As a musician, painter, teacher, sculptor, animator, director and published poet, Larry Larson carries a to-do list that stretches to 2012. For sixteen years Larson has been performing weekly at Detroit’s Gaelic League and has established a close relationship with its patrons. “These people are like family members.” he says. “I’m there for the weddings, I’m there for the funerals, I’m there for the christenings… it’s a great job.” Inspired by old greats such as Reverend Gary Davis, he is proficient in American blues, Irish folk, ragtime, country and rock ‘n’ roll and can handle requests ranging from Guthrie to Green Day. Thousands of songs are in the “carousel slide projector” of his mind. “It’s part of our cultural heritage,” he affirms.
By day, Larson teaches stop-motion and maquette (small-scale model) construction at the College for Creative Studies, but his lessons often cover many essential aspects of filmmaking—direction, lighting, set design, or what he calls the “visual grammar” of the film. “We talk about all kinds of things,” he says. “I get them for maybe one or two semesters so I just shovel all the information I can at them.”
Along with coursework, his students are also exposed to his overall philosophy of being an artist. “It’s something you discover how to be as you go along… it’s hard to say what art is, but one of the things is that which only you can give to the world at the moment you’re giving it.
“The real fun is when I sit down and make something—and then it’s magic time. All the character flaws go away, and all the worries about the day or whatever’s going on,” he says. “I’m still studying my art. I’m always learning more.
“The biggest thing is just living, isn’t it?” he poses. “It’s such a challenge and it’s so amazing and it’s so disappointing, and it’s so glorious—it’s so everything. I think artists are people that have the volume turned up louder… it’s really an experience. Like the Irish song says, ‘I may be wrong, but I’ll live until I die.’ You know? Just, full speed ahead.”
Larry Larson • every Friday night at the Gaelic League • 2068 Michigan Ave., Detroit • to view his work visit larrylarsonart.com
Interview with Larry Larson
10:25pm, Friday, October 22, 2010
at the Gaelic League
LL: I take a lot of pictures at the school. I do it because the students work better when you pay attention to them, but I also get all these great pictures of them working. And every once in a while the school will say, anybody got any pictures? I’ve got like, 500 or something. Yeah, so, it’s good memories, too. It’s good memories.
The sky was so blue and the trees were so red and everything was just so clear today. I took pictures of stuff in front of my house. It’s just like, wow, this is just extraordinarily beautiful. And you know, it’s gone. If you don’t get it, you forget. I’ve got pictures of snowstorms, I say oh, hey, I remember that. That can happen, too. And it probably will again. What can we do?
Could you tell me a little bit about overall what you’re into now?
I’m writing songs for the first time in 18 years. I haven’t been able to write for 18 years, so I’m writing. I do have Irish heritage by the way. Is that recording?
Great. I do have Irish heritage. My mother was Irish. I don’t know how much of the songs that I write are colored by my Irish heritage but I imagine it’s there. It’s one of those things like, looking into the mirror you really can’t see it. So I’m into writing songs, and I’m into teaching at CCS. In fact I talked today about possibly directing an animated feature film. I was so flattered somebody thought of me as a director. I said sure! What else am I doing? I’m into my oil painting and my art, into making pictures… actually I’ve got a couple of books going, too. Mostly children’s books that I’m illustrating. I’ve got, as usual, too many things going at once. And my new guitar. I love playing my new Gibson Songwriter 12. It’s just a beaut. I don’t have it here of course. And you know… just living. Just getting older. I’m enjoying it. I like being my age. I don’t know if you’ll print that, but I’m like 64. And I really enjoy being 64. Because 36 was really rough. But 64 is pretty cool.
I can imagine. Tell me a little bit about what you teach.
Well basically I teach stop motion animation, and I was teaching character animation and Maya (animation software) for about eight years. I’m a character animator—stop motion puppet animator, and I can also animate in Maya. This movie that they asked me about is done in Maya so I have a leg up on that. But I’m teaching stop motion animation. What I’m teaching besides just how to build puppets and how to animate them is I’m teaching the students how to make films. I’m teaching them screen direction, the visual grammar of the film, and I’m also teaching them lighting and set construction. It’s really a lot of stuff. I get them for maybe one semester or two semesters so I just shovel all the information I can at them. And it works. Some of my students place quite well…
It takes a while to grow up. I’m still working on it. I love playing the old Irish tunes. I love playing the old American blues songs and ragtime songs. I don’t get to do it much here, but I knew Reverend Gary Davis. He was a great guitar player. And it really inspired me, what some of those old guys did on a guitar. That’s all they had, some of them, was guitar and a place to live. Hopefully a place to live. And they sure made the most of it. Reverend Gary was a street singer in New York. I’ve become kind of a student of guitar techniques of yesteryear. It’s just part of our cultural heritage, so I’m into that a lot too. I’m into, I can play like, hesitation blues, and you know, southern stuff like Doc’s Guitar, deep river blues, that’s a crossover tune. So I’m into an awful lot of different stuff. That’s always been my problem. I’m so spread out with interests, but teaching students stop motion animation, lighting, set construction, and basically my philosophy of why to bother being an artist. Because that’s what they all chose, so they are feeling their way in which is respectable, because it’s something you discover how to be as you go along. I really enjoy it. So in a way we talk about all kinds of things beyond just movie making and lighting.
How long have you been at the Gaelic League?
I’ve been at this bar for 16 or 17 years. I took the advice of an old entertainer friend of mine. He said when you find a place you like, stay there. He was always moving around and he didn’t take his own advice but I did. And this has been great. It’s been everything from a community to a family. These people are like family members. And you’re a part of their lives. It’s wonderful. And they accepted me into the family so to speak. I have enough Irish in me, but really this is catching all kinds of people here. You don’t have to be Irish, you know. But it’s been great. Seventeen years of this stuff and a place to play. I’m there for the weddings, I’m there for the funerals, I’m there for the christenings, I’m there for… it’s a community.
And you’re basically a living jukebox?
Well I try to make art out of it. I’ve studied my art. I’m still studying my art. I’m still… I give performance lessons because I’m always learning more. Probably because I’m a slow learner. I’m always learning more about how to perform a song, how to put a song over, and guitar stuff all the time. New guitar stuff. So I have to always be learning. I try to bring something fresh to every performance. I think art… it’s hard to say what art is, but one of the things is that which only you can give to the world at the moment you’re giving it. So the most authentic art has that personal, immediate moment to it, where that… I sang songs tonight I won’t ever sing the same way again. I mean, basically the words will be there, the chords will be there, but they’re gonna feel different and hopefully they’re gonna sound different. It’s a creative act at the moment. But basically I play songs that people ask for. It’s not a very cooperative world a lot of days for a lot of people, you know? So they come here and hear the song they want to hear. I can make that part of the day go well for them. So yeah it’s a little bit like… it’s on order. Some people, you know what song they want to hear. They like to be recognized that way. Everybody likes to be recognized. It’s a human job.
About how many songs do you think you have in your head?
It varies. If the carousel slide projector of my brain is operating properly, I don’t know. Thousands. Maybe three or four thousand? Sometimes on a good night that will go up to like six thousand. On a bad night that will go down to like one thousand. So it varies. Lots of songs.
What about the stuff you’ve been working on? I know you and Carl did a record recently, last year?
Yeah, he did a great job recording it.
But that wasn’t your stuff, was it?
There was one song.
One song that was yours?
Yeah. He liked it. I recorded it because I wrote it before he was born. It was from a different life. Before I was married, even. He said he was just taken with it because it was such a different part of his dad’s life. It was a young man’s lament. But no, I’ve only been able to write now for the last, maybe four months. It took me eighteen years. I was writing basically things I didn’t like very much. So I finally came up with the approach that works for me—absolute honesty. That way if I like it, I don’t care if anybody, I mean… I hope other people like it, so when I got totally honest and I forgot all about markets and all about audiences and I only thought of people that I loved and what I wanted to say to them honestly, then I could write songs. So I’m not addressing the world. I’m just writing out of my heart what’s happening in here. That’s working for me.
Stylistically does it just kind of take from the carousel?
No. It takes from the language of music, which is idiosyncratic to every individual. Every artist has their own musical language. Maybe it’s all borrowed. Mine isn’t. I like kind of analyzing, how does this stuff work? What is the origin of melody? The origin of melody is human speech in my belief. Every sentence has a melody. When you say a different melody it means something different. I know it’s pretty dry and intellectual but when it translates out, I don’t think it’s particularly related to anything specific musically. It’s not in any particular style, which may be a problem (laughs). It’s straight out of my heart. Honestly straight out of me. That’s the only way I can write songs. Somebody says… write a song about this dog that was purple. I’d have a hell of a time doing it because I never knew a purple dog (laughs). I can’t even imagine it very well. But if somebody says, write about how you feel about something I do know about, something that I can relate to, and then I might have something worthwhile to say to other people about it. I certainly have something worthwhile to say musically, myself to myself. It’s surprising how much of the art that I make and how much of the music I make for me turns out to be the most accessible to other people. Just the most honest stuff. It came as a complete surprise. I would be trying to cater to an audience and find out that when I did the personal stuff it communicated better.
I didn’t expect it but it’s a happy surprise. A very happy surprise. I basically love playing music for people. It’s a great job. It’s like… my job is to please people. Make them happy. Help them celebrate life. You know, music. It’s a good job. And as far as creatively, I don’t do much of my own stuff here, even.
Do you ever test any of it out here?
A little bit. Most of the time I’m just jumping around trying to find out what’s going to reach the people that are here. Like, tonight I wasn’t getting a lot of requests. I got some, so I knew what to do for some people. You saw me going through all these musical genres from Irish to American blues, to American rock ‘n’ roll, to country and western, to just everything I could think of searching for the audience response. What energy do they need to have pumped into the room to make them happy? Or as happy as I can make them.
What about your other forms of art?
I love oil painting. Oil painting is magical stuff. You got enough time there?
We get the oil for the paint and the thing we paint on, the flax… it’s all from the flax plant. The linen is made from flax that you paint on, the oil, the magical substance that makes it all possible comes from the flax plant. It’s like this wonderful organic thing. I truly love the process of oil painting. There’s something immensely satisfying about a loaded brush and the oil coming off of it and making a picture. I’m also into the history of those things, too. I’ve studied the writings of a lot of painters in the past and made some shows about historical painting methods. Victorians had a painting method, the Renaissance folks, north and south had different methods of painting… I guess I kind of, I get kind of intellectually hung up. But the real fun is when I sit down and make something and then it’s magic time. All the character flaws go away and all the worries about the day or whatever’s going on and it’s pure magic time. I’m laying down colors, making a painting, making a picture that somebody’s going to see. And I sell them, so maybe somebody will even buy it and want to own it. That happens often enough.
I have two different varieties of painting that I enjoy doing. I love painting faces, portraits, because I can read a person’s… the way they feel. I don’t know how to explain it—the personalities in their face. And I also paint dreams. I keep a log of my dreams and I can see what they look like after I write it down and record it. I actually keep a voice activated tape recorder so I can record the dream when it happens and it can actually, it brings the pictures back when I listen to it or read it. And I paint those. I paint pictures of those things and they turn up all kinds of places, like on CD covers for groups in England and things that I didn’t even know. They just see ‘em online and say, we want to put that on our CD. I listened to the music, if I liked it I said OK, and that’s the stuff that surprised me that anybody would be interested in because those were just for me. So, and then I found out, well that’s what the art people are really interested in is that personal, unique sort of thing that happens in my brain, which… I was very happy to find that to be true. It’s like a nice surprise. Oh, you want to hear what goes on up here? Great! I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear that stuff.
Yeah, and then the sculpture. I love sculpture. I teach sculpture at the school. I teach maquette, which is like small-scale sculpture of entertainment figures. Whenever an animated thing is made you make a small sculpture of it. You make a number until everybody signs out and says yeah, that’s the guy. And then that image goes down the production pipeline and everybody refers to it so that all the different artists make something that looks the same. So I teach the students how to make maquettes. And that’s a useful skill to have. It’s sort of a nice back pocket skill to have when you’re going to work at a studio. You have a main thing, like, I’m an animator, oh, you can make maquettes too? Well look at that. Then you’re more desirable to some of these employers. And I’m always happy when my students get employed. They keep in touch, so it’s quite an involvement.
And then the drawing. Drawing is like, every single day I have to draw. I drew for hours today. Drawing is like the… my quest lately. It’s like, it’s a… I have some real good drawers in my classes. My students challenge me all the time and I say, wow, that student’s really good. I better get to work and get better. But it’s a fun, it’s not so much of a competition, it’s a fun sort of a goad, you know, to get better. So I’m really involved with my drawing lately and I write every day. I keep a journal and I’ve read some of it to some literature folks and a couple of poet friends, one’s a literature teacher at University of Detroit, and they seem to think that this has some value which is another amazing… you mean the stuff I’ve been telling myself all these years, someone might be interested in? I tell you, I need a good editor. And I’ve had some poetry published lately, too. Emposium magazine, I did their cover a couple of springs ago and I just send the guy a little verse because I like him. You know, it’s interesting. Never dreamed he’d put it on a page all by itself in this magazine with my name. I was like… I’m a published poet! I don’t take that too seriously. But I was real surprised that they thought it was good enough to publish.
I think I’m into too much stuff, though. You know? I mean, is anybody supposed to be into all this stuff?
A lot of the other artists I talk to are kind of the same way.
I know. I can’t help but think if I just spent it all on oil painting, or all on my animation, digital, or something, I could be like five times better. But you’re right. I love it all too much. I got another strategy, too. I’m getting old, see? Things go wrong when you get old. Like, your eyes go bad, your ears go bad, something happens. So I figure I have enough art forms that no matter what goes wrong I’ll still have things to do (laughs). I’m going with that. I had that planned way back. Do lots of stuff, and if something goes wrong, you’ll still be able to do something. But the biggest thing is just living, isn’t it? I mean, gosh almighty. This life, it’s such a challenge, and it’s so amazing, and it’s so disappointing, and it’s so glorious, and it’s so everything. I think artists are people that have the volume turned up louder. I think that’s what we are. We just have the volume up. Everything, and I’m… it’s really an experience. Like the Irish song says, “I may be wrong, but I’ll live until I die.” You know? Just, full speed ahead. I’m not surprised you’re the same way, Jon. You’re right. I’m surprised that Carl didn’t do more paintings. He seems to be focused. Maybe he looked at me and said, I better focus.
He seems to have a lot of other stuff going on…
Oh geez, yeah. House buying, and a job, and…
How many hours a week does he work?
Way more than I would have at his age. I’m amazed at his stamina.
Are you guys going to do another record of your stuff?
I want to. You know, when you get two voices from a single family, like two brothers, or a brother and a sister, there’s a genetic blending that’s like grains in the wood. In the tree or something. You know, I would really like to record stuff with him because our voices blend in that genetic kind of way that doesn’t happen with anybody else because he’s the only relative I’ve got that sings, aside from being extravagantly talented at his music in my opinion. But yeah, I hope we do. I don’t know though, Jon. He’s so busy being Carl, and I understand that because I’m very busy being Larry. And you’re very busy being Jon. I mean there were times when I was like 22 when I wasn’t busy being me so much. There were more open spaces. Whereas now, I’m saying, you gotta keep going. I have 300 years of things to do so I gotta… there’s no time to waste.
My to-do list. This has gotten shorter. It used to be two pages for a while. But that’s my to-do list. I’m into 2012 on it. I have a… I don’t know if I’ve got the coffee shop yet. I bet it’s on there somewhere. April 17th I’m playing a wedding. And March 19th I’m playing at a coffee house. I better write that down. Oh I got it on there. March 19 at the coffee house. I have to do this. I don’t know how I got by before I wrote stuff down.
Do you ever just take, say, I’m taking these two hours? I gotta do that… I tried that today for a little while. Then the phone rang and then they offered me the directing job. They didn’t offer it to me, they talked about it. Then I spilled the water and I had to get up.
Who offered it to you?
You know, I don’t even know who it is. I mean they’re doing this locally, they’re producing it locally but they’re… a lot of the animation is being done in Korea. We were just kind of checking each other out today. I was asking a lot of questions, like, how am I going to direct this if it’s all being done in Korea? But they said I would have access to the voice talent. I said, well it’s as impossible to do terrible animation to great voice talent as it is to do great animation to terrible voice talent, so if I have access to… if I can control the performances and the animatic, and the cues, I know I can work on the film. Because that’s what you want to do. You do a job like that, it’s not just about the money. You want to do something well. You want to do something good. So this is a wonderful potential adventure. I really hope it happens. It’ll mean life has to change because I’ll be working 7 days a week for you know, 6 months or something (laughs), but it would probably be a lot of fun. Probably a lot of problems though, but a lot of fun. I’m excited.
I don’t really have any other questions. Do you have anything else to say before I turn that off?
I have only this to say. Find the goals that thrill you and work them every day. You don’t have to use that but that’s all I have to say.