You can’t, or at the very least shouldn’t, have a conversation about dance music without talking about Larry Heard. The Chicago-bred, Memphis-based artist has long been immortalized for 80s club anthems like “Can You Feel It” and “Mystery of Love” (the latter recently a thing of mainstream fascination due to being used as the backbone for Kanye West’s “Fade”). Beyond his omnipresent party tracks, he’s also long filtered dance music through a more mature lens—rooted in classicist musicianship and heady improvisation. With those areas of interest, he was an early proponent of pushing dance music towards the album format—crafting diverse, often vocal-heavy voyages that weren’t only rinsed on Chicago’s house radio stations, but its jazz stations, too.
Heard was among the first to display electronic music’s true potential for humanistic warmth. His lengthy discography, released via projects like Mr. Fingers, Larry Heard, Gherkin Jerks, and his seminal live Chicago group Fingers Inc., gifted the world a plethora of aqueous basslines paired with inviting melodies and dizzy vocals that provided dance music some of its most poignant early moments. Though he wasn’t the first to fill dance tracks with breaths and sighs, and to seemingly attune abstract melodies to human biorhythms, in his music, there was always the all-too-rare sense that there was a man behind the machines.
While he helped launch the worldwide deep house movement with the success of his early work alongside contemporaries like Frankie Knuckles, Robert Owens, and Lil’ Louis, Heard remained a deeply individualistic personality. Known for making his early tracks on tapes, he had idiosyncratic tastes, citing nerdy prog superstars like Yes (he was a drummer in a cover band for the British group as a teen) and treacly jazz fusionists Return to Forever as early musical heroes. Over the years his music has held onto these odd influences, favoring curious textures that float between ambient passages, loungey jazz, balearic guitars, and acidic grit.
Like many scene pioneers, Heard long relied on tireless gigging and producing remixes to make ends meet, in tandem with a healthy release schedule through the 1990s to early 2000s and his own Alleviated label. His trio of Larry Heard full-lengths between 1999 and 2003, Genesis, Love’s Arrival, and Where Life Begins, were impeccably produced, genre-shifting journeys into house, lounge, downtempo, and ambient moods—a reminder that Heard never became satisfied with settling into a single style. He was creating spaces, both on record and in real life clubs, where his favorite sounds could rub shoulders.
But even as he’s maintained a heavy influence over the shape of house music as a whole, he’s also had a reluctance to performing and DJing as a career, considering it something he did because he could, not necessarily because he wanted to. “I was never pursuing performing, I was pursuing musicianship," Heard told Red Bull in an interview from 2017. He echoed his pragmatic approach in that interview to by admitting his DJing was never something he "specifically pursued,” but rather something he knew was in his skill set.
Like some of dance music’s other forebears, a lifetime in club spaces caused Heard to develop hearing issues, which eventually caused him to stop DJing six years ago, He explained to Resident Advisor in 2012 that this wasn’t necessarily tragic due to the fact he’d still be able to do what’s most important to him: make and record music. In 2016, however, at Croatia’s Dimensions festival, and apparently instigated by the festival organizers’ proposal, he joyously returned to the stage as a live act, with a new set that included a Memphis vocalist Mr. White, who famously crooned on his haunting 2006 masterpiece “The Sun Can’t Compare.”
He’s been touring ever since, which has led to some reimaginings of his long-held projects. Though he’s issued EPs and 12”s as Mr. Fingers over the years, he hasn’t explored that moniker in longform in nearly 25 years, but on April 13, he’ll be back with a new record called Cerebral Hemispheres. It’s a gloriously scattershot record, one that that functions sort of like a scrapbook of his whole career—bridging the gaps between the many vibrant sounds he’s conjured over the years.
The album’s billed as crossroad between some of Heard’s ambient and jazzy work, heard on albums like Closer and 1996’s Introduction, as well as his more club-focused acid tunes that have been released on EPs over the last decade. There’s a mediative, wordly essence throughout the LP, made literal with transportive track titles like “Sands of Aruba,” “Urbane Sunset,” and “Tiger Lounge.” Consequently, it’s an album that can be enjoyed through in a variety of settings and moods—it has applications well beyond the walls of the club. Like many of Heard’s now timeless LPs, you could probably take Cerebral Hemispheres all the way from a psychedelic dancefloor, to a woozy chill-out room, sun-kissed beach, a hazy rooftop, and maybe even some sort of low-lit, romantic dinner scene—as long as your guests are down to get extremely chill. Basically, like the best Mr. Fingers records, it’s one you’ll wear out the grooves on, given enough time.
In celebration of Mr. Fingers return to the album format, we caught up with Heard over Skype to hear more about the LP and his pragmatic approach to music and life while he was taking some time off of “yard chores” at his home in Memphis, Tennessee.
Noisey: You’re traveling all around the world these days. What’s it like to be back in Memphis?
Larry Heard: It’s pretty quiet. It’s definitely a different contrast to a place like Chicago where things are going 24/7. It’s hard to be off the clock [in Chicago]; any people you run into want to immediately talk about music. It makes you feel weird, or like a one-trick pony. Everyone thinks they’re relating to you because they’re talking about music. If I was a garbage man, for example, would they want to talk about garbage? They don’t get to know anything about me really, but just wants answers about music. If I can answer them even.
So you’re a bit more anonymous in Memphis?
It’s not like when I’m running into people in the streets like in Chicago, so that helps. Nowadays everyone can just get on their phones and Google “who’s Mr Fingers?” and next thing you know people are coming to your house asking to listen to their demo. That’s what was starting to happen in Chicago. I’d go to a party where Frankie Knuckles was playing at and didn’t really get to hear any of the songs. People would stay on me the whole night talking music. I was starting to get boxed by everything around me. I didn’t have a free moment to think about what I was doing and what I want from the future. A lot of times you’d just end up discussing the past. And you can’t change anything about the past.
What kind of feeling are you getting playing for these festival and club crowds right now? Has the energy of performing changed?
For a while, even when I was DJing, I was feeling like a chaperone because of the age. It’s little awkward, but you’re doing it to have some kind of participation in the scene where you’re actually present, versus just giving the gift of [releasing] music and enjoying that. I started to see that [fans] want to physically see you from time to time. As far as the energy, it’s closer now I think. The world has come closer together because of technology and social media. A festival in Chicago can be filled with so many Europeans in it and you can’t really discern the difference. It was a totally different story maybe 30 years ago when there wasn’t this kind of exchange with all the tourism going back and forth.
So many of the artists that you’re playing with on lineups who cite you as an influence have gotten famous in such a short span of time. What do you think about the barrier to becoming an DJ these days?
Well you can become a DJ today but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get paid. You’ve got to negotiate your way into some actual paid events. I did plenty of DJ gigs where I wasn’t even thinking about money. I was more just honing my skills and learning about the reaction of the crowd. However you approach entering DJing it ends up working differently for everyone. There’s a million ways to skin a cat as they say, and probably about two million ways to get established as a DJ.
Let’s get to the album. Where’d all these tracks come from? I know a couple were released on some recent twelve inches from a couple years ago.
Some of them may have been around for a while. I haven’t made an album since 2003 [the Larry Heard-billed Where Life Begins] and was absorbed all the time with DJing and traveling. When I was home I was doing remixes, so without really noticing it I was neglecting my own music because you gotta pay the bills. Since Alleviated is my own label it doesn’t really pay me anything in advance. It’s more of an investment.
I hear a lot of guitars in the early half of the album. Almost a kind of Balearic vibe on “Urbane Sunset.” Are there a lot of actual instruments on the album? Who played on it?
A local Memphis legend Ed Finney used to be with this 70s abstract rock fusion band Compost played guitar on that and I played piano. That was like a modern day [Dave Brubeck’s hit] “Take Five” kind of feeling. We just kind of played over the groove and ad-libbed like some of sort of contemporary jazz songs. We all got a verse to stretch out and do anything. There’s a few different local guitar players on the album and background vocalists on the album. Some of the song have more of a rhythm section approach and others are more tracky acid tracks for DJ sets.
I sense a lot of euphoria and calm in a lot of your songs, especially on this album. Where do you channel that energy from?
I don’t know if that’s wanted I wanted to have people hear, but more that it’s just more what I’m drawn to as far as texture in songs and stuff that I’ve learned and what’s influenced me. Guys like George Duke and Rodney Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Artists that always had these kind of melancholy flavors and Rhodes pad sounds. I end up being drawn towards those kind of patches when I’m working. It’s not something I’m just pulling out of thin air but more me going back to this bank of sounds I have. And then altering those into what I’m conceiving for a particular song.
Do you find your music therapeutic?
I hope so. I saw it with my mother and aunts who had problems with their marriages. I saw them be comforted a lot by music. Even with your own childhood you have traumatic things happen and music is therapeutic and help you through situations like that.
Music is the answer as they say...
Yeah, according to Colonel Abrams [laughs].
Life’s pretty scary right now too. A lot of people are making some political dance music and using it as a form of protest.
I can’t say that I have [done that]. I guess it’s easy to kind of jump on the bandwagon and make angry songs because you’re angry about things. But that will only spill out into more anger. You’ve got to counteract that at some point to do something to try tip the scales back.
A lot of dance music pioneers like Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Larry Levan aren’t with us anymore. What do you think they’d think or have to say about the industry they helped create in many ways?
They’re a big part of the evolution of dance music. I can’t say I knew them well enough that I could say how they’d think, we just came into contact with each other because of what we were doing. Ron Hardy obviously would be interesting because he passed a long time ago. Frankie Knuckles passed more recently and saw how some of these things had evolved. Maybe someone like Ron Hardy would have nothing to say about it all though; he and those others didn’t seem like people who were really paying attention to what was going on. They had their own things that they wanted to do and were going to do and what was going on was irrelevant. That’s why they were able to be pioneers because they starting doing something people weren’t doing, instead of jumping on the bandwagon. They did something that was going instead the grain and the status quo.
Is there something you want people to take away from the album or a certain feeling you were trying to evoke?
It’s hard to tell people about music, their ears tell them. I hope when they hear it there’ll be some things they can relate to. If we were able to explain music we probably wouldn’t need music and it would become absolute. Music is its own language and we can leave it to speak for itself.
Does the release of the LP feel like the start of a new chapter to you?
I guess the next chapter kind of started when we started doing the live set again in 2016, so we’re just continuing the journey of that and finally getting around to releasing something of my own. I’ve already started on the next album, so I’m not going to let ten or fifteen years go by again. I won’t make that mistake anymore. That and just having a normal life like everyone else.
Mr. Fingers' Cerebral Hemispheres is out April 13 on Alleviated Records.
David Garber is a writer and DJ based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.