Tangled Web

The phone call finally arrives around 6 p.m., four hours late. The connection crackles and hisses as if 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 an intense cinematic discussion with his filmmaker pal Robert Rodriguez?

Alas, reality proves considerably less exotic.
"I'm at the yellow submarine," says Larriva, calling on his cellular from Disneyland, where he's taken his six-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 appearance, stringy, jet-black hair and intimidating aloofness suggest something just this side of pure evil, a range-roving bandito cut to modern-day, serial-killer proportions. But those who choose not to turn and run might see Larriva's wicked grin expand into a calm smile, or get a load of his meek speaking voice as he offers an especially warm greeting.

"They meet me, and I sound like Mickey Mouse," says Larriva, giggling.
Naturally, this isn't the Tito Larriva commonly witnessed on stage and on album. In those arenas, the onetime El Paso resident is more likely to morph into a likeness of his blood-scarfing, bandleader alter ego in the Rodriguez horror-movie parody From Dusk Till Dawn -- or of his villainous screen persona who 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, where career criminals murder in bulk just for luck, where it seems all of humanity is "knocking on the Devil's door."

"On your street I could see / Your virgin velvet body hidin' / I wanted you for me," Larriva seethes like a smitten stalker on Tarantism's "Smiling Karen." Seconds later, guitarist/co-writer Peter Atanasoff tears into a merciless blues-rock riff, jacking up the speed a few notches and dragging the rest of Tarantula down a path that can only lead to sin.

But there's another side to Larriva that rears its head, however briefly, on Tarantism: "Well, who am I to complain / About a bit of earthly pain / Let my heart be an orchard of artichokes," the singer coos, cooling his searing delivery for a few minutes of quiet introspection on the lovely semiacoustic ballad "Sweet Cycle." Before long, though, it's back to the nightmare.

"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 comes from a man about to ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a kindergartner.

Life itself has been an amusement ride for 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 found work. "He hunted for a long time -- ox, seal, caribou, anything you could sell," says Larriva 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 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. The dream wasn't as extreme as one might think: "My cousin was a bullfighter," Larriva explains. "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 went back 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 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."

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Hobart Rowland