Ray Paczkowski, the bearded, bespectacled Vermonter behind the keys in Trey Anastasio Band, and is a hard man to track down. Having first played with TAB in the summer of 2001, ‘The Milkman” has been a staple of Stage Left, holding down the organ, clavinet and keys and adding funk to the well-rounded sound of Anastasio’s side-project. Paczkowski is also one half of the duo Soule Monde, alongside drummer Russ Lawton, whose funk blend infuses jazz elements and Brazilian and World music themes for a full bodied sound.
Currently on Fall Tour with Trey Anastasio Band, Paczkowski and drummer Russ Lawton recently released a new EP, Smashed World. This June at Disc Jam Music Festival, Ray found time to sit down and have a conversation with NYSMusic about his music.
Pete Mason: How did you get your name “Milkman?”
Ray Paczkowski: I worked on a dairy farm for 10-12 years when I was first in Vermont, doing gigs and milking cows. Trey always thought that was funny.
PM: When did you first start playing piano?
RP: I took piano lessons as a kid and started playing out in various projects. I always wanted to just play piano but you can’t haul a piano around, and digital pianos I just hated. Then I started hearing Jimmy Smith, (John) Medeski, and those guys and the sounds that they were getting out of that instrument, it was just so cool and I found that the Hammond has the same quality as a piano and everyone is different and every night there’s some kid of sound that pops out and that’s when I started doing it. A guy I worked with had a Hammond and just said take it.
PM: When was this?
RP: Early ’90s
PM: How did you get on Trey’s radar along with the Vermont musicians that have made up Trey Anastasio Band, particularly on your first tour in Summer 2001 with fellow Vermonters Jennifer Hartswick, Dave Grippo and Andy Moroz?
RP: I was in a band for a long time called Viperhouse and the lead singer, Heloise Williams, did some work with Trey, and we were kind of on a similar circuit, Phish had just started taking off, like we would be playing a club and they’d be next door in the arena. We would see them all the time, it’s Burlington, it’s a small musical community. I would play with Vorcza, a jazz trio and Trey would come listen to it and when he decided to put a band together, he asked me to do it.
PM: What was that first meeting like?
RP: We were doing a gig with Viperhouse in Winston-Salem, NC at Ziggy’s and they were playing next door in the arena. We went over to their show, they came over afterwards and he mentioned that he was thinking of putting a band together and said if I was ever interested and I said ‘Yeah’, but never really thought about it after that. A year later he showed up at a gig I was playing and asked me to do it. I thought about it for like five minutes and said ‘yes’ (laughs).
PM: What were those first shows like for you on the Summer 2001 TAB tour?
RP: It was at a whole other level with bigger shows, a full crew, and it was kind of bewildering going from just driving around in a van to a full scale operation. It was really fun with such a big band, and at that time I was playing in a trio and they had a much smaller sound, so fitting into that thing (with TAB) it was interesting, it was really cool. It was more orchestrated, I don’t know what the word would be exactly. I liked everyone and the music was great.
PM: Did you and drummer Russ Lawton know each other before playing together in Trey Anastasio Band?
RP: We had met here and there but I only knew him as a drummer. I didn’t meet him until we were playing together.
PM: So Soule Monde formed directly out of TAB?
PM: What were you seeking to create with the side project?
RP: I live in Vermont and Russ and his family had just moved here, and they were in the next town over. He called me up one day and said “I know this place that has a Hammond organ, let’s go there and make some shit up.” So we did, just kind of went from there. That was maybe 2008 or so.
PM: One of your first shows was a late night show in a cabin at StrangeCreek Campout. It was an unknown performance, knowing that two musicians in TAB were performing under the name Soule Monde, making for an intimate performance.
RP: I remember that, that was one of the first shows. We would just play at this place in Vermont and just make shit up.
PM: And now you’ve gotten to the point where you have songs and a wide array of compositions, have released one self-titled album and plan to release a new album this fall (the recently released Smashed World)
RP: Yeah we’re at a ‘one album every three years’ pace these days.
PM: How did Trey come to sit in with Soule Monde at Iridium Club in New York in May of 2014?
RP: It was just kind of random, we were driving to New York and I thought ‘Let’s call Trey, see if he’s around and wants to come to the show.’ We thought maybe we’d see him and hang out a little bit. He said “Mind if I bring my guitar?” I’m never one to ask, ‘Hey, come sit in with us?’ so he came down and played the whole second set. It was great!
PM: How has Soule Monde been on tour and the audience response over the past few years?
RP: We don’t travel much, do a lot of local stuff, like Disc Jam, that has a close range to Vermont, but the response has been good all around. With the new album, we’re trying to push it up to the next level, whatever that might be. It’s been really good and people are coming out. I think that not many people know the name Soule Monde, who or what it is. It’s really a factor of just hammering on the name even though we’re not on the road a lot, months out of the year.
PM: You and Russ being out of Vermont and knowing the local scene, and even the more rural areas, are there any musicians in Vermont that people should know about?
RP: I know a lot of players that are involved in various things, from folk type stuff to soul. I know a lot of musicians, but not so much the bands they are in. There’s a lot of good shit coming out of Vermont.
PM: Is there any music that you are listening to right now that is catching your ear?
RP: I have a 15 year old daughter and she turns me onto all this electronic type stuff.
PM: There must be an interesting connection between that genre and playing keys.
RP: It’s a cool genre, I don’t know that much about it. As far as listening to music, I’m a radio guy. When I’m traveling around, I’ll scan through things and if you’re in any area with college radio, you’ll get this weird stuff and find some new music.