Tangled web

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

Back in Mexico and a free man, Larriva met up with the ex-wife of T. Rex's Marc Bolan, who in 1975 convinced him to relocate with her to Los Angeles and pursue his music. He's been there ever since. At the time of his arrival in L.A., Larriva's only real rock and roll experience had been as a singer and infrequent flutist for an El Paso cover band called Hidden Smile. But he learned quickly, forming the trailblazing Chicano punk band the Plugz. In 1979, the group released its independent debut, Electrify Me, which is arguably the first full-length album to emerge from the burgeoning L.A. punk scene, beating out X's Los Angeles by a year.

The Plugz gained national recognition in 1984, when they appeared on the soundtrack to the futuristic cult classic Repo Man. As it happens, director Alex Cox's solicitation of a few tunes eventually turned into a scoring project for the band.

"Alex was a big fan of the Plugz," Larriva says. "We played every inch of chase music that was on there. It kind of put us on the map."

Soon after Repo Man's release, the Plugz changed their name to the Cruzados, incorporating a lead guitar player into the mix. "After Repo Man, our sound had started to become more spaghetti-western rock and roll, and the punk thing had kind of died," Larriva recalls.

The Cruzados landed a deal with Arista Records, recording two releases for the label before disbanding in 1990. From there, Larriva became a rather elusive figure on the West Coast music landscape. "After the Cruzados, I was tired of the whole pompous rock and roll thing," he explains. Settling into his third marriage, Larriva continued to work in movie scoring; he also found acting roles in theater productions and small films.

Somewhere along the line, he met up with guitarist Peter Atanasoff, whose resume includes stints with Paul Butterfield and Bonnie Bramlett, and the two started writing and playing together. Tito and Tarantula grew out of that association, beginning as informal jam sessions with friends. But this was L.A., and these weren't just your typical musician hacks. Among the participants that became reliable Tarantula members, bassist Jennifer Condos has played with Don Henley and Sheryl Crow; drummer Nick Vincent has been in cahoots with everyone from Devo to Frank Sinatra; percussionist Johnny "Vatos" Hernandez was an integral part of Oingo Boingo; and multi-instrumentalist Lyn Bertles, while not affiliated with many big names, can boast remarkable versatility on guitar, mandolin, recorder, violin, and harmonica.

It wasn't long before Tito and Tarantula's impromptu gigs at various Los Angeles coffeehouses and nightclubs were drawing attention from folks who had the resources to further their cause. Robert Rodriguez was the first to get the group into the recording studio. The band contributed music to Rodriguez's Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, and Tito was a scene-stealing presence in both. Soon, Larriva and University of Texas graduate Rodriguez--who'd become close friends since they were introduced by actor-comedian Cheech Marin in 1993--began talking about co-producing a full album of Tito and Tarantula material. That project eventually became Tarantism, which was finally released last year on the tiny Cockroach Records.

"We wanted to put a record out, and the films made it easier," Larriva says. Originally, Tarantism was to be released last summer on Rodriguez's own Sony-affiliated Hooligan label. But when Rodriguez had a costly falling out with Steven Spielberg over the forthcoming Mask of Zorro--Rodriguez was slated to direct the Spielberg-produced film till they had a difference of opinions--Tarantism's status was suddenly in limbo. The album sat around for a year before the group got the masters back from Sony and released the album on its own label, Cockroach.

Late or not, Tarantism more than does Larriva's lethal reputation justice, thanks to its crisp, no-frills production and edgy songwriting. Still, it's in the live setting where Tito and Tarantula are truly deadly--even, it seems, while sitting down: The group put in one of the best performances of 1997's South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin while never leaving their seats. These days, though, the band is impelled to perform on its feet. Larriva explains:

"We did the Joe Cocker tour about two months ago [in Europe], and it was sold out every night. We're sitting down in front of 16,000 people, and the monitors he uses are higher than us. All you could see was our fucking heads."

Now that Tito and Tarantula have made the necessary adjustments and joined the ranks of the standing, what remains is a long climb up the industry ladder. The band took a crucial step recently, making a video for the menacing single "After Dark," which has just been added on MTV's new sister channel, M2.

"We shot it out in the Mojave Desert, in the middle of the Salt Flats," Larriva says. "There's nothing out there. Man, it's beautiful." And who better to appreciate true beauty than a guy who appears, on the surface, to be so damned ugly.

Tito and Tarantula perform March 27 at Club Clearview.

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