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.

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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