LiveMusic Daily Interview
Russ Lawton (Drums)
(Trey Anastasio Band / Soule Monde)
By Andrew M.
Could you tell me about the first time TAB got together to rehearse for the opening of Higher Ground?
Trey was looking at UVM and ended up seeing Tony at this club. At the time he (Tony) was playing with the Unknown Blues band. That is kind of how that connection with Tony all started. Trey really liked his playing since the first time he saw him.
So when Trey eventually wanted to get a band together he asked Tony about a drummer because the bass player and drummer dynamic is very important. Tony told Trey to check me out. At the time Trey was talking about intertwining some elements of African music into the new band’s sound. I’d gained some experience in the genre by playing with a band called Zzebra that included Loughty Lassisi Amao. Loughty was playing in a band called Osipisa, a Ghanaian Afro-pop band.
It is funny cause I opened for Stewart Copeland (the Drummer for the Police) once and his band Curved Air used to open up for Zzebra. At that time I was not in Zzebra though. He had an English version of the band cause he lived in London. I was like Stewart, “You used to open up for Zzebra eh?” We were laughing and I told him, “I was in the American version of that band.”
Long story short, Trey asked Tony who he wanted to play drums and Tony told him “Russ”. So we went up to Phish’s rehearsal space and hashed out all these beats and they turned into songs. Trey gives us credit for writing some of those first songs, but he really took them to another level, you know what I mean? It was his magic, we all reacted to them. We threw ideas at each other and it clicked.
What makes the new album, Paper Wheels, distinctly different from previous TAB albums?
When we recorded Paper Wheels, we played a lot of it live in the same room. It was really cool, kind of old school. Plus it was great because we went right from a tour to the studio.
When you come in fresh from the road you pretty much know where everything is, most the parts are hashed out, you make some minor adjustments, but most songs are arranged for the most part by the time you enter the studio.
I do a lot of recording other with people and if you’ve not been on tour together recently, you may show up with 2 or 3 different drum beat options for each song. Sometimes you go into a session and you’re hoping you are giving them the type of beats that aligns with their vision. Sometimes that artist has been sitting around with an idea of how they want a song to sound to the ear. It is a fun process to do that.
For Trey Anastasio Band, we had been playing every night, rehearsing before that, doing soundchecks. On Paper Wheels, I knew for the most part what I wanted to do before we even entered the studio.
*Video by 8baseballgeek
In 1998 before Phish’s Island Tour you, Trey, and Tony performed as Eight Foot Fluorescent Tubes and debuted a lot of songs that would become heavily played by Trey in the future. How exactly did this all come to fruition?
Around the same time Trey was looking to do something with Tony, Kevin Statesir’s Higher Ground was opening so we had the idea of doing the Eight Foot Flourscent Tubes for the opening of his venue.
As for the first time we played together, Trey told me to play a groove I like, something that was kind of fifth gear cruising down the highway mode. So I gave him the “First Tube” beat. So after that he was like “What else have you got?”
After playing some other beats we took it from there and we got some amazing songs. Songs like “Sand”. God the first day, I haven’t said this in a long time, I think we wrote “First Tube”, “Sand”, and then “Last Tube.” I believe a year later we wrote “Gotta Jiboo.” So, yes a bunch of them were written the first time we played together.
A fun bit about “First Tube” was about receiving that demo by surprise. Now remember this was before the Internet. I remember I lived on a small rustic new england street that could only fit one car, and this FedEx truck that delivered a cassette which was the demo of First Tube. I still remember that big truck pulling up the street– it was a very memorable moment.
Anyways, we rehearsed a couple more times then we played Higher Ground, there was definitely chemistry beginning with the first time we played together.
Soule Monde’s duo presents you with a great deal of artistic freedom to be able to play along with one of the most expressive instruments, the Hammond- B3 organ. In what ways have you found improvisational exploration and artistic growth in a duo? How has it personally and artistically allowed you to further yourself as a musician?
When I started off in rock bands we would jam, but I would be holding it down, but not getting too crazy. I’ve always been a songwriter drummer.
In Soule Monde, Ray is definitely coming more from the improvisational element so we kind of meet in the middle. There’s more freedom in Soule Monde because there is only two of us.
So I get a chance to get a little crazier, but I still stay within my realm of how crazy I prefer to get. I’m not a total jazz player or something, I’m not taking my drumming totally outside, but at times I am stretching in different directions. A duo setting opens me up for more solos. I lived in Boston for years, no one did drum solos. It was like “You guys got 45 minutes to do your set.”
You are essentially helping preserve the future of live music by taking the time to instruct those who are still learning the drums. Why do you feel it is important to teach the next generation of drummers?
I do and I love it. I learn so much from them too. Like I have one guy from St. Louis and half the time he’s just asking me questions within the business.
I try to think of teaching life experiences instead of trying to be some insular kind of guy in the back of the drum shop telling a student to play something out of a book and send them on their way. I try to tell them something like I got a gig downtown, I got to play a shuffle, could you play a shuffle? I give students scenarios of what I have to deal with and pressure I put on myself or pressure that is put on me. Try to bring my real world experiences over as a teacher and it is definitely an interesting process.
I got a Facebook message from one of my old students I had in Salem, he is out touring with a band and I saw him in Memphis. And he sounded great! They’re really trying to do it and the kid made my day. I know his mom and dad, and that connection is wonderful, that’s pretty special to me. That’s just as important as the teaching to me. I loved listening to that and seeing what he’s done.
What bands do you think are standing out on the live music scene in recent history, regardless of genre?
I’m always looking for bands. If it is good songwriting I’m into it. I enjoy a good moving song. I listen to everything from rock to funk to jazz.
Fela Kuti’s son, Seun Kuti has a new album out that carries on the tradition with a little more rock influences alongside the afrobeat.
That new Ryan Adams album has some really good songs on it, that’s a good record.
Tame Impala, that is one band that I just heard that one song off “Innerspeaker” and it blew me away.
They’ve been around and gotten big… what still really gets me a lot is the Black Keys. What they’re doing as a band and some of stuff that Dan Auerbach (guitarist from black keys) has produced. Such as this girl, Nikki Lane, she’s got this avant-garde kind of country twang to her. She’s got some really good songs. It is stuff that you want to come back and keep listening to.
Aaronback also produced Ray LaMontagne’s album, Supernova, I just can’t put it down. Then there’s the Fleet Fox’s, those guys are badass, especially their album Helplessness Blue – it’s monumental.
I always tell this story, I used to work in the restaurant and there was this young dishwasher who was having a terrible life and I used to help him out, let him store stuff at my house and one day he said to me, “I just listen to music that moves me.” That really hit home and that’s kind of what I have always been searching for.
Recently I had a great experience, I was playing in New York with this band, this guy came back stage and goes “Your drumming moves me man, I don’t know what it is about it.” Having someone say that was like the best thing, turns out it was the drummer of Free and Bad Company, Simon Kirk. I told him his drum beats move me. He said “You’re part of the slice of my style.” That was the biggest compliment anyone could give me.
What upcoming projects are you working on and are there any long terms goals you have that people may not know about yet?
I’m actually working on an album. I’ve been writing songs for years and I went into the studio and I recorded all the parts, the bass, guitar, vocals and drums. Then I’ve been having my friends come in and record. Tony has played on a couple and a great friend of mine who I was in band with from about 1981 to 1998. I’m doing that and I’m putting one track out at a time. Lots of old buddies.
You really seem to enjoy the songwriting process as well though, right?
Yea, I used to sit down and write everyday and now I don’t do that as much because I’ve got a lot on my plate. For many years I was in just one band so that was what I did. After that last band’s record didn’t come out, we were signed to SBK records, and when it didn’t come out I thought, “Now what am I going to do?”
So I decided I’m going to work on my drumming, and then I started playing in a bunch of different bands. Then all of a sudden I was in 5 bands. It is good cause it kicks your butt. I remember playing in Tony’s blues band– those guys have been playing 25 or so years so they expect it a certain way. That’s a genre that I sort of knew, but not as well as those guys knew it. So you go study up on that a little bit, you grow.
When you get to a certain age some people can get depressed because your career is kind of stalling out. You grab the bull by the horns and say ok well I’m going to keep going, I can keep becoming a better musician– that is what I do now.
I used to live up in Woodstock, NY when I was a kid and see all these big players in this little club. You may think, “That guy plays little clubs,” but you realize everybody just wants to play. I’m always looking to do little gigs. I had a bunch of residency gigs in Boston, then I moved back to Vermont. The first thing I missed about Boston was residency gigs, the ones you get used to on the calendar, and the music was good too. It is important. I realize I need to express myself everyday as a musician and I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’d come home from school and play. When I wake up at home, I wake up, make some tea, and I play.
Any new Soule Monde things in the works?
Yes, we have a new album coming out that we are working on. We are trying to get some more bookings in the works and link up with the right promoters.
That is how Ray and I started. We gigged once a month in this little club in Vermont. It had a Hammond B-3 in the club and we just got together. We did one Friday a month up there. Then we started doing home recordings at Ray’s friends house. I’ll never forget that night he was like “If you wanna keep doing this I can book gigs in Boston and other little gigs.” I remember he said he listened to the recordings and they sounded good. We figured out we wanted to play more gigs.
For our last album we did it in all one day, now we are trying different things. This upcoming one has got a lot of emotion and passion in it. I’m really happy with it. We started on it in the summer, chippin’ away at it, on and off. But we recorded it all and now were mixing it. I think in November we stopped, then Christmas you know. So in the spring starting it back up. We’ve mixed three songs so far, it is coming along.
There are so many bands out there, you can’t listen to them in this digital age. You’ve been around the music industry for quite some time. What changes have you seen from the days of radio to vinyl to CD and now to the digital era of music that is ever-evolving? Do you think it is a sort of double-edged sword?
I think it is sometimes 50-50. I think about when I send out a Facebook invite or anything digital… I remember sitting back and mailing out a hundred flyers, and now you just press a button, it is sweet like that. It is so easy to get your information out there and it is so easy to hear about a band, and immediately go online and listen. A lot of time I remember going to the local record store and hearing something I liked and then asking where I could grab the record. I remember growing up in Boston, living in the attic of my parents’ roof, and I’d listen to the radio and write down the bands I haven’t heard of. But now it is oversaturated, and while no one buys CD’s anymore, stuff like Spotify is just so convenient. In a lot of ways though I think having the Internet is pretty cool these days.
But with Facebook, it is just amazing, I can post something and see everyone comment and like it, and even Spotify, just how many people have signed up in the last year compared to even two years ago. Then I hear things like an artist getting 10 cents for every 4000 plays, I don’t know, it is a different time, but then it is so easy to get out your stuff. We just put out our record on Spotify and iTunes.
I can remember an old band mate of mine going down to South Carolina and seeing not one of our records was in the record store. Sure enough, the distribution guy messed it up, the record wasn’t in the store. Now I just go online and get it, there it is. Getting exposure is the hard part, letting people know the record is available. That’s always the power of the radio. I don’t even know if that’s around even more.