Heart to Hartke: Talking speakers, Jaco Pastorius and Cellphones with Larry Hartke

(Image credit: Hartke)

What’s that noise? It’s the sound of Larry Hartke’s mobile phone ringing, for the 14,000th time in two years. You’ve seen the ads, now listen to the man.

In a move which would be regarded as insanity in any industry other than the world of bass which we know and love, Larry Hartke put his personal cellphone number into adverts run in Bass Player and other magazines just under two years ago. “That’s his genuine US cellphone!” ran the wording on the ads, and although many readers expected it to be some corporate joke, confirmation soon ran through the bass scene like wildfire that yes, it was Larry’s actual mobile number and yes, that he actually does pick it up for a chat. Every single time.

Larry, founder of the renowned Hartke firm, inventor of the company’s trademark aluminum-cone speaker and owner of the second most famous moustache in the bass industry after Jeff Berlin, isn’t like other people. For starters, most of us wouldn’t devote seven days a week chatting to anyone who happened to play bass, at the expense of time with family, friends and colleagues. Not only that: few of us choose to star in our own internet TV series as a way of promoting our business. Hartke does both of those things, getting into close contact with thousands of fans like a one-man call center and broadcasting the Life With Larry series on Myspace. And all while running a business and launching new products, such as the hybrid paper/aluminum HyDrive speakers which arrived in shops recently.

This is a man with much to tell us, clearly. Phone him up and after two rings, you too can hear him say, “Larry Hartke speaking”…

Aren’t you going crazy after nearly two years of answering the phone?

No. I thought I might, but I never did. I’ve got so used to it that I love it. I only switch the phone off when I go to bed, but even then not until late. If I’m sitting there eating a sandwich after I come home from a club, I’ll be talking to some bass player from somewhere in the world. I’ve had nearly 14,000 calls in the last year and a half, and it’s a very nice community.

How many phones do you carry around?

I have two. One is for my family, and endorsees, and whoever needs to speak to me on business, and then I have the ‘ad phone’, which is the number you see in the Hartke ads. But I’m on the ad phone more often than I am with my family.

Do you get any mischief callers?

The amount of prank calls is astonishingly low. In the beginning I had some hang-up calls from people who were just seeing if it was real, but that doesn’t really happen any more. Anyway, some of those prank calls are funny as hell – “You ugly asshole, why did you put your picture in the magazine so we have to see your face?” Some of it’s pretty funny! It’s usually good-natured, like they’ve got together with their buddies and they’re gonna call up just for fun.

Do people say ‘Larry, is it really you?’ and refuse to believe that it really is you?

Oh God, I have to go through that, absolutely. But it’s great – you just have to warm people up. And these aren’t Hartke sales calls, either: anyone who’s called me will tell you that. I’m more interested in what they’re up to. I ask them what instruments they play, what the scene is like where they live, about their bands. I check out each and every band. Anyone in the US who is willing to give me their name and address – and they almost always are – gets a free set of Hartke bass strings.

All those thousands of sets of strings must be costing you a fair bit.

Yeah, but it makes them into friends. They get an autographed picture of me too. What I didn’t realize, though, is that people would get the strings and call me back to thank me – so the number of calls has doubled!

Do people hear about the free strings from their buddies, phone you up and say ‘I don’t want to talk to you, just send me the free strings’?

I thought that might happen – that people would tell 10 of their friends to call up for the free strings – but it really hasn’t happened. Like I said, the bass community is a really nice community. 

Do some of the callers drone on for ages and you have to politely bring the conversation to a close?

You know, I’ve learned not to rush anybody. I’m not in a hurry. Most of the calls are five to 10 minutes, but sometimes much longer. When someone has nothing to say, it takes a long time to find that out.

Surely being on the phone all the time must have consequences for your daily life?

This is seven days a week. It’s changed my life. People always call me just when I’m leaving the house, too, so when I do leave the house I forget everything I was gonna take with me. I can rarely drive my car, too – my wife has to drive because she’s tired of me pulling over every two blocks to answer the phone.

You don’t have hands-free?

No, I do it all through my cellphone in the normal way. Even a hands-free conversation isn’t safe when you’re driving a car. There’s laws against that here. Anyway, I have to concentrate on the call and take down information.

Will you just keep doing this for the foreseeable future?

Yeah – as long as people want to keep talking. I handle service calls too – you know, people call and say ‘My amp fell over and all the knobs fell off’ and I take care of them. All kinds of stuff comes in, and it keeps you directly on the front line and in touch with your customers all over. Amazing things happen – celebrities call, people on tourbuses call and you end up with a relationship. It’s a real grass-roots type of thing.

Isn’t it mentally and physically exhausting?

The only time it gets like that is if I’m at a trade show, like NAMM or something. On those days I’ll actually turn the phone off – and then I’m facing 70 or 80 calls on voicemail and I have to get back to people. I do get back to them all, too – the longest you’ll ever have to wait to hear back from me is about 10 days. No matter what’s going on, if it’s at all possible, I answer the phone.

What if you’re in an important business meeting?

Even then, I’ll let the guys sit there and wait while I take the call. I did the stats for the first year, and it came out that I spent 13 40-hour weeks on the phone – without lunch breaks.

What if you’re in the bath?

There have been some strange moments like that. I’ve sat at the kitchen table in my underwear, eating a meatball sandwich and talking to some bass player from Sweden or somewhere. Just picture that next time you see the ad, all right?

What if you’re enjoying an intimate moment with Mrs Hartke?

Ah – in that situation, I might just make a point of turning the phone off!

How did you come up with the idea in the first place?

I was in an advertising meeting, and for a joke I said ‘Let’s put my cellphone number in the ad!’ and everyone laughed – and then said, ‘Er, could we?’ I said, ‘Um… OK!’ and that was it.

Isn’t it tough to run a company if you’re on the phone all the time?

It can be a little difficult. But if you make your customers your priority, and you dedicate yourself to that – in an insane way, some might say – it seems to work. This is a lifestyle. It’s not like I go home at five o’clock like other people do. It’s a wonderful job to have, actually.

You also ask people to send you their music, don’t you?

I realized that what people want is to have someone – anyone! – listen to their music. So in the next set of ads, I said ‘Send me your music’. I got something like 10,000 CDs and website links and Myspace pages from people. Listening to that does take up a lot of time, and I’ve never quite caught up with it, but I’ve got new endorsees out of it.

There’s some really good stuff out there. I thought it would be easy: I thought that eight out of 10 things wouldn’t be that good – but it’s more like eight out of 10 things are that good. The next crazy thing I thought of was the Life With Larry TV show – a reality sit-commercial, as I call it. It’s filmed in a real bar, with the actual guys who own it. It’s been very, very successful – and a fun way to introduce a new product rather than just using a picture of somebody with their arm around a stack.

Your HyDrive speakers have just come out, talking of new products.

They were over three years in the making. I won’t blame that on the phone calls, it was just an engineering thing. It took a while to get it the way we wanted it. The idea was to combine the best sounds of those two materials. We were skeptical about how it was going to come out, because I’m a total aluminum man, but it was very successful early on. We could hear what was going to happen.

How did you come up with the idea of aluminum cones in the first place?

Well, I’m going back to the early 70s now. I was working as an apprentice in the hi-fi industry with some very important people, and we were working with all kinds of different speaker materials. Later, I was making home hi-fi and studio monitors with aluminum, and when I met Jaco Pastorius he said, ‘These sound great – can you make me a bass cabinet?’ And so I did. I used an Ampeg SVT cabinet, and made the cone myself, because I was a machinist, too. In fact, I made the first 12,000 Hartke cones myself before I taught anybody else how to do it.

Reckon you could still knock one out nowadays?

I absolutely could, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget it! There were a lot of copies from other manufacturers early on. They changed this and that, but they always fell on their faces, thank goodness.

What was Jaco like?

He was wonderful to me, just a really creative guy. You know, he was up and down a lot, with the mood-swings and all that, but I was never subject to any ‘bad Jaco’ ever. Just the fun Jaco. We’d head out to town in New York, and we’d go straight into any place that had music coming out of it. He’d walk up to the stage and say, ‘I’m Jaco, give me your bass!’ Sometimes they’d say, ‘I don’t know who you are – you’re not taking my bass’. He was a pretty energetic guy! I still have Jaco’s cabinet, by the way. It’s Hartke’s first cabinet and Jaco’s last one. It sits here in my house as a silent testimony, with a plaque on it saying ‘Made for Jaco in 1984’.

How long did it take for Hartke to become a successful business?

It really went quickly. Right after I made the Jaco cabinet, people started beating a path to the door for equipment – right through the 80s. It was a very small company, but at one point we had an overseas list [of distributors] which was absolutely silly.

It sounds like life is good, Larry.

Yeah – but with many interruptions! 

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