In a frank conversation with Attack editor Greg Scarth, the house icon tells us why he resurrected his Mr Fingers alias after a two-decade hiatus, discusses his forthcoming live show and explains some of the difficulties of life as a solo artist.
In the extremely unlikely event that you’re not aware of Larry Heard’s contribution to house music, just know this: he’s been here since day one. Starting out as a jazz drummer in late 70s Chicago, Heard became a pioneer of house, contributing classic after deep, soulful classic to the canon, from early tracks like ‘Can You Feel It?’, ‘Washing Machine’ and ‘Mystery Of Love’ to evergreen favourite ‘The Sun Can’t Compare’, joyous hardware workouts under his cult favourite Gherkin Jerks alias and numerous unimpeachable essentials alongside long-term collaborator Robert Owens.
As he prepares to return to live performance for the first time in over 20 years at this year’s Dimensions festival, we called him at home in Memphis, Tennessee to discuss the revival of his Mr Fingers alias. Over the course of our conversation, a common thread that keeps reoccurring is the idea that his art is completely intertwined with his own personal experience and other aspects of his life, from relationships with friends and family through to health concerns and financial considerations. “I hope I’m not taking it too far from your original questions,” he says during our conversation, but the truth is that trying to boil down four decades of musical experience into neat soundbites and straightforward answers misses the point. As he puts it: “I’m not just some music robot or music-making machine; I am a person.”
What follows is a shortened version of our conversation, revealing where Heard’s thoughts are right now regarding his music, his legacy and his plans for the future.
Attack: Let me start off by checking I’ve got my numbers right: the Mr Fingers 2016 EP was the first Mr Fingers release in over a decade, is that right?
Larry Heard: I think the last one was ’94.
Was it really that long? Wow.
I think it was ’94 for Mr Fingers. I did Fingers Inc a couple times since then but not Mr Fingers. Yes, it was ’94 with the Back To Love album.
So the obvious question is why bring back that alias now?
Well, “why not” was my position. I didn’t deliberately go dormant on it, it just kinda happened on its own, you know? All these things, people think it’s all calculated out, but it’s more like it just happens and you only realise it later. My mind just went into a different space after a couple of years of me doing the whole thing of trying to sing songs and being a one-man band, and there was other stuff too. It was exhausting, to put it in a word.
Are the aliases ways for you to focus your output on different aspects of what you want to be doing artistically?
They may be roughly, but even that stuff just forms on its own without me doing the A&Ring of it. You can’t assign specific songs to Mr Fingers and specific songs to Larry Heard even though they’re the same individual, and Mr Fingers has changed from the first Mr Fingers releases. The first Mr Fingers was instrumental, and then the next EP was three instrumentals, and then by the time we reached Introduction there are a lot of vocal songs – actually more vocal songs than instrumentals – and it just happened. I didn’t really calculate it out. The first one was ‘What About This Love’. I remember singing a lead and releasing it under the Mr Fingers moniker, and it just triggered an interest from new listeners, like the smooth jazz people who liked the music but liked hearing a human voice too.
So I’m back on this adventure with Mr Fingers, and now it’s kind of back to mostly instrumental stuff. I was discussing this with my business partner yesterday: after being a one-man band and a one-man studio crew, you’re too tuckered out to sing anything, and that’s reality. I mean, we’re in this age where we use machines but if I don’t power up the machine, nothing happens. So it’s us human beings doing it but assisted by the machinery, and even after a certain number of hours sitting there in front of the screen, again, you become tuckered out. So even to think coherently takes a lot of effort. When you’re sitting in the chair, sometimes you’re bored to pieces and you’d rather be outdoors with regular people!
we’re in this age where we use machines but if I don’t power up the machine, nothing happens.
I’m a real person, I want to be with real people too. Not just my computer and sequencers and drum machines. Yeah, they’re fun for a while, but…
That’s a funny thing, it’s an unpopular thing to say among some artists. A lot of people act like they have to take it so seriously and sacrifice the rest of their life for their art.
If they choose to do that, that’s a part of creativity too: freedom. There shouldn’t be a “have to” even being mentioned about true creativity – you just let the creative person do their ideas. I’m not just some music robot or music-making machine; I am a person, and I like to hang out with my friends and do things besides music.
Most definitely. Does it feel like a small relief to move on to more instrumental stuff?
It’s another one of those scenarios where that’s just the situation, I don’t really feel like singing so it’d be like torture to try and make myself do it, and I don’t know how it would turn out in the end if I did. It’s just about whatever happens. I know to the outside world it seems like it’s thought through but most of the time it’s just circumstance.
I like that idea of just letting it flow.
Yeah, you have to because otherwise you’re struggling. It turns into something that’s not creativity, it’s just a personal struggle or maybe ego and stuff like that. Men are taught to go out there and get the bread and the bacon and all that stuff so maybe that determination could be a part of it too. Living up to your responsibilities, you know?
Is that a pressure you feel personally or is that something you’re able to avoid?
Since I’m human, yes – I’m not a robot. Again, it’s that idea of machinery – we’re still people, no matter how much machinery there is. We’re still human, with the same frailties: we get tired, we get bored, and we feel like we’re in a rut just like in any other kind of profession. We all feel the sense of being in a rut sometimes.
How long have you been making your living from music now? A few decades?
Yeah, for a good little while now. It’s not all a walk in the park or anything like that, and there are plenty of times that any self-employed individual can relate to, like the reality of not knowing when your next pay cheque is going to be.
It’s not all a walk in the park. There are plenty of times that any self-employed individual can relate to, like the reality of not knowing when your next pay cheque is going to be.
I know that feeling.
That’s the big thing everybody forgets. As much as they think about the glitz, the glamour and the technology, you don’t know when your next pay cheque is coming.
Absolutely. Have you ever been tempted to do other things to sustain your life and allow the music to become… I don’t want to use the word hobby, but something without the pressure of making a living from it?
At times it’s not even a temptation, it’s dealing with reality. If a bill needs to be paid, that’s not temptation, that’s real, and whichever source will pay for it first, why not go for it? I’ve held jobs, you know? I was working when the first release came out. Stints of working, stints with brokerage firms and a communications company doing audio for TV and news. Things like that. I know that feeling of getting in a rut or feeling like you’re spinning your wheels doing the same thing over and over until you need to take a break and recharge.
You mentioned frailty, which I think is quite a pertinent point given you withdrew from live performances partly from hearing problems, is that right?
I withdrew from different stages of having to… It may, from an outside perspective, look like a personal choice, but sometimes it’s a health choice, or a sanity choice. It’s not as simple as it seems from an outside perspective.
I can imagine. In that respect, then, why is now the right time to bring back the Mr Fingers live show at Dimensions?
I don’t know that now is the right time, It’s just what happened. I didn’t choose the time, I don’t determine that it’s 2016 – that’s outside of my control. But I know when I’m reviewing music concepts I’ve been working on, and thinking about releases. With my own label, I’m always looking for music to release for followers of the music looking for new things, so yeah, I just have a group of songs I do production notes for. I can’t even keep up with my thoughts sometimes because there’s such a lot to think about. Since you’re doing a one-man-band thing, it’s not like with a musician like Stanley Clarke who can focus on the bass alone, which is why he excels at it. When you have to play the bass, drums, keys, guitar and maybe some strings, and do all kinds of other things, your focus is divided.
Right, but that’s something you’ve been doing for a long time, isn’t it?
Yeah, but it takes some mental toll, some psychological toll on you. It’s not like it’s fun or it’s easy to do, to always be swapping those hats remembering which hat you have on. You’re like a juggler with between 10 and 20 balls. You’re the engineer, the assistant, the assistant’s assistant…
it takes some mental toll, some psychological toll on you. It’s not like it’s fun or it's easy to do, to always be swapping those hats. You’re the engineer, the assistant, the assistant’s assistant...
Was that different when you were doing things in the late 80s and early 90s? Was there more support for your solo output?
I was still doing it alone at that point and, as far as the music part goes, I was playing all those parts, and sometimes it was even before I integrated sequencing into my setup. I played things by hand at a certain stage, and you come across musicians and sometimes it does flow together naturally, but sometimes it just doesn’t. When you really start working together, not everybody has the flexibility to devote a large chunk of time because maybe they’re working a conventional job, so you only have an hour. I had to work eight hours to replicate my counterparts in the working sector, to make sure I’m not slacking off.
Do you treat it like a regular day job? Do you make sure you work pretty strict hours?
I keep a time sheet. Even if I’m asked to recall a lot of information, like when I’m doing an interview, I have to do all this remembering, so that’s another thing I’ve used a computer for – documents, jotting things down.
I’m a compulsive note taker. I write notes all the time, obsessively.
It is humanly possible to do the work and the mental notation all at the same time, but it’s asking a lot. Even as a young kid, my friends would tell me something that happened and I’d say, “Where was I?” and they’d say, “You were there!” I just go through the experience – I can’t say I mentally document it.
That’s fascinating. Not to be too negative about it, but something similar happens when people go through major traumatic events in their life. You actually completely blank out certain things, and it must be a similar process when you’re really focussing all your attention on your work. The memory almost cuts off to let your brain focus on other things.
It cancels out. Like with a song, once you have the mix where you want it, after all of the frustrations. It’s not a walk in the park to come up with something somebody else feels is appealing, and you’re presenting yourself every time you present a song, so it’s not for the faint of heart, I think. If you come as an individual who’s just mimicking another artist then you’ve got that cushion there. Say if you’re emulating Rod Stewart, you’ve got the safety net of Rod Stewart already in place and you already have proof of people enjoying what he does.
But it’s much more risky to do something original and push the boundaries?
Oh yeah, because now you’re coming from a place where people haven’t been to before. Are people going to be comfortable or is it going to be too weird?
In the Gherkin Jerks tracks I’m really just turning knobs and having some fun with the gear, but it’s never simple.
In terms of pushing the boundaries, things like the Gherkin Jerks EPs always struck me as being a very distilled vision of your experiments with technology.
Yeah, those are mostly my mad scientist moments, where I don’t have to worry even about the confines of whether anybody else will like it or not and I’m just being crazy. In those tracks I’m really just turning knobs and having some fun with the gear, but it’s never simple. It’s more complex just because of the way a human being’s brain works, I think. Maybe there’s a bit of venting in there and an aspect of fun in there too.
I enjoy listening to the Gherkin Jerks records in two different ways: I can listen purely on musical level, or I can put on my technical hat and guess what you might have been doing technically. I love the fact that the titles are ‘Parameters’, ’DIN Sync’ and stuff like that, reflecting the fact they’re pushing the boundaries technically.
Oddly enough, those tracks always get named by other individuals. I never know what to call them so I think Brett Wilcots at Gherkin named a lot of the tracks for me. He would suggest titles and I would either say yay or nay to them. Even ‘Can You Feel It?’ was suggested to me by a buddy, because I had the music, the feeling was there, but in the end I asked him what he thought for a name and he said ‘Can You Feel It?’.
That made history.
Yeah, and I think people at The Music Box made the title for ‘Washing Machine’ because that was another untitled track and they said it sounded like a washing machine. Again, that’s part of the A&R process, another hat I wear, and most people don’t even think about that part. Like picking the songs and the singers, the first one being Robert or myself.
Picking Robert worked out pretty well.
Yeah, it got us off to a good start!
So, when you do the live shows, what can people expect?
I don’t know. My show is a surprise to me. It was proposed by a friend of ours who connected with the festival. It’s not like when I’m sitting at home I’m always prepared to go out and do a show that evening just because I’m a musician. When the subject came up, a show was the last thing on my mind because I was working on some studio stuff and that’s where my mind was, so now I have to take that hat off. Again the hats.
And the clock’s ticking on that one…
Oh yeah, I’ve gotta switch hats and the clock’s ticking. Now imagine being me for a second! At the moment, instead of asking me [what to expect], everybody might want to ask themselves that question.
Some people might have expectations of certain things and other people might have different expectations.
I’m sure every single individual has a different expectation, right?
I came from the world of Kool & The Gang, so that’s the image that flashes in my mind when people say a live show
Can I pin you down on anything at all? Is it going to be greatest hits or new stuff? Ableton set or playing live? Or with sequencers?
It’s not gonna be playing everything live. Remember I told you about the one man band thing. I’m not an octopus!
Of course, of course.
It wouldn’t come off well live, because there’s only one set of hands and there’s only one set of things I can do with those hands. We forget how foundational multi-track technology and all that other stuff is. Yeah, we can overlay things at home and it works out fine, but live it’d just be a circus of me running to the keyboard, running to the bass, running to the drums – that’d be a ridiculous farce. I don’t know how anybody could expect that. I came from the world of Kool & The Gang, so that’s the image that flashes in my mind when people say a live show, but I have to update it for 2016, and since I’m not out there at parties every weekend I have no clue what’s going on at them.
You can catch a lot of that on the internet now. That’s one of the bonuses of technology, that you can go onto YouTube or whatever and check out some live house shows.
You can, I guess – if you have the time – but I work like most people and you put a certain amount of hours in at the studio, with maybe 15 hats on, and after that you don’t feel like doing anything connected to music. Again, I’m only human. I wanna get off work like anybody else. I like music but come on now – I’d like an off day too.
I heard stories at one point that you weren’t feeling inspired by DJing?
DJing wasn’t ever my number one focus.
You had to do it because that’s what people wanted to book you to do?
Not had to do it, but again circumstance plays a role more than people think, so I was DJing when I was in Chicago and had no records out. I wasn’t DJing at a club, I wasn’t trying to do that, but I had my two turntable setup where I could emulate what they were doing on the radio just for fun at home. That’s what it was for me, something fun. It wasn’t until ’99 before I did my first official DJ gig and that was in London, when that club Home opened up with myself and Theo Parrish.
That’s the way that the industry’s moved now. So many people rely on DJing as their means of income.
For me it was a better option at first. There was a time when Robert and myself played at Paradise Garage, and I had the luxury of having a Jupiter-6 around. It’s a magical keyboard now, but I was carrying that thing and that heavy case was hitting my leg, hitting my ankle. Yeah, there’s nothing glamorous about that.
There was a couple of early tours around the time of the Introduction album and then some later on, one in Germany around the mid 90s, around the time of Sceneries Not Songs, and those things were out or on their way out. It was a lot of keeping track of people and instruments and all that stuff – you had to keep track of it all. Anything you leave on a plane is gone, anything you leave in a bathroom is gone.
You’ve got all that to look forward to again this summer.
We’re doing it all futuristic now. It’s 2016 so we’re not carrying heavy old arcade things. I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger, so that’s not happening, and I’m older too – I’m 56 this year, and I’ve got no time for doing that, no way. Anybody who wants that is unreasonable, would you do that to your parent of my age?
I guess not.
Nah, come on. Let’s be real. Again, nothing against all the fun and the technology and everything else, but the party is over for some people while the party is going on for others, and it’s not fair. You can’t feel obligated to entertain at any cost. That’s not cool.
The party is over for some people while the party is going on for others, and it’s not fair. You can't feel obligated to entertain at any cost. That’s not cool.
I hope you’re still enjoying it overall?
Like I said, everybody involved is gonna play a role in that. This is like a trial run, because everybody’s excitement takes our imagination a lot of places. Everybody’s [talking about me being] on tour, on tour, on tour… I’ve been hearing that every day and… “What tour?!”
Because there must be many other offers, right?
There are, but where is this tour everybody’s talking about? Because I don’t know about it! Offers are one thing, but a tangible tour? People don’t just sit around with that at their house in the cupboard or something, it has to be put together.
Are you going to make a decision on additional dates after trying out the live show at Dimensions?
Yeah, yeah, we’re gonna see how it works because again, if you’re physically exhausted and you’re just about to collapse and drop dead, what’s the purpose of going on tour? I could drop dead at home.
I hope that doesn’t happen.
There are people in our culture that it happened to. Frankie Knuckles coming from one show and preparing for another, Michael Jackson preparing for a tour he never was going to go on and dealing with insomnia. He couldn’t sleep because of course you’ve got a million things on your mind, right? He went to desperate measures just to do a simple thing like sleep. While we were so excited about the tour, he was thinking about whether he’d slept that night or eaten.
He was pushing his body.
I’ve seen pictures of him a few years before he passed where he was on crutches, so yeah he put a lot of strain on his whole body over the years.
It’s sad, but we repeat it over and over without really looking at it. We look at the spectacle of it but if that was your brother would you only see the spectacle?
Sitting in Frankie Knuckles' apartment was more fun than any time at a club. I just sat there quietly because we were hanging out and didn’t have to holler over the music and all that other stuff
It’s true, but I guess a lot of people had a lot of cash invested and that’s the sad fact, isn’t it? That people think about their money rather than the humanity of the situation.
They think about their own entertainment.
Like Frankie Knuckles, I sat in his apartment on a couple of instances, and it wasn’t a fun thing to be told he died. Sitting in his apartment was more fun than any time at a club. I just sat there quietly because we were hanging out and didn’t have to holler over the music and all that other stuff. We could actually hear each other and talk about something other than what the name of a record was.
It’s just tragic. What else can I say?
I hope I’m not a downer. I get kinda real sometimes.
No, not at all. We can’t ignore that there are bad things in life as well as good things. I want to ask just one last question before I go. Do you have a lot of old releases that haven’t seen the light of day yet? Is there a lot of stuff you haven’t released?
There’s an extensive archive. That’s another thing I’ve been trying to do via the label: put some unreleased things or alternate takes out. Prototypes, even.
That would be fascinating.
That’s where my mind was when the idea of the tour came up, so that was cut short.
Well, everything in due course, but that sounds like it could be really exciting once you get onto that project.
If I do, though. Because if I go on tour that means it’s not going to happen right now. I’ve sort of seen that pattern play out before. When I was DJing, the records decreased, and when I get a chance to be in the studio, the records increase. If I’m not there I can’t record it.
Well, I look forward to hearing whatever we get to hear.
We’ve got to get a balance, that’s what we’re trying to work out. Autumn maybe [for more live shows], but we’ve got to work out a balance. It won’t be unlimited outings for five or six years.
I heard rumours once of a full unreleased Fingers Inc album sitting in the archive somewhere.
There are demos, but unfortunately those were derived from cassette recordings, so that wouldn’t be something that’s clean enough to release commercially.
I think there’d still be a hell of a lot of interest in hearing those. I’m sure people would like to hear them regardless of the fidelity of the recordings.
OK, yeah, that’s not a problem. It’s definitely there and that’s the kind of thing that’s on my mind, all the stuff that’s in the archive, but I’ve had to hit the brakes on that and who knows. After you do a stint of shows, are you actually really ready to run back and start on more music stuff? Or do you want to take a break, a breather? That happens sometimes when you’re not motivated.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the past, but we can’t forget about the present.
With the archive things, it’s difficult in dance music, we sometimes focus too much on the past.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the past, but we can’t forget about the present.
Exactly, the present and the future – we need to be aware of both sides of it. But I really think there’s an important role there for someone to make sure these archives are looked after and, if possible, for them to be made available to the public so that people can understand the history.
Yeah, I like what they did with Frankie Knuckles’ records. They’re there in Chicago and people can just come in. Even for myself I thought that would be something good. I thought about my own records, there must be somebody who’d be interested in what’s in there, and that’d be a way for them to know.
These are really important things. I think creating a history – a living history – of house music is massively important.
That’s the recipe – all the music that people have taken in, right? And that’s different for every individual, which is why even if we have a duplicate setup as far as studios, different things are still gonna happen because our internal recipes are different. We haven’t heard the exact same songs because we’re all in different cities and different countries, you know? That’s a great thing – it makes for a variety of influence. Technology is very cool, but we want to know about the person operating it too.