If he ever quits the movie gig, at least Tito Larriva will still have his tarantula.
By Lisa Weeks
DECEMBER 15, 1997: TITO LARRIVA IS one of those omnipresent faces in Hollywood: never quite the leading man, though frequently leading the opening band. But Larriva has maintained a steady presence on stage, screen and behind the scenes for nearly two decades. On film you'll find him looming dark and brooding in the background (à la from Dusk Till Dawn); and of late he's even journeyed to the foreground of many well-known albeit cult-ish films. In one recent cinematic triumph, Larriva's character kills off Quentin Tarantino's character in Desperado. Some of the other films you may remember Larriva from (or may not realize that you do) are David Byrne's True Stories, Boys on the Side, She's So Lovely, Somebody to Love, and Born in East L.A. Larriva is regularly cast by friend and director Robert Rodriguez, and is currently immersed in the role of a cook for his next film, Isn't It Romantic, as well as recording original music with his band, Tito & Tarantula. Shortly thereafter, Tito & Tarantula embark on a short Southwest tour bringing them through Tucson.
Tito & Tarantula became an actual touring and recording band in the wake of a wave of popular interest following their appearance in the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration From Dusk 'Till Dawn. Prior to that, the band was more of a standing jam session.
Larriva's previous bands--The Plugz, The Cruzados, and Psychotic Aztecs--have enjoyed relatively minor status in otherwise major scenes. Seminal punk rock outfit The Plugz was Larriva's first project; he founded the group 20 years ago. The Plugz occupied a dimmer corner of the blazing late '70s L.A. punk scene, like so many bands from that time and place, never quite breaking through, and never enjoying substantial commercial success. They did, however, contribute several tracks to the groundbreaking Repo Man soundtrack, scored entirely by Larriva.
More interesting still is the approach to scoring films that Larriva, through the Repo Man soundtrack, helped establish. He's among the first--and arguably the most successful--to create an evocative assemblage of music pairing archival gems with new releases from little-known bands. One need look no further than the success of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack for proof that this approach has become the soundtrack signature of these indie-feel flicks. (There is, by the way, a website that speculates that Pulp Fiction is actually a continuation of Repo Man. Hint: aliens in the briefcase.) It's also a great means for monolithic corporations to pad their pockets on film projects all the way around. Even if a film doesn't do well, the soundtrack may break a song by a band that's signed to a subsidiary label owned by corporate--you get the picture.
It's only fitting, then, that Tito & Tarantula were practically conceived on film.
"In the beginning we just had people come to the shows, to sit in and play. It was called Tito & Friends for like a year. And whoever showed up, played," explains Larriva. It was Rodriguez who suggested they pick a name; and Rodriguez later shared production duties with Larriva on the band's first record, Tarantism.
Unlike previous project, where Larriva called the shots and wrote all the bass lines, Tito & Tarantula--guitarist Peter Atanasoff, bassist Jennifer Condos, multi-instrumentalist Lyn Bertles, drummer Nick Vincent and percussionist Johnny "Vatos" Hernandez--sports an all-star cast.
"It's without question a collaborative effort," he says. "We've always had a sort of unspoken rule, and the rule is that everyone plays pretty much what they want. The band never rehearses."
Over the course of that first year some of the faces became regulars, until one day they realized that this group could somehow form a family (or at least a band) and they decided to claim a name. The new name did not change their practice schedule, however. Tito & Friends were not about practicing, and neither are Tito & Tarantula, record or no record.
True to its improvisational origins, the band continues to thrive by embracing the ethos of eternal jam. Hatched in the belly of Hollywood, the band's lack of premeditation and oblivious attitude toward trendsetting is, ironically, what makes Tito & Tarantula so much fun for audience and players alike. Their shows are all dialogue and no script, according to Larriva:
"You're forced to listen to each other, even after so many years of being together. You really don't know what's going to happen."
The band's Cockroach Records debut, Tarantism, is a fine example of the fun they're having.
TARANTISM IS A condition characterized by the uncontrollable urge to dance wildly, a trance-like state once believed to be the result of the bite of a tarantula. If not a deliberate sound bite, there's nonetheless a phonic familiarity between the album's title and the name Tarantino, one of the fledgling band's early champions. Bad pun or gracious nod, it serves as an apt metaphor for the mutable boundaries separating Larriva the actor, Tito the musician, and composer Tito Larriva.
Larriva's kinship with the L.A. music scene died with punk rock, but that's not to say he doesn't maintain an awareness, however tangential and cursory, of the recently huge buzz in Silverlake. Tito & Tarantula played the 17th-annual Sunset Junction Street Fair in August, alongside many of the next generation of West Hollywood bands. Larriva summarizes his view of where Tito & Tarantula fit--or don't fit--in this new "Silverlake explosion" with a little nostalgia:
"I don't think about it anymore. I used to (during my tenure in The Plugz). There were all these great bands--whether I helped the Go-Go's tune their guitars or I was hanging out with X, making tattoos at their house, that was sort of the thing I belonged to. After that we were just a band on the road and the punk scene was dead. All of a sudden there's a scene again. I remember hanging out at Troy's, this little coffee shop, about four years ago, and Beck was making cappuccinos. His mother was the manager, and she's leaning across the counter telling me about this band I was recording in my little studio, how they were going to be the next Beatles, but the female Beatles, and she's yelling at Beck over her shoulder, 'Where's my cappuccino?!'...and he's back there trying frantically to make the milk foam. Now he's on every magazine cover. It's definitely a scene, and it's a good one, but I really don't know anyone except Beck (and his mom). But hey, he still makes a good cappuccino."
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