Phil Lesh Gave Us A Gift: Bill Payne and the Still-evolving Little Feat
From his early days as a keyboardist aspiring to join Frank Zappa’s band, to the present, as a performer whose work with Little Feat has just been celebrated with a Grammy-nominated box set, Bill Payne has enjoyed a diverse, fruitful career. In 1969 Payne traveled to Lowell George’s house and joined Little Feat, a group that performed extensively until George's death in 1979. From here, Payne focussed on touring, predominantly with James Taylor but also with such musicians as Jackson Browne, Bob Seger and Stevie Nicks. In 1988 he reformed Little Feat with members Paul Barrere and Richie Hayward, as well as long-time collaborator Fred Tackett, and he has been engrossed with the band ever since.
The past year has been busy one for Payne. During the summer of 2000, he embarked on a Phil and Friends amphitheater tour with Barrerre. That fall, Little Feat began recording an album, Chinese Work Songs, which it released this spring. In addition Rhino issued Hotcakes and Outtakes, a 4 CD Little Feat retrospective which received a Grammy nomination for its liner notes. Meanwhile, Little Feat continues to tour, with a full itinerary slated for this summer. Updated information is available at www.littlefeat.net
DB- Let’s jump right in and talk about your latest disc, Chinese Work Songs, How would you describe it?
BP- Like most records it reflects a transitional phase. In this case we’re at the top of a transition rather than the end of anything. There are 3 or 4 tunes from different artists which makes it remarkably different from most of our records. We did songs by Phish, the Band, a Dylan Tune. We also did a song by the Hooters which Richie Hayward sang which is the first time that he has ever sang on one of our records. He’s had other background vocals but never any lead vocals so that was kind of new.
DB- What inspired that?
BP- Paul and I produced the record and it was an attitude we went into after the two of us played with Phil Lesh. Phil reintroduced to us the art of jamming, and also the art of leaving yourself open to play other people's music- the beauty and fun of it. Richie came in with that song and Shaun [Murphy] tried to sing it, Paul gave it a shot and we just looked at Richie and said, “You know, this will fit your voice. It’s like a Holy Modal Rounders tune, and Richie always sounded like the Holy Modal Rounders to me.
DB- You mentioned performing with Phil. How did that come about?
BP- He initially asked Paul. Then a couple of days later he wanted to know if I was interested too and I said, “Absolutely.” It’s interesting. I was looking for something on Jambands.com and I saw a review of one of those shows where someone basically wanted to take Paul and me outside for a beating [laughs]. I’ve been around the block long enough to realize that everything can be subjective and I knew that we’d be stirring up some shit by going out with him because we weren’t students of that kind of music. I also heard from people who felt that with the two of us and Robben Ford there were twists on songs they’d never heard before and it was really cool.
I can remember Little Feat did a gig with the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam. At one point I walked up to Lenny Pickett and said, “We’re going to take this thing left, just follow me.” And we broke into this avant-garde jazz thing that was way out. I thought, let’s just play something for the musicians. Well I was told later that the guys on the side of the stage, I don’t know if it was Charlie Daniels’ crew or Willie Nelson’s crew, but one some of them got pissed off and they ran out to get their guns.
DB- [Laughs] That’s quite a response.
BP- I love that. If we can make an impact like that it’s a good thing because far too often people see music as background.
DB- Fair enough. You performed with the Grateful Dead a few times, what are your memories of those experiences?
BP- I can remember going to the Filmore Ballroom in San Francisco and listening to those cats a lot so to have Jerry Garcia on the side of the stage listening to us with a beaming smile and then talking with him meant a lot to me. It was thrill to be up there but I was also mindful that these guys had a protective shell around them. That somewhat surprised me. I thought, “How do you get to that place or more importantly do you want to get to that place?” I was proud of those guys in terms of the people they were reaching and the magic that they bestowed on those events- the sense of community that the Grateful Dead seemed to exude.
I didn’t understand at the time how anachronistic people on the outside thought of the community. This is a community that’s open to ideas- the connections between things. They can track from bluegrass music to Coltrane. It’s an area that the Mothers [of Invention] were addressing as well. In a homogenized world that has only become more so in a lot of ways, where the message has become so watered down that you can’t tell the difference between anything, there is a richer substance below the surface. Those are the people who have gravitated to that and taken a different tack. It’s not like you can’t go out and have cotton candy, that’s cool too but I like the fact that these people have eclectic tastes, open minds. These are the people I would prefer to communicate with.
DB- Let’s jump back to the disc. I know a lot of people would be curious to hear how you decided to cover Phish’s “Sample In a Jar?”
BP- It was a circuitous as anything else. Paul had been in touch with a group trying to put together something for a benefit [the Mockingbird Foundation]. At one point Paul had said that Phish covers the Allan Toussiant song “On Your Way Down” but I said, “So are we doing them doing us doing them?” and Paul was laughing. Then Paul played me “Sample In A Jar” and I said, “That’s the tune.”
At the very end of working on our record, we realized we hadn’t done that song yet. So we made a quick chart of it, ran it down a couple times and recorded it. When we listened to it back, Paul and I looked at each other and said we have to record another song for the charity because this one has to go on our record. As it turns out they wound up using the song anyway because it just fit so well. Nowadays I enjoy watching people in the audience when they realize we’re breaking into it.
DB- That must be slightly surrealistic.
BP- Like anything else I think people tend to have a set view of who people are but the root of who we are is we’re musicians and if it’s good music then it’s fair game. We were playing a concert in Clearwater Florida and put in some of the “Goldberg Variations.” I just want to take people on a bit of a musical journey. The Dead were one of the first rock and roll bands to do that. We obviously have always done it in our way but it really was a gift that Phil gave us, I can’t stress it enough . It revitalized us.
DB- What are your perceptions of the younger bands in this scene?
BP- I’m doing a radio thing tonight with Kyle [Hollingsworth] from String Cheese Incident. We’re going to talk about some of the shenanigans we’ve done on stage. What I dig about these guys is that at the end of the day it’s not an age thing. People enjoy playing good music and being open to a lot of different things. I think that’s where we’ve learned from them too. It wasn’t just Phil Lesh, it was String Cheese incident and my son who’s 18, saying check this out. There’s some real interaction in the artistic community and I really dig that because I feel that’s something that was missing for a while except in a self-congratulatory way that somehow felt disingenuous.
There’s a real honesty here. There aren’t any pretensions about it, just going out and playing music. What better way to do it than just jumping in and seeing how you converse in a musical language. Kyle is ridiculous. He’ll reach over and play on the top or I’ll reach over and play on the B-3 and without even looking at each other we’ll just switch instruments. He has a lot of cool ideas and he’s really well versed in jazz. The same thing with the guys from Leftover Salmon. We brought them out it really helped us re-examine what we we're doing.
It allows you to throw in a bunch of odd things- like Bela who takes an approach to jazz on banjo that no one else would think to do. I like that and the audience plays a huge part as well. People want to hear that we're willing to take chances and that we’re not afraid to try things (laughs). Well you're talking to the right guy- not just in terms of taking whacked out solos on “Dixie Chicken” but I also like to push things a little further than we think we can to see what happens. Of course that’s not to say that it’s all a cluster of notes- sometimes less is more.
DB- What are some of your other favorite moments on Chinese Work Songs?
BP- I like the fact that we’re starting to stretch out and do I bit more music here and there. I like “Just Another Sunday,” the latino thing where Lenny Castro plays percussion. There's a song Paul did, a more rock and roll type of song called “Marginal Creatures.” Musically, it’s pretty straight-ahead but lyrically it’s a song about intolerance. It’s good statement to make in the atmosphere we’ve been living in as of late.
DB- Let’s move on to Hot Cakes and Outtakes, the box set. Describe the experience of putting that together.
BP- The whole thing is a bit like home movies for me. The cringe factor is a bit less than it might have been at the beginning, you know, when you hear your voice for the first time. I’m used to it now. Particularly as a session player, someone who’s worked for a lot of people other than Little Feat, I disassociate myself from that experience a little bit and listen to it as what it is.
In this case some of it was like kids playing in a garage which is cool although some of it had a degree of sophistication even for back then. It’s also interesting to see what happens to music over time. For instance there was a release by the Factory which has Lowell, Richie and Martin Kibbee on it. At one point somebody told me that I was on the Factory’s record, and I said, “Really?” Upon listening to the archives I realized that some of the tracks on that record were not by the Factory but by Little Feat before were signed to Warner Bothers.
DB- What are you most proud of in terms of the box set?
BP-Well, one thing I like about it in particular terms is the booklet. The story was put together Bud Scoppa through a series of interviews. It illuminates the band in way that hadn’t been done before. There was a lot of confusion in 1988 when we put the band back together- people weren’t sure who wrote particular songs, some thought that it was all Lowell George. I can understand this, how could they know? It’s like trying to figure out who sang on the Band’s records. Some people who might have thought that Little Feat was all Lowell George found that there was indeed a thread running through the music. I think that Bud really brought out through the booklet.
DB- What was your reaction upon hearing that the liner notes were nominated for a Grammy? [editor’s note: the category was won by The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 (Miles Davis and John Coltrane)]
BP- I felt really good about it. There was one media entity that seemed to think Little Feat didn’t have a story. That was amazing to me, laughable actually, if it wasn’t so tragic given their position as a proponent of musical history. Here was recognition of the fact that we did because that’s what the booklet was all about.
Artists have extraordinary lives. There’s a reason why Lowell George passed away, Jim Hendrix and others too- not just the drugs . There’s a price you pay for being an artist and a lot of that price has to do with how you open yourself up to your art, how sensitive you are to what it is you have to say. In some cases you have to experience a lot of pain, which a lot of people do anyway. Artists are in a unique realm to share in a way that a lot of people can’t. I think Lowell paid the price for the pain he was going through. Garcia’s another one.
DB- One final question, particularly for our younger readers, how would you describe the essence of Lowell George and his legacy.
BP- If he taught me anything it was the connections between things. He was an eclectic artist. When I first visited his house I was a kid sleeping on the beach in Isla Vista, near Santa Barbara. With a phony phone credit card I illicitly made a call to Los Angeles to Bizarre records, which was one of Frank’s labels, he had Straight and Bizarre. My hope was to work with Frank. Well they gave me Lowell’s name and told me that he was putting together a band, so I went down to visit him.
When I showed up, the door was open and there was this young beautiful blonde who said, “Lowell’s not here. He’s expecting you but he’ll be back in three or four hours.” So I looked at his bookshelf, he had poetry from Alan Ginsberg Carl Sanburg along with Last Exit to Brooklyn, a wild book. I remember seeing Songs from the South which was the Smithsonian collection of blues music. There was there was a sitar over in the corner and a samurai sword on the wall. That’s Lowell George. He was artist with many interests and passions.
His contribution for me outside of the wonderful songs and lyrics was his ability to phrase. Phrase music, phrase words, phrase thoughts. That was his genius. He was also a martial arts expert and at one time had pretty good control over his body and mind. So that’s Lowell.
He was wonderful guy but an enigmatic person who had a lot of devils. That didn’t obscure his beauty as a person but it got in the way and cut short his contribution. We just have to accept what he had and what he gave us which was really, really amazing.