Talking to Bill Payne is like entering an eternal past, a rare preservation of the peace-addled 1970s music era carried over into what he calls the pop prism" of the 21st century. As a founding member of Little Feat, he is unabashedly sentimental, strikingly intelligent and he believes sincerely in the power of words, art and, of course, music. He has a loyal respect for the music community, which he discusses, without hierarchy or pretense, as a bunch of guys who like to get together and play music. The impression he gives is not one of history, but of timelessness.
We've had The Rolling Stones sit on the side of the stage and watch us. We've had the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia watching us," he says in his unique, almost stream-of-consciousness style that evokes emotions more than structured thought. Brahms used to call it the 'footsteps of giants.' For him it was Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart; for me it was Zappa, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Ray Charles. Keith Richards said to me once, 'Oh mate, we're all part of the same thing.' He was saying, 'Welcome to the club. You dig us, and we dig you guys, too.' What a concept."
That kind of reciprocal influence is the bottom line of Little Feat's newest album, Join The Band (released August 26 on 429 Records), which features songs that the band has been playing for years - but this time, they have collaborated with other artists (who they dig and who dig them, too) to bring a fresh twist to the tracks. Though it was released late last month, the project started almost a decade ago when the band had the idea of inviting artists to play with them onstage and filming a documentary of the performances. Although Dave Matthews wanted to be involved, ultimately they could not generate enough participation or funding to launch the project. But, when Payne and Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere went down to Key West four years later to record on Jimmy Buffett's record License To Chill, the ball started rolling and Buffett agreed to help Little Feat produce a guest artist album.
Only two things were sure: we knew that Jimmy would be on it, because he wanted to sing [pauses] and he put up the money," laughs Barrere with his gruff rowdiness. And Billy had called Dave Matthews to see if he would still be interested. He said, 'I wanted to do it four years ago, and I want to do it now.' To get his involvement opened a lot of doors and got people interested. The one that really shocked me was Brooks & Dunn. Mac McAnally [Sawyer Brown, Coral Reefer Band], who co-produced with Billy and works with Jimmy's band, was talking to Ronnie Dunn about a project he was doing, and he said Ronnie just looked at him and said, 'I want to be on it.'"
From there, the band gained the participation of Bob Seger, Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Bela Fleck, Chris Robinson, Emmylou Harris and other well-respected names in the industry. The result is Join The Band, a rock/jazz/blues/country compilation that is true to the band's mixed-genre legacy but holds an extra layer of complexity. Little Feat recorded the basics of each song and then gave the contributors some artistic freedom in deciding what direction they wanted to take it.
The whole idea behind the album is to share influences and creative ideas and add a bit of yourself to an existing plate of gumbo," says Barrere. It really does show that the music community is a community."
And it's a community that Little Feat has been active in for almost 40 years now, from the time that Lowell George left Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. As the legend goes, it was George's (and ultimately Little Feat's) classic song Willin'" that took George out of that band.
Lowell played Willin'" for Frank, and Frank was not a fan of the drug culture of the '60s, with the weed and acid and all that. Frank thought it was a good song and Lowell would be better served if he started his own band and started doing stuff like that," explains Barrere. So, George started Little Feat. According to Barrere, the band name came about when fellow Mothers of Invention member Jimmy Carl Black told George that he had the ugliest little fucking feet" that he had ever seen. The feat" spelling is a not-so-subtle shout out to The Beatles.
Continue reading for more on Little Feat...
After George passed away in 1979, the band split up, but they couldn't stay apart for long. Several years later, the group was invited to play in a rehearsal studio in the L.A. Valley that had been redecorated with Little Feat memorabilia and dedicated to George's memory. Surprisingly, all of the band members happened to be in town and ready to christen the studio. Barrere describes the memory, summing up the simple pleasure of playing music that characterizes the group, We had a jam session, and it was a ton of fun."
When we put the band back together, we wanted to write a whole bunch of new songs for Let It Roll," continues Barrere. If it sucked and wasn't near the legacy of the band, we wouldn't pursue it. But Little Feat is timeless; we never had a sound that fit into any moment of time. With [the new song] 'Hate to Lose Your Lovin' and 'Dixie Chicken,' there was no time lapse between them, and we thought, 'We're on the right track.' We're showing a lot of reverence; we still perform a lot of Lowell's material. Every night is a testimonial to his greatness and to the man himself."
They recruited some new members, and the lineup has stayed the same for the past 15 years: Payne (keyboards), Barrere (guitar), Richie Hayward (drums), Fred Tackett (guitar), Sam Clayton (percussion), Kenny Gradney (bass) and vocalist Shaun Murphy, the band's only female player. And they play everything in their catalog, as long as they can do it justice.
For the band, there were always no rules musically," says Barrere. Everybody's musical tastes were quite different. Billy started out playing organ in the church, I'd come from playing blues and Kenny and Sam were in soul bands. Richie came from Iowa, and who knows what they listen to there."
Barrere says his warped sense of humor" is what drew Lowell George to him in the first place, and it is hard to listen to him without a few laughs escaping.
When it comes to bands, I got a pretty good angle on that," says Payne. Either you are pulling someone up a hill or being dragged down the hill by them, and sometimes you are perfectly in flow with the other person. We're in a pretty good place right now. We're an extended family, a family that was just extended even more by every artist that performed on this record. Under the umbrella of that family is Lowell George, who I hope is smiling down on these proceedings."
From what Barrere and Payne describe, this family is large, tight and fiercely loyal. In fact, on this album George's daughter Inara sings one of his most famous songs, Trouble."
If Little Feat members are keenly aware of the people who have influenced them, they also consider the influence of their music on other people - and not just other musicians. One of the most powerful tracks on Join The Band is a cover of Woody Guthrie's classic This Land Is Your Land," a song that Barrere insists people need to hear. If we don't get Obama elected, it's not my land anymore," he says. The band also performed the song on Late Night With Conan O'Brien on September 22, broadcasting their political message even wider.
The songs on this record, like 'Time Loves A Hero,' do speak of politics and how we write things," says Payne, the articulate artist. We're still very actively in the process of evaluating our lives and how we're going to conjure songs that represent what we think and pass it off to people. In this political season, we're asking, 'Are words important?' Barack says, 'Yes, they are important.' The Republicans, and some Democrats, are saying that words aren't that important, but they are exceedingly important."
Join The Band is a party album. It's fun. But songs like 'Trouble,' I had tears in my eyes at the end. I was there at the studio, which was the first place that Little Feat recorded for Warner Brothers," adds Payne. Now it's almost 40 years later and I'm recording with Lowell's daughter. That tune is floating around in a time capsule heading toward the stars as you and I speak. It's really lighthearted, but there is some weight to what we do and why we do it."
For Barrere, it's simple.
Music is supposed to make that good feelin' feelin' good," he says. If you can get that good feelin' feelin' good, then, baby, don't stop."