An Interview with Bill Payne of Little Feat

In an industry where so many artists and bands come and go, American rock and roll, country, blues and R&B hybrid band Little Feat has remained ever-present since the late 1960s.

Nearly 30 projects have come out over the course of Little Feat’s 55-year existence, with the band’s most recent full-length record coming out less than a month ago. Following their new record, Little Feat is set to headline the NYS Blues Fest in Syracuse on Saturday, June 15.

Through breakups, regroupings, lineup changes and genre-bending albums, Little Feat has maintained the spirit that gave them an audience in the first place. That of making authentic and passionate music that’s a joy to listen to and feeds the soul.

The band’s new album, Sam’s Place, just came out on May 17 and is their first album in 12 years. The record is also the first Little Feat project to feature longtime percussionist Sam Clayton on lead vocals, and the first to lean heavily into the blues.

Bill Payne, pianist for Little Feat, is the sole founding member of the band who is still actively involved. With a wildly impressive resume of musicians he played with as a session artist, including Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, Toto, Jimmy Buffet and many more, Payne is no amateur in the industry.

NYS Music had a conversation with Payne about Little Feat’s recent record, the significance of live music, the future of Little Feat and more.

Little Feat bill payne
Bill Payne playing with Little Feat at a 2010 Richie Hayward benefit in Vermont.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erkan: The gap between Rooster Rag and Sam’s Place was 12 years. What was it like for the band to get back together and record after your longest break between albums?

Payne: It wasn’t that big of a deal. There was an interim right after Rooster Rag where I was playing with The Doobie Brothers. So that time was occupied. I didn’t feel like there was a huge gap in terms of what I was working on. I don’t think it really affected the band all too much.

Erkan: What makes Sam’s Place different from all other Little Feat projects?

Payne: I think it’s unique in a couple of senses. The biggest one is focusing on Sam Clayton for vocals. I wanted to do this many years ago, and it never took place, so I was thrilled. The other thing that I think stands out with this record is that Michael LoBue, or we call him “Bull,” was playing harmonica for us. Also, the record focuses on one genre of music rather than the eclectic mix of things that we normally do.

Erkan: Now that Sam’s Place is out, how has the reception been?

Payne: The reception is excellent. It’s always great when you can project yourself on a project. I had one guy comment saying, “Oh man, I love Little Feat, but when I found you were doing a blues record, I was like, ‘Oh no!’ And then I sat down and listened to it, and my jaw fell to the floor.”

Erkan: Have you been able to play it live yet?

Payne: We’ve cherry-picked a few songs. We were just in Berkeley, and we played one of the tunes that evening.

Erkan: How important to the band are live shows?

Payne: I think to our band in particular, and any band for that matter, especially these days, they are exceedingly important. The music industry has changed so much over the years and selling records is not what it used to be. Streaming is a conundrum in terms of you couldn’t possibly make a living doing it unless you were a star like Lady Gaga. I think all the proponents that have always been there for artists are all important. Live shows, recordings, rehearsals—the whole nine yards.

Erkan: Sam’s Place is the first Little Feat album to be released in the streaming era. What aspects of the album did it affect, if any?

Payne: I didn’t think about it one way or the other. I don’t think anybody did. We just played.

Erkan: You’ve had the privilege of seeing the music industry evolve massively throughout your career. Do you have any words on what it’s been like to exist through the countless changes and evolutions the industry has gone through?

Payne: On certain levels, it’s like a frog being boiled in water. People don’t realize things until it’s too late. On other levels, I’ve felt like Nostradamus at times. Like when I was trying to convince Warner Brothers that the internet is something they might want to pay attention to. Artists don’t write or compose or create because they want to. They have to. In other words, it’s going to come out, whether there’s a platform to present it or not. It’s something that you have in you or you don’t.

Erkan: Do you have any words of advice for people who might want to get into the industry but don’t know what to do?

Payne: If you’re the type of person who’s inquisitive about things, you have to embrace that with all with all you have. As an artist you have in your quiver, so to speak, the ability to share with people not only what you like to listen to or have been influenced by but how you might influence others, which is your own. Those things are important to share, especially in this day and age.

Erkan: Your 1978 album Waiting for Columbus made it to Rolling Stones’ 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time list. What factors would you say contributed most to that album being so highly praised?

Payne: What exemplifies anything that we gravitate to with musicians and artists is two things: One is the music itself, the compositions. And secondly, there is the craftsmanship. The sonic quality of that record is wonderful. We had some brilliant people working with us. What makes Little Feat Little Feat, is the musicianship and great songs.

Erkan: You’ve mentioned in a couple of previous interviews that you’re actively writing a memoir. Can you tell me more about how that’s going and what stages of the book you’re in?

Payne: I’m approximately 70,000 words into it. I think that Thomas McGuane said the other day that between the musings and the dead ends, writing can often be like starting to fire in the rain. It’s tough, but I enjoy the process. All manner of things are revealed when you write about yourself. I was curious to see if I could tickle my brain and operate on myself, and yeah, it turns out I can.

Erkan: What’s next for Little Feat?

Payne: I was just listening before you called to the last mix of some songs that we have coming out on a record next year. The album is untitled, but they’re all new songs. People settled into Sam’s Place, and we’ll follow up with a punch with this new record. It’s extraordinary. There are some good guests on it. Hopefully, we’ll have another conversation about that.

Stream Little Feat’s new album Sam’s Place on all streaming platforms.

Reserve tickets to the NYS Blues Festival here.

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