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Published: 2005/10/13
by Dean Budnick

Chasing Away: Jon Trafton Returns To The Stage With Strangefolk

Earlier this year, Strangefolk’s Jon Trafton shared the disquieting news that he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer. Over the ensuing months while Trafton kept his community of supporters updated through the Jon’s Room section of the Strangefolk website, the quintet remained off the road. Although hopes remained high that Trafton just might return in time for the group to host its 10th Annual Garden of Eden festival, Trafton and the band opted to hold off. Then, on October 1, when all seemed quiet in the Strangefolk camp, the group announced that it would return for a performance on October 21 at the Big Easy in Portland, Maine.

In the following interview, Strangefolk’s co-founder looks back at 2005, offers some thoughts on the days that were and anticipates what might follow in 2006.

DB- For starters, if you don’t mind, I thought it might potentially be helpful to our readers if you could explain how you discovered your cancer.

JT- After I announced it, a lot of people asked me, “How did you find out?” My peer group is not the typical age you start thinking about cancer per se. The way I figured it out was the blood. It was pretty obvious there was something wrong.

Over the years there had been blood here and there and a doctor at UVM had said, “No, that’s nothing, maybe you have hemorrhoids or something, don’t even worry about it.” So I never thought anything of seeing a little blood here or there. Then it was on Christmas Eve of last year that I had more of a major blood episode. I made a doctor’s appointment immediately after that and things just rolled from there. I learned later that any kind of bloody discharge is one of the seven major signs that you need to have it checked out, which seems kind of obvious

They said it probably had been slowing growing for a few years. They said colon tract cancer tumors tend to grow really slowly and they can develop over years. The average older adult will be getting a colonoscopy every five years, so if the doctor sees a polyp or something that’s a little further developed, they’ll clip it out and you’re good to go. In my case I wasn’t even thinking in terms of that, so by the time I did check it out it was way beyond “just clip it out and no worries.” So age was not on my side in his situation.

DB- In terms of the trajectory of your treatment where are you at now?

JT- I’m in a pretty good place right now. They set you up on an eight-months-to-a-year plan of treatment. They give you the pre-surgery phase of chemo and radiation and then you have surgery and then they’ll put you on a post-surgery round of chemo. I have about a month to go on the post-chemo radiation and then hopefully I’ll be done with all this. The surgery was a success and blood tests have been good and clean.

DB- I’ve been reading the Jon’s Room section of the Strangefolk web site over the past year and for a while it seemed you might feel well enough to come back in time to hold the Garden of Eden festival.

JT- I wanted to do Eden and it turned out I could have done it with flying colors and been fine but I didn’t know ahead of time how I was going to feel. I wasn’t disappointed when the date came and I felt as good as I felt but I just didn’t know ahead of time.

I knew I was going into chemo and I’d heard all these nightmare stories of spending months in agony and just wishing the world would end. I didn’t think the fans would need me hobbling out on stage all pale and having a really rough time getting through the whole thing. I just didn’t know how I was going to feel and when I made the call it was right after I got out of surgery in June. I had a pretty rough go of the surgery, my body didn’t take to being rerigged so violently. They had to realign my digestive tract temporarily and I was feeling really miserable. So when I decided we shouldn’t do Eden I was in this fog of “I’m in a horrible place and I don’t know when I’m ever going to feel good again.”

It was just one of those horrible troughs you can go through in a situation like this so I decided to make a conservative call. It turned that I would have been fine. I actually spent that weekend in California meeting up with [drummer] Luke Smith and our old Strangefolk pr guy Sam Ankerson in Napa and we all had this really good time and fun reminiscing. So I was still having a Strangefolk experience that weekend but it was a private one.

DB- Speaking of Luke, can you talk a bit about his departure from Strangefolk?

JT- I think he just hit the end of his rope with the touring. After Reid left, a year or two into it we made a really big push to stay on the road and I think he felt that if things weren’t where he wanted them to be, that he was ready to go into domestic life. He had just gotten married and they had a baby, a great boy and he’s doing well. It was great seeing him on Labor Day because I hadn’t seen him in a long time and it was great to catch up with him.

DB- For so many years, Strangefolk was based in New England and then you moved out to Chico, California. What led to that decision?

JT- I think it was more psychologically hard and a little bit financially because it increased flights. I guess I needed a change, My thinking at the time was we were on the road so much. I had this apartment I really loved in Montpelier and I was never there and I felt I could be doing this anywhere as long as I can get there for the gigs and rehearsals and as it wasn’t a major hurdle for the band. And Don lived here and my girlfriend lived here and we had a bunch of friends here from the early Strangefolk days and I just loved it. Chico was a town that was really welcoming, I needed a change from the east coast and I was enticed by the weather.

As it turned out I ended up with some top notch surgeons and doctors here. I’m not sure if that would have happened on the east coast where I might have been bouncing back and forth between Maine and Massachusetts. Here I go to San Francisco for my surgery and the place where I deal with my daily and weekly stuff is right down the road from my house. I feel that dealing with this cancer was one of the major things I accomplished by moving to California.

DB- As a proud born and bred New Englander myself, whenever I hear that sort of story, I tend to think, “Damn, we lost one.” Is there any chance you’ll return in the near future?

JT- I think I’m going to move back soon. It’s been on the docket for a while and I was thinking about it before this diagnosis and then I got hung up for a year dealing with it. I’d like to be close to my family and close to the band guys and I miss New England too. The weather here in Chico is the ultimate seductress, it’s so beautiful all the time. I still get the feeling when I walk outside here, it’s like every day I’m on vacation. It’s just the most beautiful place. That will be tough to leave but I think I will make a move in the next 6 months or so.

DB- Over the past year what sort of communication have you had with the other band members and what are they up to?

JT- We’ve got a pretty good email thing going and we give each other calls from time to time.

Don is working on Long Island. His Chico company transferred him there. He’s married with a baby girl and they have a nice domestic life but he’s always eager to get together for shows which is great.

Patchen and Jen are living just outside of White Plains and they’re expecting another baby during this holiday season which is cool.

Erik is up in Maine. He and Patchen are probably doing the most gigging, doing their own thing here and there. They’ve all been sympathetic and understanding and cool about my being off the road.

DB- Given your treatment, to what extent have you felt well enough to play?

JT- I’ve been playing a lot of guitar. I have a bunch of friends here who have a good band and they let me play with them quite a bit, I’m almost an honorary member. I’ve also been just sitting around the house trying to teach myself to play the lap steel. I’ve been keeping myself musically really busy working on songs trying keep the wheels turning

DB- It seems that this October 21 show came together rather quickly. How did it happen?

JT- I have a pen pal who’s going through the same thing I am, someone who read the article in Relix and wrote me an email. He said, “You’re the only one my age I know who’s going through this.” He’s a couple months ahead of me in the treatment process and he told me that flying was a nightmare.

Well I had the urge to get out of Chico and I had a free ticket so I decided to fly to Montana to visit my brother. My parents were visiting him and I did that as a test run. It went really well so I decided to book a trip to Maine for a week to visit with family and friends and then kind of spur of the moment I was feeling really good and asked everyone in an email if they wanted to put together an impromptu quickie show.

So our manager hit the phones and got the Big Easy, the old Granny Killams which is a cool thing because Strangefolk played there so many times in the years when were up and coming. So it feels like a cool coming home. Still, it’s a small show and it’s not putting too big a spotlight on “We’re back! Look, Jon’s back!” It just that we wanted to get together and play a show, it seemed like the right time and everyone was available, so we’re doing it. It came together really organically and really smoothly.

DB- Do you anticipate that you’ll be working up any new songs for the Big Easy show?

JT- We won’t work up anything new. In fact I threw the setlist into the fans’ hands to see what they would come up with. I put it out to the fans to send me what their best set ever would be and we’ll pick the one I like the best. The guys in the band had said, “Why don’t you pick what you want to play?” And I said, “Why don’t we let the fans pick it and we’ll go from there.”

DB- Will Russ Lawton be playing drums?

JT- As I was finishing the wrap up I realized I’ve got to say what Russ is up to but I’m not really sure what Russ is up to except I’m sure that he’s been gigging constantly because he’s the drummer’s drummer. He’s been living in Vermont and playing a lot which is great. So Russ will be with us definitely.

I consider him to be part of the band for sure. He’s made himself available every time we’ve asked him which is huge because he has such a busy schedule and he’s just a great guy to be around. The chemistry with him feels like a band. We all love him and I consider him a member of Strangefolk for sure.

DB- Here’s a spin on a question we asked Reid [Genauer] last year when we interviewed him for the site. After he left the group, how long did it take to reach the point where felt you had escaped the shadow of that original Strangefolk line-up?

JT- There were waves and phases. In the beginning people were still yelling out “Alaska” and “Reuben’s Place” at every show. We were Strangefolk and they expected we would play Strangefolk tunes, which meant Reid songs and it was an awkward period because we were redefining ourselves. At that point the shadow was there and we expected it too because it was so new.

But that faded away. One thing we did pretty diligently was keep writing. We wrote ourselves a whole new world of songs and that’s how we marched forward. We just pushed it forward and the band evolved and gelled in its new form and became a different experience than Strangefolk ever was. I’m not sure when it happened but over time it did happen and it feels good.

Part of it was talking with Reid and getting reacquainted with him and bridging the gap from when he left. We didn’t speak for a while really and we’re just getting back together slowly and working together a little bit on things. It’s too bad things couldn’t have worked out. I look back at some of mistakes that everybody made and young bands make those mistakes and ultimately I know for a fact it couldn’t have gone on any longer than it did. That’s just too bad but it couldn’t have. So I don’t look back with a lot of regret.

DB- Do you ever look back and think about where it all might have gone if the original band had remained intact?

JT- I do but I don’t dwell on it. I think we were a great band and it was a lot of fun and I listen to some old stuff occasionally when someone is forcing me to and there’s a lot of magic and great stuff going on that I don’t think any of us acknowledged at the time. I think Reid really was down on his guitar playing and was insecure about it but I always recognized the cool stuff that he did and there’s a lot of cool creative stuff we were up to.

The new band functions in different ways which is what makes it interesting too but I look back and think, “All that hard work and all those years and all the miles that we put in, to have it all go to that it’s just a shame that we couldn’t have risen above internal problems.” We thought could have seen through them but Reid really didn’t think we could and it came down to him and his feelings since he was the one who left.

I’m sure we have different perspectives. I did feel though that towards the end we were kind of going through some motions and we hadn’t hit the marks we had hoped we would hit. It was difficult within the band because Reid and the rest of us had different ideas of how we should present ourselves so it just wasn’t going to work. So I don’t look back too much and wallow over it but it’s too bad. We had something cool going on and it’s nice to keep something intact. I always like to play things through to the end.

DB- You mentioned that you’ve been working together with Reid. What have you been you been up to?

JT- It’s not anything creative or artistic really. It’s more nuts and bolts working on stuff behind the scenes, like getting Strangefolk’s catalog past and present up on line so we’re just talking about stuff like that. We’ve also discussed the possibility of looking into the archives and digging up some of the top notch shows and making them available in a nice format for download. But these are just ideas

DB- Final Reid question. He has a particular mode of songwriting. When he left the group did you feel any sort of impetus to emulate that to a degree in order to maintain some sort of consistency?

JT- Reid has his own special touch in writing but I don’t think we tried to fill that in Strangefolk. I liked how he could step into character and portray a role other than himself in a song. To take on a character and not have people say, “Is that really what you think?” To have people understand implicitly that you’re playing a role, like “Jack Straw” or “Tennessee Jed” from the Grateful Dead repertoire. I thought that was pretty cool, it’s a Robert Hunter thing too and I know Reid really looks up to Robert Hunter. I just love the fictionalization of a character and the little story rather than singing about your current emotions and how it’s going with you and your girl.

So I’m not sure we made a conscious effort to write a song like Reid would have done. I think we’ve all just been growing as songwriters and we put out what comes to our minds at the time.

DB- Reid has the ability to convey sentiments directly in a manner that engages listeners. I always thought your songwriting style was complementary because your songs tend to be a bit more elusive and elliptical.

JT- I kind of strive for that. There is an elliptical sense. I don’t like to state things directly. I find it hard actually, it’s just the way I am. I don’t wear things on my sleeve so much. I like to get the point across somehow without directly saying it. I don’t even know if it’s conscious, it just comes out that way. Sometimes I look at songs I’ve written later and say, “Wow, now I know what that song means.” [Laughs]

It’s kind of the clichf the songwriter looking back and saying. “Oh I was talking to myself” but that’s happened to me a bunch of times. I understand now what I was saying but I don’t even think I did at the time. It all just flew out on paper and had some chords and melody to it and it escaped my notice.

DB- To that end, I’d be interested to hear which of your songs you’d identify as most successful or remain your favorites?

JT- There are a couple. It’s funny you asked that because just yesterday in trying to get my mind geared up to doing shows and refamiliarize myself with the music I was listening to a bunch of demos and a couple come to mind. “Whatever” seems to have lived in our repertoire and people seem to appreciate that one and it expressed a sentiment at the time really well, which was frustration. “Paint” is another song, it’s about how things go wrong and you rise from that and move on and find good in the bad. I’m sort of living that out right now so that song resonates for me too.

DB- What about Strangefolk studio albums, which would you single out?

JT- I look back at Lore and cringe because we were young and all over the place. But we were enthusiastic, there’s a lot of energy and it is what it is, a perfect little time capsule of early Strangefolk being excited and going for it in the studio. I love Lore for that. It brings back visual memories of the studio and just a lot of great memories.

I really like Open Road a lot as well. It was kind of overlooked by our fans and I don’t think it did very much as far as sales go but I listened to that recently and I like how it comes together. It feels good to me. It’s got a little groove to it I that I really like. But just like the songs, they’re all like your children and they all have their own personality, I don’t think I have a favorite. I view it all as just one catalog of work.

DB- Last one. Looking ahead, what do you see for the future of Strangefolk?

JT- I can say what I would like to do more than what I actually know because its been a year and the band does need to sit down and have a roundtable discussion of where everyone’s at right now. I’m so glad we can do this October show since we can’t do New Year’s Eve because that’s the time when Patchen’s wife Jen is expecting, which is kind of a relief for me personally because it takes the decision-making out of my hands. It’s not about me which is great because every decision the band has made this past year has been all about me and it’s all been health and it’s such a bummer not to be able to do things because of your health.

I’m psyched that we’re doing this show and I want to start off slow and see how it feels and have a good band discussion see what everybody wants to do. Then we’ll take it one step at a time. And if I do move back east, it’ll be much easier when we’re all on the same coast. I foresee potentially 2006 will be a cool year of getting back on track and figuring things out.

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