Brooklyn-based funk band Lettuce was so named by a close friend who heard the group say “let us play” with such frequency and earnestness that it became a sort of instant history. Two years prior in 1992, the rambunctious teenage septet would cross out other students’ reservations for the jam room at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music whenever they wanted to play together. Now, they were stealing stages and amending schedules and sauntering their way into sitting in on jazz club gigs for which they were not listed by way of those three little words: let us play. It was early on that Lettuce made a name for themselves, literally and figuratively.
Today, Lettuce is killing the game with their fresh, crisp sound that, while new to some, is profoundly recognizable and classic. Their latest studio album, Crush, quietly climbed to very top of the US Jazz Album charts to a definitive #1 spot late last year; the new documentary Let Us Play (A Human Being Production, presented by Live for Live Music) chronicles the production of that record. With numerous side projects (drummer Adam Deitch is one half of the electronic-forward Break Science), small world cross-overs (Crush was engineered by Joel Hamilton, who worked on Pretty Lights’ Grammy award-winning A Color Map of the Sun), and a stacked festival deck including huge commercial events like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, there is a common denominator that keeps them at the top, and it’s in the language they all speak.
At the time of this interview, Lettuce was ramping up for the maiden voyage of their biggest project yet: the Fool’s Paradise Music Festival in St. Augustine, Florida, which took place April 1-2. I had the pleasure of catching guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff before he took off for the airport to catch a plane to Denver to play with legendary bassist George “Joey” Porter, Jr. (currently of Chris Robinson’s Soul Revue, on the festival lineup) to chat a bit about where Lettuce is going and where they have been.
Lettuce’s inaugural Fool’s Paradise Music Festival, boasting sets from the hosts with the most and friends Griz, Vulfpeck, Chris Robinson’s Soul Revue, and more, takes place April 1-2 at St. Augustine Amphitheater, mere weeks away. How do you prepare to host a festival for the first time? How do you prepare for any festival in these last days? Do you eat lots of salads?
This festival is definitely special for us because we are a part of it with Live for Live Music and Purple Hat Productions and Paul Levin and those guys…So, for us this a very different experience because we got to help procure the lineup and get bands involved that we are fans of that we think our audience will enjoy. So that is completely different experience for this.
Aside from that, [in preparing for a festival in general], we’re always trying to get together with new music and new arrangements and see what kind of spontaneous stuff can happen, especially with all the sit-ins that will be occurring at that festival.
Do you find a lot of last minute inspiration in the weeks leading up to a festival like this?
Yeah. Probably coupled with some nervousness, because we want it to go really well.
What did you learn about producing your own music festival that you didn’t anticipate?
Well, maybe we should revisit that question a couple weeks from now!
How did you pick the location for Fool’s Paradise?
That was mostly [Purple Hat Production’s] Paul Levin—that’s mostly his work. I mean, this all came about from last year when we did the [Making Lemonade] show with Umphrey’s McGee that was supposed to be at The Fort [in Fernandina Beach]. And The Fort canceled, or something logistically didn’t work out…So we ended up moving it to where Fool’s Paradise is now, the Amphitheatre. And it was such a great place and as we were there playing, we kind of looked at each other like, “Hey! We should do something here—this is great!” And the opportunity kind of came about, right place right time.
Besides this being the first year that Fool’s Paradise is a festival season destination, it’ll also put Griz and Lettuce together for the first time, and, most excitingly, debut super funk supergroup Fools of Funk. What was the process of putting that together?
As I’ve said, in helping procure the lineup, we got to choose some really incredible musicians and heroes of ours and people we have always wanted to play with and people we have played with for years, some of them…I mean, the talent of some of the acts, you just want to get everyone together and create that open atmosphere and that free spirit that the music can follow…that’s what we are aiming for.
The Fool Moon late nights, featuring Goldfish, Vulfpeck Break Science, and the Fools of Funk Supergroup, are located at the Elk’s Lodge on site, with the after party less than two miles away at Planet Sarbez, the “grilled cheese emporium.”What’s the best grilled cheese you’ve ever had? What are you favorite combinations of sandwich?
The best grilled cheese I’ve ever had was probably one I’d made myself, with an assortment of really fine cheeses…Anything homemade will be better than anything you can get out there. So, make yourself a grilled cheese and I’m sure it will be the best one that you’ve ever had.
Any interesting or anecdotal festival stories you care to share?
Okay…I will share….That is a tough one. I’ve had so many different experiences at festivals both with Lettuce and with many other projects that I’ve been with in the years. Growing up, essentially going to festivals, my whole entire life…I dunno. I’m always just one with the people. I’m always ready to take a walk through the festival and hang out and be an audience member for most of the other bands and just chill out, that’s it…It’s all about the music for me. Hanging out with the people, and feeling the vibe, and, most importantly, listening to the music. I’m one of those people when you’re at a festival and I’m really focused on the music, I’ll probably ask you not to talk to me if you try to talk to me. Just because that’s how I get hyper-focused on music. There are specific moments, you know, when I’m really heavily listening. Otherwise, I’m game to talk about anything.
Lettuce’s fourth studio album, Crush, hit shelves and folders last fall. Why the name Crush?
Oh, yeah, well, I mean, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory… this was coming off of a couple years of us really touring harder than we’ve ever toured, writing new music, playing in front of more and more people, at this point in our lives…The music that we put on this record really represented it, and that we are confident about it and feeling good and everything was just crushin’…we’re crushing it, you know? Crush!
The album art reminds me a bit of Salvador Dali.
It’s Vladimir Kush.
I recently read about an artist in an entirely different genre of music having recorded their most recent record entirely on analog, saying that it forced them to embrace chaos. Why your choice to record everything, including Crush, on analog?
Every single member of Lettuce is a really a tone-freak. We are tone-freaks. Everyone is so specific on how they want their stuff to sound, and everyone has a general idea of what the best sound unit is going to be, overall sonically, the best thing for the song. Everyone overall is just so great at that.
And I think when you hear Neal [on keyboards and organ] play specifically, he’s got such an unique sound on the claps for this record. And the drum sound that Deitch has that he worked out with Joel Hamilton who is the engineer on the record, and the producer, as well…Those sounds are just kind of epic, to me. And they represent a culmination of not just old-school stuff but new-school stuff at the same time. It really finds an incredible balance.
Not to go through everyone’s instruments and tones, but, specifically, most everyone plays their older instruments on this record, through analog gear. But we’ve been doing that a long time. Most of our records were that, essentially we recorded to tape for a lot of them. I think we’re just getting that process for our creativity more dialed-in as we get a little bit older and more mature.
In the Let Us Play funkumentary, it is said, “There’s a language to Lettuce that we all speak. A dialect, I guess you’d say.” Could you expand on that that as it relates to the way you guys write and play music?
Do you have a group of friends that you grew up with? You guys have your own special ways of communicating that kind of only you guys understand, a little bit? It’s the same thing. Cuz we’ve known each other for so long except it comes about in musical terms, and it comes about in just joking around and making sounds. Then it’s also referencing how we communicate and teach each other musical ideas out of our heads.
I think one of the things that I said in the documentary is that, in a sense, we play the vocal tradition of teaching music rather than the written tradition of teaching music.
When I have the chance to catch an amazing show, you’ll often find me searching YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter for the very best live videos in the next week, because I had too much fun at the show to take any pictures. You guys have some gorgeous videos you put out on your behalf. Why is the production of video content such a priority?
We’re trying to get a lot better at that now. In the next couple days I actually think that a partnership with Lettuce and BitTorrent is happening. You’re going to be able to download an entire bundle that includes a lot of our live stuff and video, and it’ll keep growing, hopefully. When we’re out there, there’s a lot to do at a lot of these shows. We don’t have the biggest crew in the whole world. These guys work their tails off and on top of everything, being able to record something in really high quality then going back and putting it out—it’s a lot of work.
And we’re trying to figure out the best way to do it for all of us and, you know, of course we’d like as much content out there as possible because in today’s social media world, that’s how you reach people. People want to go home with a piece of that show that they came and saw and you can’t physically have it, so why not watch the jams from it and relive the experience?
It’s Lettuce’s “let us play” energy that keeps fans coming back for more. What will you say about the endurance required to perform the way you guys do, so often several days in a row?
You know, what it really comes down to is that we’re all professional musicians, we’ve all been professional musicians for a long time at this point. It doesn’t matter how exhausting it is. It doesn’t matter if you’re in pain. Nothing matters except playing during that moment. As you are on that stage it’s going to take you away from that.
“Oh, my hand was hurting. Oh, my ankle hurts. My knee hurts.” You know, it doesn’t matter. You’re gonna get up there. You’re gonna start playing. The song is going to move and remove all your illnesses and take it all away. I think that’s the point of really us playing music in general is that we can take people away from their pains and bring the happiness and joy even if it’s just for a second. If we did that, then we’ve accomplished something good in life and that’s all we can really ask for.
What is your vision for the record Label Lettuce Records?
I think right now it’s very simple, at the moment. We just wanted to release our own music and not be on someone else’s label. And hopefully as time goes on, we’ll be able to rerelease some of our other records and put them all on vinyl, some of the ones that are hard to get or we never put out on vinyl. I think we’re going to do that, and maybe in the future maybe we’ll get to put out solo records from everyone in the group, Lettuce-produced. I dunno—it’d be fun, you know, to have, like, a Jesus record, or a Shady Horns record, or a Shmeeans record…Hey! You never know.
Lettuce performs April 8 at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. For more information, go to LettuceFunk.com.