By Justin Charles

With a career spanning over fourty years, Little Feat, a California based rock band with a funky southern sound, have maintained their status as one of the most influential bands in music. The band Formed when founder Lowell George left Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the band quickly created their own eclectic sound, blending rock with rhythm and blues, funk, and jazz to create a distinctive style that has survived to this date.

With a brand new album, Rooster Rag, recently released, and an extensive tour to support it, Live For Live Music was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit down and speak with guitarist Paul Barrere, who talked about career highlights like playing with Phil Lesh and Friends, being in Levon Helms’ Midnight Rambles, having an album covered by Phish, and more.

L4LM:  Dixie Chicken was the first album that you and Kenny and Sam all appeared on, and it kind of really defined the bands New Orleans influenced funk sound that Little Feat’s now known for.  Was that something that you and the other two guys brought into the band, or was the band already going in that direction when you joined?

Paul:  I think it came over, we brought it to the next level to tell you the truth.  When you listen to the first two albums, they’re very eclectic and so forth, but they didn’t have that sort of funk, if you will.  We just kind of added that sound.

L4LM:  In the linear notes of Rooster Rag, there is something written to the extent of “How do these California guys end up sounding like they’re from New Orleans? By keeping their ears open to a variety of influences.”  Is that more or less true, and are there specific influences that brought that sound into you?

Paul:  I think the cool thing about Little Feat is that we’ve all been around for so long and we remember these origins of Rock ‘n Roll.  It pretty much all started down in that area of the country and in New Orleans, Memphis; back in Georgia, the Little Richard’s…the Fats Domino’s…so you listen to them and it was kind of like that stuff we grew up on so that’s what we based it on – Rock ‘n Roll and others.

L4LM:  Little Feat has done fan excursions to Jamaica for the past 10 years.  This year you have Hot Tuna coming.  Can you talk a little bit about what goes on over these weekends and what makes the experience so unique?

Paul:  Oh, yeah. What happens is we take over this resort and it’s just unbelievable.  They set up a stage on the beach.  It’s one of those all-inclusive kind of places, so anything anybody wants 24/7 they can get.  It’s just a great beach party for four days.  We do three shows; Sometimes we’ll even do some acoustic sets to cut down on stuff, but as of lately we’ve been bringing in other acts.  Last year we had Leftover Salmon and Rodney Crowell and let’s see; who else did we have?  Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell…  Basically we just jam and have a great time.  This year we got Hot Tuna, it’ll be rockin.

L4LM:  In 2008 you guys recorded Join the Band, which is a bunch of collaborations with incredible musicians like Bela Fleck, Dave Matthews, Mike Gordon and Chris Robinson.

Paul:  Yes.

L4LM:  Was there a specific collaboration that stuck out that you really liked and are there any plans to collaborate in the future?

Paul:  I like the Dave Matthews rendition of Fat Man, it’s brilliant.  We recorded the track and kind of changed it up from how we usually do it.  We sent the tape in that you’re referring too that…he put up 14 vocals.  He really dug the track and he did all these backgrounds and cool lead vocal and everything.  That one really stood out.  The guitar playing of Vince Gill in “Dixie Chicken” was exceptional; Sonny Landreth was wonderful as well.  The whole project was really, really cool.

L4LM:  So for Rooster Rag, this is the first album of entirely new material since 2003.  Was this something that has kind of been brewing since then or was it like a concerted effort to put out a new album right now?

Paul:  The deal is our managers kept pounding on us to put together some new product and they suggested we do a blue’s record.  In February of 2011 we went in and recorded like eight tracks, mostly blues, but then we also have a few originals; “Church Falling Down”, “One Breathe at a Time”, and “Blue’s Keep Coming”.  We also did “Candyman Blues” and we did “Settle Down Easy”.  All those made the record, but they are a couple that didn’t…we did a live version of “Slippin’ and Slidin’” that got left out, but it’ll probably see the light of day sooner than later.

What happened was when we went out on the road we really defined those songs and so forth.  In the process they put out a couple more songs and Billy started writing with Robert Hunter.  I had a couple of songs with Steven Bruton so we gave them one of those.  All the sudden we had not just a straight blue’s record, but a real Little Feat record in blues.  We put ourselves in a great situation to record.  It was very comfortable and a very easy process if you will.  Rooster Rag became the fruit on the tree, it was great.

L4LM:  On this album you have two collaborations.  You collaborated personally with Stephen Bruton and there’s also the collaboration with Robert Hunter who is known for his work with the Grateful Dead.  Did you like how the collaborative writing process ended up?  Is it something that you think that there will be more writing collaborations on future albums?

 Paul:  I’ve been as of late collaborating with a lot more different people.  I did a couple of songs with Anders Osborne on his new record, and working with Steve was great because it came at a time just before he got really ill and we got to capture that which is nice.  I even got one of the songs that I recorded for a solo project that I’ve been working on.  I enjoy collaborating with other folks.  It brings you a little different flavor.

L4LM:  So, Little Feat covered Phish’s “Sample In a Jar” in 2000 on Chinese Work Songs

Paul:  Yeah.

L4LM:  In 2010 Phish covered All Waiting for Columbus and then even this summer Phish covered “Skin it Back” for the first time in like 20 years.  Did you know anything about the band covering the album beforehand and what was your reaction?  Have you noticed an influx of new younger fans since that?

Paul:  It’s funny, but I was starting to get an inkling of something was going on when I was getting emails from Mike Gordon about what kind of amps we were using, what instruments we were using when we recorded Waiting for Columbus and so forth.  Then I finally got word that that’s exactly what they were going to do.  They were going to do the Halloween show and do the entire Waiting for Columbus.  I was blown away.  I actually listened to the broadcast when it was happening and they did such a great job. What’s happened because of that is that we’re getting lots and lots of young Phish fans coming to check us out, which has just been a boom to our business.  I even wrote Trey and thanked him, seriously.

L4LM:  That’s great. Little Feat switches up their set list drastically every night.  Now since your touring, I’m assuming in support of Rooster Rag, how much of that album can we expect to see nightly compared to the old songs?

Paul:  We’re doing at least three, sometimes four songs a night.  We pretty much got all of them in rotation.  I think the one that we haven’t worked up yet is “Tattoo Girl With the World on Her Shoulders”.  Everything else seems to be falling place.  Tonight actually we’re going to do “Jamaica Will Break Your Heart”.  We’ve just been working on other sound checks and stuff.  They’re great songs to play; it’s just fun and the audience sings along, which is great.

L4LM:  You personally played with Phil Lesh and Friends in late ‘99, early 2000.  Did you like playing with that group of musicians?  Is there anything you want to talk about in terms of that experience?

Paul:  That was quite a treat to say the least.  When Billy and I got done with that, when we were back to work with Little Feat, we brought back that whole jamming aspect which we seemed to get away from. We were just playing songs and stuff, but now we’re not only just playing the songs, but we’re affording ourselves the opportunity to improvise every night.  It’s really put another charge into the band – which is great.

L4LM:  Yeah, that was a thing that I was going to ask you about later, but now that you mention it, I read an interview that you did back in 2000 saying that you felt that the band had kind of gotten into the habit of just playing the songs and not really jamming.  Do you think that since then you’ve kind of got back into those long form improvised jams?

Paul:  Yeah, I think the band… The thing about being a musician is you want to be creative.  There are obviously bands or pop groups or solo artists who want to go out and replicate the recordings and so forth, and have a stage show and what have you.  Being a musician, I liken it more to what Miles Davis used to have going on in the ‘50s with his quartets; different cats playing the same songs only a different ways and so forth.  You can change the tune, you can change the groove, you can change the tempos, afford yourself opportunities within the framework of the song to go into new areas. I loved it when we start to do that again, because it was freeing.  All of the sudden you’re on stage and you can be creative and the time goes by much faster.

L4LM:  On the same level of the Phil Lesh shows, you also participated in one of Levon Helm’s now legendary Midnight Rambles.  How was that experience?

Paul:  Both times that Fred and I got to do the Ramble, we did one up in Woodstock which was just fantastic and then to be asked to come play one in Chicago, not knowing how sick Levon was at the time.  I knew that he had been ill and so forth and had undergone some treatment and so forth, but I didn’t know that he was as ill as he was.  That night in Chicago I mean you couldn’t have told he was sick at all. He just belted it out. The fun part is that Fred and I got to open the show doing 30 minutes of our own stuff.  Then we got to go up on stage and play with his band, which was just a fantastic organization with his great players.  Donald Fagan was playing with him too so it was a very special moment that I’ll cherish forever.

L4LM:  There’s various legends about how Little Feat got started.  One is that Zappa heard “Willin'” and kicked Lowell George out for writing a song about drugs.  One was that Zappa told Lowell George that he was too talented to be just a member of his band, and another one is that Zappa kicked out George for playing a 15 minute solo with no amp on.  Are any of these true or is it all folklore?

Paul:  The one that I have heard…and I heard it from Lowell..was that he wrote Willin’, and Zappa thought it was a good song, but he didn’t like any kind of references to drugs or alcohol or any of that kind of stuff.  That’s pretty much when he thought maybe Lowell should try to start his own band I think Lowell agreed to do that anyway, so I think that’s the one that’s actually true.

L4LM:  Since 1988 when you guys got back together, Little Feat has remained fairly consistent with its general lineup.  With Rooster Rag, you’ve now put out more albums since 1988 than you did before ‘88 with the previous lineups.  Do you ever stop and think of Little Feat as being almost two different bands of the two eras?

Paul:  No not really.  To me it’s always been… The music is the telltale sign of the whole thing.  When we put the band back together, well that’s the one thing we said that we need to keep the music true to its roots and true to its origins, then we’ll continue to do it and call it Little Feat.  It’s never really been two different bands to me; it’s always just been Little Feat.

L4LM:  In your free time what kind of music do you listen to now?  Is there any one song you’ve been listening to a lot lately or one album?  Are there any current artists that you’re particularly enjoying?

Paul:  In my free time I don’t listen to a whole lot of music, except every now and then I get a jag, I pull my iPod out and plug it into my stereo system and do like a mix of crazy stuff.  There was a song call called “If I Had No Loot” by a band called Tony! Toni! Toné!  Are you familiar with that?… Yeah the song is just from the ‘80s, but it’s really hip.  It’s like rhythm and blues, but with the first aspects of scratching, if you will.  I got a son now who’s 22. He’s big into the bass and drums scene and turntables and so forth.

L4LM:  What do you think about that whole electronic drum and bass scene that’s kind of like blowing up right now?

Paul:  Oh, it’s unbelievable to me.  My son, when he was 15, came to me and said, “Dad, I figured out what instrument I want to play.” I said “Great, what is it, drums, bass, etc?” and he went, “Turntables.” I went, “Ugh.”  He’s kind of gotten into a groove with it.  You’ve got to be creative; you got to be very rhythmic.  I kid him all the time.  I say, “This shit is nothing more than fucking disco on steroids.”  He’s also 6 foot 5, so I kind of duck after that.  He’s into that and I’ve seen him go into these things like the Electric Daisy thing in Vegas.  You know the Las Vegas speedway is full of people.  The L.A. Coliseum, I mean it’s like definitely blown up.  He does his own little mixes and DJ’s a couple of shows around L.A.  Every generation has to have their own thing.  I’m sure my parents thought I was absolutely nuts when I was listening to Jimi Hendrix up in my room, so I relish the fact that they get into their own things, my kids.

 L4LM:  You also co-wrote one of my personal favorite Little Feat songs “Time Loves a Hero”.  Is there a certain inspiration for that song or a story behind the lyrics?

Paul:  When Billy and I wrote that song, I had told him about the band that I’d use to be in.  I checked in with those cats and they had just written a song called “I Don’t Want to Be the Vinnie Van Gough of the Radio”, in essence be discovered after your dead.  It’s like one of those time loves a hero, but only time will tell.  Are you a hero in the moment that you’re doing it or does it take years for people to discover you?  On the flip side of it, are you considered a hero and then all of the sudden people find out the truth about you and that you’re a schmuck?  It was like trying to play both sides of the coin at the same time.

L4LM:  You guys live in California, you sound like you’re from the south, and you have a pretty rabid east coast following.  Where do you feel most at home playing?

Paul:   On stage.

L4LM:  On stage?

Paul:   No matter where, yeah.

L4LM:  Good answer.

Paul:  That’s the best part of the day when you’re out here anyway.  For a musician, I think it’s hard to pick a different area of the planet to where you’re most comfortable. To me it’s just on stage no matter where it is.

L4LM:  Where do get the best response to your shows do you think?

Paul:  Oh, God we’ve got great responses everywhere.  Probably the east coast, you know the mid-atlantic states have always been our biggest supporters if you will.  I think it’s because you don’t have to travel four hours to get from town to town, like you do in the west or the northwest.  The fans can kind of travel from show to show much more easily.

Little Feat will be at the Beekman Beer Garden with Papa Grows Funk and The Stooges Brass Band on August 22nd. Tickets are still on sale here.