A Golden Fete for Little Feat
Co-founder Bill Payne Looks at Five Decades of the Genre-defying Band

By Lee Valentine Smith

The only constants of Little Feat are keyboardist Bill Payne and change.

Since forming the group in 1969 with the late singer-songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Lowell George in Los Angeles - and then reviving the band in 1987 - Payne presides over Little Feat's eclectic churn of rock, blues, soul, country, folk, gospel, funk and jazz fusion.

Currently on the road to celebrate 50 years since the band's debut, the multi-instrumentalist/writer/photographer spoke with INsite by phone from a recording studio in Woodstock, New York.

Even with a few breaks in the timeline, 50 years is a major accomplishment for anything, especially a band.

Certainly, Lowell and I didn't contemplate the band being around this long. We did have a few breaks here and there so it's not a straight-through kinda thing but most of my career's been occupied with Little Feat. Maybe because of it, I've also been able to work with other folks over the years - which gives me a little distance from it and also an opportunity to bring things back into it. Like now, I'm up here in the Woodstock area at my friend Larry Campbell's house. We're getting ready for a show at the Beacon Theater and working on Kinky Friedman's new album. I'm just trying to stay a part of what's happening. I think it's gonna be a good year.

And don't forget your relatively new gig as keyboardist with The Doobie Brothers.

Yeah and we're going to be going out with Santana this summer. I'm going to be bouncing back and forth between Little Feat and the Doobies for a while. Who knew?

How does it feel to shift musical gears up and jump from the funky Little Feat catalog into the classic rock of The Doobie Brothers' hits?

Well the way I've always looked at it is, music is a language. If you know the language, the transition is seamless. It really doesn't matter what style it is. It's always exciting to be able to play with great players. But everybody's got their own way of doing things. The Doobie Brothers are not a jam band. I think they'd be capable of it but that's not what they do. Since we'll be opening these big summer shows with Santana, they tend to keep things pretty straight-ahead. But there's still room to maneuver within it, but everything has his own little challenges. But in terms of the music itself, it's just like turning the radio dial and you go from one song to the other. If your ear adjusts to it as a listener, then it all makes perfect sense. It's the same way as a player.

But you're accustomed to stylistic shifts because the Little Feat catalog is all over the place.

(Laughs) Yeah, if you can imagine, when Lowell and I started out back in 1969, we played some material for Ahmet Ertegun. Of course he was with Atlantic, and produced Ray Charles and all that. Thankfully at the time I knew none of this. Had I known that, I would've been way too embarrassed to show him our music. But we played for him. He kind of looked at the ground and then looked back up at us and said, 'Boys, it's too diverse.' Yeah, the stuff on the first Little Feat album was all over the place so you can only imagine what he heard, because we haven't even written that all of that yet. And he was right, it was diverse. But that's really been what has allowed us - over these 50 years - to not only do what we do but also contemplate maybe doing another 6 songs or a whole record soon.

You mentioned Ahmet; can you image how different your career would've been if you'd signed with Atlantic instead of Warner Brothers?

Yeah, we were talking with everybody back then but you're right. Warner Brothers was such an artist-centric label. They allowed artists to do whatever they wanted to do. They were supportive but they weren't there to make you something you weren't. It was kind of like the wild west back then. Tracks could be 15-minutes long and that would be fine. We'd just come out of the '50s where two minutes and thirty seconds was about all that they'd allow because singles were the thing. When we came along with Warners, it was album-oriented and a wonderful place to develop as an artist. It was just such a different world than it is now.

You've seen so many changes in the industry over the years, it must be mind-boggling at this point.

Well it is, but it just sort of parallels everything else that's going on today. The arts are always a reflection of society, whatever we go through as artists also affects businesses and most people's lives in general. I'm still privileged to be able to play music and to make a living doing it. I'll be 70 the day we play Atlanta but I think I'm still vital with what I'm doing, so it's still a good thing.

Over the years, there are distinct eras of the Little Feat timeline. Obviously beginning with the Lowell George years, but the reunion a decade later was literally a whole new chapter.

Yeah when we got back together again it was ten years after Lowell's death. I kind of figured out fairly quickly was that Little Feat is much bigger than anybody in the band. Of course, Lowell George is and will always be a part of our family. That legacy is part of what we're still sharing with people. And even for people that don't know Lowell, maybe they'll go back and check him out. That's one thing that we used to talk about, the lines between things, the connections. And you know this rather well Lee, as a person who loves music and has been around it for so long, it opens up your tastes. If you like Eric Clapton, you might want to go back and listen to some of the older blues folks that Eric was turned on by. When you find out who people are influenced by, and who they surround themselves with, you learn a lot about them. It just enriches everything about the listening experience because it broadens the palate.

When you initially came back with the band in '87, it must've been a daunting time for you - if only for the 'Where's Lowell?' questions.

Well Fred Tackett, when we asked him to be in the band, he goes, 'How are we gonna keep this from seeming like just another money-grubbing reunion tour?' I said, 'Fred, with Little Feat it always begins and ends with the music.' If we can't play music that competes with what we've done before, then we have no business doing it, absolutely none. I never had any desire to mess with our legacy; all I've wanted to do was to add to it.

The band has so many chapters to it now. When Fred joined in '87 was definitely a distinct era, and then when singer Shaun Murphy joined in the '90s and even a few years ago, with the latest album [Rooster Rag] and new drummer Gabe Ford.

Yeah, it's still an "adventure in terror." That's the way Lowell and I used to describe it. We went through about ten bass players the first year. Maybe fifteen, of which [current bassist] Paul Barrere was one. But that's the way we started. All we wanted to do was to have a core element of the band and if we wanted to expand by adding horns or extra players or other whatever's, we could. It wasn't a free-for-all, but it was the freedom to at least consider the possibilities of how we wanted it to sound. That included the types of music that we'd would go for. We had a lot of fights and a lot of wrangling as to how to do it and how important it was on the scale of pushing fourth but that's what you do in a band like this.

So besides you the only constant in the band is change.

I think that's a great way to put it and it's the ultimate in artistic freedom when you look at it that way. You have the freedom to do whatever you're doing at the moment. We came up with our own way of putting it all together and as it turned out, it sounded pretty unique. With a band like Little Feat, you have the platform to be able to share something with an audience. You just have to decide if it's worth sharing or not. It all comes down to what you can add to the conversation. Now after 50 years, I think the conversation continues.

Little Feat plays at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12 at Symphony Hall. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.

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