It’s hard to imagine, but there was actually a period back in the 70’s when the music establishment practically ignored Little Feat. With their eclectic brew infusing blues, country, gospel, boogie, R&B; and funk with surreal lyrics still rocking crowds today, perhaps these California rockers weren’t only non-conventional, but just years ahead of their time.
Originally founded by two alumni of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; guitarist Lowell George and bassist Roy Estrada, along with pianist Bill Payne and drummer Richie Hayward – Little Feat soon began to capture the imagination of a small, but strong cult following. After Estrada’s early departure and subsequent replacement by two New Orleans musicians – Kenny Gradney and Sam Clayton – along with guitarist Paul Barrere; the still relatively obscure band released landmark albums Dixie Chicken, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and the renowned live release, Waiting For Columbus. In doing so, they unassumingly immortalized the decade with classics, “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Time Loves A Hero,” “Day Or Night,” “All That You Dream,” and “Spanish Moon.”
As George’s work became more recognized with his inventive slide guitar and explosive songwriting, Little Feat’s other players stepped it up as well. Soon, Payne and Barrere had taken much more of a lead role in the band’s compositions, while leading the group into a cosmic sound of adventurous keyboard solos and energetic jamming. Building on the momentum, George’s unexpected death in 1979 took the band by the reigns and inevitably they decided to take much of the 80’s off. With Little Feat on the backburner, Payne and others went on to pursue numerous session gigs with some of the world’s finest musical acts. The time away allowed for needed perspective, and Little Feat would eventually re-group with multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett and singer Craig Fuller, soon to be replaced in 1994 by Shaun Murphy – where today the band is still strutting proud.
Reenergized by some of the younger jam acts who have literally sang Little Feat praises, today the self-proclaimed “classic jam band,” continues to wow their devoted fans with a new era and a new record label of their own – Hot Tomato Records. Performances with The String Cheese Incident, Phil and Friends and an upcoming European tour with moe., the Feat are kicking into yet another high gear, releasing a new album, Kickin’ It At the Barn and a high definition DVD, Highwire Act Live In St. Louis.
Amidst all the action, Glide had the rare opportunity to share a revealing discussion with Little Feat founder and keyboard mastermind Bill Payne about the past, present and future of the band. His answers were candid and open, proving time does love a hero, despite what the music establishment thinks.
With upcoming gigs at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, some jamband festivals later this summer, and European dates with moe., – is the band taking any specific preparation for such a diverse gig lineup?
In our case, we are so much an eclectic band anyways, that it is more of an attitude. It’s like when I was playing with James Taylor and even with other acts in the beginning of the 80’s, I was playing with a bunch of different people: Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bob Seger in ’86, Stevie Nicks. What would happen was, when I was with James, we’d get down to New Orleans and I would just throw a New Orleans chant into some of the stuff we were playing which you can’t do with “Sweet Baby James” (laughs). So James would have to throw a few more rockers into his set. So that’s the same kind of thing with Little Feat, when we play a jazz fest, [we] throw jazz in amongst other things.
Almost all of the members of Little Feat are accomplished session players, which seems to eliminate ego in the band when you all play together. Do you consider that trait to be the band’s greatest strength today?
Yeah, I think our greatest strength, like you said, is allowing everyone in this band to shine. That it doesn’t boil down to the importance of one individual carrying the load. On a business level and a guidance level there is a lot that Paul Barrere and I do. We have to make sure the ship is held upright and we have some good managers. But we managed our own band for like three years plus with a friend of us – Brad Strickland. I think we did a pretty good job, so we’re aware of the challenges that face management. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we went to extraordinary lengths because we really believe in what we do and we enjoy what we do. I thought one way to gel with the musical end of it is exactly what we are doing now, is to take it back to rehearsal and investigate more the areas where we can include the band and what they do and make sure everybody is covered.
Your latest albums are becoming more raw, verse getting slicker and softer with age like many other veterans such as Sting or Phil Collins. Can you explain that evolution?
Well about two years ago, Levon Helm [was describing the making of “Blue Suede Shoes”] and he said he went in on a Saturday and played the song, and said “that ain’t happening,” and they came back in and played it again, and they did that for four weeks in a row. I went to Fred and Paul and said, “that’s a great way to do it, why try and jam everything down to one day,” which is a unique approach. But I thought, “why don’t we slightly switch gears and wait till everyone learns their song and when they do that, it will be our record.”
I can do stuff where, for example, I’ll basically have everybody there. Take a song like “Cadillac Hotel.” I’ll go and record that with Richie, and then I’ll put on the bass and layer everything. On a song like that, it’s actually not a bad way to do it. But I was maybe a little impatient with getting people to learn it, because it’s a complicated tune, and a lot of things out there have three or four chords and some little licks that people play. But Little Feat, not unlike the Grateful Dead, and people used to compare us to Steely Dan and the Grateful Dead, and I’d go “why?” I had word with Phil Lesh and now I know why. Because the first verse is different than the second verse, which is different than the third verse. In music, that is all real subtle stuff, but instead of going from a G to an A, you go from G to an A down to a D, and then on, that type of thing. These minute things that fuck you up as a musician when you try to learn things. So the idea was to lay back a little bit and let everybody catch up, and it creates a more organic piece.
So did playing with Phil Lesh on his Phil and Friends tour have a profound effect on Little Feat’s sound today?
I don’t think so. I think that Phil Lesh introduced me back to a form of jamming, which is something that we hadn’t been doing a great deal of. And I also thought in terms of why people would compare us to the Grateful Dead in the old days, I had a better understanding of it – because of the complexity of the music. I would give full credit to Levon Helm and The Band for Levon telling us that story and assimilating that story of “Blue Suede Shoes” where you play it till everyone understands it, which is not exactly the way Phil Lesh or necessarily The Dead did their thing.
It’s been printed lately that Little Feat is the “classic jamband.” Is that more of a marketing tool or do you genuinely feel you’re more in touch with that genre?
Well it’s a little of both. We’re in an industry so there is no escaping that, and that bullshit, but the point is we actually play. We honestly play with anybody. We’ve been up on the stage with String Cheese Incident…Leftover Salmon is a record I just produced. I think we were certainly around when jamming was a two to three generation handoff, we were there since the beginning of it, but we shot past it at one point. We’re not actually doing it all that much, but we’re taking it a few other places. I think what Phil [Lesh] opened us up to was, taking us back to the idea of jamming, which plays directly to our strengths – it’s not like we have to worry about playing on the radio, why do we have to jump through those hoops?
Little Feat has had quite a few albums come out the past few years. How do you think those albums will hold up, say twenty years from now compared to the classic Lowell George era records?
Well, this is a little over ten years ago, and off of Let It Roll, we were listening to “Business As Usual” yesterday. I was like, this is us (laughing)? I forgot how great the record sounds and how good the playing was – those kind of surprises. For my money, most of the stuff Little Feat has done has really held up and some things obviously don’t. When you play as much eclectic music as we do, like Paul hates that song, “Bride of Jesus.” I think it’s a pretty nifty song myself, but I’ve always called Little Feat an experiment in terror. For example, when I played, “Oh Atlanta” for people the first time, they’d go “ah, it’s alright.” “Well fuck you, we’re playing it anyway!” It’s a basic rock and roll tune and for some reason it resonates. “Let It Roll,” Richie didn’t like that song and I pulled it out after five weeks in rehearsal. Pulled it out and came back because I was agonizing over it, and I was like, “this rocks, what’s happening?” So I go up to him and I say, “can you hear what I’m playing?” and he goes “no.” I said “guess what, were here and we’re going to play this song too.” Well it’s not exactly a democracy in Little Feat, but its like what we are going through today. Most people, like in government lets say, would say “why would our government lie to us?” A lot of people have that feeling, certainly the people that are going to be reading this article, I take it they have open enough minds to figure out what the deal is. But then there are a surprising amount of people out there that take it for granted that the experts know what they are doing. But it’s surprising how many people in the arts leave things to management, they leave things to their record label and leave things to just about everybody but themselves to come up with a product. If that is what you’re doing, than what other things in your life aren’t being affected like that.
That’s true. And now you recently performed a concert in honor of the 25th anniversary of the classic live album Waiting For Columbus, in which much of the album was more or less recreated. Do you have any thoughts about that particular evening?
It wasn’t necessarily a recreation, so much as a celebration for it. We did certain things that evening, and I think we played some songs that weren’t on that record. So it was certainly a tip of the hat to something that went down in spirit – a tip of the hat to Lowell George, to Washington D.C., and this experiment we call Little Feat. Part of what I thought was so cool about Waiting For Columbus, and in fact what I like about being a musician, is the conversation one has when they play on one’s record, when they have a rehearsal that is taking you someplace you’ve never been before or when you are on stage with guests or people I’ve known for more than half my life, which is the band, and things really happen. That’s what we were celebrating, which in simple language is a conversation between musicians and friends and our friends are the people out in the audience.
What are your initial reactions to the new Little Feat DVD?
It was one of these things that was in passing, and we went down to St. Louis to play and it was in high definition T.V. I know it looks good, but I’ve been focused on so many other things I haven’t given it enough time. It was what it was and we captured a good moment, and captures where we are at a particular time.
Your keyboard playing is often considered pioneering due to your prolific synthesizer sound. From your work with the Doobie Brothers and numerous other acts, your style has a certain sheen to it that is very “Bill Payne.” Looking back, do you share the pioneer sentiments yourself?
Here is the thing…I just finished this solo project and it’s something that people have been asking me about for years and I go “I’m working on it,” and they go “yeah right, we’ll see.” And when I finally finished it, Gil Morales said “you’re this pioneer playing double keyboards,” and I go “I am?” I don’t know, I just figure I was one of the guys where I was down at rehearsal at a place with Ronstadt. I don’t know if Jackson [Browne] was down there, but we all rented the same room and there happened to be two keyboards set up side by side and as a result came up with a song – “Wait Till The Shit Hits The Fan.” Then in the background was playing pipe organ with piano, but I played pipe organ in a Presbyterian Church in Ventura, California so I was used to multi-tasking and reaching over and turning the page for the music. So, it was just an extension of that. As far as synthesizers go, I was writing for a Japanese magazine for almost three and a half years and I wrote about how I discovered playing synthesizers and it was on the second Little Feat album, Sailing Shoes, and it might have even been on Dixie Chicken. There were two guys, Malcolm Cecil and [another] guy, and these guys did all the programming for Stevie Wonder. I thought, “well as an experiment it was o.k.,” but as knowledgeable as these guys are, I may think that a sound is different, so I thought I’m just going to do it myself.
But at one point, I almost thought – “why even deal with synthesizers?” Then I started thinking about a piano, if Dr. John were to play it, if I were to play it, if you throw a Gershin role into it or Randy Newman or Ray Charles, everyone will make that piano sound different. So I thought if there is that much malleability in a piano, how much would there be in a synthesizer? At that time it was more about controlling the sound. Now you take it to the shop and they all sound pretty ritzy and you don’t have to program it that much. Back then, everything you touched was one note and you had to program just about everything and layer it one note at a time. So, it was like covered wagon shit, but it was interesting.
How do you explain why Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others continually asked you to contribute to their recordings?
Well, I actually went up to Linda at one point as we were playing some rehearsals up at my house, because Lowell had passed away and we were going to perform a concert as a benefit for Lowell’s family and as a remembrance to Lowell. And at one point during the rehearsal I heard talks of her going to get this guy, and that person, and that, for other projects. So I said, “well hey, if you need a keyboard player, keep me in mind.” She goes, “I would never ever think of hiring you because you are always so busy.” I go, “well I’m available now.” At any rate, I played on a bunch of Jackson records so there was some natural evolution at that point.
But you always resisted the temptation of bringing some other acts into the fold in the studio in regards to Little Feat. Was it tough to resist those temptations? Obviously Jackson Browne would have played on a song or two if you asked him.
Well, there are definitely exceptions to that rule, particularly since we started up in ’88 when we had Bob Seger and Shaun Murphy on that record. There were various vocalists and stuff. But we have in general kept it to a dull roar, but I think that’s about to change.
In the 80s Little Feat took some time off, and it makes you wonder if the band would have made videos like most acts did with Mtv just starting up, you might have lost some artistic integrity. Do you credit taking that time off during most of the 80’s as a key to the band’s longevity?
There is no question that it has and I’ve never contemplated what it would have been like to be together during the early 80’s. Without Lowell I didn’t feel like it was Little Feat and I didn’t have the energy to carry it on, and listened to very little of our music during the hiatus, if any, because it was just too painful to listen to with all the memories. And I just thought, “well we’ll re-circle the wagons on it.” There’s an excellent tune called “Hangin’ On To The Good Times” and that gives us a reason to why we reformed and why we had enough balls to call it Little Feat. I had a conversation with Phil Lesh about some of this, I don’t think they were circling the wagons to put The Dead back together, it was in such disarray. This was about four years ago and I gave Phil my opinion on it which was that if they ever found themselves back in a room and playing with each other, the thought would definitely cross their minds to put the thing back together. And they were a band just like we were, and yeah, they lost a major guy, but it’s a band, it wasn’t just Jerry Garcia. I mean, it’s all about what you got to offer beyond when everything cuts off. But if people go, “we’re going to do the Silver Bullet Band without Bob Seger,” or “The E-Street Band without Springsteen,” then it’s like, “yeah how are you going to do that?
Was it harder or easier than you originally envisioned to keep Little Feat going without Lowell?
That’s actually a very good question. I don’t know that “easiest” is the word. I’ve felt the way I’ve always felt – if we got something fresh to say, which is a whole reason to do this, then lets continue to do this. If not, we’re pulling the plug. I still feel that way.
It’s been said that when the band re-grouped in ’88, Craig Fuller sounded too much like Lowell George as a singer. Do you agree?
Well, he really did, which surprised me, and that is the one blind spot I have and we all have them. And I’m not denigrating Craig and the way he sings, but I was standing outside the door of a rehearsal and they are playing “Cold, Cold, Cold” with Craig listening. And I’m going, “wait a minute, that’s Lowell.” And I went back and forth like a tennis match going “damn it that’s Lowell.” And I open the door and it was Craig. But it was what it was. But we talked about Robert Palmer and some people mentioned Bonnie Raitt, which never happened.
Do you feel Shaun Murphy is finding her own spot within the band now?
I think she is. It’s a process like anything else. With as many records as we’ve made or every time I walk into the studio as a session player, back with Bob Seger or when I worked on a Jimmy Buffett record that is coming out pretty soon, or when I produced Leftover Salmon, you obviously come in with a history and something you learned up to that point. You try and be open minded where you want to take it from there, but it’s not like walking in and saying “we’re going to play chopsticks for the hundredth time.” It’s a little different and your perception is different and that’s what keeps the mix interesting. Even when you listen to the Lowell George record, [Shakedown Street] he produced for the Grateful Dead, I’m not a Grateful Dead historian, but I’m told that’s one of the slicker records they made with Lowell. I was kind of like, “interesting” (laughs).
Well a song like “Willin’” that you’ve played more than a couple hundred times, you seem to never look bored playing it. You hear stories about bands playing their old hits just to please the fans, but they really seem to get off on the new stuff. How do you manage to keep that fresh feeling with the classics?
I think it’s something that is so deeply engraved – it’s the mark of a song for one thing. In cases like “Dixie Chicken” or “Fat Man In The Bathtub” it has to do with how you regenerate the arrangement on it a little bit, to keep it interesting. But “Willin’” has this built in feel, I don’t know, it is such a wonderful song. I guess there is an honesty with it, as opposed to playing a hit that someone shoved down your throat or that you wrote thinking that it would be a hit. This is clearly not that, it’s an anthem of sorts. It’s more, it’s an honestly good tune played by a band that still relishes in taking an honest approach to making music.
On a final note, if you could trade spots with anybody else in Little Feat for one gig and be in their shoes for a night – who would it be?
I don’t know for sure, but I’ll go along. The first band I auditioned for up in Santa Maria, California was to play drums, and yesterday Richie slipped out of the room for a sec and I jumped up on the drums and played. I would like to know what it is like to be able to play like Richie because he is one of the most unusual guys I’ve ever heard in my life. On a drum kit, he’s just all over the place, it’s wonderful.
How do you think Richie would do on keyboards?
I don’t think he’d want to! (laughs)