LARRY HEARD New Years Fingers

While his name might not be as recognisable as some of his luminaries like the late, great Frankie Knuckles – when it comes to Chicago House legends, there are perhaps none more integral and important, in terms of the evolution of deep house, than Larry Heard. And he’s finally coming to Perth, as part of the Freedom Time festival, to celebrate New Year’s Eve with us! ALFRED GORMAN speaks to him down the line from Memphis, about a career that has spanned four decades, and the live audio-visual show he’s bringing down under.

A DJ and Producer, but chiefly a musician, Heard’s long musical career started drumming in bands around Chicago in the 80s, before he was seduced by the house music sound that was rising out of the thriving club scene in the city around him. He then started producing under his most famous pseudonym, Mr. Fingers, and set about changing house music as we know it. His style developed and gave rise to deep house – in the purest sense – soulful, smooth production, warm grooves, winding, hypnotic beats, with the odd vocal. He’s produced some of house music’s most legendary, pioneering tracks, that found their way into the crates of most DJs worth their salt, and stay there to this day. The blissed out groove of Can You Feel It has stood the test of time, and Mystery of Love was recently sampled by Kanye West on his track Fade.

While most known for these early, canonical releases, Heard has never stopped making music, and recently released the Outer Acid EP, his first release as Mr. Fingers in about 10 years – and it’s as good and timeless as almost anything he’s done. This new material will rub shoulders with the classics, as he brings his full live show to Perth this NYE, featuring Memphis vocalist Mr White and live visuals. For such a legend of dance music, Heard is a real pleasure to speak to. Softly spoken and humble, he speaks with a slow drawl, often punctuated by laughter, taking his time to give thoughtful, wise, intelligent answers that are derived of a long musical career that has seen many styles, trend and genres come and go.

Hi Larry, pleasure to speak to you. Where are you at the moment?

Good to speak to you too. I’m at home in Memphis. It’s about 5.30pm here.

You’re known as a Chicago House legend of course, but moved south quite a long time ago I believe. What made you choose Memphis?

I’ve been here 20 years now. I just needed a more peaceful setting to live at, since I have a kinda hectic job. Chicago was already a very busy city to begin with, even before I got involved in any musical endeavours.

Is there much of a house scene in Memphis? Do you play around there much?

Well I stopped doing any DJs things around 2011, so that eliminated a lot of that kind of thing.

Yes, I heard that was as a result of doing some damage to your hearing…

Yeah, I got some warnings… y’know how your body warns you about different things. I noticed I wasn’t hearing those high frequencies during mixdowns, or just listening to music in general, like on one side, so I was like ‘Oh what’s that about?’ I mean, I started off playing drums. ’77 to ’84 I was playing drums. I was in rock bands, playing loud rock music… I’m fortunate to have any hearing with the amount of loud musical stuff I’ve been involved in.

So you’re playing a Live PA set of your own productions this tour, which of course is very soon that you’ll be down in Australia for the Freedom Time parties. It’s exciting to hear that of all the places in the world, you’re choosing to celebrate NYE in Perth with us!

Cool! Yeah, we thought, I guess it won’t be that bad in Australia! It beats sitting in your house and watching New Year’s Eve and everything on TV. Not too shabby, not too shabby.

You’re playing alongside heaps of great acts including reggae legend Johnny Osbourne – do you get into much reggae and dancehall?

I do, but I drift more to the older kinda ‘lover’s rock’, that kinda flavour, the more chilled out, old school reggae. The Abyssinians and groups like that.

I believe it was only last year that you toured Australia for the first time – but just Sydney and Melbourne on the East Coast. You must have enjoyed it to be coming back again so soon?

Yeah, I guess it works both ways. We enjoyed it and they enjoyed it, so we thought even more towns would enjoy it! So it works out for everybody. I get to come and take pictures in Perth now. I definitely took a lot in Sydney and Melbourne.

What have you been up to since that tour? What have been your highlights of the year?

Since the last time we were in Australia, we’ve done Paris… there was a whole slew in Europe… I know Helsinki was on there somewhere, and Amsterdam at the Dekmantel Festival. So maybe I’ve done like about 14 events since then. Not tonnes. Not like some people that work every weekend. I mean, more power to you if you’re able to do that, but me? Naaaaaah. That’s a bit much after factoring in the travel aspect.

So this tour you’re playing a live set, billed as Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers – is it focussing on either of your production names, or are they pretty much the same thing? What can we expect?

Well there is a Mr. Fingers album on the way out… One works synonymously with the other. I’m not sure how it was billed, but the official name of the show is the Mr. Fingers Electro Visual Experience. The show has been evolving since last time we were there. We’ve been taking sections out, putting sections in, shifting things around. I’m working with a great guy called Daniel doing visuals. He puts his imagination in there, and provides the visual backdrop to what we’re doing. Mr White will be there as well, who sang on Sun Can’t Compare and You Rock Me, and there’s a new EP out with him now.

So there’s a new Mr. Fingers LP coming out soon too? That’s exciting news!

It’s gonna be three vinyl discs. Yeah it’s exciting for me too, as it’s been quite some time since I did an album. I got so involved in doing remixes, and DJ events for awhile, that all of the recording slowed down to a stop for awhile. I had to kinda reset myself for a little bit, but I’ve been working some of the new album material into the show, so that will be totally new for Australia.

Is there a release date or name for the new album yet?

We don’t have a concrete one, but it’s done, it’s in manufacturing, and all of the artwork and that stuff is in process, so I guess maybe after New Year’s, somewhere around the beginning of February or March.

You seem to have been quite busy lately in the studio then, as you released the Outer Acid EP last year too, which was great by the way.

Yeah that was the beginnings of the album. But the whole process of recording slowed down because I started doing some live stuff! [laughs] Because that’s what it is, you’re struggling to find this balance all the time.

So the Outer Acid EP was the first music you produced as Mr. Fingers since 2005. Though you’ve released more recent material under your own name. What made you bring back the Mr. Fingers name? And how do you differentiate between the music you make under your own name, or other pseudonyms?

I think between Larry Heard and Mr. Fingers there’s not a big gap as far as the feel and flavour and moods of the stuff. The Mr. Fingers stuff started off as being these instrumental tracks – like the original instrumental mix of Can You Feel It. It was What About This Love that made us shift course. Someone else was meant to sing the lead on that, but they didn’t show up at the studio. So I ended up singing a demo, and everybody was liking it, so that’s what we put out and it ended up doing good. So that shifted where they were receptive to hearing the vocal on the music now. And some jazz music stations in America were playing that one. So it was an introduction to another audience.

So back in those early days of Chicago of House Music, who and what were your influences?

Well, my influences started from the cradle, because both my parents bought records all the time. My dad was into component systems and things like that. We were surrounded by music all the time. My mother played piano and sang in the choir in church. Then I started buying my own records when I was about 10 years old, saving my lunch money. And when you only own two 45s, you tend to listen to them over and over. You’re actually studying the records at a certain point, the way you’re absorbing it. We just came up on some great music there in Chicago, and we had some great people selecting for us on the radio, and that evolved into the hot mixes coming on the radio, and the guys that selected for that, they’re the ones that set the pattern for everything that we were exposed to.

You started as a drummer in various bands. When did you make the move into the using ‘new technology’ of synths and drum machines?

Well it was maybe not that new, because people were doing electronic sound experiments dating back to the 50s. But it came down to the point where a normal person could maybe afford one piece of gear. I think I was maybe 24 when I finally bought a synthesiser and a drum machine. That was a big purchase y’know! *laughs* Close to a $4000 investment.

Woah! It must be crazy to have seen how things have evolved since then…

Yeah the stuff is a lot lighter now! You can carry it round on your laptop! Beats going back to the days of lugging drums and Rhodes pianos up and down stairs! It wasn’t as glamourous as people thought.

You’re very old school in your production technique I believe, and create all the sounds for your tracks, playing various instruments. You put a lot of time and skill and love into it. What do you think of modern production techniques where people can create tracks in minutes using laptops, software and sample packs?

Yeah, well everybody seems to be changing the definitions of the words as time goes by, but a musican from what I remember is someone who plays a musical instrument. I mean, that can be a tambourine! That’s where we started, when our parents got us one. It’s just evolution, like anything else. You just transition and adapt, and try and keep creative and put something beautiful out there. Just try and be an artist, and do something individual and has nothing to do with any trends. I mean, I grew up inspired by a lot of people, but I was never trying to be any one of them. I just picked things up from all of them and kinda mixed them up into my own personal gumbo.

Thanks so much for your time Larry, and I look forward to seeing you in Perth on New Year’s Eve!

Yeah, looking forward to it myself man! Appreciate your time. Thank you.

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