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Bill Payne: A Non-Traditionalist Finds His Zone

JPG: And Led Zeppelin dared to rip off a song of his?

BP: Well, ignorance can be bliss. I don’t know if it was ignorance or not. I gotta say that Richie Hayward worked with Robert Plant. In the latter stages of Little Feat before Lowell passed away, Led Zeppelin offered us about 50 grand to play a gig with them over at England, which was…it still is a lot of money. I saw Jimmy Page in New Orleans one time. He was at dinner or late lunch, whatever it was, I walked up to him and said, “Please excuse me for interrupting your evening but I just wanted to briefly thank you. I’m Bill Payne from Little Feat. You guys made a very very generous offer years ago and I never got a chance to personally thank you for it.” That kind of thing. The Yardbirds, I saw the Yardbirds in Pismo Beach, California, I was a teenager. Our friends, we all go to see Jeff Beck play. Jeff Beck’s not playing. “Oh fuck. Who’s up there?” Guy starts playing guitar. It’s Jimmy Page, “Oh! He’s good!” It was just a great night.

With little Feat part of what we’ve done and what makes it work is, okay, Gabe Ford is not Richie Hayward and Richie Hayward is not Gabe Ford. You’re not erasing Richie Hayward or even trying to. You’re just saying, “Here’s what this music sounds like under another guy who has ultimate respect for Richie Hayward and yet doesn’t sound like him.” He does certain things that give a nod to Richie but Richie Hayward was a very unique guy, which is why I said 10,000 words and could have said another 10,000 writing about him. I wanted to give people that younger as well as folks my age a portrait of what this man was. It was an honest appraisal, which is to say that he was like most people, very complicated. You’ve got to give the guy his due. His insecurities were what…you go, “God…and he could still play like that and be that insecure.”

I wanted my son who is 30 years old, when he was in his late 20s met a guy Matt Moss from Steel Toed Slippers who as a little kid, Richie mentored him. They both asked the same question, “Why did this have to happen to Richie?” So, I made it clear why it happened for Richie. He burned the candle at both ends. He led a lifestyle that took him down and yet that was his choice, and he was still one of the most brilliant drummers I ever worked with. He had his ups and downs, wasn’t always the greatest onstage but even when he wasn’t most people didn’t know, but some did. But you’d watch him. It was like watching a guy on a roller coaster. “Man, is he gonna stay on the tracks or not?” It was an amazing thing that he did when he was on… I worked with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Porcaro and some of the best guys in the world and Richie Hayward is right in there with them. But Gabe Ford is a motherfucker and I would say that to anybody anytime.

JPG: I wanted to bring this up after you mentioned Waiting for Columbus. It’s been viewed for years as one of the best live albums ever made and was recently on the “Rolling Stone” Best Live Album list. It’s interesting that it’s so revered yet it’s a different kind of live album where it comes from various dates and has overdubs versus what purists now would want all tracks from a specific date, warts-and-all, that showed a particular representation of the band. I’m curious your view of the album now and how it’s held up all these years.

BP: Well, I think that it’s held up amazingly well and it does for a reason because…it never was a purist record by the way. There were overdubs on that album. I edited the piano solo on “Dixie Chicken” and made no bones about it. “I like what I did the other night better than that. Let’s put that in.” Some guitars were overdubbed, some vocals, maybe a bass fix or two, that kind of thing.

I am not a purist, period. I don’t knock people that are but I’m just not one of ‘em. I didn’t have a lot of control over that record. We just did what we did, and I made a few suggestions of what I’d like to fix. The only thing that was fixed in the keyboards was making that edit in “Dixie Chicken” solo that I had input on.

I don’t know what people are doing today because I don’t know how people make live records anymore. We just did something where we had a live record and I said, “I want to fix a couple things. I want to redo my vocals with “Gringo.”” And one of the guys that was involved it, he wasn’t talking about the idea of keeping it pure because if he had I would have said, “Take the fucking thing off the record. I don’t want that representation out there.” I’ve got enough warts out there as it is that people can listen to the YouTube performance or anything else and critique the shit out of it or not or dig it or be influenced by it. It doesn’t matter to me. Those are home movies. This is a record and I want to apply the same standards that I did on what is an iconic record to this one. It’s not gonna be Waiting for Columbus. There’s only one of those.

And I think that’s why it stands out, too. It wasn’t the first by any stretch of a live record. James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, give me a break. It was a very moving record. The hair on my arms was standing up when we went from “Hey Lordy…” on [opening number] “Join the Band” into “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” It was just like, “Oh…my…God.” When I heard it in the studio for the first time it threw me.

I was doing a radio interview in Bozeman, Montana about a week-and-a-half ago before coming out here. The deejay, he’s a sushi chef, down at this place, Dave’s Sushi, which I really love. My wife’s and my favorite place in Bozeman. It’s KGLT, a community radio station. He says, “Oh, that “Mercenary Territory” that thing Lenny Pickett played on. Lowell does this climb up on the slide that seems to go beyond the frets. That kind of thing.” And I said, “Yeah, and then Lenny just peals the rest of your head that’s left that Lowell missed by doing the same thing.” It just an amazing deal. I said, “But that track was cut at a soundcheck.” We took liberties with things and that’s just the way it goes. The influence that record has had on people, I think it’s rightfully so. The drums weren’t messed with, the keyboards, other than that one thing weren’t messed with. Most everything was pretty much as it was but there were a few fixes.

I agreed wholeheartedly with Lowell on this is what I’m trying to say.

If I was working with somebody else though and they said, “Hey, we’ve got to leave it alone,” and it was their project then I’d go, “Yeah, why not?”

I have a way to put this in a box with regards to what errant licks can lead to. I was in a session with the Doobie Brothers. It was their second album. Second time I was called in to play the whole record in one day. So, I did. At one point I played this really goofy lick. I stopped the tape. I said, “Hey. I want to redo that section. I was just kinda messin’ around.” And they go, “No, no, no. we loved that.” I said, “No. You don’t….I was…I meant to put it in ‘cause my mind was drifting but I didn’t really want to that in there. Can I please do it again?” “No. We dig it.” So, I walk into the control room. Tommy Johnston’s in there, the guy who wrote the song. Ted Templeman, the producer. Donn Landee, the engineer. I said, “Look, when I was a kid I used play the piano in fourth and fifth grade. Go over to the keyboard and play this little Chinese song. I’d play it. Go back. Standing ovation. Get out on the playground. Get beat up like everybody else. Life moves on. So, that’s what I was doing. So, if you wouldn’t mind I would like to replace that part.” And they said, “No, we’re keeping it.” And I go, “Alright. Fuck it.”

Twenty-two years later, 24 year later, whatever the hell it was, I get a call from Tommy Johnston. “Hey Billy. Remember that lick you didn’t like in that song.” I go, “Yes. What about it?” He goes, “As a result of that lick and that story you told I went home that night and called that song “China Grove.” (laughs) I go, “Where’s my publishing Tommy?” (laughs)

At any rate so, sometimes, be a purist, leave it alone and let the chips fall where they may.

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