Rolling off sold-out gigs in support of their first original studio release in eight years, California’s rock and roll band Little Feat continue a 43 year legacy with its upcoming appearance at Telluride Blues & Brews this week. It will be the first time the band has returned to the festival since an acclaimed set featuring Bob Weir and Robert Randolph in 2002.
While laying low before a show in New York City, founding member and famed rock pianist Bill Payne connected with The Watch to talk about the longevity of his band, playing in Telluride, and the cohesive nature of music that brings people together.
Watch: How is the tour going? Have you been playing the new tunes off Rooster Rag?
Payne: Yeah, they have been received really well so far. When you haven’t released an album in this long, it can be interesting to see how people react, but it’ s almost like the reviews have been written by ourselves so far.
Watch: What has been the secret to the longevity of a band like Little Feat?
Payne: We have certainly had our share of hiatuses, especially in the early-going. A band is not an easy thing to keep together. The start is having respect for each other, and also sharing in the idea of moving forward and progressing. It’s just like any relationship situation, but it’s also unique, because in a band you’re working off of one another. But what I honestly think it boils down to is music. When you step onstage and that magic happens, that is the most important thing to maintain among all the members.
Watch: Little Feat have a knack for playing premier destinations like Jamaica and the like. What is the single most outstanding thing you remember about playing here in Telluride?
Payne: I grew up in Montana, so I am used to being surrounded by beauty, but for just about anyone, coming to Telluride can be an eye-opener. People that make it there are obviously good music people; they know their music, and I think that is what really makes it what it is. The aesthetics of it don’t hurt, either. Colorado even has Red Rocks close by, but Telluride is an absolutely gorgeous spot in the world because of the harmonizing effect that allows people to really relax and let loose within the visual.
Watch: Another band that has established a bit of a legacy in Telluride is Phish. They have also openly demonstrated their affinity for Little Feat, in both words and in music. What does that mean to you and your band to have a group of musicians like Phish paying homage to you?
Payne: I have listened to them covering our album Waiting for Columbus a few Halloweens ago, and I have to admit it was a bit humbling to have them pick us, considering their other selections have been The White Album by The Beatles and The Who’s Quadrophenia. So to be cast in that crowd and get that kind of salute is reassuring.
Watch: Little Feat has lost some of its beloved members in the last few years, yet you push on to preserve their legacy.
Payne: Yeah, we have always been a band centered around great musicians. We lost Richie Hayward and Lowell George, and people always seem to ask how we can do it without them? The truth is that it is bigger than any one of us individuals. Every time we hit the stage or step into the studio to record, there isn’t a time I don’t think about Richie, but [drummer] Gabe Ford is an exceptional musician and friend to the band that is helping us continue this sound that takes influences from all kinds of music.
Watch: Have you seen a spike in younger listeners at shows and in your travels as a result of Phish channeling your music to their fan base?
Payne: For sure, it’s a handshake all around. People seem to pop in as a result and see what we are all about, and in a way now that seems to pull away that blanket of pop music, you might find younger listeners being exposed too. It’s all about them being inquisitive as well, so for them, it’s about finding the influences and connections between things. That is also something you seem to find in Telluride at the music events – it is this sense of history of music being represented on down the line.
Watch: Last year Dweezil Zappa played his father’s tunes at Blues & Brews. Do you ever wonder how things would have turned out had you fully joined Frank Zappa’s Band, the Mothers of Invention?
Payne: You know, there was a certain feeling of not doing it, because I didn’t think I had the chops. That music is just simply hard to do. At that same time, I was connecting with Lowell George and his ideas and personality. The directions we wanted to take things musically were very similar, whereas Frank’s music was, well, I don’t even know how to describe it, but it was certainly theatrical and attracts a certain type of musician. I have to thank Frank for helping us out in the beginning, because I would have never gone to L.A., but I am glad I went the other way with Little Feat, too.
Watch: Even now Little Feat continues to release new music and dazzle audiences in the live setting. How do you approach songwriting and sonic creations now? Is it any different then the process used to be?
Payne: Yeah, it was different in some respects. I actually went back to the very simple act of just sitting at a piano and playing, but I have to admit I did use some new technology. I used my iPhone, and specifically the iTalk, to record and capture the moment, and came up with a couple of concepts for the songs that way. I developed some of the arrangements by doing that, but most of it was literally just going back to basics of picking up an instrument. The resulting thread that runs through it is that the album sounds like classic Little Feat, with intricate rhythm sections and chords meandering through twists and turns that are unexpected. We sometimes extend the bars out in order to complete the idea, so in a way we are writing to fulfill the concept instead of crafting a compact song. At 63 years old, and 43 years into this, it feels good to still be able to put out music that can surprise listeners, and it even surprised us too.
Watch: Little Feat seems to keep the art of collaboration close to your hearts. Even beyond working with peers, your sound also inspires the new era of musicians. How do you view that aspect of your music?
Payne: Well with the type of music that we all play, it has been able to continue for three of four generations, and generally speaking, it’s usually noteworthy if a style of music makes it half as long. It doesn’t denigrate anything that is new, far from it, because a lot of younger bands are taking their nods from folk, bluegrass and rock and roll, and that is the stuff that is lasting because there is some honesty to it. In effect it challenges all the musicians that are playing because the younger bands are putting a new slant on it.
Watch: I agree, as we approach the 50-year watermark for this unique genre, it’s as if the creative aspect is peaking because of the progression from top to bottom.
Payne: I think you’re right, and I think there are a few reasons why, but mostly for bands like Little Feat, it comes from having support for the artists. That is one of the cool things about Telluride, because people are there simply to support cool music. They are there to celebrate the spirit and continuity that runs through reflecting on the artists that got us to this point, and where the music is going from here. It’s a great feeling to be a part of that.