I caught up with Bill Payne, the original keyboard player for the legendary Little Feat right before he was going on to play a show with the Blues Brothers in Chicago. Rooster Rag is Little Feat’s 16th and most recent studio recording, introducing drummer Gabriel Ford, who is replacing Richie Hayward who passed in 2010. This is also the first album since the death of singer Shaun Murphy. Rooster Rag is most definitely an album of firsts, the first record with a talented new member, an exciting new collaboration, and the first Little Feat studio album in quite a few years.
We delve right into a discussion of the album. Payne is animated, vivid even in his obvious excitement about Rooster Rag, describing the experience as “a good collection of friends, you know we’re a family. It’s been quite the process of the forty three year stretch and I’m happy with the results.”
It’s an easy banter with a very talented musician. I mention his solo show and he humbly expresses his gratitude for the recognition, briefly touching on his solo shows that center around a piano or synthesister or “whatever’s available” in which he includes his critically acclaimed photography. Payne describes this as “a different way of showing who I am as an artist.” The piano used on the new album was Richard Manuel’s from The Band, and Payne displaying his chops as a writer blogs about it on the band’s website.
Payne initially wanted to do an all blues album after wandering around Cleveland one afternoon with the band, but instead decided to go the traditional route, bookending the album with blues songs: “Candyman Blues” and “Mellow Down Easy.” The band wanted to make an album that really got back to their roots, to the dixieland music that made them. There is talk of additional albums and always the possibility for a blues centered project in the future, but it was felt this album was the right one to make now.
The collaboration with Robert Hunter, longtime lyricist for the Grateful Dead, is one Payne speaks fondly of, describing Hunter’s lyrics as “cinematic.” The two musicians have never actually met face to face, penning eleven songs together, four of which appear on the new album. Cameron Sears the former co-manager for the Grateful Dead put the two in touch. Payne describes the collaboration as “a pretty easy handshake to make.” Hunter sent a few lyrics and after Googling Hunter to nail down a visual of who he was working with, Payne immediately began scoring music. When asked if he would meet Hunter he muses aloud if meeting face to face would ruin the creative process they have successfully established. The pairing works well with Hunter’s outlaw persona and Payne’s piano deeply steeped in the roots of Americana.
We talked in depth about the songs on the album, with gems like “Salamone,” a cacophony of slide and banjo. Payne admits the song “scared the hell out of the band” but eventually it was decided to leave everything in. The song embodies the band’s mantra of gusto. Touching on the process of writing we discuss the track “Rag Top Down”, about highway nine, blood alley. Payne approached the song familiar with the culture of low riders and “guys that cruised in cars,” growing up as a surfer remembering the “cool stuff those kind of guys did for me, protecting me.” He talks about approaching this song as a love song to a car, becoming animated when he describes the shift in tempo midway through song as a comparison to shifting gears on a stretch, watching the white lines blur into one. He conjures up nostalgia and makes the music a visual medley, leaving us to wonder what kind of “cool stuff” these guys did for him years ago.
Little Feat will be featured at the Philadephia Folk Festival in August and Payne is brimming with the city’s praise, “we have a long history with the city, Philadelphia is amazing.” The Little Feat chant originated in Philadelphia and Payne remembers being downstairs embroiled in a post show discussion and hearing the “feat,feat,feat” chant for the first time. This chant prompted the band to get back out on stage and play another set. He expresses his love the fans in Philly, describing their “tough honesty” as a quality he admires and his excitement to return in August. Remembering That Magazine is based in Philadelphia, Payne extends an offer of backstage passes, demonstrating the gracious hospitality he has displayed throughout the interview. It is another example of how down to earth and approachable the musician is, how excited he is to talk about Rooster Rag and share his love of the music.
After a nine year hiatus the question had to be broached if Little Feat could still write good music. Even Payne notes that Little Feat was unsure if they had anything further to share, but in the end he is confident that they have put something substantial out and the answer is an obvious yes. He acknowledges that he hadn’t written anything in seven years but after he began to work on the writing process he “went from zero to sixty in a nanosecond and feel pretty good.” Rooster Rag was a long time in the making, but Little Feat comes roaring out of the studio with no excuses, no regrets.
by Jenn Kelly