Larry Heard talks expeditions, hippy mentality, and his new live show
Interview by Maurice Dharampal
The concept of an expedition can be interpreted in many different ways. In the simplest form, it’s an organized journey for a particular purpose. But what that journey or purpose might be, is completely up to the expeditionists. Exploring new sites, venturing through the jungle that is electronic music, setting up camp in surroundings with unheard sounds, we’re stimulating these various interpretations at Expedition Festival. In the upcoming interview series, we’ll explore these concepts with artists who’ll perform July 6th. And we’re kicking the series off with the man who might’ve started it all: Larry Heard.
Whether you went on an expedition through house music at a festival or through the digital realms of Spotify, Youtube or Soundcloud, it’s more than likely you’ll stumble across the name Larry Heard or Mr. Fingers. As one of house music’s founding fathers, Larry is an important node in the historical timeline of the genre. Not only did he helped develop it, the Chicago raised DJ and producer also elevated the musical style and was the first to add jazz sophistication and a deep sound to house. It’s also an ambient and emotive sound that invites listeners to go on an expedition inside our soul and make you feel. But let’s not rephrase what’s already been documented, as you can see in the video below.
From 2016 on, Larry recreated classics from his rich discography during his live performances alongside Mr. White. But for the upcoming festival season, he changed the band set up and enlisted Eglo Records vocalist Fatima and Parisian jazz pianist Paul Cut to add a new dimension to the live shows. To learn more about these changes, we dialed in through Skype and caught up with Mr. Fingers himself.
More than the live shows
After munching down on his turkey sausage and scrambled egg breakfast, Larry kicked off his day with some paperwork before he hit the studio and sat down with us. His days tend to start like this. “I try to approach my profession as a 9 to 5 and try to stay on schedule as regular people do,” he explains. “You want to see movies, watch TV and all those fun things – aside from the regular house chores. There are not maids and butlers around here as, for example, at Diana Ross’ house. I’m just assuming here, haha!” That’s why he tries to stay on the 8 hour time block. Especially now, since he’s preparing for the approaching tour. But live performances are just the tip of the iceberg of what Larry does. Underneath the water, he wears multiple hats: one of an A&R, a recording artist, and an engineer. “I’m not exactly sure who started this – whether it’s Prince or Peter Brown – but it adds more responsibilities and asks for a proper schedule.” This is where his own expedition through music starts. However, Larry finds it tricky: “To get to the part where I get make music nowadays, I’ve got picture it as part of a bigger expedition.” One he’s been on for more than 35 years.
Those 35 years brought him to a point where he’s now performing live shows while simultaneously putting out meaningful music. His most recent Cerebral Hemnispheres album is the most prominent example of him not slowing down. As spiritual as Larry(’s music) feels, what would his philosophy behind his music and live shows be? “Well, there’s no deep philosophy behind it,” he bluntly replies. “As I’m a 60 child, I flow on a hippy vibe and adapt as opposed to me trying to control what’s going on.” This was even the case during the early days: One of the first tracks Robert [Owens] and I did, Bring Down The Walls, was recorded in one take. “All that is in my powers and my music is to bring forth feelings that are relatable and tell a story about my flavors.” This sound and feels like a philosophy, doesn’t it? Laughing emits from both microphones. Larry agrees and adds that his music improvisation background from playing in prog-rock bands, his admiration for jazz fusion artists like George Duke, Rodney Franklin, and Herbie Hancock combined with that free flow hippy mentality could as well be just that.
An intuitive journey through sound
For the upcoming with Paul and Fatima that same intuitive approach will be apparent and he continues to tell us what the live show will look like: “We’ve been playing with the idea to format the show in the same way a DJ set would run. The continuous program is a common denominator for everybody.” Performing records live in a consistent and uninterrupted motion with smooth blends is a unique approach, but not unexpected from Larry Heard. “It’s something everybody is familiar with and it will not go over anybody’s head. So you don’t have to read a book into all the details before they can understand what’s going on”, he jokes. With this straight forward format, Larry believes he and his band are able to take us on that journey or expedition through music with them.
But the live shows themselves have been an expedition for Larry as well. “The ones I’ve been doing for the past couple of years [with Mr. White] might’ve evolved ten times! This comes back to my free flow approach of finding a starting point and rolling from there.” By following his intuition, Larry drew inspiration from the audience’s response. ”We start to feel emotions from them, as they do themselves. That might lead us to some do the show slightly different the next time.” This might even happen more spontaneously during the upcoming tour. Reinterpretations and rearrangements of songs from his rich catalog will form the foundation for the colorful improv sessions between the trio. “That’s how musicians always have rolled. You can’t go and do something creative if you can’t be afraid to color outside the lines a bit.”
The Heard family has a rich background in music. Pianos, guitars, and other instruments were commonly found in the household. “Nearly everyone in my family also sang in the church’s choir but me,” Larry tells us. But the stream of music didn’t stop there: “All of my aunties and uncles to grandparents bought records and I’d often heard the phrase “Sit down and let me play this record for you.”” This gave Larry a great grounding and a wide array of sounds to draw inspiration from. This led him to inject house with ambient soulful emotion and experiment with the signature acid sound. “I reap the benefit of all that wisdom and past experiences.”
Like other house pioneers, Larry’s ties to the church were tight. It's no secret that the church and club culture share communal similarities. “Well, the church and the whole black community actually share a relationship because of the trauma this nation went through in the past,” Larry clarifies. “And those intonations and intensity from that type of music were embedded into me and my peers. That’s what we brought to the emerging club culture. Parties provided a connection to the community. It was more about human interaction.”
His own expedition
Larry sees touring as his own expedition. “I’ll let myself be surprised and amazed by whatever I’ll face.” I’m a big architecture fan, so I’ll keep my camera in hand in between performances and on the road. Other than that, as I said, I’ll just go with the flow. You’d need a machine-like mind if you want to custom design and prepare everything before you even getting there. Talk about a lot of work… I know we work with machines, but sometimes we’re treating humans like machines too. Larry humorously mentions another artist to prove his point: “I don’t think Janet Jackson ever did that while she was on tour.” As you might’ve noticed, Larry has a signature trait of mentioning other great musicians to reinforce his points.
An often recurring theme during the conversation was the technological impact on his career. But Larry can’t approach technology as a whole with a lamenting point of view. “Let me not be interpreted as against it, because it has some great advantages obviously. It’s what got him to a point where his emotive music reaches ears and hearts around the globe. And with the lush green environment of het Vroesenpark, tracks like these will only be elevated to higher extents.