Tangled web

From Mexico to L.A. via Alaska and El Paso, Tito Larriva has seen it all and more

The phone call finally arrives around 6 p.m., four hours late. The connection crackles and hisses as though it resents the human intrusion; Tito Larriva's voice on the other end sounds hollow, distant. The imagination reels. This is, after all, the primary orchestrator behind what is possibly the meanest rock outfit on the planet, Tito and Tarantula, not to mention one of the most criminally overlooked releases of 1997, Tarantism.

So why is Tito so tardy? What's he gotten himself into? A run-in, perhaps, with the federales south of Tijuana? Or maybe a scrape with a band of bikers on the road back from a lost weekend on the Baja Peninsula? Was he embroiled in some intense cinematic discussion with his filmmaker pal Robert Rodriguez?

Alas, reality proves to be considerably less exotic.
"I'm at the Yellow Submarine," says Larriva, calling on his cellular from Disneyland, where he's taken his 6-year-old daughter for the weekend. "Her birthday is right after I leave for Europe, so I wanted to spend some time with her. This is the only place I could get the phone to work."

There are two very different sides of Tito Larriva. His scruffy, borderline unkempt appearance, stringy jet-black hair, and intimidating, aloof aura suggest something just this side of pure evil, a range-roving bandito tailored to modern-day, serial-killer proportions. But those who choose not to turn and run might just home in on Larriva's wicked grin as it expands into a calm smile, or get a load of his rather meek speaking voice as he offers an especially warm greeting.

"They meet me, and I sound like Mickey Mouse," Larriva says, giggling. This isn't the Tito Larriva commonly witnessed on stage and on album. In those arenas, the onetime El Paso resident tends to morph into a likeness not unlike his blood-scarfing bandleader alter ego in the 1996 Rodriguez horror-movie parody, From Dusk Till Dawn, or the unsavory lout that guns down Quentin Tarantino in Desperado.

Music, in particular, is Larriva's twisted fantasy world, a place where preteen prostitutes wander the streets in search of an easy dollar, career criminals murder in bulk just for luck, and it seems all of humanity is "knocking on the devil's door." When Larriva sings "On your street I could see/Your virgin velvet body hidin'/I wanted you for me" on Tarantism's "Smiling Karen," it feels somehow real, more flesh than fiction.

"I don't know if it comes from the films or what," says Larriva, trying to explain the detailed, disturbing imagery that often consumes his narratives. "I just can't get away from the storytelling. There's a little bit of me in most of them."

This coming from a man about to take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a kindergartner.

Living has been an amusement ride in itself for Tito Larriva. Born in Ciudad Juarez, the thrice-married 43-year-old spent his early childhood living with his family on a mountain near Fairbanks, Alaska, where his father had found work in a rather unusual occupation. "He hunted for a long time--ox, seal, caribou, anything you could sell," Larriva says matter-of-factly. "That's what we lived on."

The Larrivas became U.S. citizens in 1959, when Alaska earned its statehood, and the family moved to El Paso when Tito was 6. In the first grade, Larriva and some fellow Cub Scouts formed an imaginary band, playing cardboard instruments and donning Beatles wigs. It was then that Larriva knew he "was bitten." He joined the school orchestra, learning violin and flute and performing classical music throughout his teenage years. "I was almost in a ballet company," he says.

There was a brief period, though, when Larriva veered from his relatively centered existence, running away to Mexico City at the age of 13 with designs on being a bullfighter. Still, it wasn't as extreme as one might think: "My cousin was a bullfighter," Larriva says. "When you're 13 years old and you run away to your uncle's house, every day your uncle's talking to your mom and dad, and you don't know it. You think you're really bitchin', and your parents know what you're having for breakfast. It didn't last long--maybe a month."

Larriva returned to El Paso with his tail between his legs, but he would return to Mexico City just after high school to dance in a few nightclub productions. That was before he headed northeast to pursue study at Yale University. "It was kind of an embarrassing part of my life," he admits. "It was the tail end of the hippie era. I wasn't really registered, but I was hanging out in the dorms and getting free food. I had every intention of going there, but I was smoking too much pot."

Larriva lasted three months in Connecticut, retreating again to Mexico City when the campus handouts ran dry. Meanwhile, he'd already been married twice, first to a much older woman in a shotgun wedding when he was 16, and a second time to a gal in Mexico City. The former produced his eldest daughter, who is now 26 and living in Dallas; the latter resulted in an annulment when it was discovered that Larriva was still married to his first wife.

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