The return of Mr. Fingers
A rare interview with house icon Larry Heard from his Australian debut at RBMA Weekender Sydney in 2016.
For most house music believers, Larry Heard exists on a higher plane. This is the man, after all, who conjured 'Mystery of Love' and 'Can You Feel It' - two canonical house records - under his Mr. Fingers alias. Despite his low profile, the producer has never stopped working since that mid-eighties awakening in his hometown of Chicago, creating three decades worth of music that bears his warm, soulful signature. His authority is more or less unarguable (as Dutch label Clone Records put it, he's the "Miles Davis of house music"), but if there's one person who most needs convincing of Larry Heard's genius, it's Larry Heard.
In September 2016, Red Bull Music Academy brought Heard to Australia for the first time to play live shows as Mr. Fingers. A few weeks before the trip, he debuted the show at Dimensions Festival in Croatia, a booking that was years in the making. Heard stopped touring as a DJ in 2012 after damage to his hearing, which makes his return all the more remarkable.
At 57 years old, with nothing left to prove, Heard's humility is not a pose. While he rarely does interviews, we connected on Skype prior to the Sydney show - me in New York, he at home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he's lived since 1997 - to talk about some major news.
I start by telling him that the crowds at Dimensions and the RBMA Weekender will be intimately clued-in to his music. "Oh, okay," he says with palpable relief. "Knowing the music is good. I thought you were going to say clued-in about what the performances should be like, because that'd be scary to me. If at least they know the music, maybe I can slide through it with my ignorance about what's going on technologically right now."
This self-assessment continues throughout our conversation. "Everyone has got to be patient with me," he says of the Dimensions booking. "This old, clueless man in a young world." He has given deep thought to what exactly it means to play live as an electronic artist in 2016, given his touchstones for live performers include the Rolling Stones and Ohio Players. "I'm not doing a DJ set," he says cautiously, "but it won't be a Kool & The Gang show either."
Heard speaks in a calm, even voice, considering each question with focused attention and a streak of playful humour. Early on, he tells me his memory is unreliable ("Even as a kid, I couldn't remember what happened the day before"), but still lucidly recalls the major beats of his career. Several times he refers to himself as a natural musician but a reluctant performer. If he has to play live, he prefers the security of an ensemble. "I was never pursuing performing, I was pursuing musicianship," he says. "I could be in Stevie Wonder's band, but do I want to be Stevie Wonder? Maybe in the studio, not on stage."
Larry Heard didn’t arrive fully formed as a house music disciple. As a kid growing up in Chicago, his music taste was voracious. "I was buying Sly & the Family Stone records when I was nine years old," he recalls. "I had some idea of what a good song sounded like. If I used my lunch money to buy a 45, it must've had real impact."
Disco entered his orbit with Donna Summer and the Bee Gees, both major hitmakers in the 1970s: "They were on the radio, so not knowing them was like not knowing who Beyoncé is now.” Heard's father, whose usual taste favoured jazz luminaries like Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie, came home one day in 1975 with Summer's second album 'Love to Love You Baby', produced by Giorgio Moroder and his studio partner Pete Bellotte. "That was an unusual record for him to bring home," Heard says. "I was like, okay, [title track] 'Love to Love You Baby' has a cool bassline. That's all I had to say back then."
Heard started playing guitar at 15, switched to bass at 16, then settled on drums at 17. "My fingers definitely weren't right for guitar," he says. "Drums flowed naturally for me." Heard taught himself the instrument by playing beats along to records in his collection, and soon he was recruited in bands. He felt most comfortable onstage behind the kit, outside of the "line of fire."
In his early twenties, Heard worked the night shift a couple of blocks from The Warehouse, where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles was weaving house history. "I can't say I heard the music, but I would always see the crowds," he says. "You didn't know if it was a gang or what you were looking at."
Between working nights and playing in bands, Heard didn't have much time for clubbing. He did, however, feel compelled by the nascent energy of house music, and set to work experimenting with a drum machine and synthesiser. His Mr. Fingers alias came vividly to life with 'Mystery of Love'. After sending tapes to labels and hearing nothing back, Heard self-released the track on his Alleviated Records imprint. Both Chicago's reigning DJs Knuckles and Ron Hardy were sent early acetates to play at their respective post-Warehouse residencies—Knuckles at the Power Plant, and Hardy at the Music Box.
With its taut bassline and deep, heady synth setting it apart from the jacking gear prevalent at the time, 'Mystery of Love' swiftly became a sought-after record. In 1986, Heard repackaged the track for a 12" on D.J. International Records, which, alongside Trax Records, was shaping the sound of Chicago house. 'Mystery of Love' still endures in the record boxes of DJs today, while also finding an admirer in fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, who sampled the track this year for his 'The Life of Pablo' cut 'Fade'.
Heard had no trouble following up his breakout record, jumping over to Trax in 1986 to release Mr. Fingers' ‘Washing Machine’ EP. On the A-side were two transcendent house cuts: the title track, and a slow, enveloping instrumental called 'Can You Feel It.' Other takes on this epochal track would follow, but the instrumental version was never bettered. In his quiet, studious way, Larry Heard had made two of dance music's all-time greats.
While Heard shied from the limelight, his path crossed in Chicago with vocalists Robert Owens and Ron Wilson, both born performers. The three men formed the group Fingers Inc. in 1985, specialising in vocal house with strut, swagger, and soul. The bond between Heard and Owens was especially strong. Whatever groove Heard came up with, Owens could write and sing to it. The trio’s only album, ‘Another Side’, came out in 1988 on Alleviated Music, adorned with some perfect cover art. Heard felt comfortable in the group’s live shows, shielded by the exuberance of the frontmen: "Both Robert and Ron are performers, so I all I had to really do is just be there.”
Fingers Inc. disbanded after ‘Another Side’, but Heard kept up his prodigious work ethic, releasing albums under his own name and as Mr. Fingers. His process remained intensely focused. "Some folks can have a whole crowd of people around them, and that just doesn't work for me," he says. "I need to get to a quiet place with myself and the sounds and go from there."
All Heard's productions start from a "stick figure" sketch, whether it's "a simple drum pattern, bassline, chord, or melody." He can make over 20 of these sketches a day, then focus in on the ones with promise. No two tracks adhere to the same template. "I'm definitely all over the place in terms of tempo," he says. "I'm kind of the Quincy Jones school of thinking. It's about ‘the pocket'. Where it feels good, that's where it's good." When Heard buys records for DJing, his natural inclination is to pitch them down. "It feels like the music is running by too fast for me sometimes," he says. "I want to enjoy a nice simmer on the track - I want Crock-Pot, I don't want microwave.”
After moving to Memphis in 1997, Heard continued to make beautifully realised LPs, including ‘Genesis’ and ‘Love's Arrival’. Occasionally he would leave the calm and order of his studio to DJ in clubs around the world. He enjoyed the parties and the warmth of the people, but admits DJing was never something he "specifically pursued - it was just something in my skill set."
In late 2011, Heard identified a problem with his hearing, prompting his decision to quit touring. "I was starting to lose the high frequencies," he says. "In clubs I noticed I was turning my whole body to hear people when they were talking to me." Heard remains unsentimental about the abrupt stop to his DJ life. “I felt my gifts and abilities were better utilised in the studio, where at least your effort is documented for a longer span of time,” he reasons. “With DJing, it’s fun on the night and then it’s over, but people have been enjoying a record like ‘Mystery Of Love’ for 30 years. I went to the Paradise Garage; I went to see Frankie Knuckles at the Power Plant, and I loved it, but once the event was over, it was over. I can still put [Stevie Wonder’s] 'Songs in the Key of Life' on today. That’s the difference.”
While clubs have missed Larry Heard, there’s a silver lining to his sabbatical. Earlier this year, Heard released the 'Outer Acid' EP, his first original material as Mr. Fingers in over a decade. It’s hard not to feel a pang of worry when a revered producer returns after an extended break, but the tracks on 'Outer Acid' are consummate Mr. Fingers, from the meditative deep space adventure evoked on 'Qwazars' to the slow-burning and sensitive deep house cut 'Aether'.
Although Heard initially considered releasing a selection of tracks sitting in his “personal archive", the new music flowed out of him. He’d also planned another EP to closely follow 'Outer Acid', but preparations for the Mr. Fingers live shows is demanding all his energy. “We don’t have the clones we were promised, so if I start one thing, I have to stop another,” he says.
As it currently stands, the live show will see Heard joined by Memphis vocalist Mr. White, his collaborator on 'The Sun Can’t Compare', a record that still ignites dance floors a decade after its release. The set-list will span the Mr. Fingers catalogue from ‘Mystery of Love’ to 'Outer Acid'. "You’ve got to cover the timeline," Heard assures, "because it wouldn’t be fair to leave those old records out."
Still, despite having all that music to draw from, he’s not allowing himself to relax. I tell Larry Heard - the man considered by many to be the greatest-ever house producer - that his devotees might be surprised to learn of his self-doubt. “Well,” he says, not missing a beat, “I could make 'Can You Feel It' or 'Mystery of Love', but I had no control over whether people received them positively. So you just try to, as they say, put your best foot forward.”
I reiterate my feeling that his Mr. Fingers live show, with its roots in the bedrock of Chicago house music, will bring people a whole lot of joy.
“Okay, well, good!” he laughs. “That makes one of us.”
Larry Heard will be back in Australia playing Freedom Time Festival in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Follow the link for more details.