Interview: Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers
– conducted, transcribed & edited by Rick Heffernan
Cited as unintentionally ushering in Deep House as a genre to becoming a pivotal figure in the well documented halcyon filled 80’s Chicago house scene to having his pioneering anthems sound-track warehouse parties, raves, clubs and after hours for over three decades.
Mr. Fingers aka Larry Heard sat down with Rick Heffernan to talk streaming, Kanye, Gherkin Jerks and amongst other things his first LP release under the Fingers moniker in 24 years. An 18-track trip of eclectic electronica “Cerebral Hemispheres” eases through various moods, bpm’s and vibes whilst remaining unmistakably a much-anticipated Mr Fingers release.
“What importance is the DJ if no one is dancing?”
We’re coming up on 30 years since “Amnesia” and nearly 25 years since “Back To Love”, with your new album “Cerebral Hemispheres” coming out on April 16th, why did you feel now was a good time to bring Mr. Fingers back?
It was one of those things that had just come to my attention, that I hadn’t used the moniker for such a long time and we had a record deal with MCA a few years back that I wanted to make sure there were no contractual issues connected to the name or anything like that. Also, after a while I was so engrossed with life and what I was doing in the present moment that one day I realized I hadn’t used Mr. Fingers for releases in such a long time.
Having a broad and eclectic music taste, what was your approach with this new release?
I pretty much have a lot of musical ideas that start and stay around all the time, like most producers, y’know you have your sketches whilst busy on the road, doing remixes etc. I was kind of neglecting my own original music and when that dawned on me I started to go through ideas I already had to see what was fitting, which is a standard procedure for me.
It’s all about the feel, I need to listen to the ideas and tracks to make sure it sounds like Mr Fingers as oppose to people I work with regularly, then I go from there.
How long was the album in the process?
I think I had started on it some time back. It was a stop/start process as we were doing the live performances/touring at the same time, working on the album a little, go out do a few dates, come back and repeat the process.
With your signature Acid roots embedded into some of the tracks on the LP, how important was it for you to let that side shine through again?
Well, it’s gotta be on there, it’s part of what people will be anticipating, especially since there is a such a long gap since the last Fingers release. Also, since I was working on an extended package as the album has 18 tracks in total, I had that flexibility to get a few Deep House, Acid House and smooth Jazzy tracks on there to make it eclectic.
With Chicago famed for sowing the House Music seeds, do you feel any pressure at this stage or expectations when pushing out new material?
Any new release is kind of a lot of expectation from the fans and you don’t know what those exceptions generally are, so you try your best to do the best you can before presenting to the public.
What is your current studio set-up and any secret weapons?
I have two computers, both a PC and a Mac running Reason 10, Cakewalk Sonar and Cubase combined with a lot of stuff I do manually. It’s like a mixture of old world craftsmanship with new world tech, which makes the process smoother for me.
When you have a minimal setup, that’s what you make work for you. My secret weapon is, I do my own patches, it’s not the stock ones, the plug-ins or synths. I spend a lot of time doing alterations to the sounds. Even back in the day on tracks like “Can You Feel It”, people always asked about the bassline and chords, which is a Roland Jupiter 6, but its not like a stock sound, a lot of those tracks like “Washing Machine” weren’t built on available patches, it was more a case of experimenting and turning the knobs when everything was running to find that specific sound or create that kind of acid effect.
When do you know when a track is complete?
It varies from track to track. Sometimes you don’t know, it’s the same way if I was listening to someone else’s production, it’s a case of does it feel right. I wouldn’t know what techniques or approaches someone else uses for their music. All I know is, when I hear it and it’s pleasing, then it’s done. When I was a little kid buying 45s, I didn’t know about anything technical, all I knew was I like this song and bought it on that basis. It sounded pleasing to me. I still use that method with my own songs, as in is it something I would buy myself and does it sound complete against other selections. No particular formula or anything like that I would say but more a feeling I get per track.
How do you feel Memphis has influenced your sound and outlook?
Well, when influences get mentioned, I don’t know if they come intentionally. You know, with me living in Chicago, I just was at that time of life so you know you just move along wherever you are without asking something to influence you. It’s more a natural organic thing that your not even really thinking about it. Music you’ve heard or enjoy gets stuck in your frontal lobe and it works that way. It’s not like I’m looking for or listening to anything specific to try and emulate it. It’s more trying to spark ideas yourself. When I was in cover bands back in the days where we’d try and play the song like the artist played on the records, being influenced for my own material is like the opposite of that, it’s more free-form and happens organically without you pushing.
What would the early days Mr. Fingers have thought of the present day Fingers?
I’m not sure, but hopefully he would feel like things have progressed and he learned something, as well as cultivated what he’d been doing. I’d also have some questions for the 1993 Mr. Fingers however, like bring that Roland D-50 back so I can use it! I miss that a lot! I don’t have a plug-in for that.
and of “Cerebral Hemispheres”?
He probably wouldn’t conceive it at all. For example when I was working on “Introduction,” I had a whole different set of gear and I don’t have any of that gear now. I’ve actually thought about that myself, how the releases have been concessive over the years even though I was changing gear all the time and still managing not to take drastic turns where I would have sounded like someone else. Maybe it’s the sounds I’m drawn to also perhaps.
Coming from an organic background in terms of playing live instruments or being in bands for example, do you ever feel a need to try and humanize the machines when producing?
I don’t know if I ever try too. Like the Acid tracks for example, the synthetic aspects is the appeal to it, like the other worldly kind of out there sounds. However with the Deep House tracks, that’s where I would humanize it more so by putting more or less R N B tracks on a 4/4 beat, like Disco was and all the music that started the roots of what House/Techno became, for example Lakeside or Blondie. I do like the tightness of the machines also though, so I typically would have the quantization turned on.
What do you hope people will take away after listening to “Cerebral Hemispheres”?
I just want them to enjoy it from start to finish and for it to be something they can come back to years and years down the line, whether your cooking dinner or having company over. I try to aim for a timeless appeal so it’s not all about 2018 or any other time in history.
Being known for producing Hip-Hop beats yourself, how did the whole deal with Kanye West sampling “Mystery Of Love” for “Fade” come about?
I ended up finding out about it when it was played at a fashion show/album launch for “The Life Of Pablo” and Yeezy Season 3 in Paris, France. A friend texted me that he made a track around “Mystery Of Love” and Kanye kinda did it without asking initially, we waiting a minute to see if Kanye’s people would contact us to get the clearance and all those sort of things and they did…it took a minute though. We found out from other people who had tracks sampled by Kanye that he sampled firstly and got in touch to get permission after his release, so things were done in reverse from how these things are normally handled. I was happy about it though but it is weird when someone samples your songs, but again that’s the hip-hop tradition, this cross-pollination between dance music and hip-hop has been the same since day one with things like Rappers Delight and Chic for example.
Fade contains the lyrics “I feel it”. As both Kanye and you are Chicagoans is this possibly an answer to your “Can you feel it”?
I’d have to ask Kanye’s camp that question haha, all I thought about at the time was the Barbara Tucker and Masters At Work tracks, as normally when I listen to these type of tracks I like to pick out the samples out of interest.
With tracks gaining millions upon millions of hits on-line, did you ever imagine we’d be at a point where music digestion would be at this level?
None of us anticipated this. In the past the counting was done at the record labels but in general we would have no clue of say how many records Earth, Wind and Fire sold unless someone told us or if we were reading Billboard or something like that. But, it’s interesting that you can post something up and get a gauge if people are enjoying it or not, that’s a good thing cause if stays at zero then you know you’re not doing something right. It’s a little bit the equivalent of what we did with our demos back in the days when we brought the cassette tape or reel to reel to the clubs and let Frankie Knuckles or Ron Hardy play it and you’d get a reaction from the audience right there on the spot. I guess that would be the old school equivalent in some respects to todays Soundcloud, Youtube clicks etc.
How do you feel about the streaming services as a business model?
I don’t think it’s a business model for an artist. It’s a business model for the people who own the streaming service. It has very little to do with the artist except for the art being utilized to draw the listener in. I don’t agree with them, the people providing the music that’s drawing people in are getting shafted, it doesn’t make any sense. The streaming services are telling us they are doing us a favor but they should do somebody else a favor and somebody who asked it in the first place. I’ve had conversations in info session for folks like the Red Bull Music Academy and people have told me that sampling a song is doing the artist a big favor, where as it seems they are just doing themselves a favor as they are skipping over the risk that the artist takes in making something that’s 100% original. Like even the Kanye West song “Fade”, that baseline was already liked for a long time, so its not like Kanye was taking the biggest risk in the world as it was already a good baseline. It’s like me taking the baseline for “Whats Going On”, its already proven that people like the song and the melodic movement of it.
Are you generally a fan of new tech in the studio?
I’m user of tech but I don’t know if you ever heard the story of Frankie Knuckles laughing at me in the studio when I was playing “Distant Planet” by hand and he was wondering why I wasn’t using a sequencer…so I was resisting tech a bit at the time, but you know I come from a whole hardcore rock drummer background or even playing this Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff or alternative stuff. It didn’t sit too well with some of my musician contemporaries who were involved with some of crazier live types of music when “Mystery Of Love” came out, they had a belly laugh at the production structure on that.
I knew what a sequencer was at the time but what it could do for me I didn’t really know, but guys like Steve Hurley or Frankie Knuckles were already sequencing and using complex programs where as I was just still playing by hand at the time as that’s what I knew how do to. Gradually, I got a computer and got some programs and started to learn and preserved my ideas, which was the biggest thing for me, saving as oppose to writing musical notes, which was pretty tedious to do.
Comparing now to the 80’s and 90‘s, would you say it’s easier to breakthrough in today’s market given the platforms available?
I would think it would be harder. There are so many people now trying to get musical releases out there and there is so much digital stuff that it’s nearly impossible to keep up. I don’t know how people who are constantly on tour manage to do it.
Lets talk for a minute about one of your aliases The Gherkin Jerks, were those releases an escape to what you where doing at the time?
I think I was like going into this mad scientist mode for a minute, weird wirings and things like that made those releases happen, unconventional things that triggered those sounds. It was a crazy experiment more than anything or just seeing how crazy I could actually get with the equipment and it turned out to be all right, where I actually wanted to release some of those tracks.
How was The Gherkin Jerks material received at the time?
People were a little confused by it, but once they kinda started to get what was happening y’know, the releases did great.
Do you have plans to release some more?
Not at the moment, however I was thinking about it for a while but then I don’t know if I have enough tracks in that style right now for it to be an ongoing project.
Have you ever wanted to collaborate with an artist you admire?
That’s an interesting question and one I don’t get a whole lot. I guess you don’t get to think about it so much as we always worked with modest budgets so you eliminate things out of your mind that seem too expensive, like getting a big name artist on board. But, I would want it to be something different and unexpected like an Anita Baker type artist or Sade or something like that, off the beaten path or a total surprise for my fans. There is a lot of stigmas attached to artists and potential collaborations however as there was a time at Sony where my name came across the table for working with Sade and right away the A&R were like “isn’t he a House guy?” so right away they were already sweeping my releases as a lesser form of music without even asking if did other styles or even listening to some of my releases like “Introduction” for example. Its like they didn’t really know what I could do but had already decided what I couldn’t do.
Going back on the road and comparing for example the 80’s and 90’s scene and audiences, are we progressing/digressing?
I think its doing both at the same time as we have all the technological advances playing out but as far as the human advances, most people don’t know what they are hearing, it’s like nondescript as oppose to the 80’s crowd who knew every title and artist that they were listening too.
In terms of relationship do you feel the DJs role has changed with the audience or vice versa, given the popularity of things like Boiler Room? Do you think it’s become a spectator’s sport in some respects?
Both roles have changed because the DJ became a huge entity. They are a bigger entity than when, say, Larry Levan, Tony Humphries etc were out there playing, and sometimes in the past you didn’t even get to see the DJs faces, you just heard who was playing and that was it. Now, it’s got a lot of marketing tied into it and no one talks about the people dancing around the club, what importance is the DJ if no one is dancing?
People get excited by DJ’s more so now, you know how people are, we go from one extreme to the other, we can’t seem to ever balance it. A place like The Music Box for example, there is a very little photographic evidence of that place where as now you have a BBQ in your backyard and 20 people are taking pictures, so it gets weird where you don’t feel comfortable now, like I thought I was going to get a chance to dance but now its being so heavily documented, I don’t feel comfortable dancing. Again the technology to do things is there, but the after-effect the technology causes means your boss at work is going to see every picture of what you did last night. On one side you can go out and dance but on the other side the tech puts breaks on it and intrudes. Dancing is social in one way but personal in another way, so having someone taking pictures of it is intrusive.
Lastly how do you feel about the sociopolitical situation in the U.S.A today?
I feel like a lot of people here in the States in that sometimes you feel like a weird social experiment is taking place. With our election, it’s like the last 3 to 4 times around you felt you didn’t really have anyone to choose from, these individuals that you hear talking, you just don’t believe in anything they are saying anymore which is weird. I’ve been as close to Donald Trump as you’ve been, which is the TV screen, I know nothing about him, Obama, Clinton, Gerald Ford etc. We’ve never sat down and had tea together. We know very little about these people except what we see and hear on TV or what’s being reported.
What’s happening with the place you live in, it will have an effect on you whether you notice it or not, its just weird, travelling and moving around the globe however I do get asked a lot more about home these days.
“Cerebral Hemispheres” is out on Alleviated Records this coming 13 April