The Footsteps of Giants with Little Feats Bill Payne
Little Feat returns with their first studio album since 2003 on Join the Band, a collection of classic Feat songs re-recorded with the help of some friends. The rousing set, which also includes a series of inspired covers, features Mike Gordon, Dave Matthews, Bob Seger, Sonny Landreth, Bela Fleck, Chris Robinson, Sam Bush, and Emmylou Harris. Executive produced by longtime Feat fan, friend, and musical compadre, Jimmy Buffett and recorded at his Shimpboat Sound Studios in Key West, the fifteen tracks percolate with a reenergized vitality and sharp focus of a group finding its stride again after 40 years. Indeed, one cut featuring Inara George, the late Feat founding member and guitarist/songwriter Lowell George’s daughter, serves as a fine tribute to that continuing spirit while “The Weight” with Bela Fleck solidifies the band’s commitment to its roots. Jambands.com sits down with Bill Payne, co-founder/keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter and co-producer of Join the Band, for an intimate look into the heart of one of America’s most enduring acts as we also gaze inside the world of a man who has walked in the “Footsteps of Giants,” but also created miles of his own creative tracks, as well.
PART I The Bottom Line
The only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be superstition. Everything is subject to analysis. Horde your energy. That’s the secret of life. – Chronicles, Volume One, Bob Dylan
RR: So how did the Little Feat European tour go?
BP: The release of Join the Band occurred in Europe first, which is a little different from the way it normally happens. I got an e-mail from somebody over in England that brought their mom to see us, and she dug it. We ran into a lot of folks over there, and there was this perception for a long time in Europe, a lot more acute than over here in the States, that Little Feat without Lowell [George] wasn’t Little Feat. You knowthat argument. She said that from the reviews she had been reading that we finally, for the most part, seemed to have broken that ceiling. (laughs) Not that we were that concerned about it, to be honest with you. What the hell can you do? I’m sure there are still people out there that look at Bob Dylan and say, “Man, I really liked him before his voice changed. I really dug him when he was playing acoustic guitar.”
Everybody has a place in their head where things ought to be. They compartmentalize things. Lowell is always going to be a part of our family. We’re the guys that knew him. I think an album like Join the Band definitely honors him, especially with that track “Trouble,” with his daughter, Inara George [on vocals]. I had tears in my eyes when she and I cut that track. I was there the day she was born. It was the same studiowhere Little Feat started outis where we recorded that track, what were the old United Western studios, and is now Ocean Way [in Hollywood, California]. It was like this complete circle had gone down. It was really quite amazing. I know we taped it twice, but I know we got it on the first take. She was just there and ready to do it.
[Laughs] Finally, in one of these NASA space ships, there’s a version of that song from quite a few years ago of Little Feat and Inara George doing that song, although the key was several keys lower. I don’t know why we didn’t put it in the proper key for her, but anyway, that’s circling out in outer space somewhere, heading towards the stars, to let future aliens know who Little Feat, Peter Gabriel, and a few other artists are.
RR: The track rests in a solid place on Join the Band, near the end of the album, serving as a strong song before “Sailin’ Shoes.” Your fine piano work on Join the Band’s “Trouble, is also worth a mention.
BP: Well, thank you. I spent some time, Randy, thinking of exactly that placement. I just figured, you know, let it be this area where things can breathe a little bit, and then take it out with “Sailin’ Shoes.” I think the album feels really good.
RR: What comes together, for me, is that there is an overall story being told with the classic Little Feat songs mixed together with a few well-chosen cover favorites, and featuring some very notable guest musicians playing with the band. I suppose the story thread being emphasized is all of the songs have that “Little Feat element.”
BP: Well, yeah, when you really get down to brass tacks on all of this, with any type of band. I used to write for a Japanese magazine, by the way, called Player. Paul [Barrere, Feat guitarist and vocalist] and I were working with Phil & Friends some years ago, and he sort of re-introduced us to the idea of jamming, but whether you’re jamming or not, it’s irrelevant. What you’re doing is having a conversation with one another. The biggest argument that bands get into is about records that don’t quite hit the mark. You can argue about whether something hits you in a visceral way or not, whether it sounds good, you know, at a Captain & Tennille level“Love Will Keep Us Together.” (laughs) I use that as an example of a hit record. You didn’t have to like it. You just inherently knew it was a hit because of the way it sounded. I’m not saying Join the Band is a hit. I’m just saying that it reaches across all party lines, and says that this is recorded really, really well, and played well, and if you happen to dig the music on top of it then, great.
The aspect that ties into jamming is can you hear one another? If you can’t hear one another, you’re not going to have a great recording; you’re not going to have a great sessionbe it live, or in the studio. I had begun this saga many years before we actually put it in front of Jimmy Buffett Join the Band Executive Producer]. The thing began to come together when Jimmy asked me to come down about a year or two before we started recording this album, and we recorded Jimmy’s album with all of the country musicians, License to Chill. Alan Schulman, Mac McAnally, and Mike Utley produced that record, and Alan and Chris Stone were the two engineers. It just sounded so good in there, and we had great musicians. We really just floated through the tracks.
I was talking with Jimmy about this project and felt that if we could do it, this is the studio I want to record in. I want to record with Mac and I producing it. I want to get
[Michael] Utley in there to play some keyboards with me at some point, which we did. I want to have Alan Schulman and Chris Stone as the two anchors on the engineering level. In my liner notes, I took some time to describe the result of that process which is when you have great engineers, they are virtually invisible in the studio. They’re just there so that when you’re ready to record, it’s like don’t wait fifteen minutes while we get this mike setup and do this thing. These guys were on top of it in a great, great way.
RR: I’m glad you mentioned that because they captured the atmosphere of the songs, and I was wondering if this was a result of a long relationship with the band.
BP: The type of thing that I’ve done over the years, Randy, with being a studio musician, basically, and a producer on occasion, is that Little Feat has offered me the opportunity. My calling card is being in Little Feat. Beyond that, I’m like the elephant and the blind man. “He’s just a great rock n’ roll player.” “No, no, man, we hired him because he plays B-3.” (laughter) “He does all these ballads: “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Everything I Do I Do It For You.” He does all of those pop ballads and stuff.” I’ve done, (laughs) whether I’ve done it all or not is debatable, but I’ve certainly done a lot of it, so there’s a familiarity when I meet people. I don’t have to go through that process of “Who am I?” “Who are you?”that kind of thing.
The Rolling Stones came to hear us en masse when we were in Edenhall, which was a place just outside of Amsterdam. I think it was in ’74, maybe ’75. I was just gushing with Keith [Richards] because I love the Rolling Stones. Join the Band is about influences, and those guys are one of our early influences, at least on me. Keith looked at me and said, “Ah, mate, we’re all part of the same crew.” In other words, welcome to the club. I thought, “Well, God, coming from that guy, O.K.”
I began to relax with the idea that people like the Stones were coming to hear us, and people like Bob Dylan were sitting in the front row. When I was out with Phil Lesh, Dylan said [in a raspy Dylan voice], “Hey, Billy, what’s going on? Remember the Bottom Line?” I thought, “(a) How does he know my name? And (laughs) (b) how does he remember the Bottom Line?” I said, “Sure I do, man. You were right up center, about three rows in, and you scared the hell out of me.”
That familiarity I’m talking about is just that. We’ve all been around the block about a million times, and what we call “going to different schools with each other,” but Alan Schulman and Mac McAnally are two of the greatest people you’d ever want to meet. Chris Stone is right there with them, so the water was very, very comfortable. I knew Little Feat, as a group, would really rally around these guys in the studio because they would make it ultra-comfortable for people to hear, and to play, and they’re very complementary on people’s performances. Not in a condescending way, but they go with what people are doing on a strong level, and reinforce that to continue the focus on that, rather than keeping time correctly, or whatever happens when that red light goes on, and people begin to get a little gun shy.
*PART II Love and Reflection in Key West *
A Sweet Journey to the Heart of Little Feat
Key West formed a subculture unto itself. It was originally called Cayo Huerso (“island of bones”) when it was a Spanish citya great place to chase [the Hemingway] dream – Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen
RR: I also did a feature with David Sanborn this month. When you listen his music, you instantly hear the Sanborn signature as he takes you on a very unique journey. I’ve also noticed that aspect in your piano playing over the years. When you recorded these tracks for Join the Band, did you fall in love with the songs again? Did it reignite a spark, or is it a continuing fascination with the music of Little Feat?
BP: I think you said it just right, Randy. It was a reintroduction. Maybeyou called it a “love affair”that’s kind of a cool way to put it. “Fat Man”we’ve played a million times in a hundred different ways. (laughs) Paul Barrere came up with a different way to play it, which is a lot closer to the way we used to play it, which is slowerfor one thing, the tempo is laid back. I think what I was counting on, and absolutely happened, was that Key West would become an influence on this thing. The harbor’s right outside the door when you open it, right next to the water, lot of boats, and it’s a very casual atmosphere down there. That pervaded our sensibility of what we were doing down there. It was nice, warm weather, it was November, we were coming up on Thanksgivingit was just a good time of year.
The thing that we’ve always felt comfortable about, something you alluded to with your reference to David Sanborn, is the voice that Little Feat has, collectively our voice. We have it individually, too, but there’s a collective voice that is Little Feat, which is the reason we put the band back together in the first place. It’s something, by the way, I talked with Phil Lesh about because they were in a very similar boat that we were. They lost Jerry Garcia; we lost Lowell. There was talk one night at dinner about whether the Dead would ever get back together. I said, “I don’t know if you will or not, but I can guarantee you thisif you ever sit in a room, and play together with one another, the thought will cross your mind.” And certainly, I don’t think, to what degree, they’ve been able to hold that fascination with one another.
Once you’re in a band (laughs), it’s not easy to walk away. I told that to the cats in Leftover Salmon, too. I produced a record for them, and boomthey wanted to split up. I said, “Obviously, you can do what you want to do, but it’s not that easy to walk away from.” Sure enough, they’re back to together. They’re continuing to do other things, too, but what you find in the refuge of being in a band, which is why Join the Band as a statement is such a good one because it’s not only inclusive of what Little Feat does, who we are to one another, which is this disjointed family, in a sense, where our voice is found, though that result, though our music. That’s always been the glue for us, but all of these different people that floated into the project, whether it’s Mike Gordon on bass, or Sonny Landreth, or Ronnie Dunn just sent me a nice text message last night on the phone
saying what a thrill it was to sing on “Willin’”I’m a huge country fan; I played on one of their recordsBela Flecka great guy, Sam Busheverybody that was on Join the Band had something to do with us, and even if they didn’t in the case of Brooks & Dunn where they didn’t really know Little Feat that well, we all speak the same language.
That’s why there are doors of communication. If you simply look at the world of music and how players reactI’m not talking about the pop star aspect of any of this shit because we’ve always considered ourselves musicians, but other people can look at us and say, “Yeah, he’s a pop star.” Hand me my shiny bag that I can crawl into. (laughter) Yeah, I’ve made a career, and Little Feat’s made a career out of making music, and enjoying that aspect of it. It’s given us a real freedom because we’re not under the confines of trying to create anything which is strictly commercial. We’re not afraid of it. We tried it a couple of times. “Oh Atlanta” was written as a fastball down the center of the plate. I thought, “Well, hell, if you can write a song that’s 3 minutes and 24 seconds long, that’s a hit.” (laughs) It turned out that it was a pretty decent rock n’ roll song. It was never a hit. Little Feat never had hit records. For us, it was mainly a blessing. To other people, they said, “Oh, it’s a curse. You guys never got the recognition you deserved.” I said, “Whaton the level of being on AM radio day and night?” That’s not what this thing was about, ever.
Again, we weren’t trying to shy away from it. We didn’t have those qualities that really allowed everybodyyou always had to work a little tougher to get into a Little Feat album. “Oh Atlanta” was a dive into warm water. Some other tunes we had like “Voices on the Wind,” and “Truck Stop Girl”shooting all over the map heretook a little getting used to. When I first heard The Band’s album, Music from Big Pink, I was living in Santa Rio, and I gave the record to my brother. I couldn’t stand the high voices.
RR: Richard Manuel’s voice?
BP: Oh, all of them. Whoever was singing on that real high thing. I thought, “What the hell’s that?” (laughter) I was walking by my brother’s room every day thinking, “Oh, wait a minute,” and I stormed in there one day like an idiot and said, “That’s my record. Give it back!” (laughter) I finally fell in love with it in a strange way. I really think, in talking with our fans over the years, including this record, by the way, some people are saying, “I don’t know about Brooks & Dunn on “Willin’.” Why did you guys do that? That doesn’t fit.” Three weeks to a month later, they say, “WellI’ve been listening to it, and” I don’t usually talk with everybody about this stuff, but I get a kick out of it.
David Sanborn, by the waywe had him play with us on a record, Hoy-Hoy!, on a track called “Gringo.” I just love David’s sound, like you said. I used to listen to him on all of the James Taylor records. So, this musical community, and what I hope to be the result of all of this, Randy, to be honest with you, is that whether people played on this record or notwhen we played at Bonnaroo this year, we had Jake Shimabukuro join us on stage.
Jake and I took off on a version of “Dixie Chicken,” where it was he and I, and Richie [Hayward, drums] and Sam [Clayton, percussion], and then, I think, it broke down to just the two of us playing, and that’s the sort of thing from here on out, that’s the thing we can share with other musicians with a tuned-in audience. You knowwhat Kimock does, and what Garcia and the cats did in the old days. You get up there, and you just let loose with this flow of conversation that is, at times, self indulgent, but that reels people in because there’s a big element of the thing actually being the real thing. It’s not a manufactured exercise. It’s people of any age group enjoying tremendously what they do.
Some of the nights, it’s not as good as it can be. You know it from having been to the well as often as we have. You’re not always going to be under the optimum conditions to play or hear, but you can throughout a set, bring yourself to a performance level that exceeds what it is you can hear. That’s something I always like to clue people in on.
RR: I think that may be something that older fans missed when they wrote off Little Feat in the late 80s after the band reunited. What they are missing is that there are additional chapters that have been created not just through the studio work, but all of the live gigs. The live work has put the band on a whole other plateau, and it is curious to me why a fan would shut out those experiences. And yet, you persevere.
BP: We have, thankfully, many more fans that salute what we are doing. If it were the other way around, if it was a matter of fewer people showing up to dates, fewer people thinking we were doing anything, then I think it would fold. There’s no question about it. It’s not a one-way street. It’s a two-way street between our audience and what not. But like a lot of other things, you can read a hundred good reviews, and read one bad one, and (laugh) that’s the one you walk out of the room with because you’re a human being. Some guy may say, “Hey, he needs to part his hair on the other side. His jeans are” You read things. I had this one friend, Danny Kortchmar, who is a wonderful musician, and he was just devastated by some reviews he was reading of his own stuff, at one point. I said, “LookDanny, you’ve got a great record. The thing about reviews that I’ve foundand they drove me crazy, too; I’d be the first one to say itbut it’s a matter of learning that there’s a little bit of truth in any reviewgood or bad. If you can simply read through it, and there’s something that you can apply, great. If not, then stop reading reviews, and you’ll find out by the amount of people that attend your shows whether you have something to say that people want to listen to or not. It’s really that simple.”
PART III The Friendliness of the Long Distance Runner
“Hey,mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand, and “No!” was all he said. – “The Weight,” The Band, written by Robbie Robertson
RR: Are there tracks on Join the Band that completely knocked you out?
BP: Yeah, there were a couple. I love what Chris Robinson did on “Oh Atlanta,” as a
vocalist. In fact, (laughs) I ended up copping some of his licks, to be honest with you(sings) Got to get back! Got to get back!
The way we did this record was that we just sent it out to people, and we turned them loose. It’s like what people do for me. I go into the studio, and sometimes I’m there to play with other folks, but many times it’s “All right, Billy’s here. Let’s see what he’ll do,” and these are the things I come up with. It’s not that I don’t do it without direction, but I thought, for the most part, and so did Mac McAnally, by the way, “Let’s just see what these guys come up with.” The other one that really stands out is Dave Matthews on “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” People who have heard this track say, “That’s Dave?” because he sings a little lower than he usually does.
RR: It sounds like he had a really good night, woke up and recorded a strong vocal.
BP: Yeah, well, that’s true. He put on about 18 vocals on the thing, and was going onto the David Letterman show the very next day, and almost lost his voice. I finally got a chance to thank him profusely for his performance when I sat in with Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band at Madison Square Garden a few years ago at a benefit for the New Orleans victims of [Hurricane] Katrina. Dave was sitting in there. He was over at the Rockefeller Center doing some other stuff. He’s an amazing person.
I also have to say from the standpoint of people who signed on to do this projectthis thing was at least 4-5 years before it saw the light of dayand Dave was one of the only people that I had connected that said he would do the project. We had to wait a number of years, and when Buffett began to help us out, they called him, and Coran Capshaw [Dave Matthews’s manager] said, “Well, we told Billy we’d do it four years ago. We’ll do it now.” (laughter) That was pretty darn cool.
I could pinpoint every performance on this record from Sonny Landreth and his wonderful slide work on “Fat Man in the Bathtub” to the fiddle playing of Bela Fleck and, for that matter, mandolin playing of Sam Bush on “Sailin’ Shoes.” Bela Fleck did some cool stuff on that song, and on “The Weight.” I think it was appropriate that we did “The Weight” giving how much The Band influenced us.
I think the really core issue of Join the Band is that it was an idea that you could join the band as an audience, and you could join the band as a group of players sitting in. It had some really good elements about it. The thing that connects, Randy, with all of uswhether we’re players or listeners is that, at the end of the day, that’s exactly it. We are listening whether we’re playing, or simply in the audience getting off on the music, or wondering why the hell we’re there. What are we hearing? That to me is a great fascination, particularly in this political agenot only what we hear, but how we digest it in the sense of how it translates to us. Why is something to some people the real thing, and to others, it’s “Eh, I don’t get it.” I’ve always been fascinated with that element of it. It’s certainly true of art and music. It’s true of politics, good food, and reading.
I did an interview with Jon Pareles of the New York Times, and I said, “Jon, Bill Flanagan and I were having a disagreement over Little Feat. I love Bill. I’ve come to know him and really think he’s a solid citizen.” We talked a little bit about this stuff, and I said, “Lookit’s not a big deal. It’s Little Feat. It’s big to me because I’m in the band, but to everybody else, it’s Fuck it. It’s Little Feat. Who cares?’ But what am I reading? If I’m reading a guy who likes us or doesn’t like us because of five things and three, if not four, things are completely out of whack in terms of being factual, what am I reading on the front page of the New York Times? Is that factual, or do you just reserve your sloppy journalism for the entertainment section?” (laughter) He said, “Whoa, yeah, I gotcha!” It ended up to be quite prescient, too.
PART IV Time Loves a Hero
Seein’ ain’t always believin’
Just make sure it’s the truth that you’re seein’ – “Time Loves a Hero,” Little Feat, written by Paul Barrere, Kenny Gradney, Bill Payne
RR: You spoke earlier about the difficulty of walking away from a band. At least one of the musicians, Mike Gordon, who appears on Join the Band on the version of “This Land is Your Land,” can possibly relate to that sentiment. Is the thought, amongst Little Feat, that you’ll take this trip as a band as far as it’ll go?
BP: I think that’s always been the center of what it is. We haven’t had an album of new materialI don’t know if it’s that we’ve run out of things to say, or just redirected our energy to playing live. Kickin’ It at the Barn was the last studio effort we made, and that was a while back . I was beginning to think that, “God, man, maybe we’ve run out. We’ve just hit the wall with what it is we want to say.” I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a certain amount of energy that goes into playing live, and we’re really pouring everything into that.
Speaking strictly for myself, I started into the world of photography. Before that, I was into the world of writing, writing poetry, and writing some pieces for three-and-a-half years for this Japanese magazine, a monthly column of 1,800 words, and later, the last three to six months, it was 800 words, which is a lot harder to write. It’s harder to write fewer words. Poetry is the ultimate where every word has its weighta deep pool, or (laughs) a shallow grave to jump into.
I really think that what we’ve been doing is figuring out what we want to do next. I think we’re looking at maybe a blues album, but blues in the way that Little Feat would do it. Let’s take from country blues, let’s take from jazz, let’s take a few different genres, or even a couple of groups, for that matter, and write something that is us. If we want to do a couple of classic songs, that’s fine, too. Paul, Richie and I worked with Willie Dixon at Madison Square Garden for a tribute some years back for John Lee Hooker. John Lee Hooker, in fact, walked into the building with two gorgeous babes on either arm. Later, I worked on what I believe to be his last album.
We’ve had a storybook career, Randy. It’s just (laughs) somewhere between a Monty Python skit to something elseI don’t know what you’d equate to this band. All bands are the same, in the end. You’re handcuffed to the people that are in your group. If you like each other, it’s great. If you don’t, it gets close enough to get into a pretty good knife fight with one another. It’s a very, very unique situation to be in, and for a band like Little Feat with about an eight-year hiatus, we didn’t go off and start working in a car dealership. We continued to play music; basically, that’s what we do. That’s what is unique about this band. Somebody asked: “What’s your ten-year plan?” (laughter) Paul and I looked at each other, and looked at the guy, and said, “What ten-year plan?” I don’t think we have one anymore. We used to, but we never thought in those terms. You could realistically when you’re in your 30s, 40s, maybe 50s, early 50s, but now, you look at yourselfI’ll be 60 next March, and I get out and cross country ski every year in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I have a young attitude, but there are guys in this band that are a little older than I am, and I don’t know. I don’t know about myself sometimes.
We’re blessed to do what we do, and the time to do it is now. Whatever we’re going to do, let’s put this thing on the map, and do it quick. I think I’ve got a pretty good book in me, sometime, if I can find the time and energy to actually write it. It’s not strictly about Little Feat because I don’t know if that story can be really told. Maybe somebody will do it in the long run, but certainly from a memoir point of view, not only Little Feat, but there are a number of people that I’ve worked with. The way that musicians and artists forge their ideas, which is through relationships, which is throughif you’re somebody like me, you put them through the political process, both as political to the genre of the actual career you’ve chosen, but also with real politics.
I played a fundraiser for Robert Kennedy back in May 1968 in Ventura, California, and a month later, he was gone. We lived through his death, through John F. Kennedy’s death1968 with Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the riots, just on and on and on, Nixon; it’s our place in history, and not only in the way we view things now. There’s a line on our Let It Roll album from the song, “Hang on to the Good Times”: We couldn’t escape from where we came. There’s a lot of that. I have a son who is 26, and he’s going through his trials and tribulations of things just like you are, and when you get to be 50, 60, or however old we get, you sit there and it’s not that you can’t change, or morph into these different things.
One of my favorite guys is Igor Stravinsky. He went through a Swiss period, a New York period, a Los Angeles period, a Paris period. He’s a Russian, and he had these nine lives like Winston Churchill. You could do that, but still, what you’re doing, in my opinion, is that you’re simply adding to your vocabulary. The thing that comes out of you is based on your fantasy, your real life experiences, and everything that make up who you are. What have you read? What have you eaten? How many times did you make love in the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle? All these things give you your perspective on life. As
an artist, you endeavor to share with people.
When Lowell and I got together in 1969, these are the kinds of things we actually talked about even then. I was 20 years old, and he was 23, 24. There’s a higher purpose to all of this stuff, and I don’t want to take it too far off into the deep end because it’s also just music and it’s fun, but it’s why musicians and artists have such a difficult time telling people who they actually are. Brahms used to call it the “Footsteps of Giants” before he actually got into really, really writing and composing. He kept hearing Beethoven, Haydn, Bach, or Mozart. The voices I heard were Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, the Olympics with Big Boy Pete, the Beatlesthese were the giants. Buffalo Springfield. Jimmy Page when he was playing in the Yardbirds, and he took the place of Jeff Beck, and started playing guitar. You grow up with all that stuff, and all the blues stuff with Howling Wolf, etc.there’s this litany of a long list of people and you think, “Frank Zappa? What gives me the right to say anything? What can I add to this conversation?”
So, to be at this juncture of our career, and not only have an album like this coming out, but to have the opportunity to include people like Mike Gordon and Inara [George] and Jimmy [Buffett]
RR: I’d like to add Vince Gill who is tremendous on two tracks on Join the Band.
BP: Vince Gill, yes, and Craig Fuller. It’s a real honor to have these guys come in. The music? That was the fun part. The legalistic shit? It’s always difficult, like pulling teeth. It’s a problem that Barack Obama, if he should make it to the presidency, will have. He’ll have the same goddamn problems we hadjust a bunch of players trying to put music together. It’s the fucking lawyers. John Frankenheimer is one of the best lawyers on the planet. He’s our guy, and I love him, but he’s in a position that isn’t an enviable position, and he knows it. I kind of nailed him on this. He was actually the road manager for Rita Coolidge with Mike Utley, so you see where his heart is felt, and why he’s such a great guy being a lawyer with music. He’s been in that little cut. We’ve had a great team. I think Little Feat has an amazing story to tell, Randy, and I appreciate the fact that you’re part of that conduit with your questions and with a platform to actually tell it.
RR: Absolutely. It’s an honor. Little Feat turns 40 next year, and it sounds like you’ve looked back and finally said, “We’ve really done something that stands the test of time.”
BP: I think we have. I was down on the street corner in Hollywood with Fred Tackett in the 70s, and we outside and we were talking about what we were going to do when we’re 38 years old. What are we going to be doing? I said, “Oh, man, we’ll probably be backing up Ann-Margaret in Las Vegas. If we’re lucky.” (laughter)
RR: That doesn’t sound like a bad gig.
BP: No. Yeah, that would be cool. As long as we get to play music, who cares? The idea is, at that time, the age of 38 sounded like “shootwe’ll be way over the hill by then.” Who knew that the Rolling Stones would still be around? That you could listen to Bob Dylan’s son? It isn’t about age. It’s about what vitality that you bring to the table when you put your music out there. That’s what turns heads. That’s what makes the thing click. I like the idea of people that have actual dust on their shoes. They’ve lived a lot. They’ve walked in itdoesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 65 or 75, these experiences can really be felt in a very compact manner, sometimes.
When you’re 15, maybe you’ve got a sense of why you cry, why you laugh, and why you’re chasing girls or guys or whatever your predilection is, or what’s going on in the world with regards to warsall sorts of shit. You sit there and you’re in the process of being inquisitive is really what it’s all about. By doing that, you open yourself up to a lifetime of involvement, ultimately, whether you’re a musician or not.
I’ve got to tell you, Randy, this grass roots organization that we have is probably not all that different from the Grateful Dead, or the guys who actually started this whole thing. It’s different in this mannerwe really know a lot of the people who are involved. Not all of them, obviously, but I have some really good friends that I’ve met as a result of being fans of ours. What I’ve found out, as a guy who from time to time is a journalist, they’ve got a wonderful story to tell. It’s equally as cool as the stuff I’ve been through. It’s just on a different level. Jay Herbst is one of the guys who was the very first to be the head of our grass roots organization. He was one of the youngest guys in the United States that was doing AIDS research at one point.
You sit and you talk with people, and it’s simply given me a broader platform as I sit down to write. I want to please myself firstthat’s really first and foremost, as a writer, is to do that. I always liked what David McCullough said about his writing of history. He wrote about a lot of things, but on his writing about John Adams, he was talking about the idea that when you sit there and write something, he writes for himself: “What would I want to read that would be interesting to me that’s factual, that carries it through with a line of involvement and entertainment to it that’s not frivolous, but that is cool?” I thought, “Man, that’s a good way to look at it.” I appreciate people that have wonderful ideas. We may not be able to talk with them, but we can certainly have that more silent conversation. I listen to Bob Dylan, whether I understand where he’s coming from or not, at least I will be able to hear him, and filter him through my own set of circuitry. Or read Fareed Taqueri on the way the world is heading, and where the United States might want to position itself in terms of remembering where the British Empire was.
This all boils down to, and the reason I put it into this conversation with Jambands, the idea of culture. You can’t be a musician, you cannot be an artist, or a sensitive person in this world, and not be cognizant of what other people’s cultures are, and why that makes them who they are, and why it enriches us as a group of folks on this planet. How are lives will be enriched if we don’t homogenize things, but simply, as I keep saying, broaden our vocabulary to include other people’s ideas of what something is. If you carry back to you, it’s no different than going and saying, “Man, I love that Willie Dixon song that Howlin’ Wolf did, “How Many More Years.” I said, “Let’s record it, Lowell,” and Lowell said to me, “Whatever,” and we get Ry Cooder in there to play with us. It’s the same thing, and you can do it with ideas. It’s a good thing. Thankfully, there are a lot of people that do think in those terms. I’m just trying more and more to encourage it out of people, to keep an open mind. There’s a lot out there, and you learn a lot from it.
PART V Calling the Children Home
But for now, let us say that a ballad always tells you a story about something that happens to somebody somewhere. – Born to Win, Woody Guthrie
RR: You mentioned a theme in the Join the Band liner notes, and I want to give our readers a little more information about “Calling the Children Home.”
BP: There’s a phrase from New Orleans. Fred Tackett read it in a biography about Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. He was describing in this book this call that would go within New Orleans. It was essentially calling the children home, but what they were doing was calling everybody to meet at a gathering placewherever that might be. This applied to musicians as well as to an audience. “Let’s put on a hoedown. Let’s put on a jam.”
There was a cover that I had come up with that was going to be the original cover to this thing, but we wound upbecause of the label, which is finegoing a different way with the cover. They put the picture inside the booklet. Actually, Fred’s wife, Patricia, was at this little gig down in Arkansas, and she’s leaning back, she’s got a trumpet, and that to me was the idea of “Calling the Children Home/_Join the Band_.” They both mean the same thing. I thought it was a really apt photo for whatever use they wanted to have it for.
RR: Did you do some design on your photo? It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
BP: Well, thanks. There’s a guy named Jack Spencer who taught me a technique about including copper. You take a picture of a piece of copper metal, then you put it over the top of your photo, and then you blend the two together. It’s a cool way to do it. If you get a chance, if you like photography, check out www.jackspencer.com. He’s a good friend of Sonny Landreth’s. He’s a wonderful, evocative artist. He used to be a bass player with Sonny in the old days, and he still plays music down in New Orleans, and his stuff is real, real expensive. (laughs) I’ve got to say that photography is really indicative of what this album is about, where you have shared values, and where you have tricks of the trade that you’ve learned from other people and that you’ve included in your own work.
If you read Dennis McNally’s wonderful book on the Grateful Dead, A Long Strange Trip, and certainly Blair Jackson’s book, Garcia, where you see how the Grateful DeadJerry Garcia, in particularwere influenced by jug bands, folk music, and all kinds of things, you see that’s how they began to find out what their voice was. I’m thrilled to be able to do that now as a photographer, taking from everybody from Ansel Adams to Jack Spencer to Paul Weston, on up and down. Plus, just the sense as a musician growing up and living in some places with pretty spectacular views, allowing the lens to go out and look for these things, so I’ve got a visual way to approach the way I see the world, and also from a musical standpoint, a way to evoke certain emotions that I get from what I hearwhether it be a joyous way of doing it, or maybe it turns you slightly more inward.
Art is a great thing to have. I’ve been really blessed with good teachers over quite a number of years, and then good mentors like Lowell George, Frank Zappa, and the Rolling Stones. It’s just great to be able to finally give something back.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com. He would like to thank Dean Budnick and Dennis McNally for making this feature possible.