With a new Little Feat album nearing completion, an acoustic studio album with bandmate Fred Tackett in the works and a solo project underway, guitarist Paul Barrere is a busy man. This summer, Little Feat will release their fifteenth studio album, Rooster Rag, containing their first original material since 2003’s Kickin’ It at the Barn. This is also the group’s first album with drummer Gabe Ford, who replaced the late Richie Hayward following his passing in August of 2010. We caught up with Barrere while he was on the road performing a series of acoustic shows with Tackett to chat about Little Feat’s new album, working with Robert Hunter and rediscovering Feat’s jamband roots.
What was the timeline and recording process like for the new Little Feat album?
Well, we started a little more than a year ago. We went into the studio in February of 2011 and we laid down about eight different tracks. Then we just kind of hit the road, as usual, for most of the year. We played a lot of the songs on the road, so we refined them a little bit more while we were out there.
Then starting in September we went back in the studio and finished those off. Billy [Payne] had done some writing with Robert Hunter, so he had a few new songs that we learned. We actually spent three days in a rehearsal studio and then went right back into the studio and cut about eight more tracks. Then we pared it all down into the twelve that we decided to keep and started diving into them one by one to see what each song needed.
We brought in Kim Wilson to play harp on “Mellow Down Easy,” which is an old Little Walter tune that we had Sam Clayton sing—he’s got that great blues voice. We brought in Larry Campbell to play fiddle on a few songs that Billy had written with Mr. Hunter. Then we brought the Texicali Horns, who are these cats that used to play with Taj Mahal, and we had them play on three or four different tracks.
It was great. We recorded it at Johnny Lee Shell’s house. Johnny played with Bonnie Raitt for years and years and then he built a studio at his house and he’s recorded people like Taj, Eric Burdon, Sam Blues Band and just a whole bunch of things. He’s got Richard Manuel’s old Steinway piano and a great B3 Organ in there. It was just a really comfortable way to work.
How did the collaborations with Robert Hunter come about?
It happened because our manager is Cameron Sears, who worked for years with the Dead. I think Cameron hooked Billy and Hunter up. I had actually sent Hunter a couple of tracks and what he wrote for those I wasn’t extremely pleased with and I asked him if I could change some of the lyrics and he was not into that at all—he wanted his lyrics to be left alone. So Billy just started sending him some tracks and Hunter started sending him some music and they collaborated on four songs for the record. I don’t think they’ve ever met; they just do it through the internet.
Were you more pleased with the songs he worked on with Billy?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think when you give Hunter more of a free way to just write the lyrics and then put some music to it afterwards, as opposed to the other way around, it works a little better.
Can you give us some insight into the album title The Rooster Rag ?
I’m not sure where Mr. Hunter came up with that whole concept. It’s kind of a take off on the struttin’ your stuff thing. We thought it was a good track and it has a ragtime feel and we thought it would be a good fit for the record.
Can you talk about the direction you guys took on this new album compared to your last studio album of original material, 2003’s Kickin’ It at the Barn ?
Actually, they’re both quite similar wherein the fact that we did a lot of jamming. We kind of created parts on the spot as opposed to somebody coming in with a song completely finished and saying “You play this, you play that.” Basically, the direction was what we try and do with all of our records—make something that’s fun…fun to play and fun to listen to. We’re not really looking to change the sound of Little Feat, ever.
This is your first studio album without founding drummer Richie Hayward. How have you managed to replace his inimitable sound?
Gabe Ford does a great job, he really steps up on this. He played wonderfully, he added a lot as far as his approach to it. It was just solid. Richie is the kind of drummer who is really fantastic, but doesn’t always play the same thing twice. So when you’re going from take to take it always seems to be different. Gabe would come up with a part and he would kind of lock in on it.
How did Gabe find his way into the band? What was his history with Little Feat?
He, believe or not, was Richie’s drum tech for the last two and half years that Richie was with us. He used to work at the Fillmore in San Francisco and he was also a drummer in the Bay Area—his uncle is Robben Ford. Their whole family is completely musical. So when Richie passed away, we were thinking “we’re going to have to get three or four drummers to cover all these different styles.” But our production manager/front of house mixer, who lives in the Bay Area, said “Well, Gabe, who’s a drummer, has been sitting there listening to the book for the last two and a half years, why don’t you ask him if he can do it.” So we asked him if he could do it and he said, “Yeah, I can do it. It won’t be Richie, but it’ll be solid and in the pocket.” So we said “Come on down” and we gave him 18 songs to work on. On the second day we said, “Pack your shit and go home. You’re no longer a tech, you’re our drummer.”