Celebrating their 20th anniversary as modern day rulers of old school funk, the seven-piece Brooklyn-based juggernaut Lettuce drops their third studio album FLY - a decidedly raging slab of relentless groove, hyper-charged syncopation and psychedelicized soul anthems. Having blown up stages from coast to coast last year, ranging from The Fillmore in SF to Terminal 5 in NYC, Bear Creek Music Festival to Camp Bisco and all points in-between, Lettuce entered Brooklyn recording studio The Bunker this winter with a fresh batch of road-tested material and a revitalized sound honed razor sharp by a year spent on the road.
“We’re more together and set to crush than ever before,” says drummer and chief songwriter Adam Deitch of the all-star group that he and his accomplished band-mates cut their teeth with back in their Berklee School of Music days. That much history, along with the A-list crop of projects that each member has taken on away from Lettuce, gives the group a bottomless well of musical ideas and unrivaled chemistry—in fact, referring to themselves as a band of brothers. “I was in a practice room at 16 with Kraz, Zoidis, Shmeeans and Deitch and it all clicked,” says “lead” bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes. “We all felt rhythms in similar ways. We were all about the pocket from day one.”
On FLY, the pocket is deeper than ever. “People tend to look at funk as a one-trick pony, “ says Deitch, but the record smashes those limits by drawing on a range of styles that can be traced from the early ’60s through the early ’80s, incorporating plenty of modern hip-hop sensibilities—heavy bass, kick and snare—along the way.
The album’s one cover song, an all-instrumental version of War’s Slippin’ into Darkness, is a reminder of the genre’s vintage origins but from there on up, the track progression emphasizes the band’s ability to steer funk in a new direction. “I sketched out a bunch of ideas for songs that I felt would fit each musician perfectly,” says Deitch, leaving plenty of space for each to add their own style to the mix. As a rhythm section, Coomes and Deitch set the pace with a deep and wide pocket. Guitarists Eric Krasno and Adam "Shmeeans" Smirnoff weave electrified six-string rhythms that summon the magic of The JBs' Catfish Collins/Hearlon "Cheese" Martin dual guitar frontline, while Keyboardist Neal "The Hawk" Evans doubles up the low end as he simultaneously floats and stings with jabs of Hammond B3 organ. Riding along in lockstep is saxophonist Ryan "Zwad" Zoidis and trumpeter Rashawn Ross punctuating the Lettuce funk with blasts of big, bold and infectious horn lines, while guest appearances by Brian “BT” Thomas and Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum further solidify what is already one of the fiercest horn sections of this era. “We try to keep the horn lines simple and melodic, leaving plenty of space for our insanely funky rhythm section to shine,” says Zoidis. “We are always thinking about making people dance.” Soul vocalist Nigel Hall comes in on the Krasno-penned track, Do It Like You Do and Charles “Dawg” Haynes provides added percussion on Let It GOGO.
Look no further than FLY's title track, though, for what sets these guys apart. The laid-back vamp, recorded all-analog to two-inch tape, gets full Jamaican studio treatment, dubbed out with vintage reverb and delay. That sort of thing is “only something that Funkadelic might have touched on back in the day,” says Smirnoff. Meanwhile, tracks like Madison Square and Ziggowatt (Deitch’s ode to legendary Meters’ drummer Zigaboo Modeliste) sound like futuristic cuts from the Stax back catalog. “It’s somewhere between old school and new school,” Zoidis says of the sounds the band was able to achieve with engineer John Davis. Evans’ Bowler may be the best evidence of where this supercharged group is headed, with a tasty, stick-in-your-ear melody that continues through the track and begs to be ripped open onstage. “All these experiences as individuals have helped us grow in our own direction, be influenced by more things and have more things to bring to the table as a group,” Smirnoff says. “When you have that many variables, it’s a brand new project every time.”
Having evolved and refocused since 2008’s Rage! without ever dropping the beat, Lettuce is getting ready to take audiences to the cosmos with FLY in the trunk and a high-octane tour on the horizon. “Lettuce is like a Learjet that wasn’t getting clearance from the tower,” says Jesus. “But we’re done just rolling around on the runway.” They’re not asking for permission, so put your tray tables in their full, upright and locked position. This plane’s itching for lift off.
Live at Blue Note Tokyo