Bill Payne is the keyboardist for Little Feat who is considered by many to be one of the greatest American rock piano musicians of all time. He is touring with Leftover Salmon this year. Bill recently discussed his approach to songwriting, the beginnings of Little Feat, and how he became involved with Leftover Salmon.
What first got you, got you interested in playing the keyboard?
The way I got started playing keyboards, there was actually a little girl across the street although my mother played keyboards a year maybe a year and a half before that. This is in Ventura, California and I was a kid, five years old. If Marilyn across the street can take piano lessons, I can take piano lessons. I got a really good teacher named Ruth Newman. She taught me not only how to read music and brought me through the classical upbringing with Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, etc. She also allowed me the dual path of playing music as I heard it. Stuff that just came to me so that was a huge advantage as a kid, growing up playing piano to know that I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do and rock and roll was a huge part of it, I’ve got a sister that’s 9 years older than me and she was listening to Elvis Presley. I listened to a lot of radio and I’m so that’s how it all kind of gelled together.
So even early on you were taught to do your own thing?
Absolutely, and it was almost unheard of. This was back in the ’50s. Most people that were taking piano lessons were getting hit on the hand with a ruler. My teacher was not like that at all. She was like a second mother to me. Later, when I was about 10 years old, she taught me how to play pipe organ. It was a huge skill set she taught me with regards to a lot of things, but not the least of which was playing one hand on the keyboard at the bottom rung and my right hand lets say at the top level. While making changes, using your feet to play the pedals and all that stuff. It was a really good education for me.
Absolutely, and so how old were you when you first started writing songs?
Well, I don’t think I honestly really dove into it that deep until I met Lowell. I would have been 20 years old.
How did you first meet each other? How did it happen?
Well, Lowell had been with Frank Zappa and the Mothers for a while. I called Frank’s office. He had Bizarre and Straight records. I called it Bizarre Records. I wanted to meet Frank Zappa, me and a million other people, but I didn’t have any way to go about it. I met this guy from Warner Bros., Jeffrey Simmons, who is with a group called Eureka. It was one of Frank’s satellite bands that he had. He had a bunch of bands that he had helped construct and signed to his label. Jeffrey met me and said, “There’s a guy named Lowell George you should actually meet.” He gave me the number and directed me back to the office. I told them what Jeff said and they hooked me up with Lowell. That’s the way all that started.
You guys met and started playing together?
Yeah, it’s what we wound up doing. I met him and we discussed everything under the sun, which was pretty cool. He had a really good, eclectic sense. I got to his house and there was a cool girl sitting on the floor, 18, 19 years old. She’s listening to some Erik Satie, that’s a composer. “Oh you must be Bill, Lowell is expecting you. He’ll be back in about four or five hours.“ What does he do when he’s not expecting you? After a while, I checked out his record collection. There was all kinds of cool stuff.
So you were scoping out his albums before you met him.
Oh yeah, I was scoping out his house before I met him. I was there for four or five hours. I said, “Well you know there’s a samurai sword on the back wall, there’s a sitar over on the right hand side of the wall.” He was probably studying sitar with Ravi Shankar. He was a very eclectic guy. His record collection had Om, by John Coltrane. He had some Muddy Waters. He has the record collection from the Smithsonian institute, some chain gang music. And on that was that, “Hey lordy join the band, hey lordy gonna join the band,” which was on Waiting for Columbus. That was back in that ’69, Waiting for Columbus was several years later. It was a good introduction to Lowell. By the time he showed up, I kind of knew who he was, at least in the sense of what he liked to read and what he liked to listen to. He had good taste in women too, I might add.
That’s the perfect way to get to know somebody and hit it off before you even meet them.
It was interesting. We didn’t start off with, “Hey we’re going to start a band.” He was talking about it, I still wanted to get Frank Zappa. By the time I met Frank, which is about a month later, I had already made the decision to work with Lowell. Frank kind of helped us with that too. As much as I wanted to play with Frank Zappa, I just wasn’t ready. I was young, I wasn’t quite there. Lowell and I started writing music. One of the first legitimate songs we wrote was a song called “Truck Stop Girl.” The Byrds later covered that. That was a real thrill. Then, I started doing session-work. One of the first bands I played with was the GTOs, Girls Together Outrageously. This was another band of Frank’s, and from there I just took off as a session player. Lowell helped me get that gig and Lowell was my mentor in that early time period. It was a good education for a guy like myself. I’ve mentioned education about two or three times right now in this interview, but I could have said you’ve got to have people watching your back in this world.
I have a few people doing that for me, so it was pretty cool.
How do you go about creating creating songs, man how does it happen for you?
I’ve been writing with Robert Hunter, who had written all those songs with Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead. I’ve written 20 songs with Robert Hunter right now. What I used to do is I’d sit there and I’d have an idea. I’d be in the Virgin Islands. Coming back from there, I stopped in Puerto Rico to this gambling casino on the way to the airport. I had an idea about somebody’s uncle is down there living the life and escaped from some relationship with his aunt. She might have been a nice person to me as a kid, but to the uncle it was just not happy. He was taking a big chance by going down there. That’s how “Time Loves a Hero” happened. We were at a jam session with Little Feat, because we had a rehearsal hall up in Hollywood. Kenny came up with the bass line to “Time Loves a Hero.” I started playing this lick over the top of it, which was the signature lick in “Time Loves a Hero” as well. Paul helped me with the lyrics. It was a collaborative event and really not even connected with much of anything. The story was what I remembered later. The same thing kind of happened with “Oh, Atlanta.” The first time we went to Cincinnati, which is I think in technically in 1970. I was at the airport and we we’re driving away from the airport and I saw these cars lined up watching planes land and take off. I thought, “That’s kind of bizarre. What is this?” Now, I know that it happens in a lot of towns and it’s just me being a West Coast guy, wasn’t used to that. I wrote it down in this little journal I was carrying. Years later I looked and I go, “Hmm. What if I were there watching those planes take off at that airport, but what where what really wanted to do was get down to this gal down in Georgia, in Savannah.” So, that was how that at least the basis for “Oh, Atlanta.” I guess what I what I’m saying is that mainly, not always, but lyrics are what compel me to want to do something, at least a kernel of an idea.
Absolutely, it’s interesting to be inspired by these little, these little things you see and just take off from there.
Well, it keeps you your eyes open. I’m a pretty good photographer too, as it turns out. I didn’t start until about fourteen, sixteen years ago. I’m sixty five, yeah. I started taking photos. My son, Evan, who lives over in Ireland, he’s 31. We completed our third song, called “Sunday’s Best,” right around the time that I completed my 20th song with Robert Hunter.
My son told me. He says, “I want to look at one or two of your photos, I want to take my inspiration from that. What do you recommend?” I said, “Well I’ve got a photo called “Sunday’s Best.” It’s a photo of these three ladies in Jamaica and they’re with their mother. There was another, called was “Inside of the Lord,” which was this lady over in Nuremberg, Germany. She’s this bent over figure, white hair, dressed in black, got a cane. She’s on a cobblestone street and in back of her is this huge edifice of a church. He took a look at both those photos and came up with beautiful lyrics. Like I said, it was on the third time. The first time I asked him to do it he said, “Oh, I don’t think I can write anything. I go, “Sure you can man. What are you talking about?” Then he goes “well, throw me a title.” I go “Dust and Bones.” He took “Dust and Bones” and turned that into a beautiful piece too. He’s an incredible lyricist. I mean, I’m a pretty good lyricist too, but you get the likes of Robert Hunter in the car. He’s one of the best lyricists on the planet.
So, how’d that, how’d that happen? How did you meet up with him?
Cameron Sears used to manage the Grateful Dead and manages Little Feat. They were trying to get us to do another record, which I was happy about. they said that Robert wanted to write with us.
So we got some lyrics in the fall. Paul looked at a couple things, he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He tried to change a couple things, which is not what Robert likes people to do. I looked at a song called “Waiting for the Rain.” I finally wrote something to that, and Robert and I were off and running.
You’re touring a ton this year. You’re touring with Leftover Salmon. How did that come together? You recorded with them in that 2004.
I think so. It’s been so long. I recorded with the boys back in the day. I produced a record with them. Originally, we played a gig in Springfield, Illinois. A dear friend of mine, Steve Wiles, promoted that show. One of his kids said, “Dad, check out this group Leftover Salmon and they ought to be the people that play with Little Feat.” That’s how that kind of came together. It was sort of a family thing. Mark Vann ,who played banjo with the group, got cancer and couldn’t tour any longer. They were doing some benefits date and tribute to Mark while he was still alive. Paul Barrere and I went out and played some shows with them in Colorado. It really sealed the deal with the relationship with them. As you said, I’m currently touring with them. They are a wonderful band, they’ve got a great history of music. They are edging towards their 25th year as a band together. Every one of them, from Andy Thorn to Vince Herman to Drew. Emmitt to Greg Garrison, and this new drummer Alwyn Robinson. They can play just about anything. I feel completely at home playing with these guys and I’m very, very happy to be touring with them.
It’s got to be fun for you to have a different outlet, to be able to do something different stylistically.
Yeah, it’s true. I’ve been in the studio with the guys again. We’re in the process of making another record. Vince shot me some lyrics the other day. We’re writing a song or two and it’s putting one foot in front of the other. Feet first, I guess. We’re making some good roads. Where are you calling from?
Kansas City Missouri.
Excellent, that’s a good town.
I went to school down south, in New Orleans. Little Feat has always had a big, big, big NOLA connection. What first got you into that sound? What first turned you on to it?
Well, for me it was listening to Clifton Chenier, who was fantastic. He and his brother Cleveland. Cleveland played the washboard. Bonnie Payne plays the washboard, she’s fantastic. Anyway, we were down there playing that or listening to that stuff. Later, Professor Longhair, the Olympics, Big Boy Pete. They had that New Orleans kind of sound to it, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was in fourth, maybe fifth grade. New Orleans has a really rich history. My parents were married there, which I later found out too. I was born in Texas. All my family’s from Texas, but I was brought up in California. Lowell, he liked that kind of music. When Roy Estrada left the band, after Sailin’ Shoes. We brought in Paul Barrere and grabbed his friend, Kenny. Kenny goes, “Hey, I got my partner here. His partner was Sam Clayton. And those guys had lived in New Orleans or were born in Louisiana. They came in with those kind of chops too. That’s when we started playing “Dixie Chicken” and that kind of stuff. It was pretty interesting stuff.
You guys mixed so many different styles together. It’s so fascinating the way you guys approach things with your own slant on stuff. You would cover somebody, and take it into a whole different territory. You just amp it up a million degrees.
Well, thanks. Lowell and I were into a broad selection of music. I mean, everybody in the band was. Richie loved playing all different kinds of things. When you listen to Richie next time, check out the symbol work that he does on the drums. He was influenced by Mitch Mitchell, from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Keith Moon, from the Who. He was also influenced on the jazz side by Elvin Jones. Elvin Jones played with everybody, John Coltrane and, probably, Miles Davis. He played with a lot of folks, so that cymbal work came from that guy. As a kid, he used to play in big bands, just doing the standard stuff back in Iowa. We all came in with a pretty good vocabulary. We were finding our voice, which is what every artist does or attempts to do anyway. I came down to L.A. with knowledge of Conway Twitty’s music and George Jones and that kind of stuff, along with all the rock ‘n roll and jazz I’d been brought up with. We just wanted to play it all. There seemed to be this platform to be able to do it from, because we weren’t locked in to any one thing. It was something that Lowell and I had talked about. If we wanted to do things and mix and match metaphors musically speaking, or even lyrically, we didn’t want to be shackled by anybody’s concepts of “Well, this is the proper way to play.” Well, go ahead and you play it then.
We’re not knocking you, don’t knock us.
Even from your earliest days, you weren’t copying any styles. You were just, you were just combining it into your own thing.
Well, yeah I mean we were influenced by the Band, Bob Dylan, Leon Russel, the Rolling Stones, on the rock and roll side of things. The influences kind of got a lot deeper once you started moving away from the shore. When I write with Robert Hunter, I’m scoring my music and melody to his lyrics. So, in a song like “Rooster Rag.” The first verse comes down the way it does, you go the second verse and there’s a line, “Tubal Cain was the god of fire, he got doused one good rain.” I think, “Well, Tubal Cain, man that sounds like almost a biblical thing.” I put in a reference to rag time music in there. When I play it, it moves into that category. Toward the end, Robert is writing about the idea of leave this world, world a better place, paper chase, what a waste. That’s one of his messages, so I bring the music down. I used to play with James Taylor, and James was really good at that with acoustic music. When you play softer, people, either literally or figuratively, they lean in to hear you. It is a good device to know as a musician. You can take people with you wherever you want to take them. If they are with you in the beginning, they will lean in even harder. It is an amazing thing. It is cool.
Were you always styling the music that way too? You would have lyrics and then you would write something musically to complement those?
Here’s another way that I can bring you up to speed how I started this. I lived up on the hill in Ventura, had a view of the city of Ventura. It’s a beautiful place, the Pacific Ocean, the channel islands. I’d look out there everyday and there’d be a different scene. You’d have clouds coming in or the ocean would be a gun metal grey or a royal blue or a light blue. The sky, for sunset, would go through these various gradations of color and what not. I’d go to piano and try and replicate what I saw. I was taking a cinematic approach to to what I saw. The piano is where I would go and try and bring out that emotion, the best qualities of what I saw. It started at a pretty early age, which is kind of cool. I didn’t really think that much about it. Getting back to the teacher that I had, Ms. Newman, she knew I had those qualities. She told my mother quite literally, “I’ll teach Bill how to play music, but let’s not take the magic out of it for him.” I thought that was a pretty astute thing for her to say and it served me rather well. Obviously what I do now, is what I’ve done forever. I’m going in to rehearsal today with these guys, the oldest one is 19 years old. His name is Connor Kennedy and the other cats are between 18 and 19. We’re playing a gig, two gigs. One is on Friday night. I’m gonna be playing my own solo show, but I want to have them play some music with me too. And then Saturday night at their show. Connor Kennedy is a guitar player who works with Amy Helm. He says, “I want to do a tribute to Little Feat.” I said, “That’s cool. What albums do you want to do?” He said, “I want to do the first album. “Truck Stop Girl,” “Brides of Jesus,” “Crack in Your Door,” “Hamburger Midnight,” “Snakes on Everything.” It’s just like, oh my gosh, what a cool record to want to replicate.
The keyboard player, I think he’s eighteen. He’s a wonderful musician. We were down in Jamaica. His uncle is a guy named Byron Isaacs. Byron plays with Larry Campbell and the Midnight Ramble Band, whom I also sit in with from time-to-time. Larry Campbell and I are talking about a band and. If we can actually bring it to fruition, Byron’s gonna be playing bass. It’s a great, great group of folks. I was singing with Larry and his wife Teresa Williams. I’ve got so many things on my plate right now it’s just absurd. I’m just enjoying life. I’m 65, my wife just turned 39. She was 34 when I met her and I was 60.
We’re doing great. All is good, man. All is good on all sides.