Russ Lawton: Man in Motion
Benjy: Tell me about the horns. Did they come up with their own parts for the songs?
Russ: Well, basically what happened was the next time we got together, we decided to do the horns. We got together one day and Trey said, “Look, I need a week with these guys” or something. So we taped everything – there was a lot of stuff. And then we went home and learned what we had to learn and did our homework. He got together with the horns and did whatever they did – I wasn’t there for a lot of those. But I know he came up with a lot of the parts. And I know Dave Grippo will spit out something when playing live, but Trey worked those guys hard, man.
Benjy: Have you played with horns before?
Russ: Oh yes. When I was with this African band, Zzebra, we had a horn section. Then eventually it was just down to a sax player. And I’ve done horns with this other band over time and I love it. It sounds so good.
Benjy: What’s it like playing with them, versus just the trio? Obviously it has to be more restricted in some way.
Russ: But it isn’t! It is, but it isn’t. It’s the same thing. We were doing “Sand” and that stuff and it’s like playing the James Brown thing or something. It snaps it up and that’s why I like to play it, it’s got this little edge on it. It’s cool because we can do “At the Gazebo” or whatever and we can still do the other stuff. I don’t feel restricted at all. I feel uplifted because it’s more musical. It’s more depth. We did that Bob Dylan song, [sings: “You stone me when you’re driving in your car…”] Jen had the tuba going and it was in my mix so loud last night and I was going, “Yeah! This is SO cool!” It’s really great.
Benjy: Let’s talk about the group of songs that you did on the first tour. “ First Tube” – got a Grammy nomination. “Heavy Things” – radio airplay. “Sand” – unbelievable song. “Gotta Jibboo” – instant classic. “Windora Bug,” “Somanatin.” The list goes on. What are your favorites, now that they’ve been able to age some?
Russ: I like all of the above actually. It’s cool how they hold up. Don’t get me wrong, when we busted into “Sand” in Boston, or “First Tube,” that just summed it up man. It’s the way we play in that groove. It’s funky, it’s rocky, it has an attitude. And then I couldn’t wait for “Windora Bug” because a lot of people were coming up to me when that show was announced, “You got to play ‘Windora Bug!’” Whatever. Some rise to the A List and some get on the B List and the B List is really great too.
Benjy: Were there any songs in which there was talk about, “Let’s not do this, this time?” I mean, did you guys consciously drop any of them?
Russ: Not really. Well, we haven’t done “Heavy Things,” and then we mentioned about doing it maybe. And I know it got some airplay on the radio. In Boston it got a lot of airplay.
Benjy: Let’s talk about how those songs made the transition to Phish. Do you think they made it?
Russ: Trey asked me about that when we first got back together and I said, “I had to get used to it.” And not that it was bad. What they did with it was really great. But especially when somebody told me about “First Tube,” I was like, “Wow! They’re doing ‘First Tube!’” That beat was such a part of me and it’s my attitude as a drummer too. But it transformed and they did a good job and it took me a couple listens, but I got into them. It wasn’t that it was ever bad, it was just like, “Woah!”
Benjy: “First Tube” is the beat you were carrying around for years though, right?
Russ: Yeah. I used that beat in a song from Zzebra called “Shabadoo Day.” It’s like a real African thing. So that was kind of a part of me from a long time ago.
Benjy: How do you see the songs as being different when Phish does them, from when you do them?
Russ: Well you know it’s always tough because you have something to compare it to. It’s like if we went out and did “Guyute” with me playing it instead of Fishman. Fishman and I are really different drummers. That’s what’s so good about it. I’m more of a straight ahead drummer. I do my best and just lay it down. Tony and I, you know? I’ve seen Fishman play and he gets this other thing going that’s really great. I saw him do this solo in Pork Tornado one time and I was like, “Woah! That was just an amazing funk solo!” We’re just different. That always makes it hard to compare. I saw Phish do “First Tube” at the Tweeter Center. I got chills from it. Maybe it was my memories of thinking about the song. Trey had just called me the day before and said, “Look, I really want to get together after this tour” and I was thinking, “Maybe we’re going to be playing this one again.” I got chills.
Benjy: We ran into each other at an earlier show at The Tweeter Center back in 1999. Have you been to any other Phish shows since then?
Russ: This past year there, when they played “First Tube,” was the last time I saw them. I had been to the Lemonwheel and those things too, but usually if they were in Massachusetts I would go.
Benjy: You got chills from “First Tube.” Any other thoughts?
Russ: It was really good man, and I loved Page’s part on it. He played it with us last night. And I was psyched to have that on it because when we did it with the 8 Foot Fluorescents they had these vocal things and I think he kind of took that vibe from it. It was cool.
Benjy: Did you guys practice with him, before the show?
Russ: No, he just went right up there because, you know, he’s toured with that song. And it was really good. I always wanted to play with him. I think he’s a nice guy.
Benjy: In addition to being in Trey’s band, you also worked recently with Mike Gordon on his film Outside Out.
Russ: Yes. I recorded a lot of the drums on that and he used a lot of that stuff.
Benjy: Tell me a little bit about that whole experience.
Russ: It was fun. I remember, I was up at the barn rehearsing with Trey for the spring tour  and he was like, “Mike is on the phone.” And I’m going, “Mike?” I have another bass player friend named Mike and I thought maybe something happened and he got in touch with me at the barn or something. But it was Mike Gordon and he’s going, “Hey Russ, are you going to be in town this weekend?” I happened to have no gigs and I’m going, “No, I was going to head home. But what’s up?” He goes, “We’re doing this project. You want to come down and check it out for a couple days?” And I said, “Sure man.” I went down there, Gordon Stone was there, Vassar Clements was there and Buddy Cage was there. We just went through some stuff, threw it on tape, and they chopped it up and then we saw some of the scenes. It was really fun.
Benjy: Who was the creative force behind those songs? Was it everybody there just throwing things on the table?
Russ: There were a couple songs. One of them was like “He taught me how to play my guitar.” You know that one right? Yeah, I was laughing. It was a great little song. And then some stuff was like, “Okay, let’s get a funk thing going” because Mike just needed some background. Mike just threw the ideas, “Okay, this one’s a little more out there, let’s take it out a little bit more” or “Let’s get a disco thing going.” I was just there to be a session guy, but to try to put myself within it.
Benjy: Mike said recently that he’s thinking about putting out a soundtrack companion album.
Russ: Yeah, he talked to me about that. I was at his studio a little while ago and he was there talking about that.
Benjy: He’s got his own studio?
Russ: Yeah. And he’s got Pro Tools and stuff like that. Jeff, his engineer, mentioned that.
Benjy: Have you seen the final cut of Outside Out?
Russ: Oh yeah. He sent me a copy of it. I thought it was funny. I liked it. It was fun because before I only saw segments of it. It was interesting because the first time I watched it I had to kind of go “Is that me on the drums?” Fishman plays on it too. And again, obviously we’ve got different styles, so when I hear a certain part it’ll be like, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely Fishman on that section.” And me I’m just kind of laying it down, that sort of thing. But yeah, it’s a good movie. It’s interesting.
Benjy: It seems like the type of movie where, in high school, you’d go over to someone’s house and they’d be smoking or something and you’d say “Dude, you’ve got to check this out.” And you’d sit around and watch it.
Russ: Exactly. That’s a good analogy. I agree. It’s a good underground flick. Vermont’s been great to me. All the musicians up there are so good to me. I’m building a house up there, outside of Burlington.