Russ Lawton: Man in Motion
It’s early afternoon in Philadelphia. I look outside the window from Russ Lawton’s hotel room and there’s not much going on. It’s a cold overcast day. Inside the room, Russ apologizes that he has no food or drink to offer me. He sits down at the table opposite me and we discuss his role as the drummer in Trey Anastasio’s band. We also talk about his other hundred and one bands, side-projects, movie soundtracks and session work. Four hours later I watch from the 13th row at the Tower Theater as he blazes though two sets of mind-blowing music. After the show, Russ rummages through a cooler, grabs some humus and lines up a row of juice drinks for the long bus ride to Ohio. Tomorrow, for his day off, he plans on going to the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. Things are pretty low-key backstage, a stark contrast to the high energy show which left the sell-out crowd at the Tower both speechless and out of breath. Ladies and gentlemen, Russ Lawton.
Benjy: First of all, let’s talk about Wednesday night. It was the opening of the tour, and it was Grammy night. First Tube was nominated for a Grammy. It was a song Trey wrote, based on a beat you gave him. Did you feel a part of that nomination at all?
Russ: Yeah, I felt proud of it. It was a performance Grammy which meant that it was a performance of that song, from the CD. But I felt a part of it, yeah. I felt really proud of it because, as we talked about in our last interview when we talked about that song, it’s that same beat. It changes ever so slightly throughout the song, but it’s all attitude. The groove is a big part of it and what Trey put on top of it made it complete, because otherwise that beat could still just be sitting there, but yes I definitely felt part of it. It looks good on the resume. I felt really proud of that.
Benjy: You were on Conan O’Brien last night. What was that like?
Russ: Oh it was great.
Benjy: Walk me through the experience.
Russ: Well, we got into New York at 7:30 in the morning, because we came down from Syracuse. Checked into the hotel. My drums were at the Roseland so we had to rent a kit. Somebody picked me up at a quarter to eleven. Went over to NBC, set up the kit and tried to tune it up, because Carini was over at the other place (he’s all apologetic and I’m like “Don’t worry about it man, I’ll deal”). After I set up the kit, I walk around Manhattan waiting for those guys to come. They show up, we do the soundcheck, go to the Roseland, do soundcheck over there, learn a song.
Benjy: What song?
Russ: Some cover or something. We ended up not even playing it. I think it was a Stevie Wonder song or something. We always do that kind of stuff. Trey’s great like that (“Here we go boys!”). It opens your ears. Then we go back and hang at Conan and wait for them to go through Ted Danson and Chris Cattan, the guy from Saturday Night Live. He’s really good. Then we played that and it was really great. I was more nervous for Boston than I was for Conan to tell you the truth, but you get up there and it’s like “If I mess this up, it’s on TV.” But I thought it was good. And actually Conan commented to Trey I guess that he liked the rhythm section, which I thought was kind of neat. I agree (laughs) – it’s all Tony [Markellis]. I haven’t seen it yet though. Everybody back home was watching.
Benjy: Let’s rewind. Let’s go back to the last Trey tour. The tour ends. What happens?
Russ: For me? Other than the depression setting in? No. (laughs)
Benjy: Did you start right up with Gordon Stone?
Russ: Yeah. As a matter of fact we ended up doing some festivals and some things. I kind of picked up where I left off, you know. I came back from Boulder and all I had were my cymbals and my snare drum because we had a rental kit in Denver. I’m just sitting in my living room. It was dark. I had both things right beside me. I’m just sitting there going, “That was really great. Now what do I do?” And I was psyched to play with Gordon again, but was just that tour was really fulfilling and a very positive thing. It was great and I was hoping that we’d do it again, you know?
Benjy: It’s been two years. Did you keep in touch with Trey?
Russ: Yeah, I’d call him periodically and we’d just say “hey.” When Farmhouse came out, we talked about that and some of the songs that are on there. I mean, he was pretty busy with Phish and they were out touring and stuff, but we definitely talked here and there. After the tour he sent me this little Leatherman thing. I guess he gave one to everyone on the tour. My name was on it. It was really special because it was like “Hey man, this guy really cares.”
A friend of mine is a tour manager for all these bands and at the end it’s sometimes like, “See you. Bye. Thanks.” You know, after you get done touring with somebody for like four years it’s just “Yeah. Goodbye.” Some people are a little more special. He tours with Loudon Wainwright’s son, Rufus Wainwright and after the last tour the guy gives him a shaker with his name on it, because he’s kind of like a bartender on the road. It means a lot, you know? It really does.
With Trey it was great and I was just dying to do it again. And hoping that he wanted to do it again and I think he did. It was just that Phish went back on the road and then, what’s the sequence of events? They started doing another album and that takes time. I was telling somebody the other day how in the music business, a year can go by very quickly.
Benjy: Before Phish started playing the songs, was there ever any talk of you guys recording an album?
Russ: Not really. I mean I know we had a lot of live tapes. Paul always has tons of those DA-88’s under the board and I never really heard much of those until the other day when I heard some of the stuff from the last tour. Oh, the quality! People get the mics in the room and they sound good, but I was listening to “Ooh Child” and I was like, “Wow! This sounds good!!” It was like, “Yeah, we could probably put the live album out.” That was talked about. But whatever – the guy’s got a lot of ideas, man, and that’s great. But then people were telling me, “Hey I heard Phish do ‘First Tube’” and I’m like “Wow!” It was cool. They held up, you know? I was hoping we could maybe do something, but Phish made an album and that’s his priority.
Benjy: Let’s talk about how things got started again, this time.
Russ: Well what happened was we got together in December. It was informal. “Let’s get together and just see if we’ve still got it.” We went up there and Carini was there because now the barn’s a studio. It’s beautiful. So we did the same thing as last time. “Give me a beat” or “What do you got?” And everything’s on tape. I just did my thing and Carini’s like, “We have four hours worth of tape.” It was so cool. Then six o’clock rolls around. Trey went home to go hang with his family. I went downtown, hung out with my friends, got some dinner and drove home. Then that Youth Orchestra thing was kicking in, so he was definitely busy with that. Then when he called me to tell me about the Grammy thing, we talked about maybe getting together one more time. We went to his house this time, because somebody was at the barn recording. I was down in his cellar using brushes and we were all looking at each other like, “Wow, this really feels good,” and we were all walking away with smiles on our faces. The next day I wasn’t home and I got a couple messages, “Russ, I gotta talk to you.I want to do a tour.” So he got inspired and he did it.
Benjy: Everything came together in a compressed time period, then?
Russ: Yes. We got together whatever time that was, I can’t even remember. After the holidays maybe? Probably. And then we went up for two days. Sometimes we’ll do that. We’ll show up on Tuesday morning and we’ll go until Wednesday afternoon and then we’ll take off. We’ll do a day and a half. And he got inspired. Again man, I’m putting down these beats or grooves and he’s coming up with these cool songs. It’s really cool because some of this stuff I have filed in the back of my mind and he’ll be like “What else you got?” and I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this thing I used to play that I like.” And then I’ll come back and it’s this really cool song.
Benjy: It sounds like the songwriting process is very similar to last time. You start with a beat or a groove, and then he’ll write a song over it?
Russ: Yeah. And then he’s brought in other stuff, especially now when you have the horns involved. Some of the acoustic stuff with the horns, like this song “At the Gazebo,” is just gorgeous. The last tour, for me it was that song, “Farmhouse.” I’d go out and watch him play it in his solo set and it’d be really emotional for me. And it still is. Now I do just two cymbal swells in this one song, “At the Gazebo” and it could be like a Christmas song or something. It’s got that heartfelt thing. That’s what I love about it.