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Rooster Rag - NEW Feature: Feat Fan Review SERIES - Interview #5

Dear Feat Fans:

    As you may have noticed, we have a hot new release out, "Rooster Rag," which we're very pleased with. We've asked our hard-working crew of website writers to review the CD and also talk with us about it, so over the next few weeks, we'll post a new review/band member chat roughly once a week. Next in our Fan series of interviews is Kenny Gradney, as interviewed by Scott Hays. Enjoy!

Hoy Hoy, Bill, Fred, Gabe, Kenny, Paul, and Sam
Interview #1 with Fred Tackett can be found HERE
Interview #2 with Bill Payne can be found HERE
Interview #3 with Paul Barrere can be found HERE
Interview #4 with Sam Clayton can be found HERE
What Is Enough?
An Interview With Kenny Gradney

Anyone who has been around Little Feat for any length of time knows who holds the bottom end of the band together, and who it is that puts the funk in your chicken.  It’s the same guy who knows all the words to all the songs, but will never sing a word of them.  I had the pleasure to sit down and spend a little time with Ken Gradney on a sunny afternoon in Corvallis, Oregon. It was a real hoot.  For those who have never had the pleasure, Kenny has a great sense of humor, a quick wit, and frequently punctuates the conversation with hearty laughter and pantomime. He is also quite the storyteller. Almost everything we talked about was framed as a story.  The conversation covered a lot of territory and rolled over multiple topics – ranging from his days as a fifteen-year old growing up in Southern California and self-recording his band with cousin Al McKay of Earth, Wind and Fire, or recording Japanese commercials in the 80’s with his friend Roland Bautista (also from their Earth, Wind, and Fire), to what he was going to sing at that night’s performance (“Nothin’!”).  But no matter what we talked about, everything always seemed to come back around to personal connections built over a long career, trust, and teamwork. It was an interesting journey.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an “insider” with this band, and really don’t know too much with respect to how they go about recording an album, other than what I have read or picked up from some casual conversation.  I have watched them rehearse a song during sound check, like lots of others have been fortunate to do, but I have never sat in during a real rehearsal nor been in the studio when they record. But like many who follow the band, the process fascinates me.  As a result, I tried to learn as much as I could about how the songs on Rooster Rag were developed and how the players communicated with each other, from a bass player’s perspective. According to Kenny, he didn’t have too much to offer on that point. Joking in dead-pan manner while miming simple finger-picking, he said, “For me, it’s just dun-dun-dun-dun … it’s not exactly a challenge.”

In a more serious vein, we have to remember that these guys are really good musicians and have been playing together for a long time. They know each other pretty well, and have a good sense of what each can, and will, do. They also have a lot of trust in each other.  It is a mistake, therefore, to think … as I once did … that when Bill or Fred or Paul bring in a new song that it is “done”. “The songs were not done,” Kenny asserts, meaning that they weren’t “done” in the sense that everyone’s part was written out for them.  “That’s not how Little Feat works”, Kenny explains. With the exception of perhaps “Salome”, the songs that Billy brought in serve as a good example for how this works. Robert Hunter had written the lyrics, and Billy had written the music. “He had the style, he had the lyrics, he had the basic arrangement, and he had all the basic ideas.”  Billy had it all pretty well worked out and knew how everything was going to go, but the actual arrangement changed as the band worked on the songs and each player put his own stamp on them. “He does that a lot. ‘That should go here’, he says, and then Fred goes ‘this should go here. Why don’t you put that right there?’ And that’s how the songs come about.”

“Salome” was a little different. According to Kenny, Bill brought that song to the studio pretty much worked out. “He had all the rhythms and all the patterns.” They learned the song in pieces.  Bill would tell them what he wanted and they would play it.  What comes out in the end is based on what each player adds. “It comes out the way you play it. He knows what I’m going to do.  So he goes, ‘I want it like …’ [Kenny emulates the sound of a bass line] … and then he starts playing and I play along with him, and he goes ‘Yeah, that’s it!’  Or, he’ll say, ‘Don’t pop there, I’ll show you where I want you to pop’. Kenny smiled, and then added, “And then he looks around and goes, ‘Wait, why am I telling you how to play?’ … and we all laughed.” There are always tricks when playing with Bill, of course. Even though there are always little twists, Kenny says, I’ve been playing with Billy a long time so … I sort of know where he’s going. I can tell by the way he moves around in the chords.  Generally. Unless he purposefully does, you know, something different. But generally, I understand how he plays.”

Working with Gabe Ford on this record was a little different, too. “It’s a feel. We’re learning each other, still learning each other.  However, we know how we’re going to approach each song …  we know how we are going to approach things.  For Gabe it was new.  This album was totally new for Gabe, but … you know, being able to have the adventure, which he has, and being told, ‘You are one of the guys’ … sort of gives you carte blanche.  The studio is the place to make your mistakes. Make your mistakes and get into it … reach for those little nuances, keep it simple, and when you do, make your move.” In the end, “Gabe nailed it!”

Any discussion of the drums, however, inevitably brought Richie into the conversation. Lots of people want to know how the two compare. Kenny says there is no comparison, and that a comparison isn’t the right way to think of it. “Richie and I played together for over 30 years,” he said. “We worked on our parts of the songs together, and we practiced them together, so there’s no comparison.  It’s just a difference.  We helped create the songs together, and we knew what we were thinking, how we felt when we first did it, and what we were doing … you know, the mood and the mode we were in… and you don’t even have to think about what you’re playing, you just have to think of the mood that you had the song in… the musical mood… and you’re there.  You go for that, and you’re always there.” Ken joked about the supposed telepathic force that existed between Richie and himself.  He mimed holding his bass and leaning forward, growling under his breath at the invisible guy many of us called Squid, “Don’t play that, ach” … or, “I’ll play this!” That brought on another hearty laugh, but then he added,  “He started the band.  He was one of the original band members.  He was there before I was.  So who am I to tell him anything? Ever.”  As to whether or not he tells Gabe what to play, Kenny simply said, “I don’t tell anyone what to do.  I have trouble figuring out what I’m going to do myself. Who am I to tell someone else what to do?”

Everyone in Little Feat contributes incredible stuff to this album.  Sam fills all the holes in the rhythm and punctuates the vocals with harmonies and leads. Paul brings the blues. “He always has different blues songs… they always come out great. I really like ‘Just A Fever’!” And ‘Candy Man Blues’, well, it’s just nasty. It’s nasty”. 

Fred steps up big time with his four songs. “Fred’s stuff is amazing.  Amazing! ‘Church Falling Down’? That’s a great song!”  When told that some heard quite a bit of a jazz influence in Fred’s materials, Kenny responded, “You think it’s jazz? You call it jazz because you don’t… well, ‘Tattoo Girl’ is kind of jazzy.”

Overall, Ken is quite pleased with how the record turned out. “It’s a very eclectic selection of music.  It really shows the broad nature of the band.  I would say it shows the musical reach of the band … the range of the band. The album is done really well.  Johnny Lee did a really good job! I am really impressed with the really great job that Johnny Lee did. You know… working with everybody, he’s very professional, a great engineer, incredible musician, and made us all feel comfortable. And it’s Gabe’s first album with the band, and it really shows the strength of the musicianship, because we just keep forging forward. As any musician would do.  As Richie would want us to do. As Lowell would want us to do.”

Besides talking about the album, we also spoke a lot about a recently completed side project that took some of Kenny’s time – his production of Steel Toed Slippers’ debut album. That story is an interesting story, in its own right, but also is illustrative of the connections and relationships within the music industry that churn just beneath its surface. And, on top of that, the story ends with a direct connection to Rooster Rag. As with many of the other stories that Kenny shared, this one began many years ago. And it involved Richie.

Steel Toed Slippers, for those who haven’t heard them (or of them), is at heart a duo… Will Nicoll and Matthew Moss… that has gone through a plethora of different bass players over the years (auditions for the position are currently available). STS plays Americana music with a hefty dose of delta blues infused with funk and shows clear influences from Little Feat, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink Floyd, and Tom Waits. Matthew, the drummer in the band, is the son of longtime Featfan and supporter, David Moss. Anyone who used to hang out “in the Tub” or who listened to the “Little Feat Radio Hour” from KHUM radio remembers the Mossman. And anyone who attended, or knows much about, the legendary Mateel concerts back in September of 2000 also knows that David … along with Jim Fulton, his partner at the time… was instrumental in making that event come together.  There was, and remains, a tight connection between the Moss family and Little Feat.

And, according to Kenny, Richie Hayward always had a very tight relationship with the kids. As a young drummer, Matthew Moss grew up idolizing Richie. There are photos on the STS website showing a very young Matthew sitting at Richie’s drum kit at a couple of different venues. Kenny described it this way:  “Richie helped raise the kids. They went way back, ever since Matthew was little.  Richie was like a second father to him. Matthew was really devastated when Richie passed.  Richie really gave him a lot of time.”

Fast-forward a little. The boys had made quite a name for themselves in the true north of California (as a matter of fact, STS’s first major show was as an opening act for a Paul and Fred show in Arcata), and they decided to head south to LA in order to take a serious stab at making it a career. By this time, David had become president of the Harold Robinson Foundation. HRF is a non-profit group that sends disadvantaged kids from Watts, Compton and East LA to an 80-acre sports camp owned by the Moss family and located outside of Lake Castaic, north of Los Angeles. There, Will and Matt literally washed the dishes and wrote their music.  David got them in touch with Roger Cole, who some will remember served for a while as Little Feat’s monitor tech.  Roger is an excellent engineer, and he initially took the boys under his wing. Roger polished them up and showed them a new level of discipline and self-development before putting them back on the road with their new material.

David found a producer willing to do one song, but the band didn’t have a bass player or a studio. As Kenny recalls, “David approached me and said they didn’t have a bass player.  We were just chatting about it… chatting about the band… and how he was wanting to get their records done. And I said, you know, Fred, Paul, anyone of the guys would help. He was leaning to the fact that he wanted one of us to do it.” Well, as Kenny recalls, he knew that,  “If Richie was around, he would have done it for Matthew.”  So Kenny stepped up and remembers saying, “‘I can produce your record.’  I told him I’d do this for Richie, because I know Richie would have taken care of these kids. At least given them one shot.”

Kenny agreed to play bass and produce the album. The next step was finding a studio. Well, Ken has been in the business a long time and knows a lot of really good people, but he didn’t have to go far to find a studio. There was one right in his own neighborhood of Studio City that was “right down the street from Richie’s old house … around the corner from the Little Brown Church where Ronald Reagan got married to Nancy Reagan.” It was a studio he remembered using a lot with Tony Braunagel and some other “buddies”.  Braunagel is, of course, a drummer and an Emmy-winning producer who works with Eric Burdon and has played with Bonnie, Taj, Keb’ Mo and BB King. The studio belonged to Johnny Lee Schell, guitar player for Bonnie and a boatload of others, and an excellent engineer in his own right. Kenny took David over to Johnny Lee’s house. As he recalls, “We go to Johnny Lee’s, and he’s got a little studio back there. Really nice.  Johnny Lee’s a collector.  He’s got all these old amps. He’s got the Fender Rhodes.  He’s got a Wurlitzer. He’s got this Baby Grand piano in there.  A Hammond B-3. And he’s got his own set of drums that you use. I did the kids in there with all of Johnny Lee’s stuff, and we did the album in there.”

The original agreement was for three songs, but after finishing them, Kenny and Johnny Lee agreed to do three more. When those were done, Nick Maury joined the band with his bass, and they recorded five more tunes. They cut all the tracks in five days, and then spent another seven days finishing up.  Kenny then got another old friend, Ed Cherney, to agree to do the mix.  However, because Ed was working with David Lindley and Etta James at the time, it was about three months before he could get to it. The kids, Ken recalls, grew a little impatient.  While in San Francisco, they met author and deejay John Fong Torres. Torres “heard the kids … he loves the kids.  He has a radio show and he wanted to put them on the radio show, but I kept telling everybody, ‘Don’t play this,’ because it wasn’t mixed yet.  And they were just in love with it the way it was, because they thought it was ‘done’.”  Well, it wasn’t. Ed worked some magic with the material, and the final product was “like, totally different songs.”

Kenny is pretty unassuming about his role as producer.  “I got to know the kids. I went over the music with them. After that, I started rehearsing with them. We rehearsed for about two weeks.  We worked on all their tunes, made sure all the arrangements were right. I didn’t tell them how to play it or how to sing it, I just told them… I just got ‘em in the right direction, you know?  They had been playing the songs for a long time, “so all I did was take sections and put them in the proper place, and then let them loose.  We learned it. And from me learning it and then playing it … it changed quite a bit. And they really got into this groove.  It was really nice. It was a lot of fun.”

Kenny also is quick to share credit for the final product. “I got some really great people to help me out.” Ed Cherney, for example, “is just an artist.  He really is.”  Ken had special words for Johnny Lee Schell. “He really got involved in what was going on, he really liked the music.  He played slide on one of the songs.  So in the middle of all this, I told him ‘Johnny Lee, I got to give you credit as a co-producer on this thing.’  It’s all about fairness, you know… just being honest with him, because he did such a great job. It was a total team effort. We showed the kids how to do it, basically. It’s not as incredibly complicated as you might think if you keep everything manageable.

I’m naturally wondering if there are any major differences between playing on a song and producing it.  Typically, Kenny responds directly:  “When I’m producing and playing, I’m only playing when I’m playing.  When I’m done with the tracks, that’s when I tinker.  I took the band before  … once they knew the songs, it was just a matter of going in and cutting them and deciding is everything in tune, which is something you’re thinking about all the time.  Is everything in tune, you know? … Are we in tempo?”  And, perhaps because rhythm is so critical for a bass player, he returned to a theme he introduced earlier about the importance of drumming with respect to the song’s structure.  “Is this a good drum track, which basically is the question everyone asks?  Is it a good drum track?  Because that’s the foundation of everything.  It’s the first thing you want to get is a good drum track, because you can always build from there.”  And then, as if dismissing his part in it, he added, “But everybody does that!”

After a brief pause, Kenny continued, “After you get the drum track, you start adding everything.  You know, guitar, rhythm.  You know the song.  Everyone plays the song.  Everybody’s playing on the song.  So, if the song sounds good, and the groove is good, then you have it.   But, like everyone’s going to say, ‘Ah, I missed that bridge’ … ‘Ah, I missed that note’ … ‘I didn’t catch the intro.’  But if the drums are solid all the way through, you just fix it.  And you’re happy.”

From this elaborated tale, it is clear that there was a lot of synchronicity going on in this project.  But this isn’t really the end of the story.  As Kenny tells it, “From all this happening … well, Paul got a call from Steve Chrismar … do you know Steve?  He used to play with George Thorogood.  Anyway, he had come up with this song he wanted to record as a benefit for Richie [“Santa’s Gotta Get Some’] … a Christmas song that we were going to do for Richie … and we needed a place to record it.  I told Paul, let’s go to Johnny Lee’s to do it.  Paul hadn’t been there before.  So I took Paul into the studio, and he fell in love with it.  We cut the track.  We used all of Johnny’s gear.  Afterwards, Paul said, ‘We got to do our record here.’  I said, ‘Let’s get Billy here.’  And that’s how we got to do Rooster Rag.  THAT’S THE STORY!”

And Kenny laughs with that trademark good-natured, deep chuckle.

I asked him if he had any plans for producing anything else.  “I didn’t have any plans for producing that!  It just happened.  But of course.  Everybody wants to do stuff.  But I don’t want to just do anybody!”  To my suggestion that a Little Feat song might be an interesting project, he scoffed, “Why would I even try to produce a Little Feat song?  I’d have to write it.  And I’d have to sing it.  And that ain’t going to happen, because I can’t sing!  So … there goes that!  And if it did happen, well …  there lies the rub”.  Once again stepping into a character of his creation, he acts out an imaginary scene, ‘You play bass!  You don’t get a mic, so shut up!’”

Thinking that perhaps I was on to something, I couldn’t help but ask if it was less a question of the band not giving him a mic so much as it was he didn’t want one.  His quick response, in hindsight, was not surprising.  “Yeah, right … like if I wanted a mic, they could keep me from getting one.”

Overall, it sounded to me like the experience of recording Rooster Rag was a lot of fun.  It clearly was a lot more than that.  Kenny said,  “I’ve never had it not be fun when we do that.  Never.  I’ve never done a song that I could say … you know … ‘yeah, I played on it’ … the end.  Never had a song like that.  That’s not to say I’ve liked every song we’ve done, you know, because I haven’t.  But I’ve enjoyed doing them all.  Because it’s growing … you know, that musical growth … and every time you do something like that you get to create on it.  It’s musical growth.  And that’s what’s important.  To me.”

So having fun is what keeps the band going?  “Well, being broke is what keeps the band going.  Listen … we’re battling our health at this age.  ‘My tendonitis is killing me … what time is the show?’”  He grabs his wrists, twists his hands, and grimaces, before going on, “… I want to play, but my tendonitis is killing me.  But I still want to play.  That’s the attitude.  I want to do it until I can’t do it anymore.  Here’s the thing.  What really keeps this band going is we’re junkies.  All of us.  No matter what we say, we’re junkies when it comes to making music.  It’s a jones we’re going to die with.  It’s one there’s no cure for, and you don’t want one.”

How about yourself?  “I’ll never retire,” he insists.  “You have to be hungry to want to play.  And never having enough, I can always ask the question, ‘What is enough?’  Now here’s a question I’ll never give the answer to.  ‘What is enough?’  I’ll never know.”

Well, from a selfish point of view, I for one hope he’ll never find out just what is “enough”. If Rooster Rag is any indication of the joy and the surprises this band still has in store for us, I hope they keep playing for another thirty years. And if that happens, then we can really talk about an old folks’ boogie!
Interview by Scott Hays

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