Benji Lehmann, Hackney - United Kingdom - on 24/9/12
Larry Heard is one of the undisputed Godfathers of house music. Despite growing up in Chicago, he actually wasn’t a part of the city’s infamous club scene there in the very early 80’s, a time when clubs like The Warehouse were at their peak, instead performing with bands in local bars and live venues. That all changed though when, after leaving his last band, he acquired a drum machine and synthesizer and began to make music electronically. Soon his tracks were in the hands of legendary DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy and as they say, the rest is history. Here he recalls the early days of house music and his former life as a drummer, bassist and guitarist - plus the organic, instrumental alignment of early house music - ahead of the release of his remix of Shonky for Frank Roger’s Realtone imprint.
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? I don't know if I really consciously thought about being a musician. I kinda looked back and saw that I already was. I started playing guitar at the age of 15 and transitioned to bass the next year and then drums the following year. After another seven years- or so I transitioned to keyboards because I wanted to be more involved in the music making process than just supplying the beat. I grew up around a lot of musicians. Both my parents played piano as well as my grandparents, uncles, everybody seemed to be able to play piano. Of course kids see grown-ups doing things you want to do them too.
You started your career playing in bands like The Manhattan Transfer. What instruments did you play in those bands? I wasn't *in* The Manhattan Transfer. I filled in for somebody on one show and everybody turned that into a big deal! Their drummer wasn't available for some reason, so I substituted in for him. Nobody would have heard of the bands i was in, they were all local bands, doing local clubs around town. We were playing r'n'b covers, Cameo, Con Funk Shun, Earth Wind and Fire songs. I played with some bands where we did rock covers as well, like Rush and Genesis and things like that. Kinda all over the place really.
Do you ever miss collaborating with other musicians as part of a band compared to the experience of solo work in the studio? Yeah, you do, you do. It comes with this social aspect connected with music where there's a group of people involved in the music making process, so that's quite different. When you sit in front of the computer it doesn't really offer any input. It just stores the information. There is something which is lost there which you yearn for from time to time. You do need to bounce ideas off other people sometimes and incorporate some of their personality along with your own. That's why some of that music can't be imitated by a computer. You have people's hands playing the instruments and every one has their own 'feel'. Computers don't really know about 'feel'.
So having played for so long in these bands what was it which got you into the idea of working with drum machines and synthesizers? Well synthesizers would have come first. They started coming on the scene in the 60's and 70's, which is when I started playing drums. The bands I was in, well the keyboard player would have different synthesizers. It was a new exciting thing. It was interesting to hear the sounds the synthesizers could make compared to say piano and organ, which were the keyboards around on the scene before synthesizers came in. I'd find myself going over to the synthesizer and tinkering with patches.
Were there any particular keys players you used to enjoy listening to before you picked up the keyboards as an instrument yourself? Well, plenty! George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, Rodney Franklin... the list goes on and on. I was self-taught with all of the instruments that I played and that was using records of groups. You were always trying to find things that were challenging, and that lead me to things like rock and jazz fusion, which was a big thing in the seventies. Stuff like Geoff Lauper, Mahavishnu Orchestra... I can't even think of all the names. There was such a wealth of bands around at that time. I was trying everything I could get my hands on.
And when did you get to picking up drum machines and incorporating that electronic sound into your own tastes? Immediately after I left the last band I was in, the first thing I did was buy a drum machine and a synthesizer. That same day was the day when I wrote the prototype of Mystery Of Love and the prototype of Washing Machine. It was pretty much immediate because I already had a little experience with the piano, having had one sitting in the house I grew up in all my life. I'd learned all the simple melodies one learns as a child, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had a Little Lamb and that kind of thing. It progressed from there to discovering groups like Funkadelic, the Ohio Players and started practising parts of their records.
At what point did your first breakthrough come? Which track really made your name in your mind? It came right away. I wasn't all that familiar with the clubs because I had a different group of clubs, live entertainment clubs, where I'd been playing between '77 and '84. There were people around the neighbourhood though who were hearing the music I was making and they started to say to me "that song reminds me of the music they play at The Warehouse." So basically myself and a buddy of mine, Donnie Harley, we did some research and found out where we could go and get my first acetate pressed up. We got three acetates, one went to Frankie Knuckles and one went to Ron Hardy. They liked it right from the start. It kinda started right away. At that time I wasn't thinking about running a label myself I was thinking about writing music and learn as I went along. Mystery Of Love came about right at the time when The Warehouse was closing and Frankie had transitioned to the Powerplant. They were all open to playing music off tapes because that was the point when reel-to-reels with pitch control showed up. It was a new world of flexibility when everything didn't have to be on a vinyl record. It involved the local people more intimately in the scene. There was a sense of community attached to it. The songs you were hearing became the ones which were being made on your block, by local people, so you felt even closer to it. I think that's what generated so much excitement. I was excited myself, for example, when I heard a Jamie Principle song because I went to high school with him! It makes you feel a lot closer to what's going on.
So had you spent much time in the clubs yourself at that point? No, not really. I missed the Warehouse completely. My time was taken up with work and I was out in bands the rest of the time. You didn't have to go to a club though to hear disco music in the 70's so it wasn't like I was totally oblivious to it. My father came home with Donna Summer and my mother came home with Fairport Convention albums so it was already being started for me. It was just a matter of me catching on because I was more into playing the rock stuff and jazz fusion, trying to build up my drumming chops.
Looking back, a lot of your own solo output has been less house and more hip hop and even at times jazz orientated. Do you ever regret being pigeonholed as a house producer? I guess it does kinda present some restrictions, and there still are things I'm interested in doing as far as other styles, so I still am pursuing some opportunities out there. You never know you could see a song of mine on a Lady Gaga album or something at some point [laughs]. To be honest I wouldn't be opposed to it! It would be that song on the album which maybe wasn't a single but it's a good solid song that's on the album, it's more grown up. That sort of stuff is more oriented towards young people and it's young and happy and jump around music. But maybe if they feel like doing a nice ballad or something I could supply that. I don't have any of her albums but I'm sure she probably sings a ballad or two somewhere you'd think?
Do you think though that it's still possible to say something with soul and meaning in pop music in 2012? Yeah because pop is just short for 'popular'. Anything can be popular. If the public gets the opportunity to experience it, of course. Just like Madonna with Vogue, or Crystal Waters with Gypsy Woman, or Follow Me by Aly-Us. The public are the ones who make the decision. Remember that for example Anita Baker has had pop hits. But she's closer to a jazz or a contemporary style artist, so whatever's popular ends up falling into the category of pop. It's like a catch-all term.
For the past few years a lot of your work has been as a remixer. Do you think that remixes still have an important creative and artistic role to play or has the idea of a remix become motivated more by commercial concerns? I guess you'd have to go back to the 70's to learn the origin of the remix. Guys like Larry Levan and Tom Moulton. They didn't re-interpret the songs, they just extended them out and things like that using the original instrumentation. Now it's kind of more a reinterpretation. It started around the 80's that the songs started to be reworked. That's still the case now that a remix is a reinterpretation of a song. With a remix you start by observing what's there already and you join the group I guess, then after a while you take over!
You recently announced your retirement from DJing in order to save your hearing from further damage. Is it a problem you have only recently experienced? What advice would you give to younger producers to help them avoid similar problems? I was getting signs up to about four years back. You play a night at a club and the next day you find yourself twisting your head to hear what people are saying in conversation. In the end the body has all kinds of protective mechanisms and for me the high end would be lost in my right ear. That's the ear that I monitor with. It was a problem for me because I'd be trying to do a presentation but I couldn't hear what I was monitoring even though it's right next to you. It wasn't the headphone ear but the ear that's open. I remember back in the 70's you had what was called a 'dj booth' which was enclosed. That's what Ron Hardy had at the Music Box, that's what Larry Levan had at Paradise Garage, a booth that was closed. Now there's so much interest in the DJ you have to be subject to the sound pressure from the whole sound system, and try to monitor with whatever you have available to monitor with on top of that, so it gets to be a whole lot louder. Actually it's a miracle that I lasted that long after playing in these Rock bands and playing the drums, but I took the advice my body was giving me in the end. You don't want to do something where it can't regenerate itself.
The DJing is an essential part of making music for many people to make a living these days. Was the DJing always an essential part of the creative endeavour for you though?I was just interested in creating music, originally. I did DJ, but that was for my own fun at home. I wasn't pursuing doing it at clubs, that kinda comes along later in the picture right around 1999 or 2000. We finally agreed to do some DJ gigs and that grew on its own. I was going to give it ten years and I ended up doing twelve so that was a pretty good innings. It got to be too risky now though, I don't need to lose my hearing. Getting older will be a little easier with hearing than without. It's hard on you physically as well. Travelling around locally is not hard but travelling around globally gets to be quite taxing and your body can become quite confused. At some point I wasn't sleeping for days on end because you end up without a sleeping pattern, just a series of quick naps.
Which projects are you focussing on now that you have retired from DJing? Will you start to explore music outside house and techno again? Actually I hadn't really gotten to the point of developing a specific project which I'm going to focus on. I'm always working on musical ideas. They're being stored up in the archives at the moment until something comes to me as a concept. You have to throw something out on the street occasionally but that's not something I'm interested in doing because, apart from anything, when I talk to journalists like yourself I want to have something interesting to say other than "I just threw it out!" I don't think it resonates that well. You want things to have some kind of personal meaning.
We've come together specifically to celebrate the release of the remix that you have on Franck Roger's Realtone Records of a track by French producer Shonky. What was it about the track that caught your ear? Not everything resonates well when I get sent it. Sometimes I don't feel like I have many ideas when I hear the original. But I'm not exactly sure, I think I wanted to investigate further once I heard the original version of it. There's a creative challenge in itself in taking some of the elements and drawing them together. So I was hearing a few bits like the voice in the background which I felt I could bring out. I tend to gravitate towards things which have some kind of a voice or dialogue. Instrumentals are the hardest for me. I come from the world of bands and singers, whether its rock or r'n'b or even house music. I'm just very accustomed to working around vocals. If there's a vocals I'll just try it to see what happens.
Going back to "Can You Feel It', that's based around a spoken word with a particular political message. Do you think that house music can still carry political messages even today? I guess it can. It all depends on how it's presented. Just like with a song like "Can You Feel It", that was originally done as an instrumental. When it got to the Hotmix 5 people they started putting Jesse Jackson speeches over it and Martin Luther King speeches, that's where the concept came from it was one of the DJs there who put the vocal on top of it and it just kinda stuck. The next thing was that Robert came in a put a vocal on. It went well with the mood of it.
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