INTERVIEW: Bill Payne: “It All Boils Down to Complete Freedom”

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

“It took me 63 years to find my voice, quote, unquote, with regard to myself, not within a band,” says Bill Payne, the founding keyboardist of Little Feat, the enduring American band with a 40-plus year legacy. They performed at The Egg in early January, but on Tuesday (June 18), Payne returns as a solo act to WAMC-FM’s The Linda in Albany.

“I didn’t do any solo shows until a year ago,” he says. At that time he had Dennis McNally open for him. McNally was the long-time historian and publicist for the Grateful Dead who wrote the definitive biography of the band, “Long Strange Trip.”

There has been a long, psychic connection between the two bands that suddenly became more tangible last year when the Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter began a songwriting collaborating with Payne.

When I interviewed Payne in December to advance Little Feat’s show at The Egg date I wrote, “Never as popular as the Dead, Little Feat is adored by critics and die-hard fans alike, and like the Dead, they retain their distinctive sound despite the comings and goings of various personnel. Payne and Hunter’s title track to Rooster Rag [Little Feat’s latest album] sounds like a logical extension of Payne’s ’70s anthem “Oh Atlanta,” and the band’s high energy eclecticism remains a West Coast answer to New Orleans gumbo.” At that time, Payne had written 13 songs with Hunter.

Recently, we reconnected for this interview:

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Q: So, how many songs have you written with Hunter now?

A: So we now have 15 (songs together), and I can truthfully say the idea of doing a solo show, well, I owe a lot to Robert Hunter in that regard because now I have a lot of material, not just from him but other people as well. My son is included in that, Evan. We wrote a song called “Dust and Bones,” which is a really great tune.

Q: How old is he?

A: He’s 30 years old now.

Q: Does he do that for a living?

A: No. He said, “I don’t know if I can co-write a song.” I said, “Of course you can.” He said, “Well, give me a title.” I went, ‘“Dust and Bones,’ Try that.” And he sent it back to me, and I went, “Gee, this is really good, man.” He’s a good poet and an excellent photographer. In fact, he got me into photography.” (Payne’s photographs are a part of the solo show that he’s bringing to The Linda.)

He’s a multi-talented guy, like I am I think, but Robert Hunter really kind of paved the way for making songwriting something I’m embracing in a way that I’d actually never done before. I’ve written a lot of tunes, but this is on a whole ’nother level. In fact, I’m writing a tune right now with a guy named Paul Muldoon, who’s a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, teaches at Princeton, holds a chair at Oxford in England, an exceedingly talented guy. And he sent me some lyrics.

Q: For somebody who has written as many songs as you have and been involved in the process from start to finish, what did you learn from these high profile gentlemen about songwriting that you didn’t already know?

A: Well, I think, speaking of Robert or anybody, it’s just the freedom of having somebody send you some lyrics – or in a few cases, I sent him music – but not sitting in the room writing with somebody where you can be chasing your tale pretty quick. I felt the freedom of being able to do what I wanted to do, what I felt was best for the song and then presenting it.

If there was some change I needed to make, or if he sent me some lyrics, and I said, “Hey, I wouldn’t sing that line that way. Could you give me something else?” He’d go, “Boom. Try this,” and so it wasn’t a static affair at all. It was communicative, but what I got out of it was more or less just enjoying the idea of having more freedom with things I’ve done with other people, too.

Q: How is the process of writing different when you’re performing solo than when you’re with Little Feat?

A: Well, I’m not jamming up there with myself, although I’ll be doing some of that with Gabe Ford (Little Feat drummer, who will be a special guest at The Linda). Also, at the gig in Albany, I’m gonna reconnect with Connor Kennedy. Connor is a young guy. I think he’s 18 or 19 years of age. When we played at The Egg last time, his band opened for Little Feat, and I sat in with his group. Then he sat in with us.

Q: I remember, yeah.

A: So Connor’s gonna sit in with me on a few songs in the performance I’m coming up with. He’s a very, very talented guitar player. He’s a great songwriter, too. So at any rate, on the jamming that we’re talking about, there’ll be some of that. It’s like swimming between islands, and the island is terra firma. So you’ve got something that resembles an idea that you’re familiar with, and then you step off into the water and start to swim to the next island. That’s where it’s a free-for-all.

You can change the tempo. You can change the key. You might keep certain things together to get you into the next harbor, but ultimately people like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Phil Lesh… they’ve all used signals to bring a band back into a safe haven and a safe harbor. So that’s why I use the analogy of fast swimming between islands.

Q: What can you do solo that you can’t do with Little Feat and the other way around? What are the advantages of one vs. the other?

A: Take a song like “Cat Fever.” I’ve had that tune forever. It took me – what? A month ago I was at a house concert in Champagne-Urbana, a friend’s house, and I wanted to play that tune, but every time I tried to play it which is not that often because I couldn’t get around the fact that I really needed a band to play it with me. It just sounded awkward.

A piano can handle the bass part just fine, but I was playing it as if I were playing it with a band. I said – obviously I’m not playing it with a group. Now what do I do? And I sat there and I went, “Oh, I can maneuver it to where I have a lot more dynamics. I don’t have to play it was hard. I can play certain notes and sing it with it.

I mean it’s like if I wanna throw in another couple of cords into the tune, then I can do that. It boils down to complete freedom. I think it was Oscar Peterson who was saying, “When you do a solo piano, you can do just about anything you want to do.” When you add a bass player or a drummer, every instrument you add confines it a little bit more. It also expands it a little bit more, but it takes away that ability to go, “Oh, I’m gonna do this.” It’s easier to do it with drums because the guy can track you.

If you’re a band, you’ve got a lot of power. You’ve got all this stuff. I can still make it pretty powerful with just a keyboard, especially with drums.

Q: I hadn’t realized you hadn’t done solo shows until a couple years ago.

A: Yeah, I didn’t feel I had the confidence to get out there to sing. I wasn’t sure what I would sing. When I said at the very beginning of this interview that I put a lot of weight, emphasis and onus on Robert Hunter for me doing this, there’s a concrete reason for me saying that because without those songs and introducing me to writing with other people, I wouldn’t have all this material to go out there and go,
“Hey, check this out.” That’s what’s doing now, and in the process of saying, “Hey, check this out,” I’m going, “I’m gonna let you in on some other stuff that I know most of you don’t know, and for those who do, we’ll broaden it out a little so you’ll have an even better understanding of what this thing is.”

So it’s about being creative, and it’s about being able to share with people this creative arc I’ve been on for 44 – well, longer than that. It started when I was four and a half years old sitting on my mother’s lap, and we took it from there. So, like I say, it’s an intimate evening. It’s a lot of fun. The promoter in Portland went, “Oh, my God. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be, but it was really cool.”

There was this one vendor we know that was just a couple of doors down from us. She was in tears when she left us. I said, “Well that was one of those kinds of nights.” It’s an emotional evening for people sometimes.

Bill Payne presents “Tracing Footsteps: A Journal of Music, Photography and Tales From the Road” at The Linda in Albany with special guests Gabe Ford and Connor Kennedy at 8pm on Tuesday (June 18). Tickets are $18 in advance; $23 at the door.

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