All That You Dream
Touching Base with Bill Payne of Little Feat
by Michael B. Smith
Bill Payne, an original member of the legendary Little Feat, is a musician in every sense of the word, from his countless studio sessions playing piano for everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Beck. In this exclusive interview, Payne talks about the new Little Feat album, Phil Lesh and Friends, the importance of the internet to the music world, and reflects on the late, great Lowell George.
Let's start with the new album. Tell our readers about the new Little Feat album, Chinese Work Songs.
About three years ago, the label we were with, Zoo Records, did what a lot of labels do these days, and folded. We were put in the position of looking for a new label, and our manager at the time, Tim Burnette, who is with Gold Mountain, had checked out CMC International, and he felt like it was the kind of label we should be with. It has heritage artists, or another way to say it is older artists, and he felt like it was a good place for us. And Tom Lipsky, who is the president of the company seemed like a very bright person. So they came down to one of the shows and said we should be on the label. Tom is one of the people that I felt really had a grasp of some of the things we had been talking about ourselves, such as the power of the internet as a way to expand the paradigms of business. To try and sell records through more non-traditional means, as well as the traditional. The internet, compared to what it is going to be, is still in its covered wagon stages. I've been doing email since 1986, which is quite a long time. The internet is a part of the wave of the future. There are a lot of people out there who are tapping into all of that. We have a grass roots organization, and we are switching over to an all email situation. A lot of bands are doing that, because snail mail is so costly. It's just the power of communication. It's so much quicker. The immediacy of it is what you're after, and people are tapping into it on every level of society. It's fast becoming a computer society. So CMC is a label that is looking at those opportunities, as a lot of them are, but Tom was there from the get-go, and he's starting to make some strides there. Brian Pearl is an example of that. So we kicked out a strategy. One of the first things we did was to work out an internet strategy with online magazines such as yourself. And with internet radio. "The Little Feat Radio Hour" has been picked up by Jimmy Buffett's Radio Margeritaville on the web, on Saturdays and Sundays. It's on at 3 a.m. (est) and 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 p.m. on Sundays.
You guys cover several songs on the record, including a song by Phish. That's pretty cool, in that they have been known to cover Little Feat tunes.
The way the Phish song came to be, which is "Sample in a Jar," we were contacted by the grass roots people from Phish, not the band. They wanted us to do a song for the Phish tribute album that will be out next fall. We know that Phish are fans of our group, and they have played some of our music, so we said, let's take a look at it and see what they have. So we found the song and decided to cut it. After we had recorded it, Paul and I looked at each other and said, 'We can't put this out on a tribute record. This has got to go on our record.' We had just met Mike Gordon up north when we were playing at Phil Lesh's 60th birthday party. And Mike was there onstage. We told him what we were doing, and he's a very, very nice guy- he says, 'that tribute stuff, I don't know if we're worthy of it, but whatever.' And we told him that we would certainly re-investigate the material and find another song to do for the tribute album. So that's where we left that.
Going into this record, Michael, we had talked about the idea of doing some other songs, including the Band tune, "Rag Mama Rag." In fact, we are working on a documentary about our band, and the influences that have gone back and forth over the years. And one of the influences that we have picked up on is from The Band, and specifically Levon Helm. I just thought it was a great tune, and I could just hear Paul singing it. Upon recording it, it just felt so great. In fact, Levon heard it the other day and gave it the thumbs up. I think the common denominator for people that have heard this has been a big smile coming across their face. It's like diving into a warm pool. It's very comfortable.
Shaun Murphy, about a year before, had brought in the Dylan tune, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." So we already had that in the works. Quite honestly, the idea of recording that many covers, because there are four of them on there, we were just looking for good material. We have seven of our own on there too.
A lot of people know, but a lot of people don't know, that we have collectively played with everyone from Eric Clapton to James Cotton Blues Band, to Freddie King, to Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Taj Mahal. And then there were Karla Bonoff, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt.
Don't forget Meatloaf.
(Laughs) Yeah. Meatloaf, and Barbi Benton.We've played on hundreds of records, covering about every genre of music. I've played on some stuff with Beck. But the beauty of working up a Phish song is that it shows how the influences can go both ways. That's really the beauty of being a musician, apart from an industry that is very pop-minded for the most part.
Haven't you played some with Phil Lesh & Friends?
Yes. Paul and I were out with him last October. We're going to be working with him this summer. He and Bob Dylan are doing a tour.
Gosh, I wish that would come around here. Of course, we never get things like that where I live. We do get Britany Spears, if that's any consolation.
(Laughing) Well there you go.
I want to ask you about one of my real heroes, and that's Lowell George. Tell us a little about Lowell.
When I met him, he had just been studying with Ravi Shankar on the sitar. He had just been asked by Frank Zappa to start his own band. He played with with Frank's group on a couple of records, including Uncle Meat, which drove me to Los Angeles to meet Frank, and therefore I was introduced to Lowell George. He played on another one calledWeasels Ripped My Flesh, which featured one of the first Neon Park album covers.
I remember the first time I went into his apartment, and I guess a person's home can tell you a lot about them. I do some writing myself too, Michael. I write for a Japanese magazine called Player. I told them that when I drove out the first time to see Lowell, he was living in a little wooden framed home, nestled between two trees, and the door was wide open. There's this very pretty little blonde sitting on the floor reading, and there's some eclectic music playing. She says come on in, he'll be back in a while. So I'm looking at his books, and he's got poetry books by Carl Sandburg, and Ginsberg. And his record collection included Songs of the South...in fact we later lifted a song from the album to use on Waiting for Columbus,called "Join the Band." It was an old chain-gang tune. He had an amazing array of books and records. But Lowell was the kind of guy who, as the drug culture took over, it distorted the weaker parts of his personality. But there was always this beautiful guy shining through all of that stuff. A very giving person. He was one of the first people that I knew of, on the publishing side of things that said, look, how many people do we have in the band? Four or five? We're going to divide the publishing that many ways. Even though not everybody was writing, they were all contributing to the sound of the band. So he was always aware of that kind of thing. People were telling him at the time, 'You can't do that.' And he would tell them, well, 'I am doing it.' Like people telling him he couldn't do home recordings and put them out on album, they had to go into the studio. Well, now everybody's doing home recordings. So, he led the wave in that. He was a real interesting fellow in terms of drawing lines of connections between things. Which I loved about him, because I kind of thought in the same patterns. Which made our music so eclectic. Like putting a song like "Truck Stop Girl" on the same record with a cartoon song like "Gunboat Willie."
On this new album. It's a very eclectic record. It's a little more energetic a record than we've had in a while. There's a lot more playing and instrumental excursions. And there's just a real good energy on the record. When people think of Little Feat, whether they think of Lowell George first, or the rhythm section, or these quirky lyrics, or all of the above, mainly I think what people gravitate toward when they think of Little Feat is a good time. Great music that you can have a good time with.
How was the Volunteer Jam Tour 2000 for you? Did you get to jam with The Charlie Daniels Band?
We never did. They asked us to in Nashville, but we couldn't. We had had a pretty good run at that point. We were in New Orleans the night before, and were heading up to Detroit. And Paul and I were heading right into rehearsals with Phil. But time demands made it hard. We were a little burned out, to be quite honest. That aside. Everyone, from The Charlie Daniels Band, to the crew, to Charlie himself and Hank Williams people were so, so nice to our band. They made it so comfortable. And admittedly, our set is not a country style set, so we were a little bit the odd man out on the tour, in terms of the audience that came in to see the CDB and Hank. I think some people were pleasantly surprised, but there were a lot of people out there who didn't know who we were. We may have won over a few. But going out and playing in front of people who didn't know you, I think that was good for us. I joked with Shaun, I said, 'It must be cold. A lot of people have their arms folded.' So we just hammered it. We took it up every notch we had.
We were very proud to play in front of those folks. We had Jimmy Hall join us several nights. Fingers Taylor came up the last night in Detroit. He's from Jimmy Buffett's band. And Bonnie Bramlett joined us on "Dixie Chicken" in Nashville. We had played a lot with Bonnie years ago, and we had done a pretty big stand down at Richard's in Atlanta, on a tour when we were backing her up. We did our set and we'd go out and play hers.
Bonnie's great. Her new album is coming out on Charlie's Blue Hat label.
Yeah, great! And there's another fella I met from that label, Luke Reed. I hear he's doing some very good music. I'm hoping to spotlight that on the Little Feat radio hour. I think that's a contribution we can give to people like Luke. Which gets back to the internet again. Like we can kind of skirt around the system a little bit. One day it will be the system. It's just a great way of communicating with people.
Here's something Michael, and I hope you'll alert your readers to it, as well as take advantage of it yourself. There's a box set coming out September 5 on Rhino. In that set there's a booklet that has some really good insight into Lowell and into the group. I think most people are really going to enjoy it. It's four cd's. One of the four is a special disc of rarities. I think if Little Feat is an example of anything, it's an example of a group that just keeps going, when people say 'why don't you hang it up?' We very stubbornly keep going. It's a family, and Lowell was a huge part of it, still is. But when we go onstage, we try to honor Lowell in every sense of the word when we play his songs. And with the newer songs, "Let it Roll," "Just Another Sunday," we honor our past. Now we are back to jamming again. We are improvising and trying to make each show a little different. Phil Lesh has gotten up back into that. He kind of hit us square between the eyes. I read that Warren Haynes said a very similar thing. That's the great thing. There's a lot of hidden treasure out there today, like Phil and Friends, String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Bela Fleck, of course Warren and Gov't Mule, Phish- that take a healthy look at music for music's sake, that takes you on a musical journey. Not for any pop mentality reason. Although we do write songs, very eclectic songs. So we are after a great musical time and a great musical journey.
I wanted to ask you about Shaun Murphy. Looking over the bio, I had no idea Shaun had worked on so many records, singing backup for Bob Seger. I also didn't realize that she was Stoney, from the old Meatloaf and Stoney record.
When she came in, we had talked about several people as a lead singer, including Kim Wilson. But he wasn't ready to leave the Thunderbirds. But Shaun, she is such a gifted singer. She sings anything and everything. And she is a very adept blues singer. She has made us better singers, because she sings with us. Paul is great. My vocals are developing. I attribute my confidence to sing to Shaun. She just surrounds you when she sings. She has her own style and voice. And as a writer she has really stepped up to the plate. She is on four songs on the new album as a lyricist. I had her help me on a song called "Eden's Wall," which was a title Paul let me borrow. She had this line she added, "A broken spirit dries the bones." I thought, man, the imagery of that was dead on. I asked her if she's ever written before, and she said 'no.' I asked her why, and she said 'nobody asked.'
I wonder why VH1 hasn't done a Little Feat behind the music.
VH1 says Little Feat doesn't have a story. (Laughs) That's the good news!
What? They can do one on Leif Garrett, but Little Feat doesn't have a story?
And the bone they threw us was, we can do a 'Where Are They Now,' and that may lead into a 'Behind The Music.' We're not buying that. I think those people are very insulting. I think those shows are the equivalent of the magazines you see at the checkout stand. If we're going to do our story, we're going to do it ourselves. The big word here is context. And a lot of people don't think in those terms. But we want to do that, and there's a special concert we want to put on at some point. We just want to keep flying and upholding the flag of good music.
Color Photos by Hank Randall. Thanks Hank!! Hoy! Hoy!