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Co-founder Bill Payne reflects on Little Feat's big career | Community Voices

 band on stage

Bill Payne formed Little Feat in 1969 with Lowell George after George left Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Payne joined Community Voices to reflect on the evolution of Little Feat before their central Illinois concert at the Devon Lakeshore Amphitheater in Decatur.

Randy Eccles: Happy to welcome Bill Payne, co-founder, keyboardist, and vocalist for Little Feat. What can people expect when they go see Little Feat these days?

Bill Payne: You're gonna see a couple new faces up there if you haven't seen them already. Scott Sharrard has joined us. He's a vocalist and plays wonderful slide guitar, regular guitar, acoustic, anything that has strings on it. He was the musical director for Greg Allman when I met him some years ago when I was out on tour with the Doobie Brothers. We also have on drums, Tony Leone. Both those guys are from the New York area. Tony's played with Chris Robinson and the Brotherhood, played with Levon Helm, Larry Campbell, Theresa Williams, all dear friends of ours. He plays drums and he also sings, which I wasn't aware of in 2021 when he joined us. That was a real plus.

We'll play some of our more well-known songs, Dixie Chicken, et cetera, but we'll be throwing in other tunes as well. It's that kind of tour. We spent a long time playing the Waiting for Columbus shows, which were regimented to a degree every night. The shackles are off and we're trying different things.

You'll also see the familiar faces, which will be me, Fred Tackett, Kenny Gradney, and Sam Clayton on guitar, bass, and congas. We're raring to go on this thing. It's gonna be fun.

RE: Do you make the set list ahead of time or are you conversing with each other on stage to figure out what's next?

BP: We're gonna make the set list ahead of time. Things do happen occasionally on stage where you look at somebody and go, “Hey, why don't we try this? It can be a little loose, but it's loose anyway because of the way we construct our music, which we have a great song base to choose from.

You might be hearing a couple new songs out of us as well. We're working on a blues record with Sam Clayton. We might try to add one or two of those songs. That area for us is a is a good place.

I wanna give a quick shout out to Steve Wells, who's from Springfield. A dear friend. We've known each other a long time. Gary Bennett down in St. Louis, and he are friends. Steve and Gary have known each other forever. It had to be 20, 25 years ago that Steve came to hear a Little Feat show, and we've spent a lot of time in Springfield with each other. He's got a place out in California. We visit out there.

We're playing with Leftover Salmon. Those are band mates of mine as well. I joined their group before peeling off to play with the Doobie Brothers seven years back. This is a really good family celebration that's gonna take place.

RE: Do you come out and play with them during the opening?

BP: Oh yeah. I want them to join us as well. It's that kind of camaraderie going on.

RE: I love shows where the bands come out and mix with each other and have fun. You can see they've got the camaraderie and I think it helps with the audience too.

BP: Oh, it definitely does. With all the years I’ve been touring, which is 54 years I guess, the audience plays a tremendous part in all of this. Always. When we first put this thing back together after Covid, in whatever shape it was in, people came to the shows in the early going, and the expectation on their face was, “Gosh, I hope this is good.” Then you'd see them. The smiles would grow larger as they heard us play. It's been so much fun to introduce this music to people again and with a new iteration of the band. That's kind of the way Lowell (George) and I set it up back in 1969, to be more of an elastic group. Had the music be the thing that really commands who's in it, of what eras do we present at that time. We've had Craig Fuller in there before, Sean Murphy. It's worked every time. This is yet another time where things are in our favor in terms of the way this thing was originally planned. It's a good feeling.

RE: You have reset a few times over your career. After Lowell passed away, how have you been able to evolve to where you are now?

BP: I'm gonna tell you a quick story. It was in 1966. I was living in Santa Maria, California. I went up to the Rose Gardens, which is in Pismo Beach, to hear the Yardbirds. I went up there with my friends to hear the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck. Well, they started playing and Jeff Beck was not on stage with them. We were like, “Wait a minute, what happened here?” We're starting to get a little angry about it. Then they started to play and lo and behold the guitar was like, “Man, this guy, who is this guy? He's great!” It was Jimmy Page, of course, which we didn't know.

That was the emphasis when we put Let It Roll together with Craig Fuller and that band. I went back in my memory with that Yardbirds concert, and I went, “You know what? You cannot replace Lowell George. You can't replace Richie Hayward, or Paul Barrere. If you got something that really lines up with the music and it sounds like Little Feat, or it sounds like the Yardbirds in that case, you got some pretty clear sailing in front of you”. I didn't just draw it out of a hat. I took it from an experience I had.

RE: I saw that Jimmy Page said Little Feat is one of his favorite American bands.

BP: Yeah, he has said that. Robert Plant worked with Richie Hayward. I saw Robert, gosh, I don't know, a year ago in Nashville. I was playing an Americana Music Awards ceremony. Playing Willin’ with Lyle Lovett who wanted to sing it.

I saw Robert the night before at the restaurant and introduced myself. I went up to his table. “Oh no, this guy's coming up to say hello to me.” I told him who I was with. He jumped out of his chair and gave me a big hug. He was a great guy and I saw him the next night at the Americana Awards. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and those folks have always been really kind to Little Feat.

RE: It’s nice to be able to have a career, much like you're talking about with Little Feat or like Robert Plant, where it evolves. It doesn't have to stay in one frame of reference.

BP: It's true. I grew up playing classical music and had a dual track of playing classical and playing by ear.

Somebody at one juncture was saying, you're not from New Orleans. How are you playing New Orleans music? It was from somebody that lived there. “I'm not from Vienna, and I play Mozart. I'm not from Germany, I play Beethoven. Is that okay with you?” And they went, uh, yeah.

RE: When I listen to Little Feat, the piano stands out so much. I don't know if you call them rolls, but your style is amazing. What recommendations would you give to keyboardists who want to rock?

Bill Payne

BP: I think what you listen to is important, but more importantly than any of it is treating your education of the instrument and your education of music seriously but allow yourself to have fun. In other words, learn the instrument. You wanna learn the scales. You don't wanna practice scales. All right, fine, but when you're in the key of G, you got one sharp, you gotta think of, which is F#. When you're in the key of D, you got two sharps, F#, and C#. You just wanna know where you are in the landscape and by taking the extra time to learn what each key puts you in the middle of It's going to broaden your vocabulary when you're up on stage, or you're in your house, or you're sitting with friends playing music at the campfire -- if you can get a keyboard out there. You just want to know how to speak the language of music. That's the most important thing. If you're inspired by songs that we all love, we're all equal on that level. Then you experiment with writing songs, which is another way to expand your vocabulary as a musician.

I try and instill that to anybody. That's really what makes it interesting and will guide you through a lifetime of being able to play and explore the instrument and explore music in general.

RE: What songs bring you the most joy when you're performing, lately?

BP: I've been really liking Spanish Moon. It has been really cool.

I've got three different things I solo with -- an accordion-esque thing. It almost has an Africana feel to it. Then Tony switches around to more of a world beat with his symbols and little shots on the snare while I'm doing that. I morph to a more jazzy piano solo, which he goes full cymbals. I have a lot of fun doing that stuff.

Another song I really like -- Scott Sharrard is singing it -- is Mercenary Territory. A great Lowell George song. It goes a lot of places within the song itself and certainly within the instrumentals that we have lined up for it.

And then lastly, my solo on Dixie Chicken, I get a chance to take that anywhere I want to go with it and Tony is a perfect guy to play with. I got a couple of renditions of that song that people could check out online with me and Tommy Manuel, who's a guitar player, if you haven't heard him. He's from Australia. He lives in Nashville now. He is one of the most extraordinary acoustic guitar players I've ever heard.

RE: Bill, you were mentioning earlier, you've been doing Little Feat since 1969. How have tours changed from then to now?

BP: A lot of it is financial for Little Feat. When we were just starting out, we were traveling in station wagons and vans. We might have had an equipment truck. Now, we’ve got a bus, maybe a couple buses for us and our crew. That makes it a little different.

I'm writing a book called Carnival Ghosts. I'm writing about all this stuff, which is not a Little Feat history, it's my history, but it includes Little Feat. It includes how I started playing piano, how things have morphed over the years in terms of synthesizers, keyboards on stage that I've played, the monitor systems that we use. All that stuff has gotten better and better and better.

The semantics of playing music have not really changed a lot. The first and foremost thing that anybody in a band will tell you is the road to success, in terms of a great gig, is being able to hear each other. The odds are, if you can hear one another on stage, that's gonna translate to the audience. People are gonna have a wonderful time. If you can't hear each other, that's when the fireworks start. Not necessarily in a good way. The worst band arguments I've ever been in or witnessed were when people cannot hear up there. The blame game starts.

The next night, maybe the circumstances are different for whatever reason, and you can hear. Everybody's like, “Yeah, man, you're the greatest.” Will we ever learn? No. We're human beings. It's fun to get up there and see what life provides you.

We use in-ears up there, which I've been dealing with for a long time. I used the first iteration of those when I went on a tour with Simon and Garfunkel in ’84. Artie, Art Garfunkel, and I were the only guys using in ears at that time.

RE: I would think in-ear would help save some hearing because you can adjust it to where you want it to be, as opposed to on-stage competitions with band members asking sound folk to turn the stage monitors up louder, drowning each other out.

BP: It does. That's a very good point.

I used to have discussions with Richie Hayward about that too, our drummer. You're not gonna necessarily hear better by making it louder. If you're having trouble playing initially, you're better off having your monitors softer and you playing softer, a little simpler until you acclimated to where you are within your hearing and where you are on stage. Trying to keep your volume down is a real good place to start.

RE: I’m looking forward to your book, Carnival Ghosts.

BP: I'm hoping within the next year I'll have it closed. I'm about 40,000 words. In it, I've just met Little George, so, it's a saga.

RE: Any parting words of wisdom you'd like to leave for folks?

BP: Yeah. Coming to a Little Feat show we can leave all our worries and stuff outside the door. We're not there to debate anything on stage. I think we're under one big tent as a group of people. Maybe, in this day and age where we can't agree on much of anything, we can agree that the groove to Spanish Moon is really cool. Let go of the side of the pool and come on in and have some fun, man.

RE: Thanks, Bill Payne – keyboardist, vocalist, and co-founder of Little Feat.

BP: It's a pleasure always to be involved in community radio, cause that's where the action is. We live in a community and you guys provide a very, very essential service to everyone. So, thank you.

RE: Follow Little Feat at https://www.littlefeat.net

Get to know your neighbors with Community Voices on NPR Illinois weekdays at noon and Saturdays at 5 p.m. Also, listen to local music and acts touring central Illinois, including Little Feat, on The X from NPR Illinois at 91.9 HD3 or streaming from nprillinois.org.

Randy Eccles is thrilled to be talking with community members and joining them in becoming informed citizenry. Please reach out at randy.eccles@nprillinois.org.
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