Little Feat At 50: An Interview With Bill Payne


Sooner or later, every committed rock ‘n’ roller finds his or her way to Little Feat, which has been described as everything from “bluesadelic” to “funky Americana,” and all of which really means an eclectic bunch of styles that long ago melded together in a bluesy, boogieing, baked-smile stew. Their influence is wide — not least on Phish, moe. and many other stalwarts of the jam scene — and here in 2019, a Little Feat show, when you’re lucky to get one, is still a good ol’ jammy time.

It’s a special year for the legacy band celebrating its 50th anniversary. The five decades were hardly smooth — founding members passed away, there was a lengthy hiatus, the creative spark has sometimes shone brightly, sometimes dimly — but Little Feat endures, buoyed not only by its best-known songs (“Willin’,” “Skin It Back,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” countless more) but the commitment of the band members and their disciples to keep playing ‘em — and keep stretching ‘em out.

In 2019, Little Feat is keyboardist Bill Payne, guitarist Paul Barrere, multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett, bassist Kenny Gradney, drummer Gabe Ford and percussionist Sam Clayton. Payne, who co-founded Little Feat with the late frontman Lowell George, is technically the lone remaining original member, but Barrere, Gradney and Clayton all go back to Little Feat’s “classic” 1972 lineup, so who’s counting? The sextet will play a number of 50th anniversary shows throughout the year, including in markets Little Feat hasn’t headlined in some time, along with a commemorative 50th anniversary show at New York’s Beacon Theatre on March 8.

JamBase was privileged to chat with Payne and Barrere to talk about the big five-zero and look back and forward at all things Feat. Here’s Bill Payne with the Barrere chat due later this week.

JAMBASE: How do you look at 50 years of Little Feat?

BILL PAYNE: Well, there was an eight-year hiatus in there and I haven’t been doing all that much with the band the last few years as I’ve been primarily working with The Doobie Brothers. But hey, you get older, and you either shrink from the number or you embrace it like a badge! [laughs]

I’m fully engaged in music and writing and staying involved. When you look in the rearview mirror, that aspect of it has a home movies sort of thing. There are also parts of it that kind of tell you where you’ve been and why and how you are the way you are.

JAMBASE: Are there other things you personally want to do with Little Feat? That’s a hard question for any one of you to answer, I know.

BP: Yeah, I think that’s up to more people than me. A band by definition is a group of people, and hopefully, you have everyone on board to do something. I would personally like to, if we could swing it, make another record, or at least have some new songs. I don’t think there’s any reason beyond a 50th anniversary to say let’s continue this bandwagon just playing what we have. We were also restricting our songs for a while. But I think everyone’s up for digging into the catalog — why not utilize it?

That’s what I’m doing a lot of in Little Feat and with everyone else I’m playing with: pushing to do more. Sometimes that’s hard and sometimes you realize you have to lay back a little bit and let people think about what and how they want to develop. But I don’t think it’s all that circuitous. I want to push the parameters of what we’re doing.

JAMBASE: Most people think of the classic Little Feat 70s output first, of course, but there’s a huge catalog beyond that. What would you like to see come back into the Little Feat setlist or come in for the first time?

BP: “Representing The Mambo” is one. “Red Streamliner” we play every now and then. A lot of songs I write are a little bit more complicated, even “Oh Atlanta” I’ve had musicians come up and say, “I thought that was an easy song, and then I started to play it.” That’s OK, too. The Dead’s music is like that, same with Steely Dan — there’s a certain flow and ebb that you don’t really get until you’re actively playing these tunes. For some of the Little Feat songs, there may be a spot where the second verse has a different lead-in, and even if it’s the difference of one chord, it’s tricky little things like that that we work into an arrangement.

As a musician, I’ve always felt Little Feat paid a lot of attention to the arrangements and also to having a broad vocabulary. The instrumental “Day At The Dog Races,” we could take that, move it into any number of songs, like “Rock ’n’ Roll Doctor’ or “Fat Man In The Bathtub.” There’s a lot of room to move around. “Somebody’s Leavin’” is another of my songs that feels like that.

There’s a musician Connor Kennedy from your neck of the woods [New York] or close to it, and he was talking to me about doing some kind of Little Feat tribute. I was thinking they’d probably want to do Waiting For Columbus, which is the first thing most people want to play, or Sailin’ Shoes. And he said, no, we want to do the first album. I thought that was great, really. That has “Brides Of Jesus” and “Hamburger Midnight.” There was a song called “Thanks for Everything” that based on the way I said it became “Snakes On Everything” to Lowell. Man, some of these songs we haven’t played in such a long time. I love “Teenage Nervous Breakdown.” There are so many things that we wrote that were influenced by when Lowell and I were first putting the band together and what things would come through from the sidelines, brought by all of us. We brought John Coltrane, and The Band, and Dylan, and Leon Russell, and Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. All of these little snippets that would show up in the music.

JAMBASE: You’ve been on record about a lot of those influences but do you have any influences or musical interests you think would surprise people?

BP: I don’t know about surprise, but I mean a lot of pop music I grew up with listening to while driving around in a car — a song like “Alley Oop.”

Look at the Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together.” I don’t care if you love that song or hate that song, there’s a part of the lizard brain of yours that knew it was a hit the first time you heard it. That’s what I remember telling these guys when we put out “Let It Roll” a lot of years ago. We recorded “Hate To Lose Your Lovin’” and we knew it had a sound. It wasn’t going to be a hit record like The Doobie Brothers made hit records — a lot of which I played on — but what was at the time AOR radio, album-oriented rock radio, I just thought it had that sound.

I don’t think of “Dixie Chicken” like this. It’s a great song, and “Oh Atlanta” is a great song. But we didn’t record those in a way that made them sound like hits, you know? Anyway, people ask me and people like Waddy Wachtel why we’re on records with Donna Summer, or Diana Ross, or Engelbert Humperdinck. How about Julio Iglesias? To me, it’s all just music. I listen to Grateful Dead, I listen to Beethoven’s piano sonatas, some Scarlatti, some Wayne Shorter. Bill Evans as a pianist is someone I greatly admire. It’s all just music.

JAMBASE: You’re cited as an influence by a lot of players. When you play with or connect with younger keyboardists or just folks who want to learn, what are you most often asked?

BP: It’s generally about certain sounds. Do I like the Wurlitzer better than the Rhodes, for example? That depends on the song. I played more Wurlitzer than I did Rhodes. Kyle Hollingsworth from String Cheese, he’s not necessarily a younger player, but I’ll use him as an example. I played a gig with Leftover Salmon, this was around when I was just starting to get into their band, and I came off stage and he said, “I’ve been watching you, man, and you are 100 percent in it when you tap in. How do you do that?”

What I’m doing is listening to the arrangement of the song, so that when I hit, I’m pretty confident in it even if I haven’t played it before. The second go-round is going to be pretty similar to the first go-round. It’s just how I operate. That’s how I go up with Jimmy Buffett and play three or four songs I’ve never played before, but I’ve heard before, in front of 34,000 people. But part of it is just keeping options open as a player. It’s a little easier on keyboard to stop and lay out or just hit one note instead of a chord cluster. I grew up playing classical music and grew up playing by ear, too. Both avenues have been very influential for how I play.

JAMBASE: You mentioned your time with Leftover Salmon — folks in our scene really loved that two-or-so years you spent as an official member. Any chance you hook up again with them soon?

BP: I actually got an invite to sit-in with those guys on the road not long ago, and we were just too far apart to make it work. I don’t remember if I was out with Little Feat or The Doobie Brothers and we were playing someplace in Florida, and the place they were playing I was actually staying about 40 miles away. But I’m rather hopeful we get to. Andy Thorn and Alwyn Robinson both sent me Christmas cards and I sent to them, too. It would be really cool to sit-in with their new keyboardist, I’d love to hear and play some music with him — I hear he’s great.

JAMBASE: It sounds like there are more Little Feat dates coming this year for the 50th, along with this first block you guys have announced so far.

BP: Yes, there are. My allegiance these days, you know, is to The Doobie Brothers. That’s for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that when I joined them, they put in support for my family. I wouldn’t have turned them down anyway but … you know, they’re just very generous people. I’ve known these guys for so long and I love their music. We will see where it goes and my allegiance is to them and what they want to do. That said, I did make it clear to those guys and to their management that I wanted to do these shows with Little Feat this year for the 50th. They’ve been so generous with their time, and with me, and so far, so good.

There are other things on the way too. I have Everyone Orchestra coming up [at the end of January], and I’m also playing with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams at City Winery on February 20. I’m going to stay in New York for a few days and celebrate Larry’s birthday, too — there’s some kind of little jam going on. It’s always good to talk with Larry and see what he’s up to.

All That You Dream Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams – Captured by Chris Cafiero

JAMBASE: Larry Campbell is one of those guys who’s become part of the extended Little Feat family. When did you first meet him?

BP: In terms of when he first sat-in, we were in New York, and he called and said: “I’d love to sit-in.” He was working with Bob Dylan at the time. We’d seen him with Dylan, but he’s one of those players that can be in any situation, and more importantly, he’s one of those human beings that can be. I just admire the guy so much. Before he started this thing with him and Teresa, they were kind of doing what they needed to do to keep things afloat, and they did, and now have their own thing going.

They’ve been very generous with their time and effort with me, and that’s not a word I use lightly. I had the songs I was working on with Robert Hunter and they said, “Hey, can we sing with you on this?” And I said, are you kidding? I’m a much better singer when I’m singing with them [laughs]. I love them both, and I have a commemorative room at their home when I’m up in the area. And I will be, it seems like I’m going to get up there to play on an upcoming Kinky Friedman record.

JAMBASE: All the associations you’ve had, who would you like to work with again, or work with for the first time? Who comes to mind first?

BP: You know, John Lennon, that would have been the one. But I was out last summer with The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and listening to Donald Fagen every night. I think he’s incredible. It’d be great to do a little dual keyboards with him — it would be interesting and challenging.

I have worked with Eric Clapton, he’s sat in with Little Feat before, but it’d be nice to work with him on a record or a project of some sort. Dr. John is another example. We were at a festival together in Florida and he goes [in raspy Dr. John voice] “Why don’t you come over for a few?” And I said what are you going to play? He goes, “I’ll just play the guitar, man.” I had forgotten he began on guitar.

Wayne Shorter would be great, of course. I listen to a lot of people on the jazz side of things, and there’s this bassist, Esperanza Spalding. I don’t know if I could play with her or not, but her music … wow. Alwyn Robinson and I went to hear her play this record she was touring and I just sat there with my mouth open. She’s incredible and she gets incredible people to play with her. So that’s something to think about. I’m working on a song called “Trane’s Blues,” it’s a jazzy type of thing, maybe that would get her attention. She’s made a dent in my consciousness and I can’t say that about a lot of newer musicians even when it’s good.

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