Bill Payne: Tracing Footsteps - A Journal of Music, Photography and Tales from the Road

Bill Payne
Tracing Footsteps – A Journal of Music, Photography and Tales from the Road
Monday, June 24 - $25-$28
Cat’s Cradle
Carrboro, NC
Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

It’s hard to imagine that first pre-Little Feat meeting between Bill Payne and Lowell George. The one in 1969 that would start with trading “musical quotes,” Lowell on acoustic guitar and Bill on a spinet belonging to Lowell’s mother.  A meeting that fell into place by Bill Payne’s own desire and drive, literally south from Santa Barbara to LA several times, hoping to find a musical home with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. But that was not to be. Instead Little Feat was born and Zappa helped them get their first record contract with Warner Bros. When not playing with the current incarnation of Little Feat, keyboardist Payne, the only surviving original member, is so respected in the music world that he’s in heavy request as a session player performing on albums with Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, The Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, J.J. Cale, Jimmy Buffet and so on.

Payne is one of those rare individuals blessed with natural talents that go beyond keyboards and songwriting. Picking up a camera from his son Evan only a few years ago, his immediate kinship with the lens exposed an eye that is a natural extension of his belief in discovering the connections between things.  In his own words:  “I don’t separate myself from my art. It is a revolving summation and continuance of what I am, what I was, and what I hope to be.”  And he’s also laid-back, extraordinarily collaborative, and intensely passionate about whatever he happens to be doing at the moment.  Which in this case is one of his most recent projects - Tracing Footsteps: A Journal of Home and the Road that combines stories, with multi-media showcasing his own photography, along with an audience Q&A.  Accompanying Payne to flesh out this powerful duo is Gabe Ford, current Little Feat drummer. 

“Tracing Footsteps,” according to Payne, “is the way I describe my journey in photography. It houses my philosophy of combining a host of influences: black & white, color, textured themes, landscape, people, photojournalism—my time travel, literally--all under one roof.”

The primary architect behind the Little Feat "Grassroots" movement, Payne instinctively recognized the synergistic benefit of personally involving the band’s massive and hugely dedicated fan base in the job of promoting the band, upcoming shows, recordings, merchandise, etc as well as populating the online music communities … there are about a half dozen “working fans”  in NC alone. They’re like Deadheads, only with Feat. What stands out above all else is the connection (there’s that word again), fierce loyalty, and admiration between the band and their fans who would do anything, including buying groceries, gassing up the truck, or simply running a not-so-glamorous errand. Just ask one of those NC-based fans - Gene Morgan, who lives in Clayton - if you can find him when he’s not busy running around putting up posters as I suspect he’s doing right now in advance of this show. 

Good man that he is, Bill Payne took time out to talk with me about Little Feat, cameras, Inara George (Lowell’s daughter), movements (both musical and grassroots) and to answer a handful of crowd-sourced questions from fans.   

Q&A with Bill Payne:

dpm:  This is exciting to have you coming back to Chapel Hill in a special duo performance, especially since Little Feat was just here last August at the Cradle.

bp:  Thanks, Deborah. I'm looking forward to it.  This will be a very different show.

dpm:  I know and I can’t wait for us to talk about that. What have you been up to?

bp:   I've been writing a lot of new songs, maybe 15, with Robert Hunter (lyricist and official non-performing band member of the Grateful Dead) lately so ... what was that in that Monty Python movie "I feel like SINGING. Stop the music, son."(singing and laughing)  So I sing a lot now days and am writing a lot with other people, including my son Evan, who lives in Ireland.  

dpm:  Do you get to visit Ireland often?

bp:  Not very often. I've been one time.  I've got a little granddaughter over there who will be five in August.

dpm:  Are you Irish?

bp:  No, but his mother Frannie, who passed away some years back was part Irish and her mother was pure Irish. Evan's grandmother was why he was able to get dual citizenship and live over there. It's a beautiful country and so much calmer now. I was there with James Taylor over an Easter weekend years ago and it was a little on the rough side. 

dpm:  Ok, you've been with the same band for 35 years.

bp:  44 (laughing)

dpm:  How does that even seem possible?

bp:  I know ... it's ... yeah, it's nuts.  We're on hiatus now, I hope we get back together. It took me 63 years to do my first solo shows. So there are a lot of incongruities here.  I think what's going on with the Tracing Footsteps show is that for a guy that's been around for 44 years just playing with Little Feat, people are going to say "now what is it you're going to be doing at these shows?"  And this is fans and journalists alike. They're not exactly sure what to expect.  And what I'm actually doing on this tour is playing music and interspersing that music with stories and my photography, which is a simplistic way of putting it.

dpm:  So it's multimedia? Are the photographs projected behind you or is there an exhibit set up?

bp:  Oh, yes, multimedia. It's on a screen, so it's projected. I've got a way during the show of describing how a couple of those photos came about. How the idea of Tracing Footsteps is a logical extension for me and for most musicians who are out there on the road in six different places in five different days. People go "where were you last night?" and we go "I don't know." "Where are you going tomorrow?"  "uh, I don't know."  Stop asking me the tough questions. I can look a photo and I can say "well, this is where I was at this particular time."  You know it's like when people hear a song and they remember "oh, I was in high school."  My photos lock down my bearings for me.

dpm:  Life, particularly lived on the road, desperately needs connective threads. You talk about that in regard to your instrumental album Cielo Norte 

bp:  Particularly with my photography Tracing Footsteps which is what I call this basic concept of the show that's the way I do it ....Cielo Norte was this album I put out that was all instrumental music spread out over a 10-12 year period which is maybe why I don't play a lot of stuff off of it, but there's one tune in particular called "Through The Eyes of A Child" I've got some photography that goes with that piece. I’ve got a poem called "All Out of Innocence" that I'm going to read that night at the Cat's Cradle, and you'll see these three things combine. It's really a nice little part of the show.

dpm:  How does it feel reading a piece of poetry on stage rather than singing?

bp:  I think if I was just there reading a poem, that wouldn't be as interesting. With the music and the photography, it's actually a nice blend of things. It's not an alien type thing at all for me. I'm good at storytelling anyway. 

dpm:  Your blog is evidence of your writing abilities.

bp:  Well, thanks.  Yeah, I'm a good writer, and a good photographer, and musician, etc, and it took me 63 years to kind of sort out how to share all this with people. It doesn't mean that I have to come back every year and do the same thing. The beauty of what I'm doing is how flexible it is. I sometimes have guests up there with me.  I did a show, two weeks worth of work where mainly it was just me up there. There's a question/answer period that I'm going to do during the show. Gabe Ford is a wonderful musician. He's going to be playing drums. That gives me another dynamic level to reach in to and I've got a lot, a lot of tunes I can play or not play. I tell you one thing it's not.  It's not a Little Feat show. It's not even a watered down Little Feat show. I'm here to present my stuff which involves maybe a few Little Feat songs, but I'm not going to be up there singing "Dixie Chicken." I'm doing songs I've written and I might do one that Lowell wrote, but it's one nobody's ever heard.

dpm:  How many cameras do you have?  Do you always have one with you?

bp:  I have one camera and it's a Canon 5D, it's an older model, not the one with the video in it. I love it, it's a nice full frame camera.  I've got five lenses and I don't always take them all with me. Lenses on these darn IPhones are pretty good too. So I'm just capturing the odd moment.

dpm:  To help me collect a cross section of questions and connect readers, I crowd-source using social media to ask what questions they’d like for me to ask.   Here are a few. 

dpm:  Gene Morgan, you know Gene (one of the Grassroots team here in NC). He wanted me to ask you about the time Eric Clapton brought his band to a Little Feat show in Michigan.

bp:  Oh yeah, I know Gene! Well, Eric had sat in with us a few years before that in LA. We had just seen him in NYC and I believe we were having backstage food and I said "God, Eric, we just saw you a week or two ago, what's going on?" And he said "I wanted my band to hear a proper band."

dpm:  Danny Gotham wants to know what the inspiration for "day at the dog races" was.

bp:  Well, the title came from a couple of different things. One was the Marx Brothers movies called "A Day At The Races."  And then one of my mother-in-laws was at the dog races in Phoenix and she won four out of six or seven races, so I had that in mind as well. But the jamming element of it which I helped turn into a song took place at a rehearsal studio that Little Feat was playing at in Hollywood. Freddie White was playing drums and he had a particular thing he was doing and I did a bunch of takes of that.  Then I introduced that part of it to the band.

dpm:  This question is from me.  Whose idea was it to bring in Inara George (Lowell's daughter) to sing "Trouble?"

bp:  It was my idea.  Little Feat had already played the same song with Inara and that song was way too low for her to sing. I'm not talking about the same version you're talking about. But this other song is up in a space capsule, out in the stars, as we speak. It's part of a NASA project that they send out into outer space - they frequently do that and include all these elements of  "here from the planet earth, here's who we are" and they included a Little Feat song with Inara George.  So when I was doing this record, I thought it would be nice to do this song with just Inara and myself, and ironically we did it in one of the studios where Little Feat first recorded back in 1970 when we were making our first record for Warner Bros.

dpm:  My niece, Meghan Pritchard, wants to know where is the one place you'd pick to play in the world and why?  I don't think she knows about annual Jamaica concerts.

bp:  Well, that's a good question.  Jamaica's not a bad place to play. We play in Negril and what's cool about it is that you're right on the beach, it's with a lot of good friends both on-stage and off-stage and the camaraderie continues after at this place called the Far Bar there’s all kinds of food being prepared and it's very relaxing. That's been a great hang. We're trying to organize something for next year, and while it won't be Little Feat centric, I hope will involve members of Little Feat. We'll see what else comes down the pike, because, technically right now the band is on hiatus. 

dpm:  Let's talk about the Little Feat grassroots movement. What a wonderful way to really involve and your fan base in your success. How strengthening that is between the fan and the artist.

bp:  It dissolves the lines between us, first and foremost.

dpm:  I love that.

bp:  I do too. I think it makes it a more comfortable position for the fan. Occasionally you'll get with people who are a little more aggressive, but most are very friendly and nice, What I've discovered is that people have a very interesting story, and especially as a writer, that's what you look for when you're talking to people whether you're doing it consciously or not. Yeah, I have interesting stories because of who I've played with and what I do but it's not relegated to just being a musician, or necessarily being a creative person in the arts. It's about who you are as a person. What did you surround yourself in life with? And I think all those things are important ... family ...the music you listen to ... the books you read ...the food you eat ... the places you've been ... the places you want to go.  That's what gives us our connections to one another. It's our shared values is just another way to look at it. We don't have to get all locked up with politics and stuff like that. It's got zero to do with that for the most part. It has everything to do with how involved you are with life. People say to me “we really appreciate the fact that you're sharing so much of yourself with us.” I say "why not" I've been in a dream band for 44 years. I've been a part of the Wrecking Crew, which is a group of studio and session musicians that played anonymously on tons of records in LA during the 1960s. Instead of making singles, we were making more albums and so I was a part of that. I’ve toured with so many groups and so many artists and I’ve got all these things I’m capable of doing and will continue to do that want to be able to share with everybody, pure and simple.  And I don’t want to do it behind a veil …of wrapping yourself up in a curtain pretending you’re the Wizard of Oz. It’s indicative of being a creative person. I hang around with a lot of creative people. We’re part of a fraternity almost.  Keith Richards sort of implanted that idea into my head in 1974, or maybe 1975, where we played a hall just outside of Amsterdam and the Rolling Stones came to hear us en masse.  Downstairs I was like “oh, it’s Keith Richards” and he says “Ah, mate, we’re all part of the same cloth.”  I’m a musician, you’re a musician. That’s what we are. I read his biography and he was talking about the fact that he was in a dressing room with Muddy Waters and Little Richard.  He was saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “well, if these are the cats, I must be one of the cats too. I’m hanging with ‘em. I’m one of the guys.”  That’s what he was saying to me and I’ve shared that story with a lot of musicians over the years.

dpm:  Was there ever a point in your life where you said to yourself “oh, my God, I chose to lug around the heaviest instrument ever” when you started playing the Hammond B3?

bp:  Yeah.  Actually Lowell said it. “We’re not lugging that instrument anymore.”  I got a cut down B3, which is still heavy, but not as heavy as the original.

dm:  It’s hard to replicate a B3.

bp:  Well, you can. I had a B3 that was transistorized. Same B3 I used on Waiting for Columbus. But I’m with you, you can’t replicate that sound. It’s either there or it isn’t. I was using a real B3, but all the tubes and everything were taken out of it. It had a slightly different sound, but you could still get that thing to hit pretty good. And I finally had to retire it after it nearly killed a couple of different technicians, so I said I don’t want to have their deaths on my hands trying to fix this thing. Let’s just give it a proper Viking funeral and put it out of circulation.

dm:  What did you do with it?  It should be in the Smithsonian.

Bp:  It ought to be … or at least someplace. 

dm:  Or the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland.

bp: I don’t know if they sold it or what happened to it. We had a bunch of stuff that was being sold out of the locker recently. I was talking to people about donating it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Apparently Little Feat is in the Rock and Roll Museum, which is a little weird when you think about it .. I mean, I’m in a museum. (laughing) 

dpm:  I don’t think that’s weird at all. (laughing)

bp:  (laughing)

dpm:  I just took up conga drums and as I’m loading them up for a lesson, I’m thinking “good grief, you couldn’t take up the harmonica or something little?”

bp:  (laughing) Yeah, no kidding!  Those harmonica players, I was working with Charlie McCoy in the studio about 2 ½ weeks ago, and he had a box full of harmonicas and things. But that’s a good point. In my backroom here in Montana, I’ve got a 7’ Yamaha piano that was Emmy Lou Harris’s and I got it for her for one of her first records From Boulder to Birmingham and it was on a lot of Emmy Lou records after that and they finally sold it to me. I worked on the last record that Emmy Lou and Rodney Crowell did. And Brian Ahern asked “how’s that piano doing” and I said “the piano’s just fine and possession is 9/10ths of the law.”

dpm:  So many stories, so little time.

bp:  There are so many stories.  Another one.  I wanted to introduce my son to Bob Dylan and Friends. I was working with Phil Lesh and Dylan was opening the show. He could have opened or closed, it wouldn’t have mattered, but he wanted to do it and get the hell out. So I had my son with me, had introduced him to Dylan’s music, and wanted to introduce him to Dylan. They said stand over here, he’s going to be coming by. So Bob comes by and says “hey, Bill, remember the Bottom Line?” And I thought how the hell does he know my name? I said “yeah, Bob, I remember, you were in that club sitting just off center right in front of me and scared the hell out of me.”  There are just so many moments like that and doing this tour is just so personal. 

dpm:  We’re looking forward to having you in Chapel Hill.

bp: North Carolina is always good to us. I remember a show we played in Chapel Hill for 12,000 people in a gymnasium someplace. It was a big show. Unless that’s the same show you were talking about earlier.

dpm:  It was the same show.  People here still talk about that show. It was considered a musical moment here. Y’all actually gave me a gold record for Waiting for Columbus. And I only worked three shows with you in North Carolina, two in Alabama, and one in Georgia.

bp:  Well, that’s cool!  Then you were one of the good guys.  (laughing)

dpm:  Thanks so much, Bill.  This has been fun and I’m looking forward to the show.

bp:  Thanks for the conversation, Deborah. I really appreciate it. It’s always fun to talk to people who are very knowledgeable, especially when we’ve got a connective past. I look forward to seeing you.