An Interview with Russ Lawton of Trey Anastasio Band

Tim O’Shea and I met up with Russ Lawton at StrangeCreek Music Festival on May 30th and chatted with him backstage about a variety of topics: Trey Anastasio Band, music festivals, touring… Russ was very enthusiastic talking to us for nearly 30 minutes about a variety of topics, from playing with Trey Anastasio Band and Strangefolk to his views on music today, and his workings with songwriters. He then headed out to perform with Strangefolk for the closing main stage set of the weekends festival. Russ is good people and showed us great insight into the development of what became Trey Anastasio Band.

Pete Mason: What was the initial conversation like with Trey back in 1997/8 to join him and Tony and said ‘hey, lets start a band’?

Russ Lawton: It was with Tony, the bass player, we went up there to the Phish rehearsal space and you know, see what it’s all about. What direction it would take, the way we played, and basically, we just gave him some beats that we can lean on, and outta that came a lot of songs like “First Tube” and “Sand,” and I think “First Tube” came out of the first beat I gave him. And that’s what was cool! I didn’t know what the expectations were, it was just sort of like lets get together and see what happens and he (Trey) kept rolling the tape and then after a while, you know, we didn’t have internet, so the Fed Ex truck shows up and I thought ‘this is pretty hip shit’. Then we did a gig to open up that Higher Ground place which was in Winooski at the time but is now in Burlington.

PM: So Tony got you guys hooked up?

RL: It was more like Trey always wanted to play with Tony because Tony was always playing in downtown Burlington while he was in college and Trey said to him “I getting’ a band together and I wanna play with you” and Tony says “Well who do you want to play drums?” and Trey, knowing that the bass/drum relationship is very important ya know, because there’s nothing worse that some busy drummer playing with Tony because he’d be ready to kill the guy. (laughs) He and I go way back, Tony and I. We used to play at this club where Trey used to go called Hunt’s and we were both in this Afrobeat band zzebra back then and that’s how I met Tony we became fast friends. And when that opportunity came up it was out of the blue; he had offered me to play with him before but I was in Boston chasing a record deal or something, and it all clicked and I was very fortunate

PM: And it just steamrolled from there?

RL: Yeah, yeah, cause fortunately Trey has a lot of energy and he really likes to play. (laughs) which is wonderful, and I really felt like when we played as a trio in ’99, just getting off the stage, we said to ourselves “what the hell just happened?’ cause something special happened and it was definitely pretty, pretty great, and it just went from there.

PM: How does the randomness of TAB and touring affect the rest of life?

RL: Well, fortunately you know well enough in advance ahead of time. You don’t get the call tomorrow to go out, so it works out good, you plan accordingly. I got a call this winter, don’t know what time it was, but it definitely gave me enough time to get that on the calendar. Once in a while something drops in your lap. I got a call to play with this guy Steve Earle to do the E-town show with him and I had another gig and I was like ‘Dude, I gotta cancel that gig, this is like pretty hip, I gotta play with this guy.’ Usually every once in a while its “hey, I love ya man but….”, but usually its pretty planned.

PM: Of all the venues played in, which one is really the best for you?

RL: I would say, and maybe its kinda obvious in a way, but you go to Red Rocks and its pretty freakin’ incredible! You think ‘What the heck is this place?,” Summertime ya know, its pretty special… Its funny you say that because we were talking to Ray about that all theaters are the same, but after a while you realize that this theater sounds better than this one, when you get at least to that level, you want it to be consistent, not like a ratty club. That place was pretty special. There was that place in Wisconsin too (Alpine Valley?) Yeah, that place had some great sound, when we were doin’ those shed tours.

PM: What are the best places you have seen shows at?

RL: Austin City Limits Festival, the best one. All the music is really tasty, and this one we just did with Trey at The Hangout Festival had a lot of the bands I like. You know, like sometime you play some of these festivals and you’re not really into it, we all have our preferences and taste in music. I stayed Sunday, which is pretty hard when you are gigging, but I saw Wilco, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Elvis Costello, Cake, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, it was just like unbelievable, like 5 more bands I cant think of, like The Meters. It was really good, I just think it’s really good. That was a cool festival man. At first I didn’t know what it was gonna be like, but havin’ that shit on the beach. I was walkin’ around on the beach (very likely the first festival like that)

PM: You get to check out some of the bands here at StrangeCreek today?

RL: Yeah, I saw these guys that I know (?), but you get involved in writing setlists and you know, but I want to see this next band, The Alchemisystics, before our set. I wanna check them out, I hear they are quality.

PM: How has Trey Anastasio Band changed your life?

RL: A lot man, I tell ya, ive worked really hard, and I had some minor success when I was younger in some up and coming bands that didn’t work out, and I tried to stay creative despite it all. It was taking 3 steps forward and 2 steps back kind of thing. So with TAB things really changed, plus it’s a great band, a great band but just the fact to get on that level, I really appreciate it. It’s really great, when people appreciate what you do, and I really appreciate it too. It’s pretty special. When I got the call, I didn’t know if it was gonna work out, I was pretty psyched it did. I’m not like a jaded musician (laughs). It’s been a long road.

PM: How did you get involved with Strangefolk?

RL: We were just talking about that, I was friends with Gordon Stone (fans stop by to chat, he says hi, tells them politely he’ll chat with them in a minute) and I know Jon (Trafton, guitarist and co-founder or Strangefolk) and we started talking and we hit it off and talked about doing some side project one day, you know, ‘hey, lets get together some time, have some fun ya know’, and then when Luke (Smith, the original drummer) left, they were getting calls to do more gigs, so they said ‘let’s see if Russ will work out. So I strapped on all the songs and busted my ass in practice which I love doing anyways and it worked out. They’re great guys and its cool, ya know, they’re good friends, it’s like great and I’m very fortunate.

After loosely chatting about Wormtown Music Festival this September, another familiar name came up…..

RL: Yeah, I talked to Mark (Blanchette, promoter of WormTown and StrangeCreek Music Festivals) about getting on the bill for Wormtown this fall with Ray (Paczkowski, Trey Anastasio band keyboardist, whom he played with last year late night at StrangeCreek – a sick show). That was a fun duo man. So we’ll do that this fall.

PM: Got a name for the group?

RL: We’ve just been calling it Ray Paczkowski and Russ Lawton but lately we’ve been calling it Soule Monde, that’s like a newer development but we’ve been using out names cause people know us by that. We’re toying with its name, since Soule is my middle name. (pronounced ‘soul-ay’)

PM: Your middle name is Soule?!

RL: Yup, hahaha, it’s a family name from way back in Rhode Island. Tony said ‘I didn’t know your middle name was soul!’ I remember I had to sign up for the draft when I was a kid and the girl who looked at my paperwork said to me ‘Oh your middle name is soul? That’s cool man” (laughs)