Paul Barrere Talks 50 Years of Little Feat (INTERVIEW)

As Paul Barrere was telling me that his band Little Feat would be playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year, it’s producer Quint Davis was announcing the lineup for their 50th celebratory year. Little Feat have appeared there, “At least six times that I can count,” the seventy-year old California-born guitarist said with a laugh about Little Feat’s Jazz Fest past. “There is just so much amazing music there that you can’t go wrong.” The band will be onstage at the 2019 Jazz Fest the last Sunday, May 5th.

Before that return engagement, Little Feat has a tour, starting off in March, planned to celebrate something really special – their own 50th anniversary. Formed in 1969 by Lowell George, Bill Payne, Roy Estrada and Richie Hayward, they released seven albums, one of those being the highly hailed live record, Waiting For Columbus, before George’s unexpected death in 1979 at the age of only thirty-four. They finished up the record they had been working on, Down On The Farm, and then worked on other projects until coming back together in the late 1980’s.

Barrere came into the band on their third release, Dixie Chicken in 1973, alongside new bass player Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton. If there is one thing that is well-known about Little Feat, it’s their uncanny ability to not be pinned down as one kind of band. With new members and new inspirations came more jazz, more funk, more soul, more southern-fried rock & roll. Fifty years later, they are still altering their songs, improvising to keep them interesting and for Barrere, that is the spice of a musical life.

With three solo albums of his own, as well as several collaborative projects, under his belt, Barrere is looking forward to celebrating with Little Feat fans all year long. Glide spoke with him recently about the upcoming tour, some incredible songs, what the band was like when he joined and why he didn’t pursue a career in baseball.

Paul Barrere

So what is happening in your world today, Paul?

Well, the phone has been ringing off the hook this morning with robo-calls. It’s so ridiculous, unbelievable. “Please give us all your credit card numbers so we can cut your rate.” (laughs) We’re stuck in a digital age of digital pirates, what can I say.

Little Feat will be doing a really special tour this year. How does it feel being fifty years old?

(laughs) I wish I was only fifty. I’m seventy looking down the barrel of seventy-one and it feels pretty good. I’m glad I can still get out there and play; although I’m glad we don’t go three months at a time like we used to. But I love playing the music. The music is what has kept this whole thing alive for fifty years. The songs themselves are the stars of the show.

How long will this tour be going on for?

This part that is coming up starting in March is almost two and a half weeks in the States. And then we go to Jamaica and do our Jamaica Getaway [March 25-29]. We’ve got Lucinda Williams coming this year, which is great and it will be a nice way to end touring on the East Coast, to go down there and lay on the sand (laughs). Anders Osborne is going to come and join us and that will be fun. Then they are planning on another run in California sometime in May – California, Oregon, Washington – so we’re doing it in sections. I think they are going to start working on a Midwest jaunt sometime in the late summer/early fall.

I understand that you have Jay Collins, who was in Gregg Allman’s band for many years, playing horns with the band

He is a wonderful horn player and Steve Bernstein plays trumpet and Erik Lawrence on all those other saxophones. It’s just a great horn section and we have a ball with them. That’s the Midnight Ramble Horns, or as they like to call themselves when they are with us, the Feat Horns (laughs).

For those who may not know, who is in the band from the early days?

It’s Billy Payne and myself, Sam Clayton and Kenny Gradney. Fred Tackett has been with the band since we did Let It Roll [1988], but before that he played on a lot of the records and he wrote songs that we did on our records. He was always like our auxiliary genius that we would bring in for mandolin. He plays trumpet too. But there are four of us that have been around since 1972; actually, Billy is the only one left from the original band that started in 1969.

Is Fred the gentleman you play shows with sometimes?

Yes, we do our duo shows and just recently we’ve been doing shows where we’d take the rhythm section, Gabe Ford and Kenny Gradney, with us and we’d call it the Funky Feat. We did a tour last October, we did some shows with Los Lobos and I got the horn section to come and play the shows with us. It was funky, that’s all I can say. It was very funky (laughs).

For the upcoming shows with Little Feat, is there anything special planned, any deep cuts that are going to make an appearance?

Yeah, we’ve just made a list up of songs that we haven’t played in quite a while that we’re going to add to the mix. Every night it’ll be a different show, cause that’s the way we roll. But I’m sure every night we’re going to have to play “Dixie Chicken” and “Willin’” because those are demanded by the fans.

Were you surprised by how popular that song became and remains to this day?

I was, actually. You know, after Lowell’s passing in 1979, I thought that was pretty much the end of Little Feat. And lo and behold, the next thing I knew CDs came along and they sold like hotcakes. It was unbelievable. But yet we still kind of went our own ways for about eight years until we put the band back together to do Let It Roll and it was surprisingly well taken. The fanbase came back and we’ve gotten a whole lot of new fans, thanks to people like Phish and Widespread who do our songs. So it’s been amazing, to say the least. It’s nice to get the respect of your peers.

Was there another song on that album that you thought maybe was going to be the hit instead of “Dixie Chicken”?

Gosh, I thought there was a bunch of them that could have been. “Two Trains” was really good. But you know, Little Feat was a record company marketing department’s nightmare because it was so diverse. They never knew what box to put us in. “Do we put them in the country section? No. Do we put them in the rock section? Well, we could. Should we put them over here in the jazzier rock section?” They never knew how to really market what we kept putting out.

You joined Little Feat for their third album. What was going on in the band at that time when you walked through that door?

Well, the band had just released Sailin’ Shoes and the bass player, Roy Estrada, decided it would be a good career move for him to quit the band and go join Captain Beefheart. He went from Zappa to Little Feat to Beefheart, which is a very strange progression if you think about it. So they decided at that time to expand the band. I had auditioned as the bass player, cause I had known Lowell through Hollywood High School. He was in school with my older brothers. I had a garage band at the time in 1969 that he thought was really a lot of fun and he thought I would fit in great on the bass. But I failed miserably as a bass player.

That’s when they got Roy but he only lasted those first two records and then they said they’re going to expand the band and we want you to play guitar this time: “Here’s the record, learn all the songs and be at the rehearsal studio in two days.” Okay! I can do that (laughs). So the band was kind of in a state of flux, so to say, because they had just put out a record and they didn’t have a tour to promote it until we, Kenny and Sam and I, joined the band. Kenny and Sam came from Delaney & Bonnie. That’s when I think the band kind of changed from more of a Los Angeles kind of really hip band with all these different styles to something that had a little bit more groove-oriented R&B – the old R&B, not what they call R&B now (laughs).

So that was pretty much what I walked through the door into. We put out Dixie Chicken and we didn’t really get a lot of support from the label and that’s when Lowell was thinking of quitting the whole thing, because he figured that if the record company is not going to support you, what’s the point. But we managed to put the band back together, once again, and we moved to the DC area and recorded Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. Then things started to change. We started getting more of a fanbase and our records were always getting played but there was no action. If people go to the stores and can’t find the record (laughs), and Little Feat records were so cool because we always had those great Neon Park covers. It was like if you were a novice to any of the music, you’d be going through the record stacks and stuff and you’d see that cover and go, “Wow, what’s this!” I’m sure that Eat A Peach was probably the same thing for the Allman Brothers with that big wonderful peach on the cover. It was something different than your standard photo of the band with everybody looking sort of sullen with that “I’m a rock star” pose (laughs).

There is also that big New Orleans sound that came into Little Feat. Whose main bag was that?

I think during that time after Dixie Chicken, Lowell was looking around. He went down to New Orleans and he hooked up with Allen Toussaint and he hooked up with the Meters and he played on a couple of tracks down there. He kind of got that feel and he figured he had the players that could do it out here in LA. So I think it was really a conscious move by Lowell to funkify.

Little Feat has always sounded like a very organic band, so what was the most technical you got in the studio?

Oh gosh, I think the first record we did digitally, it was probably the most technical thing that we ever did because all of a sudden you could do multiple takes and just cutting and pasting as opposed to having to actually cut tape. But for the most part the band remained the same as far as an organic approach. The last record that we made, Rooster Rag, was done in a very small studio that we just all kind of played live together, which was nice.

What song in your catalog would you say was the hardest or most complicated to transfer to the live stage?

There’s a couple. One is called “Wait Till The Shit Hits The Fan” and another one was “Day At The Dog Races,” being that was our foray into kind of fusion rock. Those are pretty much it. I mean, if we could do it in the studio we could do it live. Once we started doing it live then we could improvise and change it from night to night. That was the whole thing about Little Feat that I liked, was the fact that you could play these songs that we’d been playing for fifty years. It’s the song but it’s not played exactly the same as the record, and not exactly the same as the night before. You’re allowed freedom to improvise and just be a musician.

Your first composition on a Little Feat album was “Skin It Back.” What can you tell us about that song?

Well, that was my first solo song that I wrote. Before that I wrote with Billy. We wrote “Walkin’ All Night.” But “Skin It Back” was a groove I came up with and it was pretty much all about being on the road and wondering if you’re ever going to get back home and have time to relax and so forth. I didn’t have a title for it and Sam Clayton said to call it “Skin It Back.” I said, “Sam, there’s nothing in the song that would pertain to that actual innuendo.” (laughs) “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “People will remember it.” So I said, “Well, that’s true.” That’s pretty much how that one came together.

Did you hear lyrics more than melodies when writing a song?

Back in those days, I was more about the groove. Once I got the groove then I would start thinking about melody and words. Every now and then, though, it would start with the words first but that came along quite a bit later for me. I mean, even “All That You Dream” was all about the groove originally.

When you first started playing guitar, what was the most difficult thing for you to get the hang of?

Barre chords (laughs). It takes a certain dexterity. I have a short pointer finger so it was like I really had to bend my wrist out to actually hit a strong barre chord. But that was really the most difficult thing for me to kind of grasp on to.

Didn’t you have flexibility? I heard you were a baseball player.

Well, yeah, but the left hand didn’t do a whole lot other than hold a mitt (laughs). That was the other love of my life.

What position did you play?

By the time I was in high school I was playing outfield.

What team did you want to play for if you made it to the major leagues?

Oh it didn’t matter (laughs). You know, back then, and we’re talking early 1960’s or mid-60’s, you had to be so dedicated in so many different areas – training, weight training, muscles and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t just about catching and hitting and throwing. There was a lot more to it and at that point I was starting to play more guitar and I was starting to get into, shall we say, the grand smoke (laughs), which doesn’t coincide very well with baseball. You slow down but the ball doesn’t (laughs).

So that’s what changed it for you?

Yeah, at that point I was playing my guitar maybe three/four hours a day. That was the nice thing about having a guitar, you could go and sit in your room and just play. So yeah, I was becoming a lot more dedicated towards the guitar. You know, I didn’t even think about it as a career at that point but eventually you start these little bands and then one thing leads to another and I was very fortunate. I had about three or four different, what I call, garage bands. But the last one was really good and Lowell liked it a lot.

We even had an offer to sign a record contract and for some reason the guys running the band decided not to. And that’s when Little Feat called and I went, “I’m in.” Here are some guys working as professional musicians and not waiters working at their music. Even though, for the first couple of years I made more money as a waiter than I did as a musician (laughs). But it was a lot more satisfying being a musician. And Little Feat, it’s been a blessing that it’s continued for all these years.

Not all bands can say that

No, or musicians. It’s like, there are so many roadblocks that you can come up against. It’s almost daunting.

Getting back to your guitar, are you still playing the same guitar you did years ago or have you changed it up?

The two guitars that I played back in the seventies when I first joined Little Feat are now worth more than taking them out on the road (laughs). So what I did was, I got a really good Stratocaster when Little Feat got back together. Fender was nice enough to give us guitars and then I got another one. I had it made to the same specs as the one I play slide on. The guy who made it did just an amazing job. The pickups are the only thing that’s different because the pickups that I had in the old guitars we made with a friend of mine, Randy Cobb, up at Seymour Duncan’s place back when he worked out of a garage in Santa Barbara. They were just amazing, the biggest, fattest sound you could make. Lowell offered me a lot of money for that guitar (laughs).

You’ll have to give it to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame before you know it

I doubt we’ll ever get in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. They know I bet on baseball (laughs)

Being the kind of band that you were with all these different flavors, was it easy or harder for someone other than Lowell to get to do the lead vocals?

I think anytime you could have Lowell sing a song, you would opt in that direction because he had a great voice – no ifs, ands or buts. I noticed even the songs I cover now that he used to sing, I can’t sing them the way he did. So I have to come up with my own flavors and so forth, which fortunately people like. But yeah, it wouldn’t have been a hard choice at all. That’s why when I wrote “All That You Dream,” and he said he wanted to sing it, I said, “Great!”

Did you like when you were able to do the vocals?

I liked singing but I became a singer by default, as a lot of singers do when they’re thirteen/fourteen and playing in their own little garage band. You’ve got a bass player, you’ve got a drummer, you’ve got maybe a keyboard player and a guitarist and you’re playing songs and nobody is singing. So it’s like, “Well, who can sing this song? Who remembers the words?” “I do.” “Okay, you’re the singer.” (laughs)

Over the years, you’ve had lots of guests on your albums – from Bonnie Raitt to Michael McDonald. Were these just all friends hanging out or did you specifically seek them out to come sing on the record?

Well, they were all friends and so if we heard a part that would be good for someone, Bonnie Bramlett or Bonnie Raitt, Mike McDonald and Pat Simmons from the Doobies, we would just make a call and go, “We’ve got a part here that would be great for you to do.” And they would come and do it. They were just so gracious with their time and put in the effort. Every one of those vocals I can think of, man, are just fantastic.

How did Mick Taylor come to play on the live record?

We were doing four shows in London for the live record and it was pretty well-known that the Stones were fans of the band. But Mick showed up one day and Lowell said, “Hey, can you play on ‘A Apolitical Blues’?” We had an extra amp and he brought his guitar and he just wailed it. It was great. I think one of the questions Lowell asked him was, “So how did you get around not having to wear makeup?” (laughs)

He was amazing in John Mayall’s band, him and Peter Green

Peter Green was one of the guitarists that I heard when I was like sixteen. He played the Shrine Auditorium out here with Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. He had so much soul, it was unbelievable. I was listening to his guitar and it was just like, talk about while my guitar gently weeps, this man could make it weep, sing, laugh, cry. He was amazing. I found it so strange that he just kind of took a hiatus from the whole thing.

I do not know every song that Little Feat has done

Me neither! (laughs)

But I don’t really associate the band with being political. However, I know in those earliest days of the band, the Vietnam War was still going on. Being that you guys were in your early twenties at the time, what you were thinking, what you were feeling and did that manifest itself into any of your songs?

I think “A Apolitical Blues” is as close as we got, you know: “Telephone was ringing and they told me it was Chairman Mao.” That’s about as close to the political side of anything really during that time period. We all were not especially in favor of the Vietnam War and in 1972 it was starting to wind down and we were finally safe from being drafted and all that kind of stuff. One of my garage band’s drummers, he got drafted and he went and when he came back he was so bitter, I couldn’t even be around him anymore. When he went away, he was this happy-go-lucky guy, you know. I saw how it changed people. The one thing, and hindsight is 20/20, but the one thing I feel bad about is how we treated the servicemen who came back from there. It’s not like today when people come back from Iraq or Afghanistan where they get a little bit more support from the general public; maybe not our government but the public. I think we really should have had more respect for the Vietnam Veterans as well.

Speaking of history, I’m curious about your last name. I’d love to know what origin that is.

It’s French. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a French immigrant who was brought to the United States by the Empresario Walter Damrosch in New York City to be the first flutist for the New York Symphony. He taught at Julliard and he played with the symphony and later it became the Philharmonic and he was the First Chair Flutist – because he said a flautist is an unemployed flutist (laughs). Basically, I’m a second generation American. I’m lucky they are not deporting me (laughs).

But he came from Burgundy. Actually, his family originated up in the Pyrenees. On one side of the Pyrenees it’s “Ba-rare,” the French side; the other side, it’s “Ba-rare-ra,” Spanish. My mother’s family was all Irish and English and they settled in Oklahoma; originally Kansas then Oklahoma. It was amazing because I got to know my great-grandmother quite well actually cause she lasted until she was 103. I think about how she went from covered wagons to people going to the moon and that has to be a mind-blower. It’s funny, they lived on this little farm out in Beaver County, which is up in the panhandle, and they didn’t even have indoor plumbing until they were both in their sixties. So it wasn’t a whole lot of fun visiting (laughs).

You’re going to be touring pretty much all year but do you have anything else up your sleeve?

Oh yeah, I work with this gentleman named Roger Cole and we’ve started our own little label called Better Daze Music and we’re selling the stuff off our website because it’s nearly impossible to do anything else these days. We just did a redo of “Old Folks Boogie,” and strange but true, we’re doing a redo of “Skin It Back.” It’s going to probably be amazing to some of the fans of the song because the song will be well-represented but it’s going to have a different kind of groove to it. We’re going to get kind of Peter Gabriel-esque with it. “Old Folks Boogie” is slamming, just bumping up and down. It cracks me up. I wrote that song when I was twenty-three and here I am looking at seventy-one and still playing it (laughs).

Little Feat 2019 Tour Dates

March 7, Thurs. Warner Theatre, Washington, DC
March 8, Fri. Beacon Theatre, New York City with the full Midnight Ramble Band (Larry Campbell and Amy Helm).
March 9, Sat. Scottish Rite Auditorium, Collingswood, NJ
March 11, Mon. Harvester Performance Center, Rocky Mount, NC
March 12, Tues. Atlanta Symphony Hall, Atlanta, GA
March 13, Weds. Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC
March 15, Fri. Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN
March 18, Mon. King Ctr. for the Performing Arts, Melbourne, FL
March 19, Tues. Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, FL
March 20, Weds. Florida Theatre, Jacksonville, FL
March 22, Fri. Pembroke Pines City Center, Pembroke Pines, FL
March 26-30 Melia Braco Village Resort, Trelawny, Jamaica with the Ramble Band and Lucinda Williams (sold out)

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2 Responses

  1. My favorite band. Great interview. They absolutely should be in the rock and roll hall of fame. Thanks for posting. Can’t wait for March 7 at the Warner.

  2. Saw the Feat at Winterland in SF. Opening act was Clover(Hughie Lewis band)- good set, Little River Band mechanically went through their set, so when the Feat hit the stage it was a real relief. Their set was much as what appears on Waiting for Columbus; at the end of the sets,they walked off to thunderous applause, then the rhythmic stomping and clapping . I noticed a single file of people toward the back stage riser, the flamboyant jacket of the sax player on the darkened stage, cued me to the Tower of Power horns .The band returned and resumed the best music of the year(and yes Spanish Moon/ Mercenary Territory). One of my favorite concert experiences. And one that showed me the artistry of the ‘second guitar’ Paul will be missed and then some.

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