Robert Hunter and a Rooster for Little Feat
Change versus continuity. The band has changed over the years, sometimes by choice, other times by circumstance. How has that been beneficial or challenging to the group?
It’s always challenging. The challenge is to deal with another person or a group of people. Most bands split up because they can’t stand each other. It’s a marriage. How you keep it together is trying to keep people thinking it terms of not losing your identity, but being comfortable enough to share it with others. If you don’t feel like contributing all that much at certain times, that you don’t feel like you are not pulling your weight. It’s an elastic proposition. The super challenge is when you lose somebody, in our case, like Lowell George. I actually left the band before he passed away. We were in the middle of a project, and I was going to finish it, but I just got tired of all the Lowell stuff. He’s here. He’s gone. He’s okay. He screwed up. What the hell is going on? Well, I knew what was going on. It was endemic of the times. Too many drugs, etc. It wasn’t very comfortable.
What brought you back to it eight years later?
It was done for a very honest reason. I might of realized it with Paul first, that we’ve got something really special here. We can’t do this with anybody else, so let’s consider putting this back together. Let’s do it in a manner that’s cautious with regard to whether we do it or not, but throw caution to the wind in terms with what we are going to write. We are in competition with each other. We are in competition with our past. Not everyone who hears it is going to climb on board, but we have to start with ourselves. Do we think it is an honest bridge we are creating to where we want to go? If it’s not, then we are shutting this thing down.
How difficult is competing with that past?
People say, ‘You said in People magazine that without Lowell George it’s not Little Feat.’ Yeah, I said that, and here is the way I feel now. Is that okay with you? I’ve said a lot of things in my lifetime, and hopefully not just me, but each one of us has the ability to evolve to a point of discussion. You don’t have to feel the way you felt when you were six-years-old for God’s sake, or 26, or wherever you are. Life is about re-evaluation as much as anything. I took the task very seriously, but I like to have serious fun when I play music.
More recently in 2010, you lost your original drummer Richie Hayward after a battle with lung disease. Can you talk about what that loss meant?
Because we were in the process of losing Richie- he wasn’t gone yet, but he was being taken from us by his illness- he and I discussed it. I said we’d like to keep this thing going and he was absolutely fine with it. I think he was relieved. We said if you feel you can come back, the door is wide open. Gabe said as much. When people form bands, you sort out what is important to you about the group. Is it the voice of the band? Writing with other people? If you stop writing with someone, does that affect the group? What do you sound like on-stage? More importantly, what do you feel like when you walk off-stage every night? That’s something that Little Feat has. Something we have investigated, and tortured ourselves with for over 42 years, and gotten a great deal of satisfaction out of, as well, or we wouldn’t be doing it.
Have the personnel changes the band has undergone in some ways led to its longevity? Craig [Fuller] seemed to bring a new perspective to the core unit, as did Shaun [Murphy]. Now, without either, the band again has to evolve in ways it may not have had to otherwise?
By virtue of reality, it’s exactly as you describe it. I wouldn’t sing as much if either Craig or Shaun was in the band. I would write things and hand it over to people. Finally, I decided if I’m going to write it, I want to sing it. I have that confidence, which is why I’m going out and doing solo shows. Anytime you make any shift in any type of band, more than likely it will be a pretty radical departure. It has to do with the sound of the band more than anything. I’ve told people that if we played “Happy Birthday,” it’s going to sound like Little Feat. The slide, the keyboards, the rhythm section- nobody played like Richie Hayward. So that was a huge question mark. It has to do with the actual respect for people that you have worked with over the years. You honor them by continuing all of this. I like to think that I honor Lowell every time we play “Dixie Chicken,” or “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” or “Willin,’” or any number of those songs. We want to maintain the spirit of what the band was from the beginning which is as a platform for doing things you couldn’t do anywhere else. That’s what makes a band. The minute I don’t feel any of us are invested in what we are doing, there isn’t going to be a band anymore.
This new album, Rooster Rag, certainly illustrates Little Feat’s versatility, yet maintains its signature style.
I agree with you. If you think about the very first album and the eclecticism we had with “Strawberry Flats,” “Hamburger Midnight,” “Brides of Jesus,” “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie,” on and on, you would have to be in four or five different bands to play that breadth of material. The strength of the band, and what also kept us in a real cult status, was that even though we had a sound, it was a sound that covered many different styles of music. That was the freedom we had, and it was the same freedom I had writing with Robert Hunter. If we hadn’t had that I probably would not have been able to write with the guy. I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing it. I also wouldn’t have been the kind of session player I am, or toured with Jimmy Buffet for three-and-a-half years, or toured with Bob Seger or James Taylor.
Finally, we’ve talked about the loss of Lowell and Richie, and of Levon Helm. With such a long and successful career in music as you’ve had, it’s been bound to be marked with loss. Did the loss of a bandmate or peer affect you differently when you were younger than it does now at this stage of your life?
I think the pain of losing someone is always filled with trauma. Not only do you miss the person, you have regrets about what was said or what wasn’t said. I think I’ve just come to the conclusion that death is a part of living. It’s part of a cycle that we are all a part of and I sincerely hope all of them are in a better place. My personal feeling is, I’m not a religious guy at all, I believe in the spirit of things. I believe the spirit, the energy of things, continues when it leaves your body at the end of the day, the literal end of the day. I don’t have any doubt about that, so it’s more of a comforting thing. I don’t have any evidence, so that and a quarter will get you a phone call. The hurt is always there. I’ve shed a lot of tears over a lot of people and it’s only going to continue, I’m afraid. What I believe lastly is that life is for the living. You have to persevere and honor those you think deserve it. Keep them in your heart.