If Lettuce was a film genre instead of a band, the band would be a 1970s' blaxploitation flick. It's funkier than a pimp's fur coat and as inscrutable as dark sunglasses, and no one's better at apprehending a groove or an irresistible rhythm. However, this particular Boston outfit is less about the boom-jigga-bow-wow of getting down than the horn-heavy car chase and the organ fills that fishtail like a vintage Gran Torino.
The group's core of guitarists Eric Krasno and Adam Smirnoff, bassist Erick Coomes, saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, and drummer/producer Adam Deitch met as teens at one of the Berklee School of Music's five-week summer programs. They all hit it off, sharing similar respect for James Brown and a deep-seated love of music. They didn't stay in contact during the intervening two years, but when they all enrolled at Berklee in '94, they made arrangements to get together and jam. They didn't miss a beat.
"It's more like a family than anything," says Smirnoff, during an off moment in Colorado, touring with Nigel Hunt's Imperial Jazz Band. The side project features Krasno, Bonerama drummer Alvin Ford Jr., and Hunt who provides vocals on the only non-instrumental track on Lettuce's latest, Fly. "There's a lot of innate chemistry."
A New York native, Smirnoff is taking advantage of Colorado's newfound recreational freedom when we talk. "Who would've thought I could sit in the park on a hot day and take a little hit where no one will take it or see it because there's no one around me," he says. "I'm not bothering anyone, and I'm not going to get arrested."
Back when the guys in Lettuce were undergrads, they used to prowl the streets, wild musical animals looking for prey. When they didn't have a gig of their own, they used to troll parties looking to hijack the show.
"Hijack is a funny, silly way of looking at it," Smirnoff objects. "Really we were lucky enough to be in an incredible music community in Boston at that time. We knew a lot of other musicians ... we would go out to parties when we didn't have gigs and ask people if we could sit in, and they'd let us because that's the type of environment at that time. That was the beginning of Lettuce. We would ask people if they would 'let us' play."
The band made its debut in 2001 with Live in Tokyo and followed a year later with its studio debut, Outta Here. Life happened as the members got caught up in other projects and money-making endeavors. Krasno and Hammond B-3 player Neal Evans founded the jazz-funk outfit Soulive with Neal's drummer brother Alan. Deitch founded electronic act Break Science, backed John Scofield, and has produced tracks for Redman, Talib Kweli, Xzibit, and 50 Cent. Smirnoff has been Lady Gaga's tour guitarist. To say they're talented is an understatement.
While Lettuce continues to tour on a periodic basis, the band members varied tastes and talents make it difficult to get them all in the same room. Yet they managed to corral everyone for 2009's Rage, ending a seven-year recording hiatus, and they didn't wait as long to follow with last year's fourth album, Fly.
"It's not the same business it used to be," Smirnoff says, alluding to the decline in recording sales which has made albums so much less lucrative than touring. "Getting everyone together and coming up with new creative ideas — a lot of credit for that should got to Adam Deitch, who's a creative genius. He really pushed everyone to write tunes for the record so we all came in with a bunch."
Not only did Deitch push everyone to write, but he and his bandmates booked tours prior to recording so they had a chance to road-test everything extensively. That stands in contrast to Rage, which was birthed more in the studio. It also helped ensure that the recording process for Fly went more smoothly.
"It gave the album more of an interactive feel. We were really able to interact with each other. It was beautiful," he says. "We recorded a lot of material in a very short amount of time, and then we were able to kind of pick out what we thought translated the best."
The 12-track Fly's full-on funk, but it still blends a range of styles from the vintage, succinct Daptones-flavored "Bowler" to the brassy and spacy New Orleans-flavored "Ziggowatt" and the sultry, late-night vibe of War's "Slippin' into Darkness."
Though Lettuce has often taken a backseat to the band members' individual careers, now that they've established themselves there's more time to do the things they love. Fortunately for us, that includes lots of Lettuce. "When we started we had like five songs and three covers, so you have to extend and jam everything," Smirnoff says. "I love that aspect of music, and I think we have kept true to finding within our compositions the space to do it."