Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers brought a magical softness into the house, experimenting with ambiance and emotion to push the limits of the dancefloor journey. A musical genius and a pioneer of experimental forms of sound, he enriched dance music immeasurably before leaving his gilded cage of genre and spreading his wings over the musical horizon. Larry spoke to us.
What was your journey into house
Well I started playing drums in 1977, pretty much at the height of the disco movement, except I wasn’t playing any disco, I was more involved in abstract rock like Rush and Genesis and Yes and crazy things like that which challenged me to get my drumming skills together and absurdly enough, all the people around me viewed disco as too easy a form of music. But while I was living my journeys with the different bands that I was in, I couldn’t really see any forward progress going on, and even though I was developing my craft, we weren’t able to get any releases out. Once I left the last group I was in, I bought myself a drum machine and a synthesizer – I had always been interested in synthesized sound, and with the drum machine able to keep the beat which as a drummer I had always been tied down to, it freed me up to get onto the keyboard, experiment, and have an adventure with those. And within a couple of days of buying those pieces of equipment, I had Mystery of Love and Washing Machine on tape!! I had a lot of ideas bottled up within me, because back at that time, the other musicians in a band weren’t that receptive to having a drummer having musical ideas, but were far more accustomed to the drummer just providing the beat, and my scope just went beyond that.
What did the fusion that evolved into house mean to you
I was naturally familiar with disco because that was what mainstream radio was playing at the time, so there was no avoiding the Bee Gees and Abba and groups like that, but at the time, I was trying to really expand my range and my mind. I guess I have to I jump back a little bit to when I was 9 and I bought my first 45, and that was a Sly and the Family Stone song called Everybody is a Star. Now everybody else was listening to the flip side which was Hot Fun in the Summertime, and I certainly enjoyed it too, but there was a deeper meaning to this B side for me and that’s what I was after. I think I started out with a mind that wasn’t following the traditional path of where the masses were going, but trying to seek out something a little different, even at that age. So with all the hard rock and the reggae that I came through with the bands and the stuff I was buying……I don’t know if that really contributed directly to my adventure in house music, but developed my mind and my approach to what I was doing – a musical aptitude because I never had any formal training.
Everything moved so quickly that there wasn’t even time to contemplate those things. As I said, within a couple of days, Mystery of Love and Washing Machine were recorded, and friends from the neighborhood who were patrons of the Warehouse and the Music Box told me that sounded like the music Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles were playing at these parties. They suggested getting it around to some of these places and see if they would play it, and that was the next thing I pursued. So there was no stopping and thinking, but all forward momentum once I inadvertently stumbled across this style, which, to me, took a lot from disco, but disco without the budget!!! Because disco had the lush orchestration, all these horns and strings which we didn’t really have access to, so even if you wanted it, it just wasn’t something that was available, so we worked with the bare essentials that we had at the time and made it work.
So it was a total coincidence that you ended up making the style of music being played in the Chicago house clubs.
Well, it’s not like I wasn’t familiar, because we did have disco all over the radio and then in the 80’s we had music coming in from all over Europe, so it wasn’t like we were alien to it. Right now though, at this point in time where everything is accessible, it seems like we are more alienated than ever, with things out there that people just don’t know about, as if there are parallel universes out there existing simultaneously. But we had access to stuff like Kraftwerk and then Telex and then guys like Juan Atkins, so we never missed a beat in Chicago on what we had available to us, and what each person sat and focused on was up to the individual, but it was all presented to us.
Can you give us an insight into the soul and the power of house music?
Interesting question that I’d never thought about. But once again, when have an external perspective you can contemplate questions like that, but when you’re right in the mix of things, your mind doesn’t stop and go into retrospection mode and ponder these things. But obviously from what’s happened around the globe, I guess there is some level of power that speaks for itself, but as far as analytical specifics go.. I couldn’t really say!
It was instinct. And a lot of the music I was listening to on a personal level was jazz – guys like George Duke and Rodney Franklin. Even though there was some jazz fusion out there, I gravitated to the more mellow flavours, ‘cos I’m just more of a mellow guy I guess.
What did the success of Mystery of Love mean to you as an artist
It was an affirmation. After 7 or 8 years of being in the bands sending tapes here and there, hither and yon and not even receiving a response or a letter back, it was hugely encouraging to have something that people were enjoying. When you’re working on something, you’re just hoping that it will be something that people can enjoy, and at that time you certainly weren’t thinking in terms of popularity or success or dollars and cents. It was that initial encouragement that people are appreciating what you’re putting out there
What was the story behind the Jack had a Groove (Chuck Roberts) mix of Can You Feel It?
The vocals came from an artist called Rhythm Control, and on their release in 87 on a little Chicago label called Catch a Beat, was this 10 minute accapella. It was almost traditional even at that time in Chicago for the DJ’s to put some kind of accapella over instrumental tracks, to spice it up and Can You Feel It always ended up with either Martin Luther King or this Chuck Roberts accapella on top of it. Both were just so powerful to listeners that each one finally ended up being released on vinyl. That’s what it was – a combination of the Can You Feel It instrumental and the Rhythm Control accapella. But while I was involved with the Martin Luther King release, I had nothing to do with the Chuck Roberts mix. I actually think it was a UK label that put it out, but we never consented to it!! If everybody wants to know the details, they may as well know the sordid details too!
Well for all those guys involved in the early house scene…we were LIVING the dream! Because we were those people who had previously been sat there listening to other artists on the radio, knowing full well that we had our own musical concepts that were being stifled. So it was liberation in a way when people started listening to our stuff, even when it was just within the walls of the Warehouse or the Music Box or the Power Plant – local clubs, there was this sense of connection. People would be on the dancefloor saying “I know this guy’, ‘This guy lives on the same block as me’, whatever, and it was that immediate connection between the music that was playing and the people on the dancefloor. It was so much more intimate than say hearing an Inner Life song that we all know and love, but no-one personally knew any of the members. It puts a different spin on it when you actually know somebody personally – it brings you a whole lot closer to the music.
How aware were you of the cultural impact in the UK?
We were in and out of the UK, but that would still have been very different to living and existing in the UK, so you just get a glimpse of it and you’re gone. I think it was a time when things were still going on in Chicago, but kind of slowing down, because our high point in the States was the disco period when there were clubs on every corner. It strikes me that the parallel with what was going on in the UK at the end of the 80’s was the US at the end of the 70’s. There was some sense of disconnection, because we’d come over and see these huge crowds at the raves, and then suddenly you were gone back home, and that does make it different from the people who were living the experience form weekend to weekend.
The other thing that it’s important to remember is that when Can You Feel It and tracks like that had their impact in the UK, it was already about 2 years since they had been released. We went through our cycle in the States with it, and then it moved international, so again, there’s this weird disconnect, because the song is out there, but I’m not. And while that’s going on, I’m working on other projects like The It album, so I never really sat and pondered ‘OOHH, Can You Feel It is doing this marvelous job in the UK’ – my creative mind is always moving forward. The chances are that what I’m working on right now could not be heard for another 10 years, but I’ve been listening to it for a while now, so again, it’s strange to think that it’s having the same impact that it’s having on me right now on other people at some point in the future.
Where’s your musical journey taken you over the last 20 years?
In some ways, it’s boxed me in, to the point that some of the R+B, and soul stuff that I do, the jazzier side and the hip hop tracks, I find people being not so receptive to, because they only want to hear a new rendition of Can You Feel It. People seem to want to repeat past pleasures if that makes any sense (Ed. It Does). We want to recapture the same feelings over and over again – just look at the cycle in Chicago. The original Music Box shut down, so they opened up another club and called it the Music Box again, and the same thing with the Warehouse. They kept giving the clubs the same names in a futile attempt to recapture the emotions and the good vibes that had been felt in the originals. The one important factor that was left out was the PEOPLE involved! Nowadays with a different generation involved, there seems to be more thinking than actually feeling the experience. It’s such an analytical experience now, that people seem not to get the sheer and simple pleasure of just enjoying the experience.
Well not the people I know, but there are a lot of releases that come out, and it’s like ‘I can hear it’…..but there’s no depth. You can end up drawing this line, where you have a lot of releases that you buy, but only a handful that stand the test of time. So much music has an expiration date for some reason, where after a few months, you’re thinking ’Hmmm I’m not really enjoying this the way I initially did’. I mean I’ve had experiences where even in the time it takes me to get back from the store, I can’t figure out why I’d liked it enough to buy it. For someone like myself who’s been buying music for 40 years, it makes you re evaluate even how you buy things, and the last thing anyone needs to do is waste money, especially in this economic climate!
Does music still have power?
Yes. But. The medium of dance music is a force, but on the content side, the caliber of the stuff starts to have it’s own impact. You have 2 sectors of people listening to the music – those who are seriously listening and paying attention, and then you have another group of folks who just want to be involved with what’s hip. They don’t know whether a record sounds good, but they know that’s where the hip folks are, so let me be there too, because nobody wants to be alienated. At the moment, you have a big audience of people at the clubs, their hands are in the air, they’re screaming at every breakdown, and then you go to their house and they don’t have a single record. But then, there’s people in clubs like myself in a corner somewhere, listening intently to the music, enjoying myself, and enjoying watching the people dance. But you come to my house and the place is FULL of records. So you have people who like the music because it’s fashionable, but they don’t patronize it at all. They patronize the club scene, but not the actual artists, the labels, the magazines, and that’s why we’ve seen so many of those falter. We have this appearance of being on an upward slope in one way, but we’re also on a downward slope as label after label, distributor after distributor, store after store, all go to the wall.
Well who has the time to listen through 30,000 tracks? Even the fullest of full time DJ’s – after a certain amount of time, you’re ears are just going to be burnt out. Or I’ve had experiences where I’ve visited the download sites with the intention of making myself a list of things to buy, but you end up having to listen through so many things that you don’t like before getting to one track that you do enjoy, and you get discouraged and leave! I try to fight that, and at times it’s a deterrent to even going on the site. We all have time restrictions, things to do to sustain ourselves, and that often doesn’t include 24 hours sat on a download site!
Where are you musically now
It’s the same things that guided me from day 1. Following my instincts and experimenting, and whatever comes out, comes out. Now whether it’s useable is a whole other situation, but anything that comes out of me when I get on the equipment, I keep, so I have pretty extensive archives. As far as release projects, I have none at the moment, just crazy musical experiments, and we’ve been leaning towards visual applications like video games and TV synchronizations. That takes me somewhere I can be truly creative without the confines of any one genre hanging over me, and the comparisons to things I did 20 years ago don’t apply. Confinement and creativity are two different things. I keep doing the label, finding new artists to put out there, and that will stay my connection to the house world.