“Don’t ever forget what it was like to be a child,” says 63-year-old Bill Payne, founding member of Little Feat whose 16th album Rooster Rag started out to be a blues CD but morphed into a West Coast gumbo, not unusual for this veteran band.
“It’s about imagination, about just being inquisitive. That’s what makes life cool, worth living, and it allows you to talk to Neon Park (Little Feat LP cover artist) or (the late Little Feat drummer) Richie Hayward about something other than what did you eat for breakfast or how ya doing?”
For Payne, that childlike inquisitive quality has always involved relationships with other artists who activated his muse starting with the late Lowell George whose expertise on guitar threatened to challenge that of Jerry Garcia had he (George) not died in 1979.
“I think in general the paradigm Lowell and I were trying to set up in the early going was to be in a musician’s musicians band essentially, align ourselves with other musicians in a career that we’d be proud to play with. We’d have a great band as an anchor to be involved in, but to also have the experience of working with the best of whoever is out there as players and writers.”
Don Wilcock: Rooster Rag was originally intended to be a blues album. Are there still plans on the drawing board for an all blues album?
Bill Payne: Well, I don’t know. Nobody was coming forth with a lot of blues material last time. Of course, with Little Feat I always think if you’re going to do something you can put a name to it. I always thought of let’s call it A World of Blues and what that would encompass would be everything from Charles Mingus to the Delta blues to Chicago blues on up and down and take it from that standpoint. It didn’t go that way, and that’s okay. I don’t know who came up with it first, but it was why don’t we make a regular Little Feat record and about that time I was startin’ to crank into writing songs with (Grateful Dead lyricist) Robert Hunter.
I mean I hadn’t written anything in probably seven or eight years, and all of a sudden I’m like back into writing like nobody’s business. So it’s like – I’ve never been in a more creative period than I am right now to be honest with you.
Despite all the changes you’ve had in the band, your sound remains instantly recognizable and fresh, and when I think about the Rolling Stones, even they haven’t been able to accomplish that. How have you been able to do that, and do you think about that? Do you think about having a sound that you’re creating and the music you’re creating being Little Feat?
Well, I guess I have thought about it, but, in 1988, actually ’86 when we were in the process of putting this back together (Little Feat broke up after Lowell George’s death in 1979) what I went away from The Alley – we used to rehearse there – we were commemorating this room to Lowell George and Little Feat without Lowell. It still sounds like Little Feat. I’m like you can’t replace Lowell, but the sound is the same.
And Richie Hayward is no longer with us. (He died in 2010). It still sounds like Little Feat. So that’s when I get into little deeper waters to how and why. I think it has to do with the way we write music. I think that it has to do with the slide guitar, the preponderance of keyboards and rhythm in what we do. Maybe that all adds up to it.
This thing is bigger than we are. That’s a point that at least I feel is quite evident is that whatever we’re doing, and whoever we bring in, it’s bigger than what Little Feat was designed to do. In fact, when Lowell and I put the band together in 1969, the actual design of the band was to be flexible. Do you want a horn section? Do you want to try somebody else playing guitar? Do you want a soloist from whatever genre playing? What kind of music do you want? The platform was flexible to begin with.
There’s something you said in Relix I thought was really fascinating, “Phil Lesh did what Zappa and Miles Davis did. They work out little islands of music that you would swim to.” You guys have managed to overcome whatever that missing link is between jamming and being concise and staying within the context of a real song.
Well, there’s a couple of things at work here. One is musicianship. One is the ability to write or compare music. So, I’m working on my thirteenth song with Robert Hunter right now. I just turned in my twelfth two or three days ago, and I made a comment to him that was we both know the music is within the lyrics, and it was within the context of something bigger we were talking about, but he wrote back and said, “Yeah, but it takes a composer to essentially draw that music out,” and that’s not a direct quote.
By composer he meant the instrumentalist as opposed to the lyricist?
Yeah, so when I say there’s music in his lyrics, and that’s there, my job is to go in and find and put form to that – do my side of the handshake. So it’s an obvious thing, but not everyone can do it.
Paul Barrere tried to write with Robert Hunter, and it didn’t work because he wanted to change some of his words. Am I correct in that?
I believe that’s true, and as you know or might know, Bob does not like people going in there and changing his stuff.
Did that change your paradigm of how you write to be locked into a situation like that where you have to take 100% of what he writes as lyrics and then create the music around it?
No, in fact the way I dealt with it was a couple of ways. A couple of times I said, “Well, let me try this.” I would say, “Hey, look, I wouldn’t sing this sort of lyric. This is not what I would sing. Can you give me something else?” Boom! He gives me another line. Or if I say – a song I was just working on a couple of weeks ago, I said, “I wanna double the chorus. Can you help me there?” Boom!
So, you give him the space to be his own person, but at the same time you’re crafting the entire picture of what he’s done lyrically, and you’re finding it’s a marriage.
And same holds true for him. If he hears something that I’ve done that he goes – now 95 to 98% of the time thankfully what I send him, he goes, “This is cool,” or he’s got some nice comment to make. But on occasion, its like, “Where’s the chorus?” I said, “That’s what I’ve been asking you.” So we get that together, or he’ll say, “I don’t know if it’s the lyrics or whether this thing – it’s not ringing true.” The guy, he’s so fucking smart. When I play with other bands, “Rooster Rag” is just one of those songs that sounds like it just fell off the table.
I mean it’s really a facile song in terms of listening to it, but when you try and play it, it’s like, “Oh, my God!” I warn people, too. I say, “You’re gonna find this song has a few twists and turns to it. Nothing dramatic, a couple three- four bars, six-four bars, etc., but the first verse is not like the second verse which is not like the third verse, and I’m not doing it to throw you guys or to throw anybody. My stuff has music within it. It isn’t the traditional verse, chorus, verse, chorus. That’s part of when I say what makes up Little Feat and what makes up the idea of jamming.
I’ll just complete that thought. On jamming what I tell people, whether it’s our own drummer who is trying to concoct a solo or anybody, if you gotta have a beginning, a middle and an end, it sounds stupid. But there are those islands I’m talking about swimming between. It’s not just that Phil (Lesh), Miles Davis and Zappa used to do it. We’re done it, too. That’s what I recognize as a musician.
I did it the first time within Little Feat to “Tripe Face Boogie (on Feat Don’t Fail Me Now, 1974). I was literally laying on this bench. We’d just gotten back from Hawaii, 1972, and we’re playing the Fox Theater in Long Beach, and I think, “How can I stretch this solo out to have it go some place other than where – what we’re doing now?” And I just was able to hear it in my head, laying down gave me chances to relax, not think about much other than what I wanted to delve into and got up, told Richie what I wanted to do, told the band to lay out and then when I go doodle-oh-do or whatever I was coming back with, and we would press on.
That was a brave thing to do in 1972 because the mass audience in ’72 wasn’t plugged into that kind of jamming. The Dead were doing it, but they were kind of alone in that era for doing that kind of thing, weren’t they?
Well, I guess they were, although the guys I was paying attention to were certainly Frank Zappa, but those things were all pretty well written out. I don’t know that there were actually a lot of islands now that I think about it, but maybe there were. I just wasn’t as cognizant of form.
Well, how much did Lowell George and Roy Estrada (Little Feat’s founding bass player) bring to the genesis of this band after having played with Mothers of Invention?
Well, I don’t think Roy brought a great deal into it, not along those levels anyway other than his musicianship which was great. Lowell was, yeah, he was very knowledgeable about a lot of different forms of music as was I. So that’s why we hit it off. I mean, he was a mentor in the beginning for me, a good partner.
There’s a story about Chez Guevara and Castro when they first met, they talked about everything under the sun, and that’s the way it was with Lowell and I. We just hit on these topics, whether it was listening to the things we were influenced by and where we thought – ’cause I didn’t join Little Feat immediately. We had certain conversations, and we started writing and trying out things. We were, you know, sussing each other out, and I thought that’s the way to do it, just kinda find out where we lie in the scheme of all these things ’cause my sense of it was the same as Lowell’s. This is important stuff. You wanna try and be a part of something that doesn’t have to be a household word, but that is within the musical community meaningful.
When you stepped away from the band for nine years just before Lowell George died, what was that period like for you, and what actually brought you back into the fold?
It was an opportunity to get away from something that was very painful, first and foremost. I really had a tough time listening to Little Feat music. I liked the guys, Richie (Hayward), Paul (Barrrere) and Sam (Clayton) and Kenny (Gradney). It wasn’t about them. It was about Lowell’s death. It was about this disassembling of something. It just seemed so tragic to me at the time and obviously still does on certain levels, but it gave me a chance to go out and play with people. I got the hint real quick, and I should have known, that we were a really, really well respected band collectively and individually, and that was a great feeling going back to the basis for (forming) the band in the first place, being a part of that music community.
What drew me back to it was something really simple in the music, is when we jammed 1986 at the Alley, a rehearsal hall in north Hollywood, and I had forgotten how meaningful that music was and how much fun it was to play with those guys. And I still had about a year’s tour in front of me with Bob Seger before I could do any thing. So that’s where we were.
You say somewhere you had to pinch yourself because you were writing with Robert Hunter who had worked with Garcia and had worked with Bob Dylan.
Considering all the wonderful musicians you’ve worked with for more than 40 years, did it cause you to have any kind of writer’s block, or did you just fall into the role, and you’re just being nice when you say you had to pinch yourself?
No, I was being truthful, but it’s like – I had a conversation about this with one of the guys in the Turtles. I can’t remember. I’m not good with names sometimes, but we were talking about the idea – they had Flo and Eddy and all this, but the idea of being a fan of people you work with, that that’s okay. When I was working with James Taylor I mean I’m a huge fan of James’. My role, outside of being a fan, was to impress upon him or anybody that I work with that I’m there to facilitate the music and provide the best experience with them on that level ’cause I assume I’m a better keyboard player than they are that I want to be thought of as a guy who actually cares about their music.
I want to share with people that when I’m up there with other musicians that here’s what Keith Richards said to me in 1974, maybe ’75 in Amsterdam, and I’m down there gushing because the Rolling Stones had come en masse to hear Little Feat. Years before that at the Bottom Line Bob Dylan was there to hear us. I mean that’s a hell of a thing as a young kid to have that kind of presence among other people who are your heroes for God’s sake. So, like old Keith goes, “Uh, mate, we’re all part of the same cloth.” In other words, welcome to the club. I mean, gosh, if Keith Richards is telling me welcome to the club, I must be one of the guys. So, when I read his biography (Life), he was talking about the same thing, being in a dressing room, and I think it was (meeting) Muddy Waters.
Shaun Murphy, how did she get into the group (1995 to 2008), and was that a side step, or how do you look at that portion of your career?
Well, Shaun Murphy got into the band. I was working with Bob Seger. She was a backup singer with Bob, and whenever Bob wasn’t there for sound check which wasn’t that often, but occasionally, she would sing those songs, and I thought, “Oh, my God. She is great.” When Craig Fuller dropped out of the band I just felt – I felt at the time I didn’t have any confidence in my own vocals that we needed somebody else, and this was like a really traumatic change. It shook things up in a lot of ways that I didn’t realize at the time, but Shaun is a dear, dear friend and still is.
We haven’t spoken in a while, but she’s a wonderful artist, and I don’t think it was the easiest thing for her. I think a lot of folks were relieved when it was back to the boy’s club or the men’s club, whatever you want to term it, but her departure got me back into something I had touched upon before but without any real confidence, and that was singing. And as I got more confidence doing it, that’s one of the reasons I’m out doing these shows now is because I feel confident to go out and sing. It’s a good feeling. It only took me 63 years.
When do you know you’ve made it?
I thought I’d made it when Keith Richards went, “Hey, mate, we’re all part of the same cloth!” That and a quarter you could not get a phone call. Well, I guess you could back then. So the shifting of what it means to have made it or to be, you know, if you’ve been asked to play with the Rolling Stones or with U2 on a record, a number of things. Have I made it? You bet! Do I go to bed at night thinking I’m so comfortable because I’ve made it? Hell, no. It has nothing to do with anything other than just being able to converse with people on a level that is eye to eye.