Yep, that's Larry Harlow--one of Fania-era salsa's seminal pianists--doing those solos on the Mars Volta's latest album, Francis the Mute. The other day I called him up and asked him to tell me the story behind this crazy collaboration. At the end of the conversation, I think I knew more about salsa and rock music. Or maybe I just got off on the idea of Nuyorico's contribution to the world of hip the '60s and '70s believed itself to be.
Spanglishkid: How did you meet these guys Mars Volta anyway?
Larry Harlow: My son is named Miles Harlow Kahn, an attorney who went to Cardozo Law School, went to school with Avery Litman, a lawyer for Universal Music who signed Mars Volta. When they signed Avery usually asks all the bands that he signs, who's your hero? Figuring they would say Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or somebody like that. Omar let out Larry Harlow and he said, "No way!" That's my best friend's father. So Omar said do you think you could get him to play on our new album? They called me last summer and spoke to their management and tried to get together a couple of times in LA and our schedules were too conflicting and finally I was going to Puerto Rico to do a couple of concerts, and I was going on a Tuesday and the shows weren't until the weekend so Omar says why don't you record Tues, Wed and Thurs in San Juan and I said fine. This was last July. They had been working on their album for a couple of months already; it took them a good 10 months to do this album. They have a lot of guest artists playing; big string arrangements and a couple of guys from the Chili Peppers. I said tell them to send me what they want me to play so I can work out what I'm going to play. But I don't hear anything so the day comes to go to Puerto Rico, I go there and we meet at the Marriott Hotel. So I say hey can I listen to the music and they say, oh no we'll listen to it in the studio. They keep putting me off so I know something's up. Even in the car on the way to the studio. They say no no no, wait till we get there. I heard an EP they did, the first one they did. And I said what the heck am I going to play on this? I knew one kid was Puerto Rican and Cedric was Mexican and I knew they were going to do some bilingual stuff.
Spanglishkid: What was it like recording with them?
Larry Harlow: They're very bright perceptive kids. To look at Omar with dark horn-rimmed glasses, little piece of tape holding them together. Unpretentious kids, laid back, t-shirts, looks like they haven't eaten in six months. I look like I eat every 5 minutes. I get them into the studio, a really nice studio I hooked them up with. They were doing everything on Pro Tools, really first-class, and they put on these tracks and stand me in front of all these multi keyboards all over the place and they had a beautiful 9-foot Steinway. It was a pleasure, everything was really top. They only played once in Puerto Rico when they first started. Omar had his whole family there. His father was there eating his rice and beans but he wanted to see some salsa shows so I took him on the weekend. What he really wanted to know was all the stories from the Fania days. About Pacheco, and Cheo and Celia, all of his heroes, and going to African with Fania. He knows the music, every record I ever made. I didn't even know why I'm his hero and so I talked to him. They put on this music and it's from Mars, from outer space. It's all fuzzed out and electronic-ed out and every gizmo gadget you can think of is on there. Frogs croaking and people screaming, echo-ed out. Then it gets to a part where it lands in an A-minor guajira and he says do your stuff. So I'm just playing vamps, the old Fania stuff, and then three or four minutes in he says "take a solo" and he points to me in the booth and says "this is take one, there is no take two, whatever you play stays on the recording. Mistakes, everything.
They would go in and out of my solos, feed off of my solos. And it was a very long song, 12-13 minute song. I padded some synthesizer stuff on top of it. I played on the last track of the album which was more electronic. They fuzzed me up and made the piano sound like a guitar so I just blend into the mix. The article in RS was very interesting because I learned a lot about them. They said if you're going to the moon and you have one album to take with you, what album would you take? And without hesitation he said Larry Harlow's Electric Harlow. Why that record? He said because when I was in my mother's belly my father would take the stereo speakers and put them on my mother's stomach and play Electric Harlow. When I was four years old I went to my first Fania concert and I was on my father's shoulders and my father pointed Larry Harlow out to me and said I want you to grow up and be just like him. This is the kind of music you should play. His father's a real salsero. They run around with a little 8 mm movie camera. That's how they make their videos. They're very creative in what they do. When I hear Cedric sing, he's like an Axel Rose in both languages. What they're trying to say is another matter, I don't really understand their music. I'm three generations in front of them, and It's going to be very interesting playing with them. I don't know what they got up their sleeve. I haven't met or played with the other guys in the band. Children of friends of mine who are 15 or 16, their parents are calling me saying you are their hero now because you're playing with Mars Volta. I'm playing two numbers. I brought my henna tattoos and I'm going to come out in some weird outfit to make me look 20 years old again.
Spanglishkid: Tell me a little bit about that album Electric Harlow—the word "electric" was kind of a buzzword back then.
Larry Harlow: The Electric Harlow record was the first time electric pianos were used on a recording. Before Stevie Wonder did "Superstition" on the clavinet, I was playing the clavinet four of five years before that. It was an electric clavichord. It had one string per note. It wasn't struck like piano, it was struck like a guitar. It gave it a sound kind of like a Cuban tres. So when I did the Electric Harlow album it had a really funky tres-y kind of sound.
Spanglishkid: When did the album come out?
Larry Harlow: Electric Harlow must have been 69. It was kind of revolution, Woodstock time Young Lords, protest, revolution. Sex drugs and rock and roll. Everybody had long hair and the Puerto Ricans were looking for identification. The word salsa started then. Every where we played there was always a crowd and there were hundreds of clubs to play in. People were writing songs—message of protest or politics and it changed the whole lyrical content. Me and Eddie and Barretto were changing the harmonic concept of Latin music. It used to be a two or four chord song and now we were using modern jazz chords 9th chords. We were changing the harmonies around while keeping authentic to the Cuban clave and son. It was quite an experimental time.
Spanglishkid: It's amazing to see films of the old Fania All-Stars at the time and everyone had wild long hair and hip clothes.
Larry Harlow: I was the one that started with the satin jackets and the long hair, I was the one who psychedelicized them a little bit. Everybody was taking acid and drugged out. It was time of experiment. Let's wear wild outfits. The cover was done on ultraviolet film. The big buzz around the Billboard conference is everything is going back to '70s salsa. We're having our third renaissance. I appreciate what Omar and these guys are doing because they're putting a little funk into what their thing is, that alternative rock sound, they're turning on a bunch of American kids to latin music. They have a big tour coming up to South America. I'm having fun. The guajira part sounded nice percussion wise. They're just taking it somewhere else, opening up the ears of their fans to Puerto Rican music and Cuban music. It's not like playing with Earth Wind and fire. I had a band called Amber Gris around the time of Electric Harlow. But we were more in to the funk thing, the Chambers Brothers and stuff like that.