The Acoustic Storm Interviews
Led by songwriter-guitarist Lowell George, Little Feat brought together strains of blues, R&B, country and rock. The group was derailed after George\’s death in 1979, but re-formed in the late \’80s, and has been going strong ever since. For all the latest information about Little Feat, check out their official website: littlefeat.net .
We spoke with Bill Payne, Little Feat\’s original keyboardist, a few days before the band performed at The Acoustic Storm\’s 5th anniversary concert October 2, 2003.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Little Feat have been together now for more than 30 years. The line-up has evolved over the years, but the band stuck together. How have Little Feat managed to go through so many incarnations, yet still come out as strong as ever?
BILL PAYNE: It kind of boils down to the music itself. We’ve all done sessions and toured with others groups; I’ve been out with James Taylor and Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt and made many more records, which is always a good thing. But Little Feat has this component to it musically, that is so eclectic. We’re not worried about trying to be commercial, so we can write anything we want. It’s really more of an opportunity to discover yourself, and the semantics of trying to keep a band together beyond that are a bit more complicated. But essentially you’re walking a very fine line between giving people a voice, and yet it’s not a free-for-all, you can’t have seven leaders. It’s like the world; we’re representative of many things and when you get more than two people together, things get complicated. In fact, it can get complicated with only two people, as anyone who’s married can tell you. You gotta work at it.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Who came up with the name Little Feat?
PAYNE: Lowell George, who was one of the original members, kind of got this thing kicked off in 1969 after being asked to leave the Mothers Of Invention with Frank Zappa. There was a fellow in the Mothers at the time named Jimmy Carl Black, who was one of the drummers, and Lowell had these feet, like Hobbit feet, kind of wide as they were long. Well, Jimmy looked at him and I guess Lowell was wearing some sandals and he said \”God Lowell, you got some little bleeping feet there.\” Lowell took that phrase, leaving out the bleep, and wanted to call the band Little Feat. But there was a band at the time called Bigfoot, so he kept trying all sorts of other names and I finally said, \”Lowell, don’t worry about Bigfoot, they’re not going to make it, we are.\” So we kept the name.
ACOUSTIC STORM: So the spelling was just a play on words?
PAYNE: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how that all came about, but it definitely was.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Let’s talk about the band’s following, the almost cult-like following of Little Feat. The band has cultivated an audience that has a bit of that Grateful Dead kind of loyalty going for it.
PAYNE: About six years ago we started a grass-roots sort of organization. I specifically went to people on the Internet saying ‘we need your help.\’ I suggested that they could help promulgate the fact that we would be in town, or let people know when we have a new record out, or just to get involved. It really grew much deeper than that; a lot of friendships have come out of it. Some people have other professions; they’re doctors, lawyers or whatever; they’ve started bands and they’ve delved into the deep end of the pool with music, and it’s been a very interesting thing. We’ve got a little gathering we’re going to do in Jamaica next January. We did this last year and had a great crew down there, and we’ve sold even more tickets this year. We’ve got an excellent group of folks; they love the band because of its eclecticism, which is the way the Grateful Dead were, and are, they’re back together again. Paul Barrere and I played a few years ago, for a little while, with Phil & Friends, Phil Lesh’s groups that he was putting together. We’ve worked with a lot of outside musicians: Sonny Landreth, Sam Bush; it’s a long list of people that have recently been joining us on stage. In April of this year, I produced a group up in Colorado called Leftover Salmon, who in terms of acoustic cult music, with some electric as well, do a style of bluegrass that’s just phenomenal.
ACOUSTIC STORM: A couple of times you’ve mentioned the word eclecticism, how do you view that in terms of what Little Feat’s doing?
PAYNE: Little Feat’s music, I used to say, was like taking any form of American roots music — jazz or rock-n-roll, R&B, country, etc. — and all the branches thereof, and you’ll find elements of all that in our music. Now we’re branching off into this Hispanic thing with elements of Cuban music in one tune, as well as featuring an artist I’ve been listening to from the Buena Vista Social Club. We’re just taking musical elements from all over the world and putting them into our music. I think we’ve got not only a musically well-rounded group, but we also take a few twists and curves lyrically, as well. So it’s a good thing to be involved in.
ACOUSTIC STORM: On the new album, you enlisted some musicians from Mexico.
PAYNE: Yeah, there’s a fellow named Nacho Hernandez from the group called Los Amables Del Norte. We were honored to have Nacho play accordion with us on a song called \”Corazones y Sombras,\” which means \”Hearts and Shadows.\” Some of it’s in Spanish and some in English. There’s a guy named Gabriel Gonzalez from the group called Quetzal out of Los Angeles; I think their mentors are Los Lobos. He sang the Hispanic parts with us along with Shaun Murphy, who was a quick study. Then there are a couple of other guys that played the Vera Cruz harp, also some horns that we brought in; there was one guy, who played them in what was called ‘Banda’ music, so we had 3-4 sections in the song to replicate a bunch of different things. But it was a real coup to get Nacho in there in particular.
ACOUSTIC STORM: I understand the new album, \”Kickin’ it at the Barn\” was actually recorded in a barn?
PAYNE: It was recorded in Fred Tackett’s barn. Fred’s got some property in California, where he’s been living for a long time, and he has this barn and I suggested we record there. So he kind of \”jimmied\” the place so we can do some recording there, and we called our engineer Gilmore Ellis to help us out; it was quite an interesting experience. A policeman came by on about the third day saying there were some complaints from the neighbors and he asked, \”what’s going on, who are you guys?\” I was listening at the door and said, \”we’re Little Feat,\” and he goes \”the Little Feat, what the hell are you doing here\”? I guess he figured we should be in a recording studio someplace and we explained we were indeed in a studio, that we could record anyplace. So he waved us off, turning out to be a fan as it was.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What would have happened if it had been a band the authorities had never heard of?
PAYNE: They would have shut ‘em down…that’s life too (laughs). Actually, it wasn’t quite that simple. There was one neighbor in particular, and she just wanted to know that there wasn’t a bunch of maniacs playing night and day, driving her crazy. We had one song called \”Stomp\”, it’s an instrumental, and we were banging the kick drum with boom, boom, boom, and this was going on for about an hour or two, and it was really resonating up from under the floor boards and carrying throughout the valley. We explained to her that not every song would be like that. She was fine after that.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Let’s re-visit a couple of older Little Feat tunes, for instance, \”Let It Roll.\”
PAYNE: We had about a five week rehearsal period before going in to cut that record and Richie Hayward told me at one juncture \”I don’t like that song,\” and I’m like, \”what do you mean you don’t like it?\” So I took it out of rotation for about two weeks and I kept thinking, why doesn’t this guy like this tune? I can’t believe this; it really rocks, it’s cool. Finally I went up to him and asked if he could hear the parts I’m playing and he said no. So we ended up putting the piano and B3 and synthesizers in his monitors where he could hear me and told him we’re going to play this tune whether you like it or not. And obviously he loves it now, but it zapped me a couple times that \”Let It Roll\” was almost a victim.
ACOUSTIC STORM: That song eventually took on a life of its own, being played at Lakers’ games and other sporting events.
PAYNE: In fact, when I was in Europe I heard a bastardized version of it, at a hockey game. It was also used in quite a few trailers for movies and I think the first one, oddly enough, was the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny DeVito movie called \”Twins.\” So it was one of those kinds of songs you can’t get away from.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Another tune was written by Lowell George, but you guys still play it, \”Willin’.\”
PAYNE: \”Willin’\” is a classic Little Feat song which was on our first album in 1971, that pretty much had Lowell’s take on it. And we re-did it on \”Sailin’ Shoes,\” which was our second album, a lot more the way Little Feat plays it now and how we embrace the song. Again, other folks have recorded that tune; I know Linda Ronstadt did a version of it. But at the shows we play, that’s one that people love to sing along with. It evokes a lot of memories of a lot of things, Lowell and just the idea of travelling, you know, good times. It’s an absolutely wonderful tune.
ACOUSTIC STORM: As a keyboardist, what were your musical inspirations and influences?
PAYNE: We’re inundated and overrun with imagery, sonic and otherwise, and over a period of 54 years, which is how old I am, things tend to come out in different ways. As a musician, I appreciate, but also have taken influences from people as diverse as Igor Stravinsky on the classical side, and strictly talking about piano, to Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner on the jazz side. I also like Scott Joplin’s kind of music or, let’s see, Cripple Clarence Lofton. It extends right through Little Richard to Ray Charles, and on and on. There’s a wealth of stuff out there to take a hold of, and fortunately, because of my classical background, also learning to play by ear at the same time, I was able to assimilate quite a bit of that into my style. So then it was my voice with all these other influences.
ACOUSTIC STORM: A couple years ago, Little Feat recorded a live acoustic album called \”Ram’s Head..\” I know acoustic is near and dear to your hearts. Can you talk a little about that and what draws you to the acoustic texture of music?
PAYNE: I think it’s a very intimate form. When you play electric music, that’s a very powerful medium, but when you play acoustic music, it kind of tugs at you from the front and pulls you forward, sometimes literally. I mean it’s one of those things where you lean in a little bit to hear it. I worked with James Taylor for about five years and I noticed it working with him and how that worked live, in particular. Also, you don’t have to pound quite as hard, but that doesn’t mean the music is any less powerful, it’s just coming from a slightly different place. But overall, for our band, it also opens up a lot of other music we can play, within the rock-n-roll context that we might otherwise exclude. So this allows us to play anything, as I was describing with the word eclectic, and it opens up a lot more material for us.
-Transcribed by Dave Cooper