Bill Payne: A Non-Traditionalist Finds His Zone
Just as Little Feat has adjusted to the loss, two years ago, of original drummer Richie Hayward with a busy tour schedule and the 2012 release of Rooster Rag, its first new album with original material in nearly a decade, more bad news was revealed just after Christmas. Paul Barrere revealed on the band’s website, that he will be taking a leave of absence due to treatment necessary to combat Hepatitis C.
He plans on completing the group’s current tour, which runs through March and includes several weeks in the U.S., a handful of dates with Leon Russell, European shows and the group’s 11th annual Extravaganza in Jamaica.
I heard the news during my phone interview with founding member Bill Payne, who sounded like a mixed bag of shocked, frustrated and resigned to carry on despite the band going on what could be a year long hiatus as Barrere works to fully regain his health. Last year, Payne played his first solo concerts as well as pursued his non-music interests, which resulted in his photos being exhibited in galleries and his writing published in national magazines. During our conversation he had no firm plans for other than a desire to keep busy and “get some things rolling.”
Due in part to his activities outside of the band he ignored writing songs for nearly eight years. An introduction to former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter blossomed with the two collaborating on four numbers that appear on Rooster Rag and nine additional tunes. Besides, rejuvenating Payne’s composing skills, the album’s dozen tracks are comprised of originals by Barerre and longtime guitarist/vocalist Fred Tackett. They are bookended by two blues covers by Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candyman Blues” and Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy.”
As always, the band switches gears from rock to blues, jazz, country, soul and New Orleans funk; often combining multiple styles into one song. That’s what caught the attention of fans, which now span several generations, and that’s what satisfies Payne who describes his pursuits as a songwriter and musician as being “not a traditionalist in any way shape or form.”
JPG: You were on the road for much of the year supporting Rooster Rag, you first album of new material in nine years. It’s not like you haven’t been busy but why the songwriting gap?
BP: Well, there’s a couple reasons. One, we were making a record with Jimmy Buffett. Buffett was involved, and it wasn’t his involvement that slowed it down. The guests that we were putting on this one record ( Join the Band ) turned out to be a really…you’ve got to go through the guests, through the managers, through the labels. So, that took about five years out of the eight year hiatus.
Then, the other, at least two years, Richie Hayward was on the way out. Gabe Ford was learning the ropes with us, he was Richie’s drum tech, Robben Ford’s nephew, he joined us on drums. We were gonna do a blues record at one point. I thought of that in the middle or maybe even before we started that Little Feat and Friends record. I have a tough time with (slight laugh) what we call these records sometimes. Rooster Rag is easy. I’ve been seeing roosters everywhere I go. At any rate, we also had a lot of live albums. There were a lot of things that were going on.
What got me back into action was Robert Hunter. Cameron Sears (Little Feat and RatDog manager, former CEO of Grateful Dead Productions and Dead tour manager) introduced Paul Barrere and I to Hunter. Paul wanted to change some lyrics, I believe. That didn’t go down too well. (slight laugh) I guess I got a different set of lyrics and I wrote something to it and I got the a-ok and began a process that has continued up until last week. I just turned it my 13th song with Robert. I’ve got one I’m gonna work on when I get home. So, we’re continuing the process. It’s not like I can’t suggest changes. I certainly can and do, as does he. We work things out. Mainly, if I’m going to change anything lyric-wise I’m gonna say, “Look, I think we really out to lose this section. We have a lot of lyrics here. I don’t know that we need that many.” He’ll usually go, “Yeah.”
JPG: Maybe you say it in a way that works better than Paul.
BP: I don’t know. (laughs) He’s a very interesting guy. Obviously, a great lyricist. I told him, “The music is in the lyrics already.” And he said, “Yeah, but it takes a composer to get ‘em out.” So, we pat each other on the back a little bit.
JPG: I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians over the years, some of whom have worked with Robert Hunter. I always say that all bands should use him as a lyricist…
BP: (laughs) I agree. He does it with enough people. That’s for sure.
JPG: Yeah, over the past decade he’s been busy. Besides you, he’s worked with Jim Lauderdale and 7 Walkers…
BP: I’m gonna listen to some Lauderdale stuff. I’m always curious but, apparently, not curious enough. (slight laugh) to find out what other people do with his stuff. I can almost guarantee you I’ve got many many more chords than most of these guys are gonna throw into one of his songs just by virtue of the way I write. I don’t know that for a fact so I should check it out sometime. He really gives you a great opportunity, at least in my case, to score his lyrics. Part of it, too, is knowing the territory.
At any rate with Rooster Rag it gave me an opportunity to put four songs on the record. Lose the blues idea although we still have “Candyman Blues” and “Mellow Down Easy” as remnants of that project.
JPG: That brings up a couple things. They both go under theme of one’s comfort zone. As far as recording a blues record, I read that you came up with the idea for it while walking around Cleveland. What was it about Cleveland that made you think about the blues?
BP: It was the walk more than Cleveland itself. I was thinking of Sam Clayton in particular. Paul Barrere had a solo record out. I had one out. He had one out with Fred [Tackett]. Shaun Murphy was working on something. And I thought Clayton is the real deal, why don’t we have something for him? By the time I got back to the hotel, “Well, this could be a little Feat project. How about Little Feat: A World of Blues ?’” Open the floodgates to influences and write songs. Maybe the influences cover the [Mississippi] Delta, Chicago blues, Kansas City or any number of things that you can borrow from.
I also thought [jazz icon] Charles Mingus would be a good influence as well. It would have been a Little Feat record but centered around the conversation of blues.”
JPG: That’s interesting. Mingus, because when you think blues you’re more likely to think of Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters…not Charles Mingus.
BP: No, one doesn’t but I happen to have a playful part of me. There’s a song that I’m hoping that we can get on one of these records someday – “Trane’s Blues” as in John Coltrane. It’s not a blues song but it has elements of it and then you stretch out on it.
I’m not a traditionalist in any way shape or form. It says a lot about my sensibilities when it comes to songwriting and where I borrow from. So, if I’ve got a song like “Representing the Mambo,” and people go, “But, where’s the mambo in it?” “It’s in the lyrics. It’s not a representation of a beat. It’s a story.” I’m taking artistic license to get people to come out of their box a little bit and allow me to enjoy what I do, which is not being confined by other people’s rules.