As Soule Monde, drummer Russ Lawton and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski have issued four studio sets and a live album of their wildly original repertoire, including 2021’s Mimi Digs It. Additionally, since 2017, the pair has issued annually a single celebrating the holiday season. This year, the duo decided instead to release Christmas, a full album combining those past one-offs with a second side of newly recorded cuts.
Fresh from their fall tour as members of the Trey Anastasio Band (TAB), the Soule Monde two prepped the ten-song set for a limited release; gathering a host of classics and a sparkling original, and featuring the TAB horn section as well as the two musicians’ daughters–Patience Hurlburt Lawton and Hattie Lindert. We caught up with Lawton at his Vermont home after a morning of rehearsals for a short run of Soule Monde dates–with help from Dopapod’s Rob Compa and Chuck Jones–supporting the new album.
In January, Soule Monde’s Relix Studio performance will be released digitally.
You’ve had a busy fall. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. I just got back from the Trey/Goose run. We’ve been doing a lot of gigs this year. It’s been great. Now I’m back home, practicing, trying to keep the house warm.
Most of the songs on this Christmas album have multiple layers of keyboard parts. For you as a drummer, what was your North Star in each? What part would you use as a guide all the way through?
It started with the piano. The studio, Sugarhouse Soundworks, which unfortunately has closed, had a beautiful Bosendorfer piano; this unbelievable piano. Ray and I would go in and get those grooves. Once we had a good bed, Ray would go back in and put stuff on top.
How did the idea of making an album come about?
“Little Drummer Boy” was the first one. The first four or five (songs) were done one a year. And we’d release the one this time of year. Our manager said, ‘Why don’t you do a full record?’ So, this spring we added four or five more to make it a complete album.
I like how you play just enough of the signature melody to identify the song, then expand out from there; your subtle snare rolls on “Little Drummer Boy” echo the traditional version but with a groove.
That’s in my wheelhouse; that feel. Behind the beat a bit. You get the cocktail going. You get the lights on the tree. You’re feeling pretty good about life. No worries in the world. I used to see (drummer) Steve Gadd a lot. That’s kind of where I got it from.
I’m glad you mentioned that. Every year growing up, my family put up our tree to the sounds of The Beach Boys Christmas album and the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Christmas album. Is this album meant to suggest it can be a soundtrack to a holiday activity? Like decorating the tree? Or a Saturday night party?
It was, in a way. I do the same thing with my family. I always play The Nutcracker. I always play Ray Charles. I play The Beach Boys’ one, too. I’ve got my list. And I’ve discovered other albums. I think about sitting around with the lights off in the house; it’s warm; by the tree; relaxing. Really homey and relaxing; that’s what the vibe is. It started with “Little Drummer Boy” and we took it from there.
Did you track live in the same room? And were there other songs you considered recording?
Same room. One big, happy room. Those are the only ones. We picked three or four, and Ray did the one solo piano (“Bog Zie Rodzie”).
Ray’s piano work is one of the many highlights of this album.
With Trey, Ray always plays keyboards, but having that acoustic piano and what he does…, the way he plays is so beautiful. I want to go out and do a piano trio with him. That’s been one of my visions; play in some little jazz club. The way he plays is so uplifting. So cool.
It brings out the “swing” in your playing, for sure.
It’s funny you say that swing thing. That’s been brought up a lot lately, even in my lessons. That’s how I’ve been pushing my students; to get that side into their playing. Definitely Ray pushes me into a different direction, or the opportunity is there. It’s interesting: there is something inside of you, and it comes out when you play with somebody. It’s the chemistry thing. Even with TAB- on some of those early songs- the swing comes out. You’re only as good as the people you play with. You find the right tunes and the right combination and it comes out even more.
There are some really involved counterpoint and layered arrangements happening on these songs. How much of that is something you work out ahead of time?
Not a lot. We’d be in the van, sometime around October, doing some gigs, and we’d say, ‘What song do you want to do this year?’ We’d toss around ideas and come to an agreement on what we wanted to do. I would give a lot of that credit to Ray. That’s his world, and again why we play together. Because I’ll react to him. He plays something and I react to it. And it turns into this whole thing. It’s that improvisational thing he does so well.
Typically, how many takes were you doing of each song?
It’s like one or two takes of me playing, and we get it. That’s the luxury of us playing together so many years. I can’t remember doing many takes at all. One or two. Maybe three.
Despite plenty of room to improvise, you kept these songs relatively compact. Did you edit any of them?
No. We knew we were going to keep them pretty short. Which was fun for me because I come from that world a little more. We still improv. There’s no click-track. It’s just bare bones.
What are some Christmas music memories for you as a young person?
AM radio was king in our house. The Christmas station would be on. I grew up at a time when Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, all that ‘50s stuff was on the radio. That’s nostalgic for me. Nat King Cole was a big part of growing up. I love that Nat King Cole Christmas album. It’s amazing.
I distinctly remember when I was growing up buying Learning to Crawl by the Pretenders in large part because of “2000 Miles.” How did you arrive at that choice, and then having Ray’s daughter and your daughter sing on it?
If I remember correctly, Ray’s girlfriend suggested the girls sing. I had that Pretenders album, too. It was a monumental album for me. I always wanted to do that song. It’s a great Christmas song, but it’s a rock Christmas song. And Ray liked it, too.
For me, that song is a modern classic.
Your daughters do a terrific job; true to the character of the song. And their voices blend so well together. How familiar were they with the song and with singing together?
My daughter must have heard it. (Ray’s daughter) Hattie, I’m not sure. They had never sung together. As it was, my daughter was living in Flagstaff (at the time of the recording). I found her a studio in Flagstaff. Hattie was living in Vermont. So, she came in the studio. My daughter’s part was done on the other side of the country.
Of the ten tracks, the finale is an original, “December.” And I have to say, I love this song. For anyone who’s ever walked in the cold on a moonlit night, this is the musical embodiment. Then, that back-end jam- it just sort of explodes. It’s really impressive. Where does that one come from?
That’s Ray, that spoken word thing. Then we go into that groove. We both reacted to that. It was one of those things that came together. That outro- it’s like playing Hendrix or something. It’s got that kind of groove to it. Really cool.
There’s this really human quality to it; an undulating, inhale-exhale dynamic during that outro.
If I’m being nit-picky, there’s a (snare) hit (after a fill) and it’s a little late. Like, we were finding our groove. There’s a little bit of a push-and-pull thing going on.
That’s what makes it great; it’s like walking in thick snow.
Thank you. That means a lot. Because as a player, you beat yourself up. Like, maybe I should have moved that hit over. But, in the moment, you’re going for it. It is very emotional. That’s why I play. When it comes right down to it, that’s why I play music. I’m looking for that emotion in the music.
You welcome some familiar friends to the fun, with the TAB horns- Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, and James Casey- playing on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Was that in the studio or same deal as your daughter?
Same deal. Each one did the part from their own home. And it sounds perfect. Ray had the idea to do it as a Ska thing. And those three were gracious enough to play on it. There’s nothing like playing with people you’ve been playing with a long time. I can see why people- like Phil and Friends- have been hiring the TAB horns as a section. They’re great.
Speaking of TAB, as you said, you just got done with a tour with Goose. What did you think of Goose?
I’m so happy they’re rising up. I like their tunes and their sound. I see why people like it. That tune, “Dripfield,” that’s got some emotional quality to it. They’re cool.
Playing with TAB, you have had your share of shows in front of some big crowds, especially at festivals, but this was somewhat new for this band: a run of arena dates. How was it?
I didn’t think about it too much. I just go for it. I have been so used to doing two sets; this was just the one; do a soundcheck and then sit around for five hours. But it was cool. I was honored to play those bigger rooms.
With TAB as hot as ever, will there be time enough for Soule Monde, and what are the plans for 2023?
We’re working on some things now. The goal, after the holidays, is to work on a new record. We’ve got a bunch of ideas. We love being creative. It’s why we do this band.