In his 43-year career as a founding member of Little Feat and as a highly sought-after session artist, Bill Payne has worked with thousands of musicians. It is only now, at 63, that the keyboardist/songwriter has collaborated with Robert Hunter, famed lyricist for the Grateful Dead and writing partner of the late Jerry Garcia. What has resulted is a set of songs that comprise nearly half of Feat’s 16th and latest studio entry in their storied discography, Rooster Rag. Just prior to the start of the band’s lengthy summer tour, Payne talked to us from his Montana home about the new album, the creative process, and the effect of change on a band now in its fifth decade in rock and roll.
What makes now the time for a new Little Feat record?
We hadn’t done anything for probably seven or eight years. Right before we took off for that one venture with Jimmy Buffett and Friends, a record we had called Join the Band, there was an idea of putting together a blues record, an idea that I had while wandering the streets of Cleveland. Turns out, we didn’t write very much in the way of blues songs, and the idea shifted to just doing a regular Little Feat record. About that time, I was introduced to Robert Hunter.
How did that introduction with Hunter come about?
Cameron Sears, who used to manage the Grateful Dead, got in touch and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing some stuff with Robert Hunter?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ I think Paul (Barrere) had sent him (Hunter) some music if I remember correctly, and the two of them didn’t quite hit it off. I was sent a couple things. I dove into one and thought that I could write something to it. It started off with one song and has blossomed into ten, and I’m now working on an eleventh. It’s been quite the journey.
Did you get the sense that these were things Robert had worked on for your specific project or were they things he had and was looking for a home?
My sense of things, and I’m not really sure, was that he knew we were writing a project. I didn’t get a sense that they were things sitting in a pile for him. On a couple, he said, ‘I was listening to a record of yours and that is what inspired me to write this.’ What I took out of that was that he was taking our music and putting his stuff on top of that. At least, it led him in a certain direction. More often than not, the freedom that he and I developed in this relationship let the lyrics guide me.
Can you give me an example of that process?
“Rooster Rag” is a good example of that. When I started out with that, I was sitting there trying to figure out the lay of the land. My way of writing is pretty exploratory. I was reacting off of some key words like ‘Tubal Cain’ or ‘kings of creation,’ and what emotion did that drive with me. With Tubal Cain, I wasn’t sure what the reference was, it reminded me of something that would be best served with some chords that had a ragtime history or feel to them. Each verse in that song is different because the lyrics suggested to me that they be different. At the beginning, I think I wrote everything the same, but then I thought about taking each thing for what it is. I know how to write an A/B/Chorus, but the way I like to write is with a lot more freedom, and Robert’s lyrics certainly gave me that opportunity.
I’m curious about the idea of looking for indicators in the lyrics to inform you musically. Were you trying to visualize it, like the lyrics reminded you of a setting, and that led to your musical choices?
That’s a good question. My music is visual. I come from a very visual place. When I got to that part about Tubal Cain, I’m going… (Plays ragtime section on the piano.) I didn’t literally play that kind of music, but I took it as an indicator of a certain style. We just lost Levon Helm, and when I got to the ‘kings of creation,’ that almost had, to me, a Band feeling. I can’t talk for Robert. For me, I’m borrowing from influences all the time. I wasn’t lifting anything, just that, for lack of a better word, there was a feeling attached to it, an emotion attached to it. It seemed to me a pinnacle of something. I think, in effect, what I was doing was scoring the lyrics. At first I thought of it as a song, but I also thought of it on a visual level. What are we looking at?
Did you apply this same process in the past to your own lyrics, or when collaborating with others, as well?
I certainly applied it to my own. “Red Streamliner.” “Gringo.” Those kinds of songs are very visual tunes. The song I co-wrote with Gabe Ford on this one, “The Blues Keep Coming,” was visual but in a slightly different way. Some things are done by feel. “Oh Atlanta” was just taking a rock and roll song with a couple of extra chords thrown into it- let the lyrics convey what they are going to convey. It’s like a Rolling Stones song; you know the chorus but you couldn’t sing a verse to save your life.
Is it true that “Oh Atlanta” was your answer to a bet from Lowell George that you couldn’t write a pop hit?
(Laughs) Yeah, it sort of was. And he was right, I couldn’t. My idea of a hit song was a chorus at 42 seconds in, and so it was somewhat of an exercise. The lyrics to that were from a poem that I had written. It was more in a poem layout from a journal. I used to keep journals; a couple of which are in the Rock and Roll museum up in Cleveland.