In 2009, drummer Gabe Ford found himself in a rare set of circumstances: a career-defining move that was part of an impossibly difficult situation. He’d spent three years as the drum tech for Little Feat, and in August of that year began filling in at live shows for Little Feat’s legendary drummer, Richie Hayward, who left the road to battle liver cancer.
Ford, like his bandmates, saw the job as temporary: of course Richie would come back. But it was a battle Hayward lost. While awaiting a liver transplant, Hayward succumbed to complications from lung disease on Aug. 12, 2010, at age 64.
It wasn’t long after, in the midst of a painfully emotional transition, that the remaining members of Little Feat — who know a thing or two about returning from a tragedy — gave Ford the permanent drum chair, completing a move into what might be called the fourth major era of the beloved 43-year-old band.
Marking that new era in 2012 is a new album, Rooster Rag (Rounder Records): a 12-song release that is not only Little Feat’s recording debut with Ford behind the kit but also the first studio album of new Feat material since 2003 — four songs of which were co-written with Robert Hunter — mixed in with blues classics like Mississippi John Hurt’s Candy Man Blues and Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy that get the unmistakably bluesadelic Feat treatment.
Ford plays guitar and keyboards as well as drums, and earlier in his career, played with a number of San Francisco-area blues, rock and pop bands and also released a solo album. He spent time recording and playing with members of his well-known, very musical family: dad, Patrick, and uncles Mark Ford and Robben Ford.
Ford himself has much to celebrate. When contacted by Hidden Track, he’s settling down for the afternoon with Joaquin, his five-month old son, but took some time to share his experiences and look ahead to brighter days.
HIDDEN TRACK: You became Little Feat’s drummer under unusual circumstances, obviously, and I can’t imagine it was easy. Tell me about how you felt when you came on board.
GABE FORD: Well, obviously, I was there to support Richie so he could get better. That was intimidating in itself, because you’re playing a gig and people are like, who the hell are you? Richie is one of the legends of the game, you know? So yeah it was very intimidating, and I was trying to be successful and support the band. They really gave me room to grow, and it sounded good and I was able to check in with Richie when I could.
It’s a terrible way to get a gig, to have a bro pass away like that. Now we’re just kind of trying to keep the thing going. It’s pretty incredible. I mean, they played with the same drummer for 40 years, so it took a little bit for the chemistry with me to get it together. But these recent shows, the one in London especially, we’ve really been killing it. Everyone trusts each other. We were in Europe, having flown over to Montreux and then London, and no one had really slept, and everyone was so tired, and we just gave into the music.
I learn every night from them. Richie Hayward will always be the drummer for Little Feat, but I’m just so happy to be playing with these guys. They are nothing but supportive.
HT: Following Richie’s passing, how did the Little Feat guys approach you to make your promotion official?
GF: They pretty much said, “You’re our sixth member. You’re in.” There was no big contract signed, it was just a handshake. They make money from royalties on the past stuff they do, but everything Little Feat does now, we all get paid the same. They didn’t need to do that for me and I don’t think management wanted them to do that, because it wasn’t something they had to do. But they wanted me to know that they had my back, and that’s pretty cool. I would have been happy to be playing regardless, and to have this opportunity.
HT: Wow, so they cut you in as a full partner?
GF: Yes they did. We all need to make a living, you know? It’s not like we’re making millions. But we did just make a killer album, and we’ll see where it goes. We’re doing our part to put out a good product, and the shows are the same thing — an experience.
HT: You obviously got to know Richie during your years together. What do you take away from him as a musician and person?
GF: He hung with the crew. He was always talking about setting up these benefits for these musicians and how he thought there should also be a fund for roadies — lifelong roadies who’d had just as much fun on the road as musicians but ended up the same way. He was hanging with the crew most nights, and with me, we’d talk music, and he’d always talk about other drummers and say, “I wish I could play like that.” I mean, this is Richie saying this, and I said back to him, “You don’t need to because you play like yourself!” He was always so humble.
He was a real fun guy to hang out with. Watching him every night, his fearlessness, just going for it every night. He had signature drum parts, but he could also go off to wherever he wanted to go, cymbals flying, and it would be really cool. He had no fear up there, and then he’d come to everyone after the show and be like, “Hey, did I do OK? Was I alright?” He was both humble and fearless.
[Photo via LittleFeat.net]
HT: How long have you been with Little Feat now?
GF: About 2006.
HT: How did you get the drum tech job originally?
GF: I worked at the Fillmore and the Warfield here in the Bay Area for about 14 years, and I’ve been in bands, and of course with my father and uncles it’s always been a lot of music, and they’ve always been supportive. It was a couple of years ago [early 2009] when Uncle Robben came to me and said he was going out with Jorma [Kaukonen] and do you want to play drums. It definitely helped me grow before I got the Little Feat gig. And then working at the Fillmore, I played with anyone and everyone I could. I answered every Craigslist add and got lied to plenty of times but I wanted to play with everyone, just trying to become a drummer.
You know, one of the odd jobs I got after 14 years doing the Fillmore thing was clearing out the Grateful Dead warehouse [in Marin County] when things were splitting up into the Phil Lesh camp and the Bob Weir camp. I loaded all that stuff out with Cameron Sears, and he said, “I know of a drum tech job.” It’s funny, I’ve basically done every tech-ing job, and I can always understand why guys are pissed and disgruntled because I used to be pissed and disgruntled. You’re the first one there and the last one to leave. But it helped me be humble also. I always wanted to just play drums for a living and I finally did at 37.
HT: Do you have a drum tech now? You’ve had his job so I’m sure both you and he would appreciate the shout-out.
GF: Yeah, his name is Rocco [Joe Rocco], and he was Little Feat’s truck driver for years. He got into a problem and couldn’t drive trucks anymore, but he’s been in the family so long. You know, I would be happy to just walk up on stage and set up, but the fact that I can walk off after a show and go have a beer is amazing to me. He’s been learning on the job and becoming a great drum tech.
At first I was doing my own drums and then playing, and the band was like, “You know what? Maybe you should be sleeping a little bit before you do a two and a half hour set.” So I was setting up my own drums for about three weeks and it was decided I needed a tech. So I got a tech, and at the same time we got to take care of a friend.
HT: Being familiar with the Little Feat canon, how would you describe Rooster Rag? This album feels like an event, and not just because it’s been a while since we’ve had an album of new Little Feat originals.
GF: It feels…it feels like a Little Feat album. They do every kind of music under the sun anyway, but going into it without the same drummer, it wasn’t going to sound quite the same. To me, after I started listening to it, I thought it all came together. There’s some really cool, moody stuff, and they let me write some parts. We had a five-day rehearsal going into it, and we never rehearse for anything. But it helped. Bill has some very intricate songs.
HT: Is there a particular new song that you think best exemplifies the group as it sounds now?
GF: No, it’s really all of it. I was able to tip my own cap a bit in the song Way Down Under. I can’t play like Richie, but I thought I did get a little bit of his flavor in there. As far as how we sound now, a Little Feat show is how we sound now. We do some Fred songs every night, some Billy songs, Paul songs, and other songs and I think all of [the Rooster Rag songs] are pretty in line with that.
HT: What kind of feedback do you get from the fans since you came on full-time?
GF: I think I’m winning them over, one fan at a time. The people who are always around the band, the regulars, they pretty much welcomed me from the get-go. I knew a lot of them from tech-ing, but at first, there were plenty of people that either didn’t come up and say anything, or if they did, it was sometimes this “Maybe you should…”
We’re insecure musicians. We’re all going up there and getting naked and baring our souls if we’re doing it right. Many were giving me kind of backhanded compliments at first, and I could understand why, I was in Richie Hayward’s spot. But I’ve also had tons of drummers that can play circles around me tell me, “You’ve got some balls on you to be doing this, this is like replacing John Bonham!” These are guys I respect telling me this. So it keeps getting better. I’m enjoying my drumming and fans are seeing that growth. I’m way more relaxed now, and this was really a no-win situation in the beginning.
HT: It sounds like your bandmates gave you room to grow into that.
GF: They definitely did. They could have looked around and said we need someone who can sound like Richie, and they didn’t. They wanted to see what I could do, and I think they saw potential in a couple of rehearsals we did at the beginning. If it had been like, you’ve got one shot, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job. But this is a very family-oriented kind of outfit. Once you’re in with Little Feat, you’re part of that. You have to deal with each other once in a while, but look how long they’ve persevered and made it work.
HT: I can’t help but notice you still largely refer to the band as “they” most of the time, instead of “we” or “our.” Does it still feel weird?
GF: Yeah. I still think “they” probably 80 percent of the time, and say “our” 20 percent. It’s cause I have that much respect for them and I’m probably still just blown away I’m in this band. There are nights when I’m up there pinching myself, and we’re playing All That You Dream or something and I’m just getting goosebumps. I try to keep the emotions down because otherwise I’ll mess up, but this is incredible.