For anyone who loves house music, the name Larry Heard inspires reverence, even awe. He is the "deep" in deep house, a pioneer who mapped out a new path for the genre beginning with the release of 1985's Mystery of Love. Under the name Mr. Fingers (also collaborating as Fingers Inc.), Heard developed what would become the template for gospel-tinged Chicago house. His passionate, soulful approach to house music set a standard for a generation of producers, and over the years, Heard's gummy throb touched on jazz-fusion, R&B and reggae.
Now 43, Heard lives in Memphis, where he moved in 1997 to just "be Larry," not Larry-Heard-the-producer-who-lives-for-nothing-but-music. Since relocating, the self-described "adventurer" has spent time scoring the local network news, running live sound for his church and even painting. Now, Heard has begun work to follow up a stream of refined archival releases with a series of "old-school flavor" EPs set for release beginning in September.
Tucked away in his own brand of "cultural isolation," as he puts it, Atlanta-based producer Chris Brann has been on a similar exploration of the self, one that perhaps would have taken an altogether different path had it not been indirectly for Heard. The 31-year-old Brann, known for his productions as Wamdue, Ananda Project and P'taah, sits alongside Masters at Work and Blaze in producing house music that rolls effortlessly into the ear and flows like shivers down the spine. Brann's warmth and tonality pays direct respect to Heard's lineage, which can be heard in the Ananda Project's sophomore release, Morning Light, coming in August.
Though they share a mutual respect, these two artists had never expressed their artistic admiration to each other in person. Sequestered behind banks of gear, they had previously communicated their appreciation only through their music. Until now.
The phone rings. A red light flares to life, and they begin.
Larry Heard: I just wanted to say I love [the Ananda Project's Morning Light], man. My favorite keeps changing. It's "ICU" right now.
Chris Brann: Thank you very much. When I first started getting into production, it was really revolutionary to me to hear your material, and in a way [it was] how I got so inspired to make the music I ended up doing. Hearing the musicality of the late '80s material injected into the technique of making dance music was to me a mind-blowing evolutionary thing. By it being more music and less tracks, it set up a blueprint for me to be more creative in adapting my sensibilities to house music. For you to have pioneered that, it's been such an important thing to so many people.
Heard: But I don't think I really pioneered that. I came from being in [prog-rock] bands [that introduced me to a range of keyboards] from my teenage years to getting to a stall point in the mid-'80s. A lot of people in the bands I played drums in weren't interested in the drummer having ideas, so I couldn't express myself, I could just play the beat and that wasn't really satisfying. So I started to learn how alone, [with synthesizers and sequencers], I could get the ideas out of my head, taking cues from the disco era, where all these musicians interacted on this danceable music.
Brann: I think generationally speaking a lot of what had happened with disco had gotten seriously lost in the technology of it. I always wanted to be in a band, but I never had people around me to play with, so that's how I got into computers. So for me, it's gone full circle by being able to bridge the gap and incorporate live musicians in the process.
But with the rave phenomenon in the late '80s, it all became about the bleeping sounds of acid, the [Roland] 303 and the 909 [bass synthesizer and drum machine]. A lot of the musicality got completely covered up for a period of time. So when I heard your stuff and Marshall Jefferson and Ten City, that was a reawakening, and I found the connections of where the music came from, what it was a part of. Your music was the entry point.
Heard: Even in Chicago it was primarily DJs putting the tracks together, with a handful of musicians. It was primarily tracky things.
Brann: I think it's also the importance of the composition. I hear in your musical arrangement the telling of a sonic story, as opposed to it just being a track with musicians on top. It seems a lot of times, there's a track and it's happenstance [that] someone plays sax over it. There's no directional motive to compose, to tell a story like a tone poem. Again, I think that's another influence I took from you, to say something in song.
For me, it's not a conscious thing to compose this thing that's emotionally compelling to people, you do it because you simply feel it. If I'm involved in making something, I want to make something I want to hear, instead of making it for the dance floor. If I find it compelling, I hope someone else will too.
Heard: There's kind of this difference between a musical product and a musical offering. A product is green beans, where every can is the same no matter what the labels look like. But a musical offering comes from a different place from whoever is putting it together to be offered out.
I only started sharing my offerings by DJing maybe three years ago. Actually, my first official gig was in Atlanta around the time of the Missing You double pack. I had been playing for my own fun for years but I never did an official party. Before, I'd just mysteriously show up, play and disappear. It was just to have fun. And if I had something I was experimenting with, it was all the better to test it out. But mostly it was just to share the music and joy I had come across.
I've always collected music. When it comes to tracks I like, it's like on "American Bandstand" -- it's got a good beat and you can dance to it, so it's good. That can be as complicated as it gets. I'd been offered DJ gigs for years and said no; I just wasn't that interested in the official duties of DJing. Even though I've been to clubs all the time I've been more of a short-stay person. It's rare for me to be there open to close.
Brann: I feel the same way -- I like to get in clubs and get out; I can't see the duration thing. DJing for me is a bit of a psychological turmoil kind of thing.
Heard: Glad to hear somebody else say that.
Brann: It depends on the person of course, but if you're really sensitive to what you're hearing in your ears, too much music can be kind of devastating sometimes.
Heard: I can get temporarily deaf sometimes. After a long duration, I can't even hear what's going on. I have no problem doing gigs when it's time to do gigs, but when it's time to be Larry, I don't want to be talking about the gigs, the records that came out 10, 20 years ago.
Brann: I don't like to talk about music. It's really kind of a separate life for me; it's kind of schizophrenic. Most of the time, I'm not dealing with music at all. It's kind of become such an automatic process, it's running in the background. That's not to say I don't enjoy it -- it's just so ingrained in who I am, that it's not even something I want to deal with on a conscious level.
Heard: I think I know what you're talking about. [Like] when you get questions from people saying, 'How do you do this?' and there's not really a how, you just do it. You get in front of your tools and you experiment, and if something comes out of it, cool, and if not, try it another day.
Brann: You kind of come to a point of acceptance to be comfortable in that way of working. You can't force it, because when you force it, it becomes an artificial process and the results aren't worth the effort.
Heard: If I tried to do a Teddy Riley kind of song intentionally, it wouldn't happen.
Brann: The ultimate lesson you learn if you're really studying other people is you just become yourself.
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