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Little Feat Re-formed Long Before Reunions Were the Rage

Little Feat, big sound.
Bill Payne

Over its multidecade history, Little Feat has undergone a tangled trajectory. Founded by guitarist Lowell George, a former member of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, Little Feat evolved from two earlier outfits, the Fraternity of Man and the Factory. Fusing rock, blues, country, boogie, and R&B, songs like "Willin'," "Dixie Chicken," and "Oh Atlanta" reflected a rarefied yet rootsy approach.

Feat's first phase ended when George left the band in 1979 and was felled by a drug overdose not long after. His departure and subsequent demise splintered the band, but they reconvened a decade later with new vocalist Shaun Murphy and singer/guitarists Craig Fuller and Fred Tackett. As one of the earliest champions of the jam band genre even before that style was tagged as such, Little Feat's second lease on life is even more prolific than its first.

This past August, tragedy claimed another original member, drummer Richie Hayward, who succumbed to liver cancer exactly a year after he was diagnosed. Still, Little Feat soldiers on, defying those who say the band's best days have passed. "Obviously we're in competition with ourselves," founding member and keyboard player Bill Payne said in an interview with New Times. "I think one way to view it is in the form of chapters. For those that really want to keep the divide going in their own minds, it's completely understandable... [but] we've never ever conformed to any one thing."

New Times: After all these years, the road must get old at times. How do you manage to put on a good face and the right attitude night after night?

Bill Payne: People are looking at you. I walked on stage the other night, and I looked at our road manager, Scott, and asked, "Do I have my Mary Tyler Moore smile on?" So you go up there and you do what you have to do. The whole idea is to keep people guessing, sometimes the band itself. That's the beauty of live stuff, and when you're traveling, you have to adapt immediately.

It must have been rather difficult reestablishing yourselves following the extended hiatus you took after Lowell's death.

Fred Tackett once asked me, "So how are you going to keep this from looking like another money-grubbing reunion tour?" I replied, "You do it by the strength of your music, because obviously we're in competition with ourselves. You do it through the strength of the performance, which will then give you whatever your longevity as far as this career in Little Feat is concerned." Some 15 years later, we're kicking pretty strong.

Still, there are probably people who judge the current band versus the band led by Lowell.

I can see where people get on and off the bus with whatever they do. "Oh, we loved Dylan until he picked up an electric guitar. Oh, we loved Dylan until his voice changed — he sounds like a 90-year-old man. We loved the Stones until they began to look older than our grandparents."

You're not ever going to capture everybody. I feel we do capture the majority of people. I always try to look at these things in human terms. You can take it personally, which I certainly did for many years. I didn't so much grow out of it as I begin to accept the fact that this is a human condition with people. If it were across the board, then we certainly wouldn't be able to do the band thing anymore, but it wasn't that, thank God. People, they envelop what they can, and some people are more curious than others and have a little more time and a greater depth of absorbing things as it draws towards them. Others don't. And there's really nothing wrong with that. I mean, I listen to some of the performances Lowell did with Little Feat and think, "God, how can we get much better than that?" And then I listen to things that we're doing now or in the past few years, and it's like, "God, what is that? Oh, it's us!" And I think, man, if I didn't know who that was, I'd think, gosh, they're probably really good.

So it sounds like you feel that Feat is as fine as it ever was.

I don't listen to our music — I'm just up there playing — but it sounds good to me, and I try to be as objective as I can be, and I use the same criteria as when I'm working with anybody else I've ever worked with. Does it feel good as a musician? Obviously we're not pop stars, so we go up there and do the only thing that entices us to do the arduous journey of travel, which is to go up there and play a nice show.

Little Feat was one of the originals in this whole Americana genre, were you not? You're right up there with the Dead, the Band, the Allman Brothers.

Well, I guess we are. I never thought of it. I knew we were part of an era that produced those kinds of bands and musicians, and we did it pretty well. When Lowell and I first went to Warner Bros. to audition, we played [producer] Lenny Waronker nine songs, and he said, "You got a deal." You can't do that now. You couldn't put an album together because they'd say, "Well, there's too many styles going on here, fellas," so we'd confuse the hell out of everybody.

Is there any way to sum up the band's philosophy after 40 years?

Lowell and I once talked about the connection between things. That's really what we were talking about. Is it food, is it family, is it women, is it surfing, is it family, is it cars? Is it the danger that's in the world? What are we writing about, and where are we now at in this point in time in history? Sure, we had music like "Oh Atlanta" — "gotta get home to you" — which is a pure rock 'n' roll tune, but we also had other things which dug deeper into the fabric of things other than relationships. I'm still discovering who I am, and the band is still doing the same thing, which is a pretty good trick after 40 years of looking in the mirror.

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