Interview with brilliant multi-talented artist Bill Payne about the art, the music, the life, the counterculture, the world

"My foundation as an artist is the belief in: ... the nobleness of the arts and our effort as artists...writers...teachers...conveyors of thought, is to be mindful of the challenge and the importance of what we do. The essence of our efforts, I believe, is to illuminate the path of a measured truth, and to reflect and mirror that truth through the veil of our craft, taking aim at ourselves, our society, our world, with utmost respect to the awe and mystery of life, and with the essential focus on what was, what is, and perhaps most importantly, what might be."

Bill Payne: The Philosopher's Stone of Art

Multitalented artist Bill Payne is well-known as a co-founder of the legendary American Roots Rock band Little Feat. Mr. Payne says: "I don’t separate myself from my art. It is a revolving summation and continuance of what I am, what I was, and what I hope to be." Photographer, poet, writer, musician, songwriter Bill Payne is considered by many other rock pianists, including Elton John, to be one of the finest American piano rock and blues musicians. In addition to his trademark barrelhouse blues piano, he is noted for his work on the Hammond B3 organ. Payne is an accomplished songwriter whose credits include "Oh Atlanta.” Payne has worked and recorded with J.J. Cale, Buddy Guy, Doobie Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Bryan Adams, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, Toto, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Robert Palmer, Jimmy Buffett and John Lee Hooker, and many others.

Bill Payne played several live concerts with Phil Lesh and Friends, from October 1999 through July 2000. Payne was a member of the Boulder band Leftover Salmon from 2014 until December 2015. Payne was a pioneer in the development of online music communities. In the early 1990s, he contacted his fan base and enlisted the help of friends Jay Herbst, Catherine (Cat) Bauer, and Red Miller, to develop the Little Feat Grass-roots Movement. This model went on to be a template for many bands in the creation of their Street Teams, which enlist the help of fans for purposes of music and concert promotion. This method has proven to be an effective vehicle for bringing bands and fans closer together, and forging friendships between them.

Interview by Michael Limnios     Special Thanks: Dennis McNally & Bill Payne

Photos by Bill Payne's Archive & Polly Payne / All rights reserved

What do you miss the most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?

Bill Payne: I don't really miss much of anything. I'm not as up on what the new trends are musically, but, like most people, I know what I like when I hear it.

It’s not about the technology of sound. One of my favorite blues albums is Howlin’ Wolf’s Back Door Man, for example. It was recorded with one mic in the room. Simply amazing and perfectly suited to the music. I do love the technology of today, but I don’t ever lose sight on what makes great music. Good things happen with a great song, musicianship and intent. In terms of what I’ve been listening to lately, there is jazz saxophonist, composer, Kamasi Washington. He was touring with Herbie Hancock last year. I really like him. Kamasi is the latest crop of great musicians in the jazz world. I came to his music through listening to Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. The connection between things is something Lowell George and I talked a lot about when Little Feat first started. There’s also something to be said about being authentic. It's about what musicians, singers, songwriters, bring in the way of feel and collaboration that lend authenticity to their work in whatever era it was made.

What were the reasons that you started photo art research and experiment, what touches you emotionally from the photo art?

Bill Payne: I kind of stumbled upon it. I had asked my son, Evan, to take a photo of me for my solo record, Cielo Norte. We drove up to Corral Canyon above Malibu. Lots of beautiful rock formations up there. At one point I asked Evan if I could borrow the camera, a point and shoot with very low pixels, and perhaps take a photo. The view was stunning, the coast and Pacific ocean below. The moment my finger pressed the shutter was like hitting middle C on the piano when I was a little kid. There was that same magic.

I went "Uh-oh"(laughing). That's what it was, the emotional and tactile connection; literally, the act of pushing my finger on the shutter, taking the photo, looking at the result and being swept away by the joy of discovering something that was new to me. I have always been a visual artist. As a child I would try to replicate what I had seen and heard. My parents took me to the beach where the shrieks of the seagulls, the roar of the waves, the howling wind were what I brought back to the piano. It wasn’t just the sounds, it was the visual imagery as well: the seagulls dancing in the air above the waves, the movement of the clouds, the whitecaps on the ocean beyond the waves all affected my approach to playing the piano. The piano was the conduit to the visual and auditory world, feeding my imagination. I found expression in the visual. These expressions were my first attempts at improvisation. And though it took me many years before I started taking photographs, I can truly say that I was taking them all along. I just didn’t realize it until that day up in Corral Canyon.

Now about art in general. How has art and counterculture of the art influenced your views of the world and the journeys you have taken in your life?

Bill Payne: It's an excellent question first and foremost, so thank you. When I was growing up, the counterculture emerged in the early '60s. It’s full effect resonated with me later that decade. Listening to music however was already a big part of my life. By the late ‘60s songs were becoming longer. Underground radio stations had a lot to do with that. Their format allowed for what in the ‘50s was a song of two minutes and forty seconds (hit singles), to album cuts running seven, ten, fifteen or more minutes. The other dynamic was political, incorporating the twin pillars of civil rights and free speech that seared into our lives. Folk and blues in the early ‘60s went hand and hand with those two historical swings. The freedom that was being cultivated created a tension amongst those for change against those entrenched in a history of faux innocence, ignorance and control. In the latter part of the decade, music increasingly became the soundtrack to our lives amidst the fiery chaos of the Vietnam War, the loss of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the race riots occurring in the burning cities across the United States, the political unrest of 1968 at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Kent State shootings in 1970. The United States was being torn apart by race and racism and the war. I didn't know I was an artist in the early ‘60s, but my feelings about rules, regulations, and the people imposing them, were front and center of my questioning authority, accompanied by the music of those two decades. My trust in authority had evaporated many years before, hiding under a desk in school following instructions from adults as to what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Their authority was certainly not tied to a convincing sense of judgement. It was more about entitlement. I wasn’t intimidated by authority so much as paying attention to their reasoning and judgment. And, not unlike today, both lacked credibility.  

When I joined Little Feat in 1969, I was on the journey to begin writing songs, experimenting with the freedom and restrictions of form. There are consequences to everything you do, but for me the bottom line was about freedom and reaching out to likeminded people, while being truthful to who I was as a person, even as I staked out that very territory. It was an incredible time to be alive. The beacon of art was rampant and pushing against all boundaries. Anything, good or bad, was infinitely possible. I was just trying to find myself, as were a good many of us.

"I would like to have a more universal and open mind about the importance of art and music. It's not about hate. It's about humanity and how to utilize the power that provides us with more humanity. The arts are aptly named: the humanities. We can have individualism and still integrate into a community. The connectiveness to our communities, though, is at risk and eroding because of tribalism. The mirror has fallen off the wall and shattered into a thousand pieces. We somehow need to find common ground. And with open hearts and minds, the threads of art, music, and thoughtful conversation will perhaps bring us closer together." (Photo: Bill Payne)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music and art in general?

Bill Payne: They 're both intertwined and I hate to say that it's monetary. I don’t mean for myself, but there's so many young artists coming up through the ranks now and they are not being properly paid. The opportunities are dwindling for artists. We need artists to maintain a healthy society. Their creativity is essential. You cannot stop artists from being creative. I don't compose music because I want to, it is because I have to, it's a need. Artists will write whether they're paid for it or not. The point is they should be paid for their efforts. We are the beneficiaries of those efforts. Artists should be encouraged, not discouraged, to engage in the debate.

Too many experiences in your life, in your career. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your past, in your career and in your life?

Bill Payne: I'll start with a general lesson in my life from my teacher in Ventura California, Ruth Neuman. She told me, “You're not always going to have a piano to practice on, but you'll have a desk or a table, you'll have your knees, you'll have the air to play without having a piano in front of you.” I took that lesson to heart. When I’m at a restaurant, people might think I'm mindlessly drumming my fingers on the table. I’m not. I know where each note on the piano is. I’m in the key of A, this is a D#, A, E. When I play a chord and I can hear it. This is the gift Ruth gave me: to use my imagination; to make use of what I’ve learned on the piano (the scales of all the keys, for example); to think in terms of actually playing, of processing what I play and what I hear without an instrument. That was a wonderful lesson. Another one was from Ralph Grierson, who is a phenomenal pianist. We were in a session once for a film and I was having trouble reading the score and he told me not to worry about it. He would handle the piano parts that day. He said, “I can play whatever anyone throws at me. You could take ink from a pen and splash it across a page, and as long as the dots are connected in a musically accurate way, I can read it. But I can't do what you do, which is to simply sit there and play something off the top of your head as if it had been written for you.” Ralph’s encouragement to me was invaluable and long lasting. It changed my life.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing and how has it affected your mood and inspiration?

Bill Payne: I told Robert Hunter—who recently passed away and with whom I wrote twenty-songs—that the music was in his lyrics. He said yeah, but it takes a composer to draw it out. It was a nice exchange.

"Oh Atlanta, Oh Atlanta, I gotta get back to you"

I don't think that's poetry. It's a good rock and roll song but there's not a lot of poetry in it. “Gringo,” is a song filled with poetry: "they say all suffering comes to an end, the common saying for friend is amigo, Gringo."

The poetry is there, the cadences of those lines are compelling; there is a statement and the words draw you in, with or without music.

"When I was growing up, the counterculture emerged in the early '60s. It’s full effect resonated with me later that decade. Listening to music however was already a big part of my life. By the late ‘60s songs were becoming longer. Underground radio stations had a lot to do with that. Their format allowed for what in the ‘50s was a song of two minutes and forty seconds (hit singles), to album cuts running seven, ten, fifteen or more minutes." (Bill Payne / Photo by Polly Payne)

If you would change one thing on the musical and art world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Bill Payne: I would like to have a more universal and open mind about the importance of art and music. It's not about hate. It's about humanity and how to utilize the power that provides us with more humanity. The arts are aptly named: the humanities. We can have individualism and still integrate into a community. The connectiveness to our communities, though, is at risk and eroding because of tribalism. The mirror has fallen off the wall and shattered into a thousand pieces. We somehow need to find common ground. And with open hearts and minds, the threads of art, music, and thoughtful conversation will perhaps bring us closer together.

What is the impact of art, music and culture to the civil rights, spiritual and sociocultural implications?

Bill Payne: This is a very important question, Michael. A torrent of bitterness and reflexive blame has been unleashed. The worst we can do is be indifferent. Our silence threatens to entomb us all. It is time to speak up.

We are not encouraged to think for ourselves. The implications are dire if people are no longer able or willing to listen and interact with one another. We are cutting ourselves off from the very lifelines that give shape to our humanity. When our focus is funneled to us in steady increments that discourage civil disobedience, protests of any kind, thoughts and actions that deviate from the party line, while strongly encouraging complacency and blind obedience, bolstered by a miasma of fear, chaos, bullying, disinformation, distraction, and dangerous rhetoric, the structure of everything begins to fall apart. Art, music, and culture can only have impact if we nurture our awareness and remain inquisitive. In the United States there has a been a systematic dumbing down of our culture, a disintegration of truth and a concentrated dismantling of our institutions. Rule of law is left bleeding on rough concrete in the cities and the dusty roads of rural America. We are at each other’s throats. What we are collectively hearing are the echoes of fascism and racism. Decency has lost all potency with those displaying an insidious aptitude for sleepwalking. One again we’ve invaded and occupy the poppy fields. How do we stay sane in this kind of atmosphere? I contend we have the arts to lift us up.

The arts have not lost their importance. What the arts have done for me is open up my world. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been listening to a lot of Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans. I'm also listening to Glenn Gould from Canada playing Bach; Spanish classical pianist Alicia de Larrocha and her beautiful renditions of Albeniz and Mozart; classical pianist Martha Argerich from Argentina; Bob Dylan; Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thorton; World Music artists from across the globe and a multitude of years. I was watching the Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last night. The soundtrack included , In The Still of The Night, a song by The Five Satins from 1956, that Lowell and I used to listen to when Little Feat was forming in 1969. All of these genres have impacted my life. The written word is powerful, of course. I am a reader of many genres: history, biography, fiction, non-fiction. What books, articles, newspapers, are we reading? What are the strains of truth that exist out there? If we question something, what resources do we gravitate to? Who do we surround ourselves with, and for those we admire, who do they surround themselves with? Aren’t these the very measures of how we see ourselves. One would think, so the following example is frightening: In the United States today a poll was taken of the Republicans. They were asked who was the better president, Lincoln or Trump? 53% said Trump, 47% said Lincoln. It is unbelievable to me! But here we are. (laughing) I don't know how the hell we got here. We're a better country than this, and we're a better world than this. I can only continue to expand my horizons and speak out against the madness.

I know you have met so many great musicians and personalities. Which meeting have been the most important experiences for you and what was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Bill Payne: Well, the best advice I received was from Ralph Grierson, who I mentioned earlier this interview, mainly to be myself, to focus on what I do that plays to my strength: my ability to improvise. The following experience I had with Keith Richards, from the Rolling Stones, shaped my life. It was either 1974, maybe 1975, at Jaap Edenhal, Amsterdam. The Rolling Stones en masse had come to hear Little Feat perform. I could hardly believe it. Afterwards we went downstairs to the dressing room to meet them. I was gushing when I saw Keith, "Oh my God!” He put his arm around me, drew me in towards him and said, "Ah mate, we're all part of the same cloth." Keith was welcoming me to the club. It was such an eye opener, because it's not about whether you're on a world stage or whether you play local, it's the fact that you're a musician, you're a part of that’s bigger than you are. The irony is that none of us would join a club, as Groucho Marx used to say, that would accept us as a member! As a musician, you are a part of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, though. That’s what Keith Richards was sharing with me that evening. We are ultimately a bridge to other cultures, breaching the gap between genres of music and ideas. And what it does in the long run is provide a context for the values we share, how we express our connection to love, joy, pain, suffering, along with an overall sense of what life means to us, or what we would like life to be. It enriches our lives. For an artist of any type, whether you're a sculptor, a painter, a writer, you're sharing with others your discoveries, your passions, dreams, imagination and hopes, your journey. We are all on this journey. We can all learn from each other by sharing of our discoveries.

"When I joined Little Feat in 1969, I was on the journey to begin writing songs, experimenting with the freedom and restrictions of form. There are consequences to everything you do, but for me the bottom line was about freedom and reaching out to likeminded people, while being truthful to who I was as a person, even as I staked out that very territory. It was an incredible time to be alive." (Photo: Little Feat, 1973 Warner Brothers publicity photo of the band)

You are an artist first of all. Musician, photographer. Where does your artistic drive come from?

Bill Payne: Michael, I saw your questions before doing the interview. They're all so deep and wonderful, and I thought, God, I hope I can answer them! (laughing)

My drive as an artist comes from a reservoir of accumulation. We go to through pockets of history in our lives, the strata of history, choosing or rejecting things that inform our art, our sense of self. The development of my art is both solitary and communal. For any artist, there are many doors that need to be discovered. Knowing which doors to open and close can be problematic at times, because, at the root of things, we’re human beings: we’re searching; we stumble onto things; we walk past and into opportunities; sometimes we see what others can’t see; sometimes we can’t see at all. We have our fears, we have our hopes and desires, we fall in love, we fall out of love, we are vulnerable. We’re left trying to put these experiences into a workable vocabulary, which, if we’re lucky, expands every year, even when we hit a wall that holds us back. Getting past the wall is the challenge. If you're honest about it you'll say to yourself I know there's a wall there, but how do I get over it? Do I crawl under it? Do I need a mentor, a teacher, what might I read to learn more? Am I aware? We're holding hands with one another in this lifetime Michael. I guess what I'm trying to say is that life is complex. We shouldn't be put off by its complexity, we should embrace it. Let go, trust your intuitions, and see where the river takes you.

My last question is where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?

Bill Payne: I'll be completely honest with you. Yesterday, and a day or two before that, I said I don't want to go anywhere (laughing). But I woke up this morning and it hit me. Where I would like to go is Washington DC, I want to be somewhere around the steps of Lincoln Memorial. The date is August 28, 1963. I want to hear Martin Luther King Junior deliver the "I Have a Dream" speech. I want to feel that inspiration from that man, from that crowd. I want to be the fly on the wall to listen to what people are talking about, because I've got all day to be there right? I want to know what people think and what they’re talking about before the speech. I want to listen to the speech. I want to hear what people were saying after the speech and late into the evening. I want to distill that historic event through the lens of the present. And we do time travel, as you well know Michael, because you're a writer. You sit down to write and think, I want to discover what is going on with, let's say, Elvis Presley, I don't know. You can't talk to him, you have to read, to talk to people that knew him. You then write about him. We are all time travelers: we read novels, we read history, we watch films, we listen to recordings, we look at artwork, visit museums. We are essentially archeologists. But the idea of actually being there captured my imagination, that's why I finally took your question seriously. It prompted me to find out when the speech was delivered. I didn't realize it took place in 1963. I thought it was a few years later. In thinking about Martin Luther King, it brought me to thinking about Robert Kennedy. I played a rally for Robert Kennedy in 1968. I never met him, we raised money for him at the Mayfair Theater in Ventura, California, and a month later he was gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Historical crossroads have always garnered my attention and have occasionally given me inspiration to write songs with a grander view and panoply of emotions and meanings. My song, “Gringo” was written from the point of view of how someone from the USA is looked at from the other side of the border in Mexico:

Gringo, think of this before you leave

Gringo, the truth is easy to deceive

 if truth you’re ready to receive

between the open road lie your memories

tenderhearted though they be

they say blood is thicker than water

they say all suffering comes to an end

the common saying for friend is amigo, Gringo

Not everything has to be weighty and enlightening, though. We need to dance a little, we need to let loose, to take a break from the heaviness sometimes. Breathe in, breathe out.

Bill Payne Creative - Home

Photo: Bill Payne & Dennis McNally, Fairfield, Connecticut 2012

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