afterparty. A whole group of people went but I didn’t want to because I was nervous. I went to breakfast with him, though, and we started hanging out and bonded. We got really close.
Did you love him?
Yeah, totally. I love him. I still love Derrick. It was hard though. I had a bleak view of gay relationships already at that age.
I don’t know. I didn’t see much stability in them, growing up. All the older gay men that I knew had really dramatic, fucked-up relationships. But then they were all dramatic, fucked-up people. I just didn’t have much faith. With Derrick, I was taking it for what it was. He was a DJ. He travelled all over the world. Derrick had a reputation at gigs where he was booked and just wouldn’t turn up. He’d sleep through them. He did the same thing with our relationship. So it didn’t work. After him, I didn’t have romantic relationships with the next series of older queer people in my life. They offered amazing friendship and mentorship. It’s funny how in my life I’ve had a lot of these guys that have shown me a lot about culture. Derrick, then there was Danny Wang shortly thereafter, then some non-gay people in the mix. This crazy British guy who ran an insane art shop in Soho who I started going to and learning a lot about disco from. And Antony, of course.
Antony from Antony & the Johnsons.
Yeah. When I met him he had been involved in East Village performance arts for so long. You look at Antony and he just shows you this whole other side of New York. Before I met him I didn’t understand the difference between what was happening at The Pyramid and what was happening at The Paradise Garage. At The Pyramid there was this whole drag, performance component. It was art. That wasn’t happening at The Paradise Garage. But of course I was superinterested and excited to learn about it all. Some of those DJs were super-cutting-edge, like Johanna Constantine, one of the Johnsons, who’s performed and toured with Antony a lot. I remember being 22 and going out and hearing her DJ in New York before I even knew Antony and being really blown away by all this music I really didn’t have a clue about. Nu-beat, acid, industrial weird shit. She played at a gay club called Daddy.
Sounds great, where was Daddy?
It’s where The Hole was. Daddy was The Hole before The Hole was The Hole, and The Hole is now The Cock.
I get it.
Jason from Scissor Sisters was go-go dancing there. Before Scissors. It’s weird. With house music in New York I could take it or leave it. There’s a handful of DJs. Masters At Work, of course. Todd Terry? Major. Supercool. DJ Duke. Yes. But a lot of it was so not interesting to me. The whole Michael Alig thing? Disco 2000? Keoki? I was so not interested in that Limelight culture. That was a problem for me. So as much as drugs or glitz or sex has driven me to places, nothing has ever driven me like music. If it wasn’t a good DJ, I wasn’t interested in going. I’m still like that. I’m rotten if it’s a bad DJ. People I’m with are like, ‘You have a stank look on your face.’ I need to be escorted from the premises. I exude negativity if the music’s bad.
Are you basically a snob?
It sounds really harsh. I’m not that judgmental. But I’ve got that thing that girls have about shoes and belts with guys and music. I can get past the shoes and belt, personally, but if you’re digging on bad trance I’m so not into you.
Do you listen to music while you’re having sex?
No. No way! I can’t at all.
It’s the same as crystal meth?
Totally. Like, let’s leave it in that world. I don’t get into that. Do you?
Not as a rule, no. Really weird old Hi-NRG is good if you’re wasted. Quite climactic. I like that.
That’s so funny. I’ve heard other people say that. I can’t imagine!
Who’s your boyfriend?
Oh my god, this is kind of scandalous but I was his personal trainer. I trained at a couple of different gyms, but at this point I was at The New York Health and Racket Club on 14th Street, just off Union Square. The woman who connects the trainers with their clients told me what Ben was looking for and I was like, OK, he sounds cute and sweet. I can’t tell you what he said on his form because he’ll be so embarrassed.
What did he say?
OK, I’ll tell you. He said he wanted to work on his muffin tops. His muffin tops!
What the fuck are muffin tops?
Here. (points to each roll above the hip) That was supercute. I had to meet this person that wants to work on his muffin tops.
Did he have noticeable muffin tops when you met him?
No. He was a queen in that regard. He told me when we were working out that if things are painful and uncomfortable for him then he likes it. That registered with me.
I bet it did.
I’d never had too much of an in-love thing before Ben. I was dating someone else at the time.
What turns you on?
I tend to like hairy and I like noses.
Is he hairy?
A little. He’s Jewish. A Mexican Jew. He’s a sculptor. He did all the artwork for the Hercules album. So Ben and I are collaborating a bit.
Cute. And the artwork works. When was the first time you played him Hercules?
Shortly after we met, I think.
How long was it after you met him that you had sex?
A couple of weeks. I was trying to temper the lusty thing. There’s been a thousand and one recipes. I’ve had a lot of boyfriends….
When you hear, you’ll be like, ‘Dude, they cannot all be boyfriends.’ What would you count? Longer than six months? That’s a boyfriend, isn’t it? My mom’s very sweet: she always told me you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince. I was like, ‘Mom, I kissed so many fucking frogs it’s unreal.’ I had kind of a rotating door with boyfriends. I think I’ve had about fifteen of over six months. At least one a year since I was 15.
How long was the longest?
Two years. A guy called Brook. Nice. Very sweet. Smart. A little troubled. Cute. Go-go boy. Or at least he was the last time I checked in.
Are you a one-nighter?
No. Not any more.
Yeah. I mean, initially it was very, very amazing to me that sex could just happen and you didn’t have to commit. You know what I mean? When I was younger it was more like, ‘Cool, we don’t have to fuss.’ But then you meet someone and you try dating them and because there’s no fuss the idea of a relationship becomes that much harder. To build a real one, I mean. Engaging with someone who is similarly not used to much fuss and just pursuing their desires immediately. Three, four years ago I made this conscious decision to try something else. I don’t know. Gay life is really weird. You don’t have models for relationships. Or not healthy ones. And you don’t have the same forum for meeting people. Like, it would’ve been great if I had asked Billy two rows over in geometry class if he wanted to date. But no. So what are the outlets you’re left with? The Internet? A park? You know what I mean?
Did you go up the park in Capitol Hill back in Denver?
Of course. As a teenager it was somewhere I knew I could go and just see other gay people. That was just something I did for identity purposes.
Let’s be philosophical here: is cruising a search for identity? Or is it just a search for cock?
No, definitely it’s a search for identity. But it’s a shame, because then your identity is just built on sex or the way you have sex or who you have sex with. It doesn’t open us up to the idea that identity can be built on other things, too.
How does it work with you being away from Ben a lot?
It’s just started. I was talking about this with a friend who also travels a lot and they said, ‘Don’t you miss your boyfriend?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I also like seeing new places, doing new things and knowing new people.’ You know? It’s interesting to go to Tokyo, period. He’s supercool and mellow, too. I call him a lot. He’s more relaxed. I wonder what it would be like if it was the other way around.
Did you have the whole monogamy conversation before you started travelling?
Yes. We’re monogamous. We sort of knew it from the outset. It’s very simple really. If two adults can show up and negotiate their terms then that’s that. Fortunately he and I are on the same page with what our needs are at the moment. It might not necessarily be the same thing in ten years, but this is what’s healthy… Whatever. It’s annoying, right? It’s intense, because I only really walked into gay life seeing the opposite. Like no-holds-barred shit. What’s it called when they’re…eh…panaramous? Polyamorous! People with like three boyfriends and a girlfriend and it was all really dramatic. There was just this handful of guys that I met when I first came out that were really crazy. Really fucked on drugs and for a 16-year-old, just hanging out at these guys’ houses… There was this one notorious house where a bunch of them lived and I remember sitting on the sofa one day and noticing that one of the guys was being taken out in a straightjacket after a crazy weekend. Like, ‘What’s going on? Why is he being taken out, restrained?’ And everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Ross has been talking about shadow people recently.’ I was, like, ‘I don’t know whether this house is really good for me. This house is a little weird.’ My exposure to gay people was tied up with so much over-indulgence. Everyone was so fucked-up.
Do you attract fucked up people?
Not any more. No. I actually repel them. They’re disgusted by me. I don’t know… I’m such a grandma in so many ways.
Do guys like the ginger thing with you?
Not as much as I’d like. Ha! Particularly when I come to England, I don’t find that I get much heat. Which is fine. But I still wouldn’t mind a cruise. Or for at least someone to hit on me.
I know a few men here in London that love a ginger. I’ll get one to hit on you.
Really? Do it. The last time I was here I read a story in the paper about a family that had been run out of town for being red-heads. I feel like there’s a certain resistance to gingers.
We’ll sort it.
Originally published in BUTT 23