Kicking It In the Barn With Little Feat
Little Feat has always been one of my favorite bands and I was overjoyed at the quality and enthusiasm that the band has put into their latest studio effort, Kicking It In the Barn. It’s true that Little Feat has always had a sound that’s immediately identifiable as their own, but they’ve never been one to rest on their past laurels and this new album certainly reflects that. In fact, it’s a wonderful diverse and roots-oriented album and one of their strongest albums since their reincarnation in 1988. It comes highly recommended.So, when I offered the chance to speak with a member of the band I opted for co-founder and keyboardist Bill Payne. Payne is not only a wonderfully talented musician but an affable, articulate and interesting person as you’ll see from the following interview which took place during the middle of the bands recent US tour.
M.S. I just did a review of your new album and I said that it never ceases to amaze me that Little Feat continues to reinvent itself but manages to do so without disconnecting itself from the past. You manage to break new horizons but manage to do so without losing touch with your old fans. For instance, from my perspective this new album is much more roots oriented. Do you feel that is true?
B.P. I think so. I think that’s a good way to put it. That song "Hang on to the Good Times," there’s a line in that, that says "We can’t escape from where we came" so we found ourselves back on the table again, that kind of thing. The idea of not being able to escape from where we came from was just that. The legacy as musicians and individuals is pretty much established, so what we did, which adds to our vocabulary, is to still have the tone of who we are, so even if we wrote a classical piece it would undoubtedly sound like Little Feat at least somewhere along that line, at least it would sound like me. So, that’s how that continuity establishes itself.
When we did this record, I talked to Paul [Barrere] ahead of time "I said I think we ought to make a record that is acoustic in nature." Meaning a record where we are not worried about writing rockers per se, those will come out on their own. I said "let’s write a folk song." I’d never written a folk song. This album took a while to make. It wasn’t one where we went in and in one sitting recorded 12 tunes. It was kind of spread out. I was in the middle of working with Leftover Salmon over in Colorado, there are some really excellent players there. I went down to Texas to do some writing with Steve Bruton. Fred and Paul were in Los Angeles pursuing their writing, but the thing was kick started – I live out in Montana now so we have to plan things out- I think it was like September or October and we drew the line in the sand and said we’d meet in LA over at the Barn, which is Fred’s barn and we started throwing some ideas around the table.
M.S. How did that initial meeting go?
B.P. Well, we walked out of there with about twelve separate energies that could be turned into songs. The reality of what happened was a lot of that was utilized and then I brought in two songs, "Stomp" and "Fighting the Mosquito Wars" which were from a previous thing I had done a couple of years before.
M.S. But they were not things that had been released on a project before?
B.P. No, no. I just had them on the backburner for ever. For me I took a unique approach. Instead of walking in with a demo, which I have done before and we’ve tried to follow it as close as we can or bastardize it or whatever, but this time I said here it is, let’s just start working on it to change some stuff. I sat everybody down and discussed it with them. I came up with an idea of how to deal with these songs before I went down there, but I wanted to just let them play it. It gave them some direction obviously but I wanted to see what the band came up with and it was real good. Fred was playing all sorts of unusual instruments. I don’t even know the names of them. On "Mosquito Wars" he’s got this thing that’s not an acoustic guitar it has a lot bigger sound and he plays it beautifully. He and Paul are very, very tight right now.
M.S. I appreciate your approach because a lot of bands that have been around for 20 and 30 years tend to just regurgitate the same old stuff.
B.P. Well it’s hard when you get a sense of who are. Thankfully Little Feat is the blind man and the Elephant, so we’re a lot of things. We can gravitate to certain areas and still be ourselves. Whereas other people do it and people go Christ Bob Dylan’s picking up an electric guitar, that kind of thing.’ In the overall sense of things I think we are tagged as a Southern kind of band. I was reminding people and talking about the fact that we put out Let It Roll, it’s another one of those albums, a very good record in terms of the new band formed in ’88. I said you look at that record and there are songs like "Listen to your Heart" "Voices on the Wind" and "Hang On for the Good Times" and there’s one other one, and if they are not ballads they are not the traditional type of songs that people tend to think of Little Feat as, but you’d be surprised how many people gravitate towards those songs.
M.S. I love "Corazones Y Sombras" that’s got depth. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
B.P. When I was working with Leftover Salmon I was doing pre-production work in San Francisco and Stephen Bruton had invited me down to Texas to hang out. He is a really good writer. He’s done some stuff for Bonnie Raitt. We had toured with Stephen a year before. I really don’t do a lot of things but I said you know what why don’t I go down there. He and Billy Bob Thorton were making a movie called the Alamo and so I was invited out to the set. William, Stephen and I wrote another song, a really good song. It didn’t pop up on this record but it may well pop up on another one. Stephen wrote the English lyrics and I pulled a guy Michael Donnelly to help me with the Spanish. He did the translations for the Buena Vista Social Club that Ry Cooder did in Cuba. I’d met Michael at Fred Tackett’s parties in Topanga for the last 20 years and I had no idea that he was a Mexican film producer, Irish and had lived in Mexico City for nine years.
M.S. Quite a mixture!
B.P. It’s a hell of a mixture and this guy Sam Quinones – I was writing for this Japanese magazine and in the course of studying Spanish which kind started the ball rolling towards doing a song in Spanish, anyway. I interviewed this guy Sam. He wrote a book called True Tales From Another Mexico, and on the cover was Chalino Sanchez, and Chalino has been dead for ten or twelve years. He was killed in a coup d’etat in Mexico. They had very wild lives but his music had that kind of honesty that you hear in Dylan’s voice, Neil Young. It’s not polished but it doesn’t matter. That’s what I heard in Chalino and when I found out that he was dead, I wasn’t devastated but I thought oh God! I really wanted to hear this guy and see him, but there was a player that worked with him named Nacho Hernandez and is now playing with a band called Los Amables Del Norte. Nacho played with Chalino for many years. So all the songs I had been listening to, the ones that I gravitated to the most were generally the things on which Nacho Hernandez was playing. So through Michael Donnelly and a call from myself we were fortunate to get Nacho to come play on this record. The story is much longer than that but it gives you an idea. It was just this movie.
M.S. It’s a very cinematic song. It goes through a myriad of tonal and textural changes.
B.P. When it was finished Paul was really surprised at what I did with the harp and the horns and I had Shaun Murphy’s husband Piero Mariani who is a drummer put in the siesta drums at the end. Gabriel Gonzales sang the song with Shaun Murphy. He is from a band called Quetzal. They are a brilliant band from Los Angeles. Literally by taking Spanish it took me down all these roads. I met all these people. It was a journey and it was great being able to put it in a song. At a place we were playing the other day the guys from the kitchen who were obviously Mexican came out ….it has brought in a lot of people that Little Feat wouldn’t normally gravitate to.
M.S. I also really like the last song on the album "Bill’s River Blues." Contrast that with"Corazones y Sombras."
B.P. Well that was the one where I was up in Montana listening to the satellite networks that have all the music channels and for the people that were up at the house, I said instead of playing stuff from my collection let’s see what’s on one of these stations and they had a folk station of sorts and I was listening to Dave Van Ronk and all these different people doing stuff and a week later I came back to LA and I said I think we ought to write a folk song. Little Feat if nothing else is a band of influences. We have influenced people sure, but we have been far more influenced ourselves by people in other avenues. So, I thought that’s an area I thought we should do. I said to Paul what do you think we should do. He played a couple of things and then launches into this thing that ended up being "Bill’s River Blues." I write poetry every once in a while and I had a poem about being in Montana. There’s this graveyard up on this mountain and I was cross-country skiing and it snowing but you could see the tops of the graves and the fact that you are in the mountains is magical. And there’s the Yellowstone River that flows north and that is mentioned a couple of times. I was just throwing imagery down and Paul came up with some of his own, so he threw in a line or two. It was born out of an idea that was stabilized by the fact that we had some lyrics to go to and we took it from there. We literally across from each other, I at the piano and him with the guitar and worked it out.
M.S. One of the other things I was thinking is that not only is this album as good as anything that you’ve ever done but its 72 minutes long. If you think back to when you first started out that would have been a double album. I think people expect more music on a disc these days, which carries its own series of challenges, I would imagine.
B.P. I hadn’t thought of that but I suppose that’s true. Format is one thing and format was dictated by the fact that you can only get so much music on a record and that’s one thing, but back then unless you were playing jazz or writing classical music the format for most songs was three minutes and forty seconds, maybe four minutes tops. So you wound up with a lot more tunes but less musical excursions. I don’t think it was because people couldn’t play.
M.S. I was looking back and what would maybe Dixie Chicken or the Sailing Shoes album have sounded like had you not had those constraints?
B.P. Exactly, that’s a very good point. It would have been different in the same way as these records we have been making recently are and that other people are making. You just have more time to flesh out the musical intent. I don’t want to say primarily, but I couldn’t imagine John Lennon and Paul McCartney being able to do something like that with "Strawberry Fields" for example. You start writing these opuses. Artists do what they have to do. If they’ve got to paint something on a soup can that’s great, if they can paint it on the side of a building that’s fine and each one has its own statement. I’m happy with the trend that is going on now, not only of being able to put down what you want but I think there are more groups like ours, and people like Ani Difranco that started it long before us, with their own labels, and not having the record company pressures. We are an older band and we are not worried about radio although some radio does play us. We have a great fan base and as long as they want to hear it and we are healthy enough to step up in front of them and put it across, I say lets do it. If we run out of things to say that would be the final word to. There area lot of factors but most of them have to do with our feeling that if you are progressing and you have something to add to the musical landscape it’s worth doing.
M.S. Having one’s own label raises an additional set of issues. For instance, are you happy with your ability to getting the CDs in the stores?
B.P. Well, even when we were with the real labels….
M.S. I like that "real" labels…I’m not so sure that’s what they are really.
B.P. (Laughs) That’s a good point. Well, the "other" labels that’s a real good point Mick. They were not promoting that well and there were problems with distribution. Redeye Distribution are the people we use and at least in the States they can be found just about any place. They have done a marvelous job. We don’t print as many so in a sense we are not looking at a record like Let It Roll unless this record captures the imagination of enough people. I don’t know what is going to happen there. Fortunately it is not a do or die situation whether it becomes a hit or not. I think that it is an industry in which we gauge more things by sales than content and it’s the same thing in movies and books. That’s not to denigrate the things that sell. Generally they sell because they are damn good, not all the time but its generally true.
M.S. In some ways the music industry has gotten better in that although the major labels only want to jam ten people down your throat there’s a lot of other stuff available.
B.P. Well, that’s all they have done and radio is going to play the same 40 tunes and it doesn’t matter what language format.
M.S. Even the "classic" rock stations have a rotation of the same songs.
B.P. Well, there you are. Fortunately there’s XM Radio and Sirius and iPods- there’s no question that people would download their own music because they could, at one point. They went that route because a) it was free b) it was free and c) it gave them a choice.
M.S. The choice factor is the one thing everyone overlooks.
B.P. It would be like if someone dictated that you have to have a certain type of food someday. Here’s the three things we are going to allow you to eat. They are pretty good but you know….
M.S. Don’t forget I’m English and we only eat three things!
B.P. (Laughs) well there you go! I went to England as an 18 year old and I went to the Hard Rock Cafnd tried to get a burger and I’m like these are burgers?
M.S. It’s gotten much better.
B.P. Yeah, I love it over there. I’d like to get back to Europe again.
M.S. In terms of new perspective and opportunities, I’m curious if you have any intention of ever making a solo album?
B.P. I have a lot of stuff ready. I’d like to have it ready for middle of next year. I’m not sure when we’ll release it. It’s really ready now I just have to get the engineer so that we can put across and mix it down.
M.S. Do you want to tell us a little about what is going to be on it?
B.P. As you can imagine it’s pretty eclectic but it’s all instrumental. It’s all me at this point. I’d like to this one out of the gates and then I wouldn’t mind making a record where I get some other people to play with me and making it a little more organic. But I think this is a good way for people to check out what I have been doing for the last 12-15 years and give them some highlights of that and a couple of new things too. When I take off on those excursions in "Dixie Chicken" that’s a pretty good indication of what I’m doing. It’s all sorts of stuff.
M.S. It’s funny because you do so many sessions for good singer-songwriters and the like I was thinking that would have been the approach you were going to take. Is that something that you might consider?
B.P. I think it is. It could certainly gravitate to something like that. One of my heroes for the last couple of years is Bill Evans on the jazz side, and he made a lot of records. He was not afraid to put out a lot of music, so I thought once you get the first one done then you can start doing more. I have been very cautious partially because I didn’t know who I was. I am an instigator in this band. I instigate a lot of things I don’t necessarily carry them through…but I throw a lot of things out there, so when it comes to my stuff there’s pressure is to put it together and I don’t have a problem doing that. My songs, with the exception of "Oh Atlanta" go through a lot of different things. We have a song for the next time around that we are working on and it’s more on the jazz side of things and I think the band is disciplined enough to play whereas before we may not have. Before we could have pieced it together, I want to get it to where we can actually play something as opposed to something like "Cadillac Hotel" which is like here it is and making sure everybody played the same parts. It was defined. I was writing parts to it. Everybody was doing their own solos but there were parts to it. Everybody’s level of playing has really come up and I think that shows through on this record too. Richie [Hayward] generally plays all over the map, but he was very disciplined on this record. It still sounds like Richie, but man the cat was playing some beautiful stuff.
M.S. One parting question, have you been doing many sessions lately?
B.P. I worked on a Shelby Lynne album in Los Angeles and the Leftover Salmon record. I played on one of their songs and took off on an extended jam. It’s a really fine record. I hope to be working with Buffet in December doing something down in Key West, so we’ll see what happens there.