Artist To Artist: When Harri Met Larry
This weekend Sub Club is set to play host to perhaps the most influential figure in house music. This is saying something considering the fact that both Harri, Dom and Optimo are all on the same bill. It isn't often that they are usurped. However, this is a special occasion.
Larry Heard will revive his Mr. Fingers alias on British shores for the first time in twenty years, playing an exclusive live set in Glasgow. His records remain some of the most heavily drawn for pieces of music by disc jockeys across the globe. Releases on the likes of Trax, Alleviated Records and Jack Trax established his mighty status in the '80s and remain as relevant and important thirty years later.
This summer saw him tease the news that he would release a new album in the new year. It will be his first since 2005 and has the potential to be one of the most important records in dance music culture for years.
Ahead of his appearance in Scotland we were blessed with the incredibly rare opportunity of hosting an exclusive interview between Harri of Subculture and Larry Heard himself. We implore you to attend.
Harri: Nice to meet you man! What time are you on over there?
Larry: It's about 10 in the morning here.
Ah alright, I don’t do mornings.
I do my running around while everyone else is at work.
I’m a late night kind of guy, I rarely go to bed before about 3 in the morning… anyway, I’ve got a list of questions here but we’ll just kind of freestyle it. That’s actually one of the first questions I was gonna ask you – when you’re going into the studio to do tracks, do you treat it like a 9-5 or is it just when the moment hits you?
I basically set aside a time window for myself, like the premise of a regular job, except I just go into the studio during that time.
Is your studio at home or do you go and work in a separate place?
It’s at home. So between the studio and the office I make that my 8 hour day, y’know? It's close to being a normal person instead of always being on the clock which is weird.
Y'know I was reading about Neil Young and he doesn't really have a discipline for music. He has lots of things he loves doing – fixing cars, model railways – and sometimes he can go months without doing any music, but then he’ll get an idea and go, ‘Alright, I'm gonna go and do music now.'
That's great. I mean, I have interests other than music, but everyone's always inviting me to music events, it's like an overdose of music. Invite me to a library or an art exhibition or something!
What sort of books are you into?
Some of everything. I’ve always done a lot of photography on the side since I was a teenager, so I like coffee table books with great photography in. Here’s one I finally got my hooks on a few days ago [holds up The Cover Art of Blue Note Records book]. I also like documentaries, or I'll walk around and check out architecture in my own town if I can.
There's a famous Glasgow architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who designed the Art School. If you have enough time when you're here it's worth having a look at his stuff. I was gonna ask you, growing up, were you a club kid, did you go out to discos?
Uh no I didn't, I was more of a homeschool kid as far as music was concerned, just everything my parents and aunts and uncles and brothers and cousins were collectively buying and listening to. I pretty much started working when I was 15 while other kids were probably starting to sneak into clubs at that age, so my time was devoted elsewhere.
When you were making your first ever electronic records, you were obviously inspired by early disco and European stuff.
I think everything I’ve encounted that I’ve enjoyed… it kinda gets in your psyche a bit, so yeah, all those little ingredients.
Did you ever listen to any African music, reggae, stuff like that?
As far as reggae is concerned, there's never been any kind of movement in Chicago. Maybe in New York they had more. We just had Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, there was a limited number of people who made it through the airwaves.
Detroit has Movement Festival… do you think it would be a good idea for Chicago to have a similar festival to promote the legacy of house music?
I dunno if I'm qualified to make up the rules for Chicago just because I've made some music – that's more of a business and social venture, and what I do is self-contained within myself and my studio. You're talking about a whole community being involved, so they have has to agree about things, you cant force concepts on people.
Somebody’s asked the question, ''What About This Love' is an incredible song and it demonstrates great artistry and songwriting skills, is it about anyone in particular or is it generic reflection?'
Um, more the latter… it's a common scenario for everybody, y'know, you question somebody’s motives…
When you started off, you probably never would have imagined that you could make a living doing something that you liked, and that it would last as long as this… what did you imagine you would be doing?
Probably just working a 9-5 that I hate, like most people.
What was your 9-5?
At that time I was working for the federal government – for the Health, Education & Welfare Department – sitting at a desk with books of procedures all around me like a lawyer. Rules and regulations and all that fun stuff.
Personally I think that if you're successful in any sort of artform, there's an awful lot of luck and timing involved, but some people say you make your own luck… what do you think?
Maybe it's a mixture of both of those things. I mean, it's not like I didn't invest any time in developing a skillset while other friends of mine were running around having fun.
There's a book about how if you put 10,000 hours in at something you will become an expert.
I’ve heard that. I’ve probably got about 30,000 hours down! I started out at 17 playing drums, and I was always learning from that point forward. Especially with everything changing around us, 'cos we went from 45s and albums to 8-track tapes and cassettes, and then 12"s were a new thing around the mid '70s. I remember the first time seeing one, like 'What's that big record there?' I was curious just because it was bigger than the other records.
And the whole theory was that just because the grooves were wider it was louder!
Yeah that's what I heard!
Do you have a particular favourite album of all time?
Of all time, wow! I’ve had so many favourite albums that I can't just pick one. The albums that would be my favourite from coming up would be so stereotypical because they’re all classics now. Songs in the Key of Life was the Big Bang when it first came out, I was 16 years old then.
Do you imagine you’ll ever do a Fingers Inc. tour?
If it happened, it would be myself and Robert [Owens], 'cos we cant seem to locate Ron Wilson for anything. He's been on the milk carton for maybe 15 years and nobody knows where he is. There's been sightings of him, but he's one of those 'off the grid' types.
It must be funny for people to have done something at some point in their life, and then just leave it all behind.
Ron was more involved working with the local dance troupes around town and doing plays. That's actually where I knew him from. Then I happened to see him in a production and I thought, ‘Oh he can sing, I only knew about the dancing!’ That's when he ended up in Fingers Inc. but I think his heart was always more into the dancing.
Is making music something you'll do for the rest of your life?
I stopped DJing to preserve my hearing, but that was not a flip decision, that was more of a serious thing where I started to notice something wrong with my hearing. I mean, it was a miracle that I still had hearing, having started off playing drums and then transitioning right into the house music scene and all of the decibels connected with it. But I didn't want to be around loud stuff for a while as a precaution.
I'm just looking at the questions again… Does Kanye West inspire you?
Ummm… I can't say I'm able to follow him a lot, 'cos I have my own job, which leaves very little time to keep track of the whole rest of the world when you're in essence running your own organisation. What I will say is he has a problem when he gets up in front of a microphone!
And an ego the size of a house! What do you think of Donald Trump?
Sometimes I think it's all a national social experiment that's going on. There's someone who’s never even been a precinct captain, so how are you president? He doesn't have the personality of a civil servant – the key word being servant, I don't think he understood that one!
He’s a sociopath and a psychopath, there's definitely something going on there.
Definitely somewhat of a bully, and great at getting in fights with people. He’s great at that, we can say something positive! He’s tenacious! Look, I don't wanna be just the next person complaining about him, y'know.
Anything you want to ask me? About Scotland?
How cold is it there?
The weather’s shit basically, so bring a big jacket and a scarf!
Ok I’ll just set out to put layers on. Barrowland is enclosed right?
Yeah, it’s actually been a dancehall since the 1930s. It's got an amazing neon sign that covers the whole front of the building.
Yeah I looked it up on Wikipedia, it looks like a big giant game room!
It’s a good venue, I think you’ll enjoy it. What kind of food do you like?
I’m everywhere as far as food is concerned. Big fan of food, all kinds!
You need to try haggis when you get here, that’s a traditional Scottish dish.
Yeah we hear plenty of jokes about haggis! I think I might have tried it once or twice before.
We have it sometimes with a whisky sauce. The joke is to tell Americans that it's a three-legged animal.
Oh no, I’m doubting it now!
What are your opinions of the UK? You must have seen it when you first came over when house music was taking off, was it a culture shock to you?
I’m not sure 'cos i didn't really know what to expect. All the different countries see of each other is what's on the news and in movies and TV shows, so I didn't expect no little Timothy Cratchit coming up to say, 'Please sir, may I have some more?' We had plenty of jokes about the Queen, and tea and crumpets, but I wanted to see what was real.
Are there any house music producers in particular that you look out for?
I can't say I’ve stumbled across anything recently. I guess the people who are DJing every week would be hearing more new music. It's not humanly possible for any one person to hear all of that music! It's overwhelming so you don't know where to start, so you don't start at all.
I DJ every week and I constantly struggle to find new stuff that I think is interesting or relevant. Do you think in some ways we might have reached a saturation point?
That could be a point. A lot of stuff I hear it’s like, OK this sounds like the same bassline I’ve heard from Strictly Rhythm or Nu Groove. I mean how many times you want me to get excited about the same thing? I used to practice Sly and the Family Stone songs, but I wasn’t trying to be Sly and the Family Stone, I was trying to learn from what they're doing but not just be a duplication.
I listen through piles of promos every day, and sometimes it sounds like they all could have been made by the same person in the same studio! C’mon, put a bit of effort in!
The technology is in place, but I guess the only goal ends up being sounding like someone from the past.
Isn't that odd, 'cos when you first heard a record like Man Parrish's 'Hip Hop, Be Bop' you thought, 'Oh my god where has that music come from, I've never heard anything like that before!'
That's what someone like myself is looking for, something different. I want a new song, not someone doing the same old thing! At least partially new, even if not fully new.
There's people like Henrik Schwarz, he kinda brings something new and different.
Now that you mention that name, I'm thinking of Dorisburg. His stuff has been interesting each time I've heard it, like, 'Who is Dorisburg? I want to know more!', rather than, 'Oh here we go again, we’ve got 10,000 of these…' And there's another guy who's cool, Vakula. And also Floating Points. Those are the kind of folks that usually get into my pocket as far as talking about selling records to someone. Most people wanna put a record out but selling a record is different, 'cos there's a lot of records sitting in warehouses that only the people who released them know about!
I watched a documentary the other night about David Bowie, and he said that when he was in the studio making music he was 100% an artist, but then when it came to selling music he was 100% a salesman. And I’ve never really thought about that before because the two just seem so incompatible really.
I guess they're at opposite ends, but why make a record and have no one receive it? I guess if you're manufacturing a record it has to be special – we all like records but we don't want a whole bunch of stuff cluttering up our place that we’re not gonna listen to. I only really have the records that I still listen to.
Sometimes you go through phases of liking certain types of music, but then you listen back… see when I was young, I thought bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer were cool, but now if I listen to them it's all, 'What was I thinking about, this is rubbish!'
I was in a Yes cover band, so that was more of a studying thing for me, learning the drums.
What I particularly loved was the cover art.
Yeah that's how I discovered them. In the store my mother was like, ‘What is that, put that down!’ It was Close To The Edge and I was 12 years old. I guess she didn't think that was appropriate.
Yeah, Close To The Edge, and the other one I remember is Fragile. I used to try and write that lettering on my schoolbag.
Well I guess we have some similarities 'cos I did that too, I was a doodler! Before I was involved in music I was involved in art for a couple of years in high school, painting and drawing and making things with wood, that was my introduction to creativity I think.
Yeah me too. It seems like a lot of these creative things go hand in hand. There was a friend of mine who made music and then it stopped happening for him so he became a chef instead, and I guess you’re just tickling people’s palette in a different way! In a world of chaos, we’re trying to make a wee bit of perfection. Something that just makes us feel good, and that you can share with other people in the hope that they get that same buzz from it. When you were a youngster in Chicago, how did you feel about drugs?
When I was about 17 I tried some pot and all I got was a tremendous headache.
I’ll sort you out with the good stuff when you come over!
Both my parents and eventually all my brothers smoked, but all I ever got was nauseous.
I read a book by a guy who started off as a musician, and then he became a studio engineer and then a producer, then he gave it all up in the mid '80s and went into neuroscience and specialised in how music affects the brain. It's fascinating, because unlike any other artform, music lights up the whole brain, including the ancient caveman part of the brain. It makes all the millions of synapses vibrate in time to it as well. And babies respond to music in the womb.
I was talking with another journalist and I said I don't remember a time when there wasn't music, because my dad was into Count Basie and Harry Belafonte and Dinah Washington before progressing on to Smoky Robinson and The Temptations. My mother was more into Al Green, Brook Benton, Sam Cooke, and she played the piano and sang in the choir, so there was always musical stuff happening.
So you were pre-programmed in a way! Before a baby can even walk, they will move to the music. They just get it, there's something about it.
It’s a language, like they say.
Yes it is, it's an international language. If I listen to music from Brazil and it's sung in Portuguese, I don't have to understand Portuguese to understand the emotion.
You feel the movement of it even though you don't understand what they're saying.
Ok Larry I'll let you get back to work. How's the rest of your day panning out?
Well today is Thanksgiving so the parade is on TV. I’ll probably just hang with friends for a little while, have a relaxed day, no real plans.
Do you have a special Thanksgiving dinner?
No, it's one of those things where everybody is doing it, so you think, 'Let me do something different, something off the beaten path.'
I know what you mean. When we have New Year I get nervous and I can't wait for it to pass and for life to return to some sort of normality.
Things are gonna get crazy in America 'cos we have Black Friday tomorrow, so I will be somewhere hiding in a bomb shelter while that's going on! I hate that – ladies and shopping, they're not playing around, so I don't want to be in the middle! I’ve been to the store with my own mother and grandmother and aunts so I know how that works!
Ok well you go and enjoy Thanksgiving, don't get too drunk!
Good talking with you!
Larry Heard plays Glasgow Barrowland on 1st December with Optimo and Harri & Domenic. Tickets are available here.