As Mr Fingers and Fingers Inc, Chicago-based Larry Heard was instrumental in creating the house music movement. Simon Trask talks tech with him on the release of his first LP on a major label.
Larry Heard's involvement with house music has made him a legend, yet it's only recently that he's actually signed to a major record label...
Introduction seems a strange title for an album by someone with the musical pedigree of Larry Heard. That's Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers, pioneer of Chicago house music who, in addition to his own solo work, is well known for his collaboration with Robert Owens and Ron Wilson as Fingers Inc and with Harry Dennis as The It. There again, this new Mr Fingers album will be an introduction to his music for many people. For the first time, Heard has the backing and, it seems, the support of a major record label - MCA. But this was no hurried relationship; he signed on the dotted line with MCA in May of last year, following six months of talk and negotiation with the company.
"At first I wasn't really sure if it was the way I wanted to go, or if MCA were going to try to change what I do", he explains, speaking on the phone from his home in Chicago. "Fingers Inc got approached by several different majors, at one time, but they were saying 'Well, if you do this kind of thing and that kind of thing...'. They all wanted to come in and change things around, but in my opinion if a record company knows what they want that much, if they know exactly what they want, how it should sound, they should do it themselves."
So what did MCA have to say for themselves?
"They said 'No, we don't want to change what you do, we want to help you sell it.' It's been OK so far, I've really had no problem. They're into what I'm doing, and they didn't step in in any form or fashion when I was recording the album. They step in when they're supposed to, which is when the time to sell the album comes."
Heard goes on to reveal that, although he got "a decent deal" financially with MCA, he was more interested in "getting terms in the contract where if things didn't really work out I could get out of it." There speaks someone who knows what's important and what's not. But then Heard has been on the wrong end of too many raw deals during the past six or seven years to have anything but a soberly realistic outlook on the music business.
Heard comes from a musical family. His mother and father both played piano, and his four brothers all played guitar.
"My mother always played for our amusement", he recalls. "She was always playing gospel music on the piano, or old show tunes, so we'd go and find the sheet music for 'One Nation Under a Groove' or something, and ask her to play it. Somehow it never sounded the same!"
After brief flirtations with the guitar and the bass guitar. Heard decided that what he really wanted to do was play the drums.
"I was more bluffing with the drums, actually", he admits with a chuckle. "It looked really easy, so I was saying I could play the drums, even though I didn't have any. Then I got my father to co-sign for the credit so I could buy this big set of drums - a three or four thousand dollar Rogers drum set. It was one of the double bass-drum setups, with ten toms going around and rototoms and octobans and things like that. 'Cos I loved Neil Peart's setup, I was really into that kind of thing in 1977 - Genesis, Rush, Yes, Billy Cobham, anything that had Bill Bruford on it, Narada Michael Walden, Mahavishnu Orchestra... I was really into that heavy drum stuff. A lot of Frank Zappa, too - anybody that had a good drummer, I was into the group. Out of wanting to hear more complex drum patterns, I discovered Lenny White and with that came Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea and Al DiMeola. They all sort of tied in at that time. I was just looking for drummers but I was getting to notice all the keyboard players, and good guitar players and bassists that were there. Prior to then I didn't know who was good and who wasn't."
At the same time, his own playing activities were bringing Heard into direct contact wth keyboard players and the technology of the day.
"I was in and out of local bands, and I was seeing these keyboard players coming across with different synthesisers - Moog Minimoogs and ARP Odysseys and stuff like that", he recalls. "I was intrigued by the sounds that these synthesisers made, and I was always tapping on them in between rehearsals. I didn't know how to play them, but I wanted to fiddle around on them."
From 1982 until early '84, Heard played drums in a group called Infinity who, from time to time, included another star-to-be of the early Chicago house scene, Adonis, on bass. However, he eventually quit the group out of sheer frustration, as he explains: "I always had ideas for songs but they would never really hear my ideas. They just wanted me to play the drums. I left the group because I was not getting to do what I wanted to do, which was create music."
So was his motivation for getting involved with technology in part a reaction to this frustration?
"Yeah, definitely", he replies. "I think I had a lot of suppressed ideas within me that just started coming out. During that period right after I left the group, I thought I was going to take a break from music, 'cos I'd been playing since I was 17, in and out of different bands and what have you."
Instead he ended up buying a Roland Juno 6 synth and TR707 drum machine in late '84 and recorded 'Mysteries of Love', his first track under the name Mr Fingers. Another early Mr Fingers track, 'Washing Machine', was the prototype for acid house. Although the track came out on the influential 'Can You Feel It' EP (on Trax, 1986), Heard had actually created it around the same time as 'Mysteries of Love'; and it was circulating on tape in the clubs in Chicago for about a year before it made it onto vinyl.
Heard explains the genesis of the track: "This is an endorsement for Roland, I guess. I had the clock out, I think, from the Roland 707 and hooked the wire into the arpeggiator clock in on the Juno 6, and it just happened. I just hit a chord with two hands on the keyboard and the Juno 6 arpeggiated it. I never could recreate that, it was just something that happened in the midst of me experimenting, and I got it on tape.
"The sound was one I programmed, and while it was playing I was messing with the envelope and the frequency and resonance, to get that kind of effect where it was sweeping and what have you. I was just fooling around with the knobs. All those knobs are so tempting, like on that Roland keyboard, the JD800, you've just got to play with them!"
Heard added another Roland keyboard, a Jupiter 6, to his setup in late '85. It was this synth which he used for all the instrumental parts on 'Can You Feel It' and 'Beyond The Clouds'.
Coming from a background of live playing, Heard preferred to record all his keyboard parts live to tape in the early days.
"I'm no McCoy Tyner but... I can do it good enough to get my point across", he says. "And I'm working at it. I practice every day with records and running scales, that kind of tiling.
"Sounds are the basis of what I do - sounds are the most important part, sounds inspire me..."
"I remember one time I got a really strange look from Frankie Knuckles in the studio, when we were recording 'Distant Planet', 'cos I recorded it all the way through, all the chords and everything. All the stuff that went in the song, I played it by hand. We laugh at it now but I was really stubborn about not using a sequencer at that time. But then I started noticing I would have an idea and then I'd forget it.
The sequencer's helped me with that, 'cos I can put it on a disk and come back to it, instead of forgetting it."
Heard originally used a Kawai Q80, but for the past 18 months C-Lab's Notator running on an Atari Mega2 has been his sequencer of choice. But what originally prompted him to change from hardware sequencing?
"I think it was one of the things I was somewhat forced into", he replies, "'cos I started doing some remixes here and there, and every time a remix would come in it would be done on Notator or Creator. So I thought that, to keep up with what's going on, I should have this Notator or Creator. Here in the States a lot of people use Macintoshes, so I'm sort of going against the grain, but that's not a problem for me."
Has the sequencer brought about any changes in the way Heard works?
"I think it helps speed things up, actually", he replies. "I can access stuff quicker than on my Q80, and I can put more information in it, also. I think Notator makes things simpler for me. Maybe it's just my imagination but I feel like I get more done than I did working with the Q80. I think that sometimes the way I arrange things on Notator is a lot quicker. I used to find myself doing a lot of cutting and pasting with the Q80, which was a tedious process. It's a lot quicker on the Atari."
Notator has also brought about a change in Heard's approach to track muting, as he explains: "In the past when I've done stuff in the studio, I've just run it all the way through and then done my mutes on the desk when I was mixing it. But now I use Notator's Arrange mode to arrange where I want certain things to come in and out on the computer. It gives me the flexibility to do that, and it saves me time 'cos sometimes I may forget that I wanted something to be muted at a certain point, so now I just do it within the Arrange mode."
With so much attention focussed on the rhythmic aspects of his music, I wondered how much Heard felt his background as a drummer had influenced his approach to programming drum machines.
"I don't know, 'cos I don't really take a whole lot of time when it comes to the drum machine parts.", he replies. "I'll just do something that feels right and that's it. It's not like I'm getting into complex drum rolls and things like that 'cos I don't think they really fit with what I'm doing at this stage. Maybe it's something that comes naturally and I don't really think about it. But then other people come back and say 'Well, how did you do that?'. I guess I just did it by feel. For the most part I'm satisfied with whatever I come up with first 'cos I notice that with the stuff that I keep changing and changing and changing, I end up finding out that I like it the first way. Anyway, there's no perfect song so you can't really try to achieve that. I try to achieve a feeling instead, which I think is very important. But I keep getting accused of being sad. I guess maybe deep down inside I am sad but I like to combine some other emotions in there, too. I think I have a good sense of humour. Maybe I could put some humour in sometimes, instead of being sad."
Does Heard have any particular favourite among his instruments?
"My favourite? Hmm... It's between the two Oberheims, the Matrix 1000 and the 6R. I have editors for both of them, and I do a lot of tweaking and coming up with weird things."
And where does Heard stand in the eternal "analogue versus digital" debate?
"I'm sort of split, half and half, because I really like the old fat analogue sounds and those pad sounds that I'm known for using. But then I like those fresh digital sounds too. I like a little of both, really. I think that's one of my reasons for wanting the Microwave, so I can get a lot of good PPG sounds that I can incorporate into what I'm doing."
The sounds which Heard uses always seem to be an integral part of the music. How much influence do they have in practice on his composing?
"A lot, a lot", he replies. "A lot of programs are my own sounds. Sounds are the basis of what I do; sounds are the most important part. Sounds inspire me, put me in a different mood, tell me what the subject matter may be with the song."
Let's talk some more about sounds, then. What does Heard use mainly for bass sounds?
"I end up using my D110 a lot, and my two Oberheims. I'm always saying that I want to get back into my Pro One, so I'm gonna eventually get that together, and maybe create sounds on it and sample them into one of the samplers, use it that way.
"I was really into that kind of thing in 1977 - Genesis, Rush, Yes, Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford..."
"I like the D110 a lot. When I first got it I found some good bass sounds that I used. I wasn't ever really crazy about the Rhodes sounds and things like that in it, and I never really used the Drum Set sounds, either, 'cos they were pretty typical. I usually try to stay away from things that other people are using a whole lot. I purposefully try to do that.
"Now that I have an editor for the D110 1 can get more involved with programming it. I've done a few sounds, but I've been doing the bulk of my programming on the two Oberheims and the TG55."
For acoustic piano sounds, Heard has been turning to his Korg P3 piano module for a while, but now feels it's time for a change.
"When I first got it, it really really sounded good, but the more I hear it the more it seems like it doesn't sound like piano. So I want to find something else, even if it's something in one of the samplers, if I end up getting a Roland or an Akai. Maybe they'll have some good grand piano sounds."
Heard creates his very characteristic electric piano sounds by MIDIing together his DX7 and D550, or the DX7 and an M3R.
"I have a really good Rhodes-like sound that I've done in the M3R, and I'll layer it with the DX7 to make one sound. They just have two different characteristics that give the impression of one keyboard playing."
Are there any modules that Heard would like to add to his collection?
"Well, the main thing that I really want at the moment is a Waldorf Microwave", he replies. "I heard it once and I just fell in love with it. I also want a Voce DMI64 organ module and a Cheetah MS6 module, and maybe some kind of a rack sampler so I don't have to lug the Emax around any more. An S1000 or an S1100, maybe. So those things are on my wish list right now."
Are there any keyboard synths which interest Heard?
"I really always have liked the M1, but I just never took the plunge into getting one. It's the same with the Wavestation. A friend of mine has one, and I like it, I like it a lot although I don't fully understand the principle of it, but I like the sounds that I hear him getting from it.
"I've been concentrating so much on writing material recently that I haven't been to the music stores to try anything out. Sometimes I'm not really motivated to go out and research things, 'cos I don't really have the money to get anything so I'm only going to frustrate myself. When you don't have any money, you see everything you want, but when you do have some money there's nothing you want, nothing is right for you. Also, you're always scared that you're buying something that's not going to work for you in the long run, so it's kind of a catch 22 situation. That's my biggest fear - that I'm going to get something that's not going to work for me, like the Akai MG1214. I'm not totally dissatisfied with it, I just think the tape section could have been better and I didn't know I was going to end up with so many instruments - that was my fault, not Akai's!
"For the most part I don't run everything together. But I may want to switch to another sound to see how it works, and then I have to go through wiring changes. You remember those big old synthesisers where you patch things together? I used to see those and think they were so hilarious but now I end up doing that same thing. I'm like a telephone operator, here. It's too many wires! I went to Adamski's house and had dinner with him when I was in London, and his setup was so nice and neat and it was on a glass table. Mine just looks like a junkyard. I don't know how he does it."
In fact, Heard is coming to the conclusion that a significant investment in a mixing console and a multitrack open-reel recorder is what is required. At present, his home setup is essentially a pre-production studio; for the final recording he goes to SeaGrape or River North, two professional recording studios in Chicago.
"I need a whole recording setup at home now", he says, "'cos I've got quite a lot of rack gear and I'm not quite made up like Arnold Schwarzenegger to be carrying those things around all the time."
With Introduction hitting the shops in April, this is make or break time for Heard - a time when his music breaks through to the wider audience it deserves or else falls on deaf ears. Heard says he "might just decide to retire" if nothing comes of his latest pact with a record company.
"I have felt like giving up but I always think 'Well, I'll try it one more time and see what happens'. Basically, the deal with MCA, getting involved with a major label, was the last thing I could really do. I've done the independent label nightmares, I've done my own label and everything that comes along with that, so it's the only alternative, really."
Fingers crossed it does well.