24 Questions – Russ Lawton on Trey Tour, Jam Bands, and Jewel
I recently met up with Russ Lawton in Binghamton, NY for lunch. We walked around the downtown area for a little bit before settling in at a coffee shop, where we sat down and discussed, in a stream-of-consciousness way, what it’s like playing drums in Trey Anastasio’s band, the jam band scene at large, and Jewel.
1. You’ve been called ‘The drummer with the Mozambique feel.’ How would you define that feel?
Well basically I learned it like a Brazilian thing which they do based on Lebanese – it’s like that dotted kind of feel, a-one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and… And that’s what’s on top, like a cow bell. We have this thing ‘Mozambique’ with Trey which we play and when we play it with Gordon Stone it’s called ‘Abdul – The Medley’ and that’s the second section. I use that beat on ‘Last Tube.’ So it’s something that I play. I never get a chance to use it but I have this last year, it’s been great. So it’s probably one of those beats you store in the background and we get to pull it out.
2. The jam band scene is great for a lot of bands because it’s not just one sort of style – it’s more of an attitude….
Right. And it’s great for me because I grew up in that and to see that and to be an elder musician on the scene…and I’m still kinda bummin’ out about being around Boston – I’m not really into that scene anymore. And to be in this is like really a breath of fresh air, man. It’s been an amazing year.
Where do you see the seeds of the jam band thing that’s going on right now?
I don’t really know because I remember thinking many many years ago with the Grateful Dead – and the people would be into the rhythm and the percussion – and I would think, with Zzebra, that we should’ve moved to San Francisco. You know what I mean? This is going back 20 years. Zzebra started in 1977. That’s when I moved to Vermont, man. That’s a long time ago. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long but…I think, you know, so it probably started with Phish. They opened people’s ears. I mean the new generation came in, you know? It was wild for me because I’d been trying to fit in with The Natives which was kinda like pop – a really good song band. And I mean when the whole grunge thing was happening it was rough for us. We were trying to find our niche, you know? And then I see this other thing happening. It was like, I’ll never forget reading this thing in New York in some magazine. Phish was playing at Madison Square Garden and this record guy was saying to his son, ‘Where are all these kids coming from? What’s this thing?’ And a lot of the people don’t even know what’s going on.
A lot of it is still underground…
Yeah, they don’t do videos, they get some airplay at a couple…I mean I don’t know how much they do but I know where I come from there’s this station, The River, which is adult alternative and they play them. But…that’s what’s kinda cool about them. I love that better, you know?
People are there for the music. It wasn’t force-fed to them. They went digging for it and they found it.
Yeah, and that’s what’s good about it. And that’s why, with Gordon, I’ve seen him kicking around in Vermont for years and now we get e-mails from all over the country from colleges that want us and it’s like so wonderful man. It’s cool man, believe me.
3. How’s it different playing with the Gordon Stone Band versus with Trey Anastasio?
Musically this is more of a rock funk thing where Gordon tries to put more jazz – it’s improv and it’s a little more stretched out, a little more ‘twisty.’ And my roots are really what you’ll hear tonight. Like that funk kinda rock thing, laying it down. And the older you get, the simpler you play. So I mean I’m more of a – what we’re doing is, a couple of songs we’re even kinda getting this house music, acid jazz kinda thing going. Lay down the beat, because Tony’s just an amazing bass player and it’s just like a THICK groove, you know?
4. When you approach it, do you say, ‘Okay I’m going to see what I can bring to this music?’ or do you say, ‘Okay, the music dictates that I play this other way?’
Well I think I bring stuff to the table because the first time the three of us got together to see if it could work, Trey was like, ‘Play me some beat that you love’ and a lot of those songs were written from those beats or grooves. I mean his approach was like, ‘Okay, let’s keep this as comfortable as possible instead of me trying to…’ You know, whatever. And he wrote some songs around it basically. Like ‘Mozambique’ was written from just jamming and it was cool. Just like this song ‘First Tube’ and this other one called ‘Sand’ which is turning into an amazing acid jazz song. I just had this acid jazz beat that I played, you know what I mean? So I brought something to the table that I liked doing and Tony and I hooked up. And then after that, other songs have been…Trey brought some demo stuff in and you know, it’s a mixture.
5. So then all of you brought stuff into it – do you know how many songs were written?
Basically what he did was, it was written but I mean he’d just get the tape rolling and I think we had like a list on this little board, like different beats, we just made names for them. He’d go, ‘What’s a different beat you like?’ or Tony would have a groove or he would have [something]... you know, it’s just like throwing stuff out there.
6. Did Tom Marshall write the lyrics?
Some of the stuff, yeah. I remember Trey had this book with a lot of lyrics. So with the 8 Foot Fluorescent Tubes there’s a lot of those beats and some stuff has stayed in the setlist and some hasn’t. And then he did some songs that he did with Tom up in his barn a couple of years ago, like this song ‘Somartin’ and this song ‘Heavy Things.’
*Both of which kick ass, I might add. I mean, Somartin… *
Isn’t it an amazing tune?
I first heard a demo version of it on this outtakes tape that’s floating around, from the Story of the Ghost sessions, and I guess the version you’re playing now is a little different…
Yeah that song, man, it’s very emotional. I remember, I’ve had to calm it down a little because I’d get too emotional. And ‘Heavy Things’ is a really…a lot of those songs – ‘Farmhouse,’ he does that by himself in his acoustic set – are really good songs. I’m into writing songs too and so I’m a sucker for a really good song.
7. Let’s talk about the cover tunes. You guys are doing ‘Bell Bottom Blues’...
Yeah, amazing song!
‘I Can See Clearly Now,’ Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’...
Yeah we’ve been going nuts over that. And that’s my roots. I mean when I was a kid.
I think that’s everybody’s roots somehow…
Yeah, well it just keeps carrying over because he’s so bloody amazing. I mean, I listened to Electric Ladyland when I was a kid everyday after school and remember being in tears when it came to Voodoo Child and being like, “Oh man!” And you know Stevie Ray covered it too. But we just lay it down, man – the funk.
8. Who came up with the master list of covers?
Trey would be somewhere and hear a song and he’d get hyped on it and give a call to Kevin [Shapiro] who gets all the CD’s and puts them on tape and sends them out to us. But basically he was going for the – it was kinda like the AM roots. Like I know sometimes I’m driving somewhere and I’m so burnt I can’t listen to regular radio and I’ll listen to like the hits from the Kool, what do they call that station? Cool songs from the past and then you hear these songs with different ears. You’re more of a musician than when you were a little kid. You react differently to different songs.
I agree. There are songs I used to hear on the radio growing up, and when I first got really into music I kinda dismissed them. But now I hear them and I’m like, ‘This is great!’
It’s a new production of ‘I Can See Clearly Now.’ The bridge is like totally amazing. I remember sitting there when we were learning it, ‘Oh, I never realized it was like this!’
You hear more things ‘cause your ears are better. It’s just something, not necessarily something that we play, but I’ve listened to songs on that station and I’ll go ‘Wow, that drum fill is like really off!’ Or what’s that great Stones’ one, ‘Time is on my side?’ The tambourine is like, ‘Time, che-t-che.’ The tambourine is way off. And you know that’s cool too, not to make fun of it. But it’s cool if it’s in back.