As I stumbled off Lettuce’s tour bus in the middle of nowhere this past weekend, one particular word kept popping up in my head, and it wouldn’t leave.
You see, oftentimes when I conduct interviews I think of “keywords” that I might want to use to frame my subsequent write-ups. I generally write down three or four before I actually begin writing the interview, just to have some reference points to bring me back in focus if my writing gets too scatterbrained.
In this particular instance, however, there was only one word that I could think of: camaraderie.
My boss and I had just conducted the most fun interview we’ve ever been a part of, and we were trying to figure out how to get back to our car amidst the mud and rain that had overtaken Apache Pass, TX, the location of the soon-to-be-canceled 11th annual Art Outside Festival.
We were both completely geeked off the energy that Lettuce had provided us for the past 20 minutes, but we also wanted to get the fuck out of there. My Nike Air Max CB 94’s were starting to crust over with mud and my cell phone was on a network called “Cellular One,” which I’m fairly positive isn’t a thing.
Yet and still, the only thing that kept crossing my mind was the word “camaraderie.” You have to write about their camaraderie, I kept telling myself.
So here I am now, dry and under the cover of my own roof, with the chance to show you what real, true camaraderie is, in the form of Lettuce.
The funk band from Brooklyn by-way-of Boston embodies the word more than any other that I’ve been able to witness with my own two eyes. Guitarists Eric Krasno and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, keyboardist Neal Evans, drummer Adam Deitch, bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, and trumpeter Eric Bloom comprise a family that naturally feeds off itself — and all the funk that this world has to offer.
They are releasing their fourth studio album, CRUSH, on November 6th, and they were nice enough to put The Empire Strikes Back on hold for half-an-hour to talk to me about it. The following interview is a microcosm of the type of guys that Lettuce are. They completed each other’s sentences; nodded in approval like bobbleheads; laughed hysterically; and constantly dropped knowledge on their own history and that of the music they love.
Amidst the lauded solo careers and countless side gigs, Lettuce is bound together by the same cosmic funk that they in turn keep alive, and it all builds upon itself, consistently, year after year, in a perfectly imperfect circle of groove and rhythm.
You can only obtain Lettuce levels of funk with the camaraderie that these guys have built. After over 23 years in the game, I think it’s safe to say that they’re finally crushin’ it.
The new record, CRUSH, drops on November 6th. A quote from Shmeeans on your SoundCloud describes it:
‘CRUSH‘ takes off where ‘RAGE’ and ‘FLY’ left off. We continue our journey of the Funk universe playing through many styles, including Psychedelia, Classic Soul, and Hip Hop. While still paying tribute to the past, this album is clearly pushing boundaries and has us heading into the future.
Shmeeans, could you elaborate on what this quote means?
Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff: This band is continuing to grow and evolve, and we’re doing it in such a way that I think we’re keeping our roots and our core values together. But also creatively speaking, I feel like this album is our furthest journey into how deep and how far we can go. It’s probably the most alive show that we do.
Erick “Jesus” Coomes: We played and developed these songs live first, so some of the b-sections and some of the actual sections and grooves come from spontaneous things that happened onstage.
Ryan Zoidis: We’ve never done this before, where we have four or five fully developed tunes that come from playing live before we even go in the studio. Usually we get the tunes together in the studio and flesh ’em out from there, but we already had ’em this time.
Jesus: [The record] really does capture what you’re going to see when you see us live. That element is there.
Shmeeans: We’re trying to break new boundaries musically, at least for us… We’re breaking our own boundaries. And at the same time we’re still trying to pay tribute to all of the people who came before us.
As you always have done.
Shmeeans: As we always have done.
Jesus: Over the years we’ve had the opportunity to serve different functions outside of the group. Working with hip-hop legends like Dr. Dre or DJ Quik is such a huge honor because it gives us the chance to expand our repertoire and our musical abilities. We now know how to make a concert sound like a record. We’ve realized that we can do it. So when we’re onstage sometimes we’re like, “well why don’t we just go super hip-hop for a minute and then we’ll come right back to the funk,” just because we know that we can.
So going off and working extensively in different realms, such as hip-hop, has actually paid off quite well.
Shmeeans: Honestly, I think that those dynamics have always existed within Lettuce. You can look at when we did [the Dilla tribute “Mr. Yancey”], or on the Live in Tokyo album when we start playing Redman. Knowing Jesus and Adam [Deitch] as long as I have, hip-hop is a part of them, so it’s a part of Lettuce, you know what I mean? Whether or not we want to touch on that during certain nights, or during certain elements of songs, it’s just a part of who we are. It’s part of our DNA, and that’s gonna come out.
Something I really love about funk is that you can infuse it into any genre — as you guys have always done — and you just gave some great examples in regards to hip-hop. Are you covering any older songs on CRUSH, in the vein of a “Move On Up” or “Express Yourself” (both from 2008’s RAGE)?
Jesus: Yes! We have two [covers on CRUSH], Bobbie Gentry and Syl Johnson. Gentry is the one that’s really old school.
Zoidis: It’s like country-funk, kinda. Well, she’s country, but our cover of her song is one of our more funky tunes.
Jesus: Yeah, we definitely put Bobbie Gentry straight into the funk genre.
Which cities really surprised you with big fanbases?
Shmeeans: (without hesitation) Omaha, Nebraska.
(laughs around the room)
Shmeeans: On a Tuesday night those guys represented harder than I could’ve ever imagined, and it was right at a moment when we really needed to have that injection of positivity into this tour. Soooo much love for Omaha, we’re coming back there.
Zoidis: 100 percent!
How did you guys get such a strong following in Japan at the start of your careers?
Jesus: We went over there with Meshell Ndegeocello in 2001 and booked Blue Note Tokyo for a ten-day stretch, two shows a night.
And that was what would become of the 2004 live album?
Shmeeans: Prior to that, Outta Here was released in Japan. It was the only international release that we did for that record.
Jesus: Soulive could also have something to do with it. They had their record poppin’ in Japan, and I remember [Eric Krasno] and [Neal Evans] coming backstage like, “dude, they’re asking about Lettuce already!”
We’re incredibly fascinated by the Japanese culture. They love to rage, they love soul, and they really care about the music. They listen intently.
Zoidis: They’re really funky, man.
Shmeeans: At the time we did Live In Tokyo, I’m not really sure how much we deserved to go there (laughs). We were double-billed with Meshell Ndegeocello, and that was such an incredible experience for us.
Jesus: The band she had with her were these badass older cats. Oliver Lake was one of ’em.
(Editor’s note: Lake is an influential jazz saxophonist, flutist, composer, and poet.)
Zoidis: Deitch was pulling double duty on drums every night, playing for both Meshell and us.
Shmeeans: Chris Dave, their drummer, canceled last second, which is actually what enabled us to bring Rashawn Ross on at that time. History.
Jesus: We had to invite Rashawn onstage as a special guest every night because he didn’t have a visa at the time. (laughs)
Shmeeans: They would be like, “you have to play three songs first, and then you can bring him up after that.” (whole room laughing)
Jesus: So yeah, Meshell hooked us up on that tour… Which brings us to Eric Bloom over here, who is our new trumpet player!
Shmeeans: ERIC BLOOM!
Where are you from, Eric?
Eric Bloom: I’m from Rhode Island.
Jesus: He’s been with us for the past three or four years.
Shmeeans: CRUSH is the first full album where he’s played on every track, just representing where we’ve been the past bunch of years. We’re very lucky to have him.
Jesus: We’re all learning a lot from him. He also plays in the Pretty Lights live band, which is really good for us too… all the crossover stuff he does — and that Deitch does — helps Lettuce out tremendously.
Are you guys working with Pretty Lights?
Jesus: [Derek Vincent Smith] had called us to do some sessions in Malibu, so we showed up and did some pretty amazing stuff with him.
Shmeeans: All I know is that I played some guitar on something. I don’t know how it’s gonna come out, so we’ll see what happens.
Jesus: I heard it. It’s sick as fuck dude.
Shmeeans: Is it?
Jesus: It really is. It’s like four or five ridiculous tracks. We spent a really good day out there, and we were feelin’ it. We were like, “we’re just gonna fuck shit up right now.”
Derek’s our homeboy, for sure. It’s part of the same family at this point. He helps us out with all kinds of stuff now…
Zoidis: When he’s not out he’ll allow us to borrow his crew, which makes our stuff more professional and valid.
Shmeeans: Sometimes people say to me, “yo, so you’re in Lettuce, and then there’s this band and you guys do this jam, and there’s this and this and this…”
My answer to that kinda stuff is always that this cross-pollination thing is happening. That’s the world we live in today. We’re essentially living in a word-of-mouth business. You’re not gonna turn on Channel 4 NBC and hear about Lettuce, you know what I mean? It’s gonna be your homie who’s gonna be like, “yo, I had fun listening to this group, you should check ’em out.” So to me, the marketing game today is to get involved in as many things as you can.
Cross-pollination… I like that.
Zoidis: For the longest time, what kept us afloat was the fact that we were out doing different things.
Shmeeans: Most real musicians want to be involved in a lot of different creative things, period. No real friend or creative partner would ever hold you back from being the creative entity that you should be.