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Published: 2016/04/14
by Mike Greenhaus

Lettuce: Still Crushing After All These Years

Long before they personified the Venn diagram of jam, funk and hip-hop, the members of Lettuce were simply five childhood friends. The group’s roots stretch back to 1992 when guitarists Eric Krasno and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, drummer Adam Deitch and saxophonist Ryan Zoidis met at Berklee College of Music summer program for high-school students. The musicians kept in touch when they returned home and officially formed Lettuce when they reconvened at Berklee a few years later. (Their moniker stems from when the eager musicians used to urge club owners and other bands to “let us play.”) Though the group came together for sporadic gigs and the occasional recording session, the musicians pursued a range of projects in the late-‘90s and Aughts, with Krasno forming Soulive, Zoidis dedicating himself to Rustic Overtones, Deitch playing in John Scofield’s Uberjam project, Coomes working with DJ Quick and Smirnoff touring with Robert Randolph. All the musicians also grew into well-respected sidemen and producers whose resumes now span the hip-hop, rock, funk, jazz, jam and pop genres. The band’s core lineup has also remained remarkably consistent for the past quarter century—Krasno’s Soulive keyboardist Neal Evans replaced their Berklee pal Jeff Bhasker in the early ‘00s and trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom stepped in for longtime collaborator Rashawn Ross who is on the road with Dave Matthews—and Lettuce has grown into a house band for the New York live music scene. A few years ago, the group also decided to prioritize Lettuce and the ensemble has spent more time than ever on the road. The group’s fourth studio album, Crush, is a result of their recent time on the road, a blend of funk, hip-hop and psychedelia that harnesses their live energy like never before. Smirnoff and Coomes recently spoke with Jambands.com about Lettuce’s latest record, their longtime standing friendship and why Bruno Mars is a footnote away from their distinctive brand of funk. To learn more about the album, you can read a Track By Track piece over at Relix.com.

When Lettuce started working on 2015’s Crush, you said your initial goal was to make an album that had a live feel. What steps did you take to make sure the album was representative of your live show?

Eric Coomes: I’ve been watching this band forever, and I feel like Crush does have a live feel. It’s really hard to get that energy and that essence onto a recording. To get a studio recording that has that vibe, that feeling, has a lot to do with playing the songs first before we record them. We basically started playing these songs on the road and we wanted to change it up for ourselves. After you tour a record, not that anything gets boring, but it was nice to get to play something else after we’ve been playing the same shit every night, so you start working on new ideas. Next thing you know, we’re playing this brand new shit that nobody’s ever heard. Sometimes we’d try a section that we worked out of a new tune and, if it was in the same key of an old tune, we’d throw it in the mix. I think that helped a lot when we went into the studio to record these songs because we’d actually been onstage with them already. We’d heard people scream for different sections. We’ve improvised on them live in front of audiences and we’d come up with bass lines and solo sections live, in the moment. Having just a little bit of the element of live improvisation that actually went into the writing process gives the songs a little bit of honesty. Red Hot Chili Peppers and most bands go into a room and jam until they have some songs and I really think that’s an awesome thing to do. We did it on stage in front of people which is fun, too.

Adam Smirnoff: When I play it live, it feels even newer and more improvisation comes out. I think this album we got to do all that and then go to studio which was cool, instead of trying to get those things after the fact.

In terms of the album’s timeline, when did you first start writing toward this batch of material, and was there a song that ended up on the album that you feel was the original catalyst for when the album started taking shape?

EC: “The Force” was probably the oldest song that made it on the album. It’s funny, “Evil Wu,” one of the songs that was the catalyst for this album, didn’t end up on it. It was some Wu Tang Clan shit we did—the recording is really great, it came out dope, it just didn’t fall in line with the sequence. There was nowhere to put it and that happens with us almost every record—we end up with seven tunes and we’re like, “Dang, I love those,” but what are you going to do, put 28 songs on a record? You have to make an album out of it. We’re going to release all that stuff as bonuses later in the timeline we have. So “Evil Wu” and “The Force” were crucial to this album. “The New Real,” as we started to get that one under our fingers live, was also really magical. As all those sections came together including the intro and there was awhile where we just played the intro or maybe we didn’t have the intro together so we played it without the intro, then we finally put the intro together and started playing that live and that was really instrumental. I’m the worst when it comes to timelines—I don’t know what day it is—but I think, about a year ago, each night we started to add a new song or two into the setlist each night. We’d work them out at soundcheck.

When it came to writing the songs for this album, did each member bring in their own ideas or did you sketch out the new tunes as a group before you developed them onstage?

EC: Usually, the way we write is that we all bring in our own ideas. You never know where the inspiration starts—maybe something at my house—and then we bring them to the group. I was on this rooftop of this building in Brooklyn, it was a really nice rooftop actually, just standing there, and next thing you know this tune comes shooting into my head—this theme that became “The Lobbyist.” That’s basically how that one started—I started singing it out loud and it shot into my freaking head. So I called Deitch and said, “Yo, where are you?!” He said he was at home, so I went over to his house where he has his lab put together and I told him I had a tune. He told me to sing it to him and I did. Then we started putting it down and we made a demo.

AS: A lot of us come up with these grooves and we record them ourselves and then we just had our friends come over and collaborate and turn them into something new. The idea is: “Bring it to the group and let it become something new on its own.” “Chief” started during a gig that Jesus happened to miss in Canada. Neal played bass at that gig and something he played kind of stuck out in my mind. I tried to remember it and started to put that groove onto my computer just to play guitar over it and have some fun. Eventually, Deitch came up to Harlem, where I live, and said, “We should put it on the next Lettuce record.” So he started to put the melody down to it. From there, the song kind of evolved a little on its own.

In terms of the band’s overall dynamic, was there a point in the last few years when you realized you wanted to tour more and really make Lettuce one of your top priorities, since you guys all have so many other projects?

AS: Definitely, yes. I think there was a point when we all were doing a little bit more other projects and being sidemen for other people. We all saw the path unanimously that this could be something that we could take to another level if we put the work into it. We’re still going through that process and seeing where it’s going to take us.

EC: There’s a lot of hard work that goes into making a band into a real working project where it actually is your job and you don’t have to work for other people. There’s a whole lot of band-member business—things we have to decide together. The way the band functions is a lot more than just how we play onstage. It has a lot to do with brainstorming ideas and we each have our own responsibilities. Shmeeans and I are in charge of merch, so we’re always coming up with these things we could sell at the merchandise table that are fun for everyone. It’s really been fun to connect with the audience all of a sudden so much more. We can actually talk to everybody, I feel like a lot of the audience members are my friends. I can look in the audience and call them out by name. A couple of years ago we all saw the light: This could be our main thing and not a side-project anymore. We found this freedom. We are independent and everyone in this band is my bro, my friend. If I don’t have the momentum, someone is going to pick me up so fast, and if someone doesn’t have the momentum, I’m going to pick them up and I’m going to have it for them. I’ll have the energy they need or they’ll have the energy I need to go about kicking ass.

AS: I would just like to reinforce how lucky I personally feel that I get to do this at all. It’s a one-in-a-trillion thing, and I understand that this path is very rare and very precious. If you would have told me when we met when we were, like, 16-years old that we would be able to play tunes that we write, play in front of a bunch of happy people that are psyched to see our music, and travel the country…it’s unbelievable to me. I’m so grateful to be able to do this at all.

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