Following his set at IICON, Block9’s colossal new Glastonbury stage, the deep house originator discusses his long career and new live show
Larry Heard doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past. Throughout his three decades making music under aliases like Mr Fingers and in groups like Fingers Inc and The It, the Chicago house artist, an originator of the ‘deep house’ sound, has remained consistently focused on what’s coming next, only looking backwards when it can help shape the future. His most celebrated tracks, tellingly, are not from one specific era, but are spread across multiple decades: “Mystery of Love”, for example, which was later sampled by Kanye West for “Fade”, is from 1985, “Washing Machine” and “Can You Feel It” were released the following year in 1986, “The Sun Can’t Compare” dates to 2006, while “Qwazars” came out as recently as 2016. But there’s another reason he doesn’t often look back – he’s just not very good at it. “I tend to not remember stuff,” Heard laughs. “A lot of people have a very vivid memory. For me, it’s kind of like, ‘I think I was maybe… was I there?’ Friends have to tell me, ‘Yeah, you were there.’”
He’s talking backstage at IICON, a new stage designed by Block9 and debuted at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, before a set with his new touring band, a three-piece group including Swedish singer Fatima, who’s previously released two stellar solo albums and collaborated with artists like Floating Points, and Paul Cut, a French jazz keyboardist who has also played live with New Jersey deep house artist Kerri Chandler (the next day, they’ll also perform a Mr Fingers set together at Block9’s NYC Downlow venue to celebrate 50 years of Stonewall and LGBTQ+ liberation). IICON situates dancers within a 360-degree arena of sound, and is complemented by truly trippy visuals, not least the colossal sculpture of a posthuman head that surrounds the stage. To stand in it is to feel truly engulfed by music – an appropriate location for Heard, whose deep, spiritual electronic music reaches far into the body and the soul.
Despite his status as one of house music’s most influential and iconic artists, Heard, who now lives in Memphis, Tennessee, has always remained incredibly humble. When he performs live, he doesn’t take the limelight, preferring instead to work as part of an ensemble or with vocalists like Robert Owens (previously a member of the house trio Fingers Inc. with Heard and Ron Wilson) or his frequent collaborator Mr. White. Still, he’s a deeply intuitive worker, and he’s subtly shaped the sound of house music while maintaining a low-key nature. “The people that change things,” he says, “are the ones that come out of nowhere, and you say, ‘What’s this off-the-wall thing?’ That’s what house and techno was, at the beginning, just like hip hop. Everyone was predicting it’s not gonna survive, that this’ll be gone before you know it.”
We caught up with him to discuss his new live show, his working methods, and his key to maintaining a long career.
Are you ever a nostalgic person?
Larry Heard: I don’t know. I spend a lot of time going forward. I might go back, but I don’t spend a lot of time in the past. Most of the time I spend on the past is when I have interviews – that’s why it’s sometimes tricky to recall things, because my mind is all, “Okay, the next album.” Even past Cerebral Hemispheres, I’m thinking to the next album.
I saw you perform live with Mr. White in Berghain last year while touring your latest album, Cerebral Hemispheres, and there was a mixture of older and younger people in the crowd. How does it feel having songs that have had such a big emotional impact on these different generations?
Larry Heard: There’s been a wide variety of ages of people coming to see me. There’s no way to feel about that other than thankful and fortunate. That doesn’t happen to everyone – look at MC Hammer, as big as the hits were.
You always struck me as very humble, despite having created all these classic tracks. Is your legacy something you ever think about?
Larry Heard: No, because I’m always another album, or maybe two albums, ahead. I’m not devoting a lot of time to endeavours that I’ve already devoted time to. I like to move on to something fresh. Of course you think about it here and there – again, it’s one of those things where you can only be thankful that audiences and different generations are receiving it positively.
“ I’m not devoting a lot of time to endeavours that I’ve already devoted time to. I like to move on to something fresh” – Larry Heard
For your new tour, you’ve put together a band with Fatima and Paul Cut. How did you meet them?
Larry Heard: It’s not a glamorous story! (laughs) My manager found both. It ended up being a great combination once we got together and started to interact creatively, but no, there were no fireworks. I’d heard Fatima on her records with Floating Points, so when her name came around I thought, “That’s good!”, because I liked her voice from the second I heard it. (With Paul Cut) we were on the same wavelength. With him being a jazz and classical person, we can really relate, and he can add something tonally to what I do. Even with the language barrier, his English is better than my French! Fatima has her style that’s very street and sassy, Paul has his thing that’s jazzy and classy, and then there’s me stuck in there, with my Sade-ish, smooth, jazzy, sometimes off-the-wall acidy kind of stuff.
Did it easily click, creatively?
Larry Heard: All relationships start awkward, where everybody’s trying to get a feel for the other person, but once the music is in between you, you have a common ground. You can connect on the music and then go from there, as far as the more personal things go.
Have you had collaborations that haven’t worked out?
Larry Heard: Well, when you have that, you don’t have a collaboration – you have a test. That’s life. Not everyone is compatible with each other. Even though they may do the same style of music or be from the same town, your personalities might not sync up with each other.
What about times were something did work immediately, where you knew you had an instant creative chemistry?
Larry Heard: Robert Owens, my first one. We struck gold right off the bat. We were both pretty much in the same place, where our creativity had been stifled by people around us. Myself, I was playing drums in a band, and they weren’t receptive to the drummer having musical ideas. Robert was singing in choirs, and choirs have their own director and you follow their directions, so (by working with me) he had an opportunity to blossom and do his own arrangements and his own creative thoughts. It was the same with me, I was piecing together my own creative thoughts.
How did you meet Robert?
Larry Heard: At a party. He was DJing. He happened to play “Mystery of Love”, and I thanked him for playing it. He said, “You know, I write lyrics…”, and we exchanged numbers. There was no miracle – but at the same time, there maybe was. It was a simple one, again, no stars bursting in the air, but sometimes it’s the small things you have to see.
“I’m a 60s kid, so maybe some of that stuff just got into my psyche: to be free-flowing, to not stress out about every little thing” – Larry Heard
That sounds in keeping with everything I’ve read about you before. You strike me as a very low-key person.
Larry Heard: I’m a 60s kid, so maybe some of that stuff just got into my psyche: to be free-flowing, to not stress out about every little thing. You set up situations to frustrate yourself when you try to control the world around you, but paying attention to what’s happening, and getting in sync with that – that’s more logical. (That’s what happened) in Chicago, with the whole community thing. We had the big acts, but it was really fun to hear someone you went to high school with, someone who lives in the neighbourhood, someone you see sometimes at the club dancing, and thinking, “Oh, this is his record? Cool!” You feel closer to it, and you feel it’s maybe more possible for yourself when you see that with others.
When you moved out of Chicago, what made you choose Memphis?
Larry Heard: The climate. When you move somewhere different, you want it to feel different. I was tired of Chicago. For me, the sector of the country I hadn’t experienced was the South, even though my parents come from down South. It was a totally fresh adventure for me. A risky adventure, but music was a risky adventure, too, because it all just blew up in our faces, so I guess I was accustomed to taking chances.
Since embarking on these tours, have you found it easier to be productive?
Larry Heard: Well, one takes time away from the other. Because I’m here, I’m not in the studio. That’s what happened, actually, during the years where I was DJing. There got to be so many DJ gigs that there were fewer and fewer and fewer releases, until the label (Alleviated Records, which Heard runs and releases his music through) was basically dormant. It can get out of balance very quickly if you’re not regulating it in some kind of way.
You stopped DJing because you were damaging your hearing…
Larry Heard: It was too rough. I’d played drums for seven years in rock bands before that, so I was fortunate to have any hearing at all. Once I started to notice something happening, I thought, “Okay, that’s a dealbreaker.” Because I need this! It didn’t matter what romantic feelings I had about it. I didn’t want to step out of my house and walk in front of a bus because I was romantic about it, so that’s what I had to do. I had to make a realistic choice, a quality of life choice.
Do you miss DJing?
Larry Heard: I can always DJ at home. I have turntables. That’s where I started out playing.
Your father was a carpenter. What route would you have taken in life if not music?
Larry Heard: The three things I’d learned about: teacher, lawyer, architect. Music wasn’t in the picture. My father’s older brother had an architectural firm and was thinking I was gonna come in and take over that. Music came out the leftfield for everyone in the family, including myself. It was something I had a passion for, whereas architecture was a different responsibility. Building something that people are gonna dwell in, that won’t fall down, that you designed – that’s serious business, that’s no joke.
“That’s a good thing to practise: using your own judgement, your own instincts, your own approach to things... It leads to more individuality when you have to dig into yourself” – Larry Heard
You were a drummer originally.
Larry Heard: I was a piano player originally! We had a piano in the house, and we’d tinker on it. Kids tend to do what their parents do, it wasn’t purposeful. Drums were the first instrument where I thought, deliberately, that I was gonna buy a kit. I had two brothers who played guitar, so there was a guitar right there in the house if you wanted to pick it up. For the drums, I had to save up.
Working with machines, as you do today, do you miss the tactile feeling of drums?
Larry Heard: You miss the human interaction, the emotional aspect of working with other musicians and creative people. That’s what gets lost.
Is that why you like playing in these live ensembles?
Larry Heard: I can’t say if I know the answer to that, because it was already answered for me. I started off playing in ensembles. That was the only way then – unless you were a one-man band, with a drum on your back.
In 2016, you returned to your Mr Fingers alias after a very long absence. Is there any interest in reviving a different project, like Gherkin Jerks? There’s a big underground following for those records.
Larry Heard: Yeah – but the ‘Gherkin’ name, legally, belongs to someone else. Gherkin was the label. I wouldn't want to betray them just because of the convenience of using their name. Any artist name could have been slapped on that, but that’s the name that came to me at the time. Brett Wilcots, one of the owners of Gherkin, may have even suggested the name.
How do you feel you’ve been able to maintain such a long career over all this time?
Larry Heard: I’ve been busy the whole time. It’s not like I had extended periods away. There wouldn’t be long periods where I was away from participating in the scene.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Larry Heard: I haven’t been as fortunate as all the people who got to talk to myself, and Frankie Knuckles, and Tony Humphries, and all these people. We didn’t have anybody to go to, so that meant we had to use our own instincts. That’s a good thing to practise: using your own judgement, your own instincts, your own approach to things. It can’t really be duplicated. If I can’t analyse it, and it’s in my brain, then good luck to everyone else, is what I say. It leads to more individuality when you have to dig into yourself.
That seems to have worked out well for you, perhaps with a few bumps along the way.
Larry Heard: You can’t say everything was smooth, but in the long run, a lot of the artists are around, and not many of the labels are.