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Bill Payne: A Non-Traditionalist Finds His Zone

JPG: Going back to the idea of comfort zone, who wouldn’t want to work with Robert Hunter, but you can write on your own, so was it a conscious thought that you wanted to work with someone that would take you out of your comfort zone?

BP: Well, yeah, absolutely. I didn’t have a comfort zone. I hadn’t written anything in seven or eight years. So, there wasn’t a particular zone I was in. I was in a creative zone, I guess, because I was doing my photography. I was writing, not lyrics, but prose. I wrote for a Japanese magazine for three-and-a-half years called PLAYER. When Richie passed away I had a 10,000 word article that was divided between and I wrote about a 2,500 word piece on Gabe Ford, et cetera. I just wrote about a 10,000 word piece on Richard Manuel’s piano, which I used on Rooster Rag. I’m on the cover of Elmore magazine. I don’t know if they used the whole article or not. I haven’t seen it yet but I wrote 4,000 words for…They said, “What I did on my summer vacation?” It’s actually what I did for the year. (slight laugh). So, I write and do all kinds of stuff.

The thing I enjoyed about writing with Robert Hunter, it wasn’t taking me out of a comfort zone. It was actually putting me in one. I scored a few movies before, helped score some things too, one of ‘em was Heartburn, the Nora Ephron movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep that Carly Simon [who scored it] had the dramatic qualities in there. I was able to put some stuff down to make that work and embellish on that, Erik Satie themes, in a song.

But the idea of writing with Hunter is on a song like “Rag Top Down” He said, “Do you know Blood Alley?” I go, “No, I don’t but I know that but you used to live in San Luis Obispo or were from that area and I was down in Santa Maria.” So, I was just down the road. So, the culture of cruising, vatos and cars, I knew a lot about. The band that I joined, the first band I was in was called the Debonairs and all those guys were car guys. I was a surfer and they were car guys. So, I knew the territory. When I handed the song in to him, his comment was, “That’s a damn fine ride.” And I liked that. (slight laugh) At least that’s the one line I remember. He had a couple other things to say that were really nice.

I like the idea of taking lyrics that are very cinematic because that’s my approach to writing music and to melodies. It does take the weight off of me in the sense of writing things but I wrote a song with a guy named Ben Bullington called “The Last Adios.” Ben did the lion’s share of lyrics in it but I came up with a verse that switches here and there. So, I’m still capable of it. I’ve got a song on this record, “The Blues Keep Coming,” with the exception of a couple lines that Gabe Ford threw in the last verse; I had those lines in that song. So, I can write lyrics, all the stuff that’s necessary.

I like to have a place to put things or think that they’re gonna be placed. I don’t wake up in the morning, “Gee, Bonnie Raitt needs a new song…” I reckon I am a songwriter but I’m not a guy that sits down and cranks ‘em out on a daily basis and hawks them. I admire the hell out of people who do that and can do that. It really hones your skills. There’s, obviously, some very, very, very good writers that take that stuff seriously and should. They’re good at it. But, I’ve got a little different freedom than they do. They’re not gonna throw in a section into “Rag Top Down” that I did that states, “I love my car,” and the music absolutely shifts gears. You’re not gonna hear that in one of those songs, necessarily. That’s the freedom I love. It’s allowed me to write songs like “Red Streamliner,” “Gringo,” “Representing the Mambo” and on and on and on and on. But, yeah, I can write a little, too.

I think any kind of writing, any kind of creativity it starts with the major question of what is it you want to say? Then, you figure out how you want to say it. With photography is it gonna be black and white? Sepia tone? Is it full color? Is the color reduced a little bit? Do you blur certain things out or do you bring an image into focus? All the things that give your voice and your vision to it are heavily involved. I love words. Obviously, with poetry a word weighs a hundred pounds as opposed to a 4,000 word article where some might weigh a certain amount but you’re dealing with words of a much lesser weight. It’s more about the idea. So, there’s some sort of intricacies in there. What I enjoy about the creative thing.

I’m in the best place I’ve been probably ever in my life. I’m 63. I just did my first solo shows this year in 2012, (slight laugh) which says a lot. Most of them I’ve done…got up there by myself and had a local band play anyway for three songs or so. A group called Truffle I worked with really good guys, I worked with in Connecticut, the Boat Drunks up in the Midwest. Larry Lister is a dear friend of mine. Bill Adams sat in with me on one gig.

I did the majority of the show myself, talk about my photography. I show it. Read a poem with photography floating by. That and Little Feat and whatever else I’m doing keep me pretty busy.

JPG: Since you mentioned the solo shows, I’ll bring this up now. You’ve adapted quite well to the changes in the music world. You did solo shows that incorporated all aspects of your creative life. I’m looking at your website and from the perspective of a fan it’s easy-to-use and has helpful information on it, band biographies, shows for sale. Then, there’s dealing with social media, the Extravaganza in Jamaica, being on tour, putting out new albums…

BP: Well, the idea of me doing a solo show was…obviously, I waited til I was 63 to do it. (laughs) I did it with great trepidation. It wasn’t until I started singing more that I found confidence in my voice, literally. From there it was a matter of just saying, “Well, let’s begin the process of engagement. How do I start this thing? It’s not Little Feat…”

[Grateful Dead publicist/author] Dennis McNally is a pretty sharp guy and it wasn’t ‘til after I did my first show, which he opened telling stories about the Grateful Dead, that he looked at me and goes, “Now, I get it,” (laughs) because I’d say, “Look, I’m gonna go out there. I’m gonna sing some songs, talk about what I’ve done in my life. I can talk about the blues ‘cause I’ve worked with everybody from John Lee Hooker to Otis Rush to Buddy Guy to Willie Dixon on up and down or I could just talk about some sessions or talk about whatever. Talk about the beginnings of the band, meeting Lowell. Here are some photos that I’ll show while discussing that. Here’s a song nobody’s ever heard ‘cause it was never released. Take people through a little journey not unlike what I do on my solos in “Dixie Chicken” but be able to engage through talking, through showing photography, through poetry, through whatever.

Then, you bring up a guy from a local band and share the idea of when Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones came to hear us en masse at in 1975, I think it was, at Jaap Edenhal right outside of Amsterdam. I was downstairs in the dressing room with Keith and I was like, “Oh man, that’s Keith Richards.” And he’s goes, “Oh, mate. We’re all part of the same cloth.” And, I thought, “Man, this cat, if he’s saying, basically, ‘Welcome to the club,’ then I must be one of the guys.” And when I was reading his biography, he’s talking about being in the dressing room with Muddy Waters and Little Richard, etc., he figures that if he’s in there with those fellas then he must be one of the guys, too. So, h was bestowing that on me. I thought that was pretty cool.

I talk about the community and the fraternity of musicians, which is a whole other thing than being a pop star or anything else that’s under that pop spotlight. It’s about being a player and being able to play music, and being creative whether it’s songwriting or figuring out how you’re gonna get the bass player to play the right thing or vice versa where he gets you to figure out what the hell you’re doing. It’s a tug of war up there most of the time, and the rewards are really significant on the level of what it feels like when it all connects. That connection is not any different for a garage band than it is for the Rolling Stones or Little Feat. It’s the same thing.

JPG: As far as the pop world, it’s something that could have a quick peak and then a very quick fall

BP: That’s why they call it pop, I guess.

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