Interview: Bill Payne of Little Feat

It took a long time from that point, because of not only the shifting stance of the guest list, but later the normal push and pull from record label, managers and lawyers getting into the mix which they invitiably have to do. So, that took some time as well. But the music, which is really the centerpiece of any endeavor of this sort, is the thing that was real solid. We got great performances down.

Just giving Dave Matthews the hard drives to his engineers and saying “do what you want to do.” Well, his idea on Fatman on the Bathtub was to overlay 18 vocals. We listened to it and we realized “oh my god this guy is incredible.” You know also with the recent loss of LeRoi Moore, every band is kinda on this journey together. We swim in different schools with each other. So that kinda hit home last month when we heard of his passing. We don’t know Dave all that well to be honest with you, but this album was also about influences that go back and forth. Anytime you can say that you were part of band it’s a different kinda world. It was really sad to hear of the guys loss.

SB: Dave went out and played a show the night LeRoi died. He talked about how the band is his family and that’s where he needed to be that night. He said he needed to be with his family on stage where he felt comfortable.

BP: Exactly. That’s such a valid point. That all kinda ties into what this record and our band is about. For example, how did we carry on without Lowell George? We took about a seven or eight year hiatus and when we got back together we realized we still had that voice. Lowell, as many great songs as he’s written, he didn’t write ’em all. We felt if we carried forward, how would we carry forward in the best light without looking like a money grubbing reunion. I said “you do it by what you write.”

When 9/11 happened we were gonna play a show the next night, but a couple of people in the band didn’t want to do it. I said “I understand,” but I said “let me dig into this a little bit. You probably don’t want to do this because you think what we do is a little frivilous. I told ’em for starters, we’re gonna donate some money to the fireman in New York so if that helps you reaccess… If you decide to do the gig you tell me what you think about this once you get off stage.

We do the gig and the two people in question, which I won’t say who they are, I had a conversation with them any they said “I didn’t realize our music was that deep.” I said “yeah, I didn’t want to put it on a level higher than what it is, but it is something that reaches a lot of people. It reverberates, we’re writing about things that are important.” That’s the essence of Join The Band. Having a platform to speak from a level that’s not given very often in life. To have people that we’re influenced by and that we’ve influenced in turn, get together and then make a note of that in an age in which everything is looked at in this pop prism. It wasn’t a different record… it’s just different because it’s Little Feat.

What makes it different are songs like Something in the Water by Alan Anderson and Jeffrey Steele that Bob Seger sings. Normally you’d have Little Feat singing all around him and doing this and that. This song wasn’t written by Bob Seger it wasn’t written by Little Feat it was just a great tune. We thought why don’t we play it? Musically, it feels good, so why don’t we do it?

A real line of influence was The Band song The Weight. We didn’t have any guests on that. Bela Fleck might have played on it a little bit, which is cool, but it wasn’t like we had any lead vocals stacked in with us.

There were some songs like Willin’, we got an arrangement for Brooks and Dunn to sing on, it was sort of a gospel arrangement of that tune. I listened to a lot of Country music not only growing up but particlarly when I was past High School listening to Conway Twitty and George Jones and Ronnie Milsap and a lot of those folks. I think it was Mac McAnally who suggested Brooks and Dunn. I wound up playing on one of their records. Brooks and Dunn both of ’em together, to hear that kinda voice… When people first heard the record, Scott, they said “what are they doin’ on there? What do you guys have to do with them?” But then when they listen to it, which has happened with umpteen Little Feat albums in the past, they said “well now I really like it, it’s one of my favorite tracks.” That kinda thing.

I think most of our records have a little bit of a challenge to ’em. But I also think it’s a unique record in exactly the way you described it. A: I don’t know what it is. I was thrilled to hear you say that. And B: It works from the first track to the last track. It’s rare to have a record these days that you can listen to every track and feel that there’s something there to listen to.

SB: Did Join The Band come out like you had envisioned it in terms of the songs and the guest stars?

BP: Yes and no. The no part of it, is that we had almost like a Hollywood casting situation where you’ve got Gary Cooper in Gone With The Wind and then you wind up with Clark Gable. We had a lot of people on this guest list. Obviously when you go for people who are of the likes of Vince Gill or Buffett or Bob Seger or Chris Robinson or Dave Matthews, you’re gonna get a lot of people who are busy at the time you ask them if they can do do it. There’s really no harm or foul in that. We felt you don’t know until you ask. As many people as are on this record… it wasn’t like the people who wound up on there were the second pick either. But it was an ambitious project.

I think we recorded 23 songs, so there were a lot more songs that we didn’t put on there. What remained the same was that I knew from recording with Jimmy and Mac and everybody down in Key West, and I mention this in the liner notes, this studio situation would be absolutely perfect for Little Feat. It gave us a comfortable environment where the tracks would morph or not morph. For instance, [guitarist] Paul [Barrere] with Fat Man In The Bathtub said “Why don’t we try it this way?” Essentially, He slowed it down and added this cool lick and I added ::sings a calypso melody:: a marimba part and Key West sorta took over.

Working with [co-founder of Little Feat Lowell George’s daughter] Inara George in Los Angeles it wound up we were at the same studio where this whole adventure started, at least with Warner Brothers, down at Ocean Way Studios which was originally Western United. We were there the day Inara was born. She’s just come out with a new record with Van Dyke Parks whose another dear friend of ours. When Dave Matthews was on stage the other night talking about family, that’s exactly what he’s talking about. It is your family extended or otherwise.

Next year marks 40 years for Little Feat, we’ve been doing this a long long time. We’ve been fortunate to do this to be honest with you. It’s not an opportunity that many people can weather, much less get up in front of 6 or 7 thousand like we did the other day in Fort Collins, Colorado and just have people in the hot sun not leaving, check it out and really really enjoy it. I should say that there was a young kid over in England and this kid was rather loudly pronouncing the fact that we looked so old and we were an embarrasement and he asked what the hell we were doing on stage. After we played, he said in a much lower voice “man, these guys are really good.” I thought that was pretty cool.

SB: Can you talk more about singing and playing with Inara. That must’ve been a special moment for you.

BP: Well listen, she and I were in the studio and I was at the piano and she was singing in a booth over to my right. I’ve had many years of working with singular artists like Emmylou Harris, Linda Rondstat, etc. where you have the vocals and piano interacting whether for a verse or for the whole song or whatever. It’s a dance that you do. Generally speaking, the way it works is they call a pianist an accompanist because what you’re doing is you’re accompanying a vocal. But most of the vocalist think that they’re following you. I said “look, however we need to do this. The truth is I’m actually following you so if you just sing I’ll work around you, but whatever makes you, the vocalist feel comfortable we’ll get it done.”

Well, I didn’t say anything to Inara. We went in, we played the song once recorded it twice and took the first take. She was just right there, it was beautiful I had tears in my eyes when I listened to playback. A different version of that song [Trouble] is literally heading towards the stars in a time capsule along with songs by Peter Gabriel and some other folks. Inara did that song and it was really the icing on the cake. I know at one point the record label was saying “let’s move all these Little Feat songs up front.” I spent sometime with Mac figuring out how the sequencing of this record should go. We made one move I thought worked absolutely fine. But I really wanted that song to be the second to the last tune on the record just to kinda setttle things down and then take it out on a celebretory mode… from a reflective mode to a celebratory mode with Sailing Shoes.

Again, with Emmylou Harris, who sings on Sailing Shoes, I met my first wife Frannie through her. I have a son Evan whose 26 now and I never woulda had that son if Emmylou hadn’t shown up to the studio in 1974 and that’s the same year that Inara was born. So, there’s a lot of connectiveness on this record that really does point to family and friends and this extended circle we have.

SB: You were talking about Mac McAnally earlier, what part did he play in Join The Band?

BP: His part in this was huge. He’s a wonderful songwriter. A close second is that he’s a really good singer. He’s real solid in the engineering phase, although he’s got two of the best engineers you can grab. He’s also a wonderful player, he plays all sorts of guitars and he’s phenomenal on the acoustic. He also plays piano, in fact on Willin’ he played some B3 on it. He’s a great utility guy on that level. But more importantly for the overview of the project he was someone for me to lean on. He was right there, a kinda steading force.

My tendency is to get things done, work through it quickly. The more time you think about it the more time you have to fuck it up, is the way I look at things. He was telling me to lay back and be patient, which I did. So he did a whole lot of things. If you read my liner notes I couldn’t praise him highly enough. It was really heartfelt. I hope that in the future, whether it’s Paul (Barrere) and I or whatever situation, that we can corral him into another Little Feat album. I enjoyed working with him so much.

SB: A song like Sailing Shoes, Sam Bush took it and did a version of it with his band based on Robert Palmer’s version and now you recorded this new mutant version. Are you guys playing these new revised versions of your songs live in concert?

BP: Yeah, we sure are. That’s exactly what we’re doing. We do a soiree down in Jamaica every year and Sam’s been to a couple of ’em. You spend four or five days down there in Jamaica playing a couple of concerts a night with our fans at this resort down in Negril and It’s really just this wonderful thing that everybody gets together on. So that’s where we were talking to Sam about this. We were talking about doin’ our version of Sailin’ Shoes and we realized Sam was playing Palmer’s version. We told him we dug that version and asked him to teach it to us. Again, it’s along the lines of what this album, as I keep saying, is about. All these lines of influence that go back and forth.

SB: When Little Feat broke up in the early ’80s, did you think the band would get back together?

BP: No, in fact, to be honest with you I didn’t think about Little Feat all that often at all. It was too painful. I was reminded of it all the time because people I worked with would bring it up constantly. Let’s face it, Little Feat is a musician’s band so everyone I worked with would say “man, that was so cool what you did.” I never shot it behind me. I learned to say thank you early on in the game. I have a lot of stories to tell, but in terms of whether we would ever do it again, I just thought “look, I’ve done that let’s move on.”

So, when we finally decided to put it back together it’s like I told Phil Lesh some years ago when I worked with him “I’m not saying that you and the Grateful Dead will ever get back together. But if you ever get together and in the same room and play music with them, the thought will cross your mind.”

SB: Let’s get back to the album. My first experience with Little Feat was listening to a Phish bootleg that had Time Loves A Hero on it. That got me into your band, so I was happy to see you brought Mike Gordon aboard for Join The Band. How did you go about recording This Land Is Your Land with Mike Gordon?

BP: What we did was we sent Mike the files and just said if you have any questions just let us know, otherwise, just go for it. And he just took off with it in a fashion that only Mike Gordon can do which is he added all of these interesting bumps and twists in the road that defy what a normal bass part would be. He’s an extraordinary musician.

Speaking of Phish, we were working on a record several years ago and I was just completely exhausted at the time and this new band came into town to play the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Phish was the band and one of the guys from Seger’s organization was their road manger. He called me up and told me to come down there. I told him “I just want to crawl home, I can’t do it.” I’ve kicked myself in the ass for that every since. I should’ve gone man, I never saw those cats. I had a chance to work with Mike Gordon a couple of times outside of Little Feat, probably with Phil. We played at Phil’s 60th Birthday Party. I’m sure there were a couple of other times we were able to get together as well.

SB: Last, let’s talk about Chris Robinson’s contribution to the album, Oh Atlanta.

BP: Vicky Larson, who works with Jimmy, and Savannah – Buffett’s daughter – went out to see the Black Crowes. Vicky called me and said “man, they played Willin’ last night as their encore. You’ve gotta get those guys to do that song on your record.” Dave Matthews wanted to do it, and we put him over on Fat Man and threw Willin’ over to Brooks and Dunn. But I thought “man, I’m gonna call Chris Robinson up and ask him to sing Oh Atlanta!” So that’s what I did and he was gracious enough to say yes and we took it from there.

The cool thing about it, Scott, is that there’s been a couple of times on stage when I’m singing that song that I’ll work in some of his phrasing. The guy’s an incredible rock and roll singer. I’ve done the same thing with Time Loves A Hero which Jimmy and I sang. From time to time I try some of his phrasing.

That’s what I love about music. You don’t know it all. It’s one way to keep it fresh and keep an open mind and an open ear. This is really an exercise in that kinda thing Again, what I think is gonna bode well for Little Feat in the future is that it’d be cool to have as many or all of these people join us on stage at some point. I don’t know if that’s gonna happen, but it’s nice to have people sit in with you. That’s where we’ve come after all these years of doin’ what we do.

We’re more focused then ever on what we are, which is that we’re musicians. We don’t and have never looked at ourselves as pop stars. But if people think that’s what you are, you say thanks and move on. I know what I am, I’m a guy who knows what Little Feat is. I had a local guy over here in Michigan the other day. His parents were over here, we had a nice lunch and we played a little music afterwards. We played a Moody Blues song and something the guy had played at church. I’m not a church goer, but it was still a really great time. That’s the essence of what I still enjoy about music and with now I’m branching off into photography. Do it for what it was originally there for which is for fun. On more than an occasion you’re challenged to do other things.

Thanks so much to Bill for taking the time to speak with us. Little Feat’s Join The Band is available now both online and at your local record store.

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17 thoughts on “Interview: Bill Payne of Little Feat

  1. Pingback: Weight Loss » Blog Archive » Interview: Bill Payne of Little Feat |

  2. zappafrank Reply

    What an awesome article! Thanks for the good times. I’m gonna have to buy this album now.

  3. Rupert Reply

    Great job guys. Looking forward to hearing the album.

  4. jg Reply

    well done Scotty!

  5. aoguitars Reply

    awesome job, scotty! Bill musta been a killer interiview, as it seems he was in the mood to talk. Gonna have to check this record out.Long live the Feat!!

  6. Randy Reply

    You nailed it, Scotty!!

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  9. Pingback: Little Feat - Keeping Pace with Hayward & Payne - Glide Magazine |

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