Little Feat Interview with Paul Barrere
Little Feat Marches On
By Grant Britt
On the eve of his first appearance at Carrboro, N.C's Cats Cradle in nearly thirty years on August 4, Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere shared his insights on the band's history, new record and what to expect from the band this time out.
When Little Feat founder Lowell George asked guitarist Paul Barrere to join the band, the rule book was pretty simple. “There’s only one rule in this band, and that is that there are no rules,” Barrere recalls George telling him. There was nothing around in the early seventies like the sound of Feat. A mix of country, rock, jazz and blues with a second line backbeat, The Feat was worshiped by a cult of followers whose ranks included many musicians heavily influenced by the unusual mix of styles. “He opened my eyes from just being a basic twelve bar blues player to expanding the parameters of music, for which I am forever grateful.“ Barrere said recently from his home in L.A.
'71's eponymous album set the bar high for the band. Howlin' Wolf's “44 Blues/”How Many More Years” rubbed shoulders with “Willin,” one of the best truckin' songs ever written, countrified but reeking with underground street smarts. This is the bare bones version, with just George's vocals underscored by Ry Cooder's slide guitar. “Willin'” shows up again, fleshed out and rocked up on their sophomore effort , '72's Sailin' Shoes,which is filled with thumpy,twangy southern fried r&b compositions that would become Feat classics including “Cold, Cold, Cold," “Tripe Face Boogie” and “Sailin' Shoes.”
'73's Dixie Chicken was the second incarnation of the band, when Barrere, bassist Kenny Gradney and percussionist Sam Clayton came onboard after the band re-formed after co founder and former Mothers of Invention bassist Roy Estrada left.
Even though George had stated initially that there were no rules, he was reportedly upset about the direction the band was taking and became increasingly dissatisfied with Barrere and founding member Bill Payne's compositions for the band, from '75's The Last Record Album, '77's Time Loves a Hero, '78's double-live album Waiting for Columbus, and '79's Down on the Farm.
George declared the band disbanded in '79, stating publicly that he was reforming the group, and Barrere and Payne would no longer be in it. But George died in June of that year, at the age of 34,from an apparent heart attack.
“It was a very troubled time,” Barrere says. “Lowell became obsessed with trying to what he called ‘break through the bullshit barrier,” which was basically to have a hit single. We actually tried to turn “All That You Dream” into a single,spent tons and tons of money in the studio trying to create a single out of it, and it went absolutely nowhere.”
George had been struggling for commercial success since the band's debut in '69. Barrere says that one of comments the band got from record exes when they were looking for a deal was “boys, the material’s too diverse. You need to tear it down to one of these genres or the other.”
George had no interest in doing that, but he did begin to find fault with the jazzy jams that he felt Payne and Barrere were leaning toward. “It was strange,” Barrere says, “because when I first joined the band, there were plenty of long,extended jam songs: 'Eldorado Slim,' they had even recorded 'Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie,' which was extremely experimental at the time and coming from the Mothers, there was lot of instrumental music, to say the least.”
It's also puzzling, given the country style anthems the band has composed over the years, why more country stars have not offered to perform or record with the band. “The only one who ever did was Travis Tritt,” Barrere says. Tritt's '91 release, It's All About to Change, featured Feat on two versions of “Bible Belt,” regular and LP versions. And for‘ 08's Little Feat and Friends, Join The Band, Vince Gill sang “Dixie Chicken;” Brooks and Dunn harmonized on “Willin.’” Barrere believes the main reason is that most country artists reside in Nashville while Feat is headquartered in L.A. But a man can still dream. “Lord knows I would love to hear the Dixie Chicks do “Missin You,” he says wistfully.
After Lowell's passing, Barrere says the remaining members thought it was all over. But after an impromptu jam session brought the band back together and prompted the group to record Let It Roll in '88, the group has never looked back.
The new record, Rooster Rag, sounds like the Feat of old. Core members Payne, Barrere Gradney, and Clayton are still onboard, along with Fred Tackett, a long time contributor (composer of “Fool Yourself “ for Dixie Chicken) and member since '88, and Robben Ford's son Gabe, former drum tech who replaced Richie Hayward in '09 when Hayward became too ill too continue.
Rooster Rag started life as a blues record. “I’d been putting this little flavor of (Mississippi John Hurt's )“Candy Man Blues” into “Down on the Farm” for the last coupla years,” Barrere says, and wanted to do the whole song instead of a couple of verses. The band updates the song with a funky,New Orleans second line rhythm. “Little Feat is a band of guys who have been around a long, long time, and we know the history of rock and roll and blues, so New Orleans played a big role in that,” Barrere explains. “It's got that same kind of thing going on that I love when you’re playing live-you cant sit still,you gotta get up and shake it.”
Sam Clayton had always wanted to sing Willie Dixon's “Mellow Down Easy,” so that made the record as well. Clayton's version sounds a lot like Little Walter's, just punched up a bit. “We borrowed a little bit from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band version, combining the two, Barrere says. “ And then getting Kim Wilson to play harmonica on it was sugar on top of the ice cream.”
Barrere composed “Just a Fever" with longtime Kris Kristofferson guitarist/songwriter Stephen Bruton. “ 'Just A Fever' was this groove he had, and he had a few lyrics but he said we gotta figure out how to put delirium tremens into this. Stems from our mutual enjoyment of the grape and the grain to excesses, then realizing those excesses and getting away from ‘em.”
The rest of the record was to be covers of r&b favorites including a second line version of “Slippin' and Slidin'” and “Brickyard Blues.” But the band had recorded some originals including Tackett's “Church Fallin' Down,” and “One Breath At a Time,” and “Blues Keep Comin.’” and spent last summer playing and developing the songs on the road. “Then Billy gets hooked up with Robert Hunter and starts writing songs, so we go from being a blues record to being a Little Feat record,which is kinda like an oxymoron,” Barrere says. "So we said, 'Let's not do all these covers, but keep “Candy Man” and “Mellow Down Easy” and bookend them on the CD with all the new stuff in between.' Everybody’s saying it ‘s an old Little Feat record, or an old new Little Feat record, I’m not sure exactly,” he laughs.
Barrere 's return to the Cats Cradle will be his first since touring with Catfish Hodge as the Bluesbusters in the mid '80s. “Maybe we’ll get more than the 200 Catfish and I had,” Barrere chuckles.
Fans should expect a mix of old and new as well as return of some old favorites. “Spanish Moon” And “Skin It Back” have made it back on some set lists as has “High Rollers.” “That one is just a barnburner at this point,” Barrere says.
Barrere says he'd like to be remembered a nice guy who wrote some pretty good songs. “Having been a member of Little Feat, its very honorable to say the least. I know for sure, from Lowell’s family, we’ve done the band proud. Had we not gotten back together, I’m afraid that this whole thing would have died down sadly,” he says. “As long as we can make music that in no way degrades what we’ve done in the past, we’ll continue to do so.”