For Tito Larriva, Rock Rebound Is No Act


If Tito Larriva ever hits it big, he could assume the title Time magazine once hung on David Byrne: “Rock’s Renaissance Man.”

For now, Larriva remains little-known, though the masses have heard and seen his work as a composer for movies and television and as a supporting actor in 27 films. (Among his credits is “True Stories,” the Byrne-directed film that landed the Talking Heads singer on the cover of Time in 1986.)

Still, rock history buffs know that Larriva helped foster a musical renaissance: In 1977, his group, the Plugz, was part of the first wave of punk bands that transformed the Los Angeles music scene.


In the 1980s, Larriva fronted the Cruzados, which tried to play the star-making game, first with respectable Springsteenian heartland rock, then with questionable, Guns ‘N Roses-influenced heavy metal.

Speaking by phone recently from his Glendale home, Larriva, 44, said that constant touring, heavy drugging and the failure of the Cruzados left him in a state of collapse in the early ‘90s. The experience informs the low-key, informal approach of his new band, Tito & Tarantula. Until two months ago, the band always performed seated, dispensing with big gestures and flash to keep the focus on the songs and the playing.

Now, a debut album, “Tarantism,” is out, and it’s hard to imagine the musicians sitting through it. Almost every track plays expansively and cinematically, following obsessed souls veering toward or beyond the brink, often with bloody consequences (the album could have been called “Tarantinoism”). Larriva sings with dramatic flair, often recalling Jim Morrison, and lead guitarist Peter Atanasoff etches the tension with edgy, blues-informed playing. The band also includes drummers Nick Vincent and Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez (formerly of Oingo Boingo), bassist Jennifer Condos (a longtime tour-band musician with Don Henley, Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow) and Lyn Bertles on violin and mandolin.


Larriva expects to stand when Tito & Tarantula play Friday at the Foothill in Signal Hill. The chairs got dropped during a recent European tour opening for Joe Cocker.

“We had to stand because of the way the monitors were set up. If we sat down, all you could see was our heads. Now that we’re standing up, the power of the music takes over.”

The power of music and other creative outlets took over Larriva’s life while he was growing up in El Paso, Texas. In high school he studied music, drama and modern dance and performed his own songs in local coffeehouses.


“I just wanted to do anything that had to do with creative living,” he said. He says the all-out emotionalism of his vocal style stems partly from the mariachi music his parents would play at home. “A lot of the balladeers take it all the way, until they’re practically in tears.”

After high school, Larriva went to Mexico City, where he landed a singing slot on a television variety show. In 1975 he came to Los Angeles, thanks to a short-lived dalliance with the estranged wife of English glam-rocker Marc Bolan. Soon Larriva was making friends in Hollywood Bohemia. When some of his buddies started playing at the Masque, the cradle of West Coast punk, Larriva was inspired to form his own band, the Plugz.

Larriva also began to land acting roles, including an eight-month run during the early ‘80s in a theatrical production of the “Pee-wee Herman Show” that played four performances a week at the Roxy. Larriva says his rock career has generated the acting opportunities.

“People see me perform, and they come up to me and say, ‘I’m doing a movie; you can play the Mexican in it,’ or whatever.”

Everything stopped for Larriva in the early ‘90s. He cites the usual rock ‘n’ roll burnout caused by excessive touring and excessive living, but also points to the setting aside of other creative outlets as a mistake.

“I was in my PJs, literally, for a year, and was a zombie for two years. I’m constantly doing a lot of different things, and doing the one thing for so long was too much for me.”



Larriva says that losing his house to foreclosure, coupled with the birth of his daughter, now 5, shocked him back into productivity. He began playing rock again in 1993, billed as Tito & Friends, which evolved into Tito & Tarantula.

Though Larriva is an affable conversationalist who laughs easily, his songwriting can be downright scary. Murder is a running theme on “Tarantism,” culminating with the macabre “Killing Just for Fun,” based partly on serial killer Richard Ramirez, whom Larriva knew in high school.

Violent songs “come really easy for me,” Larriva said. “I think it’s the bombardment [of violence] living in Los Angeles.”


The album’s strangest and most haunting song about death is actually a benediction of life: “Sweet Cycle” finds Larriva imagining various parts of his corpse being scattered to nourish plants, birds, insects and beasts.

“Tarantism” is the fifth album of Larriva’s 21-year rock career, and, like the two Plugz albums, he put it out on his own label.

“The frustrating thing is that I’ve actually recorded probably 11 albums, and [most of them] have never seen the light of day.”


“Tarantism” was originally done for Sony, Larriva said, but record company politics threatened to make it the latest in his series of unreleased works. That prompted him to start Cockroach Records, with business partner Andre Recke.

Larriva says “Tarantism” is selling well--8,000 copies in a few months in Europe. He expects to release another album this year to tie in with “Isn’t It Romantic?,” a comedy film in which he plays a cook doubling as a singer. The fictional band, Chuey & the Spatulas, is actually Tito & Tarantula.

He sees no return to the grinding push for stardom that took a toll on him during the 1980s.

“I don’t want to be in a position where I’m pressured to try to make [a hit] happen. I love writing and playing with [Tito & Tarantula] because there’s no trips; we really get along because there’s no pressure. We’re surviving, selling records, and we’ve got a good fan base. My expectations aren’t out of proportion. It feels right.”

* Tito & Tarantula play Friday at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill. 9:30 p.m. $10. (562) 494-5196 (club) or (562) 984-8349 (taped information).