A pair of late-2012 releases—one crackling with live energy, the other conjuring plenty of studio magic—shows two sides of one crafty drummer.
Back in 1998, when Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio was forming his first solo group, he began by recruiting bassist Tony Markellis and asked if Markellis had a drummer to recommend. He sure did, and, fifteen years later, Russ Lawton is still anchoring the Trey Anastasio Band with his bassist buddy. The New England drummer, who served an apprenticeship of sorts under percussionist and sax player Lasisi “Loughty” Amao in the late ’70s in the Afrobeat band Zzebra, brings a wellspring of infectious grooves to Anastasio’s music, paired with a bubbling sense of positive energy that’s apparent both behind and away from the drums.
Take it from Questlove Thompson, who knows a thing or two about feel-good beats. When Anastasio’s current eight-piece unit, which also includes percussionist Cyro Baptista and a three-piece horn section, played Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the night after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast, Questlove tweeted, “It’s always magic when @treyanastasio comes to @LateNightJimmy. But his percussionist & drummer ARE KILLIN!” Quest’s hashtag was #pocketfordays.
Lawton, who lives in Vermont and counts among his influences Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, Ringo Starr, Steve Jordan, Michael Shrieve, Steve Gadd, Zigaboo Modeliste, Tony Allen, Charlie Watts, Bernard Purdie, David Garibaldi, Tony Williams, and Jim Gordon, favors a streamlined style with a cracking snare drum and a good dose of swing. (“I had to practice to get that straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll feel,” Russ says, laughing, “because I didn’t really like that starting out. I’d rather just do the dotted feel!”) Lawton’s joyous grooving really springs to life on his celebratory new release with Anastasio Band keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, Soule Monde. Just take a look at track names like “Bernard” and “Bootsy Bonham,” and you get some idea of the drums-and-keys duo’s inspirations.
Anastasio’s recent solo recording, Traveler, on the other hand, aims for much more of a studio vibe. Coproduced by indie-rock stalwart Peter Katis and featuring members of the National, including Bryan Devendorf sharing drum duties, the album puts songs and tones above solos and jams. Luckily, Lawton loves a challenge and possesses the experience and attitude to handle just about any task that’s thrown his way in the studio or on stage.
MD: Traveler is more heavily produced than a lot of the stuff you’ve played on. The snare sound on most of the album is very low and fat, which is not your usual tone.
Russ: If you listen to the song “Traveler,” that’s my drumset, my Gretsch kit with a 6 1/2″ Supraphonic. After we did that song, the producer was like, “All right, we gotta stop!” And he brought in a Ludwig bass drum and a 5″ Supraphonic, tuned way down. He was going for his thing. On “Traveler,” it’s me doing my thing—and needless to say, they took that sound away! [laughs] But it was really cool, because you go for a different approach. Basically I went for the low snare drum sound and played really light. “Okay, Russ, you’re hitting a little too hard.” We’d just got off doing a bunch of gigs, so you’re still trying to get [heard] over the band.
MD: Having a popping snare sound is part of the way you play.
Russ: Yeah, that’s my style. After a while it was cool: Okay, I can relax a little bit more. Sometimes you tend to try too hard. So then we banged out like fourteen songs in two days. It worked out. Sometimes, when I can get out of my element, or even my sound—if it doesn’t sound like me—it’s refreshing.
MD: When you and Tony Markellis first met with Trey in the late ’90s, you wrote some songs.
Russ: We got together, and I played [Phish drummer Jon] Fishman’s kit, and Trey goes, “Gimme some groove that’s like a fifth-gear kind of thing.” And I played the “First Tube” beat. It was from a Zzebra song called “Shabadoo Day.”
And it kept going. “What else you got?” “What else you got?” The first tune on [Anastasio’s Afrobeat-influenced album] The Horseshoe Curve, “Streets of San Francisco,” that’s a beat I had on one of my songs called “The Stranger.” My [old] band was at one of our shows and was like, “Russ, is that the beat from that song we used to do?” [laughs] I was like, “Yeah, man—now it’s in another tune!”
MD: Drummers fantasize about that: All I need is a great writer to say, “Give me a groove.”
Russ: Yes! So lucky. I have fourteen, fifteen songs [cowritten] with him. He doesn’t need me; he can write his ass off. But he was going for a concept, and it really built the foundation of what we had. I feel very fortunate. We play “First Tube” every night, and I still get the chill up my spine.
MD: Some of those early tunes first ended up on Phish’s Farmhouse album.
Russ: Yeah. You’re the struggling musician your whole life…. I got down on my knees when that guy called, man! I needed a break. I’d been bartending for twenty years. They’re not really mine; they’re really his songs. But that was pretty monumental, because I’ve had a lot of record deals and management and stuff fall apart. With Zzebra there was a lot of stuff going on. You see it all the time. It’s a tough business—that’s just the way it goes.
MD: Soule Monde seems to show your pure and uncut musical personality. The album has a certain looseness.
Russ: Yeah, it does. That was all done in one day. We just went in there, set up, and went for it.
MD: How did the material come together?
Russ: We’d go up and play a club, Slide Brook, in Sugarbush, Vermont, with no songs. Ray likes to improvise: “Hey, start a beat!” We kept playing, and I’d have a list of the beat names. I’m always writing drumbeats, and that’s how a lot of that Trey stuff that I get credit on came about.
MD: So Soule Monde was basically improvised in the studio, with some structure?
Russ: No, by that time we had a little bit more to work with, like we’d know there was an A and a B section. But it wasn’t like I knew what fill I was gonna do to go into the next section. We edited a little bit, but not much.
MD: What are some concepts you’ve been practicing on your own lately?
Russ: As I tell my students, I’ve always got something on the music stand. You wake up and you’ve got to warm up, so you might as well warm up with some rudiments, like Charley Wilcoxon. I’ve been doing that for years. Bernard Purdie is like, “It’s all about the rudiments.” You realize you’ve got to touch base with them every day.
I got this book a few years ago—Bill Elder’s Drummer’s Guide to Hip-Hip, House, New Jack Swing, Hip House, and Soca House. If I didn’t work on that book, I wouldn’t have been able to do [the Anastasio/ Markellis/Lawton song] “Sand.” It’s a simple little beat, but it has an attitude. So I’m always trying to figure out different grooves. It’s always fun to find new beats and to be creative.
I work on my time a lot too. I remember doing a tribute to The Last Waltz, and this singer came in. He goes, “I did this before, and the drummer was counting stuff off too fast.” I looked at my notes and said, “Okay, that first one’s gonna be 150 bpm, and this other one’s 80.” And the guy called me for like a week: “Russ, what’re those tempos again?” With the Trey stuff, I know what all the tempos are.
I started doing that a while ago, because I would listen to things, like Zzebra, where you get the live tape and you’re embarrassed: Oh my God…it’s really fast. And I would play with guys who weren’t like that—they weren’t hyper like me—and I’d be getting my butt kicked. I’d hear stories, like, “Yeah, Russ is a good drummer, but he sounds like he’s on coffee.”
And if there’s a song that I’m not feeling comfortable with, I’ll play it until I get it right, really work with whoever I’m playing with. I work every day; I don’t sit around very much.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Live, Lawton plays a 1970s Gretsch kit that includes a 14×22 bass drum, an 8×12 rack tom, and a 16×16 floor tom, with a 61/2×14 Ludwig Black Beauty snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 13″ hi-hats (A bottom and K top), 17″ and 19″ A Custom crashes, and a 20″ K Custom Medium ride. Russ uses a Pearl hi-hat pedal and Eliminator bass drum pedal and plays LP Mambo and Cha Cha cowbells.