The Core: Lettuce

Mike Greenhaus on August 19, 2020
The Core: Lettuce

photo credit: Jay Sansone

Guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff and saxophonist Ryan Zoidis dig into the roots
Resonate, their funk collective’s second release in less than a year, and share how a band
of veteran road warriors is coping with life during quarantine.

Home Atmospheres

ADAM “SHMEEANS” SMIRNOFF: We recorded Resonate at Colorado Sound Studios, at the same place we recorded [2019’s] Elevate. My wife was pregnant at that time, so we needed to stay close to home. Adam Deitch and I were already living in Colorado, and Eric Bloom also lives here now. We almost felt like we were at a home studio because Colorado Sound had such a warm vibe; that’s why we were able to accomplish so much. Credit goes to both our producer/engineer Russ Elevado (D’Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu) and the studio for getting us on the right page.

We had about 10 songs that we had already been playing live and some demos. We basically recorded all the stuff that we had already added to our set first and then we put down all the potential ideas that we had as fast as we could. For the tunes that we hadn’t really worked out yet, it usually took us an hour or two to get one good take. So, we worked like that until we had 30 songs. Then, we realized that we only had two more days to bounce off all these rough mixes in the studio so we had to stop recording. And we spent our last two days finishing those mixes.

RYAN ZOIDIS: I had already recorded at that studio a couple of times and recommended it to the guys; everybody dug it, so we decided to do it there. Around the same time, Benny and I were also starting a wine distribution company, Benny & Zoid Selections, so it made sense for us to be in Colorado. We distribute natural wines in the state of Colorado and ship nationwide, so it was a “meant to be” situation.

There are different ways that we write songs. We’re lucky enough that we have Adam Deitch in our group, who is one of the most prolific writers that you’ll ever meet. But, everyone comes in with ideas. Some things might be based off of a soundcheck jam; other ideas come in as complete demos. Sometimes there’s an A section with no B section that we will fill in together, and sometimes there’s no solo section and we will work that out.

Our Empire Strikes Back

AS: Once we realized that we had enough material for two or three albums, we basically sorted the songs out almost like a setlist. We had 30 songs and we wanted to represent all the moods that we’re capable of conveying on our records—a fast, tight funk joint, a psychedelic hiphop vibe, everything. We just evened them out so that every record got the full spectrum of Lettuce. It started in an email chain and we finished dividing everything up when we met up for a tour. It took a couple of meetings to sort it out completely, but now we have three albums. Resonate is our Empire Strikes Back.

On the first record, we ended up using a lot of the songs that we’d already been playing a lot. This one is a nice mixture of new and older stuff. It had been about six months since Elevate came out, and we were starting to mix Resonate. By the time we were ready to finish mixing Resonate, we realized that we wanted to add some other songs to it. So we booked another session at Colorado Sound. We recut “Blaze”—which we originally cut on the Elevate session— because we wanted a better take, and then we cut “Silence Is Golden,” “NDUGU” and “Checker Wrecker,” as well as a song that might be on the third record. And we did a 55-minute jam that was almost album-worthy that you might hear sometime in the future.

RZ: I remember us sitting outside a hotel in Chicago, around the Summer Camp Music Festival, and going over all the songs. We’ve all turned each other onto countless types of music. That’s the basis of our friendship, essentially. Like, “Hey, have you heard this?” “Oh, yeah, well have you heard this?”

Funk Rebels

AS: When we met and first started playing together as kids [at a Berklee College of Music program for high school students], we felt like these funk rebels. That type of music wasn’t very popular at that time—especially in the scholastic setting, where most people were these rock guys or straight-ahead jazz guys. All of these different regions of the country have their own style of funk music: New Orleans funk has a special feel; Minneapolis funk has the Prince feel; Ohio funk has a feel. And there’s the East Bay Grease feel with Tower of Power, Mike Clark, The Headhunters and Cold Blood—the first thing that really bonded us was playing stuff off of Maceo Parker’s Life on Planet Groove and The Headhunters.

For Resonate, we had Big Tony, who is the legendary bass player and frontman of the go-go group Trouble Funk, and Tyrone “Jungle Boogie” Williams [of Rare Essence] record something. They’re pioneers of go-go music, which happens to be a style of funk from Washington, D.C. We try to touch on as many of these regional styles of funk as we can. Can I Get a Witness?

RZ: Over time, Nigel [Hall] went from being someone who sang with us sometimes to someone who played some keyboards with us while Neal Evans was still in the band to our full-time keyboardist. I met him first; he somehow ended up in Maine, where I’m from. I had just moved back there from New York City and bumped into him. He said, “I’m a huge fan of Lettuce—my mom used to play me Lettuce. Will you lead my band?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. Who is this kid? Can he even play?” I heard him play and sing and I was like, “Jeez, he is awesome.” So we got to know each other and, it turns out, he’s this unbelievably gifted all-around musician. He can play drums; he can play bass; he can play guitar and he can really sing. After a few weeks, I called one of the guys in the band and said, “This kid is unbelievable—the only person that any of us could ever accept as a singer for Lettuce.” We were always toying with the idea of having a singer, but we just didn’t want to completely commit to it because we didn’t think there was anybody out there that could really do what we wanted.

And then Nigel ended up going down to Wally’s in Boston, which is this club that we used to frequent when we were at Berklee, and played in front of some other witnesses to reinforce what I was saying. Everybody was like, “This guy is ridiculous.” Nigel became great friends with all of us, and we’ve been musical partners ever since.

The transition to having Nigel take over on keys full time after Neal left was so easy and natural that it was like nothing even happened. Neal has a big sound and he has his own thing going on. He was in and out for a while; he didn’t want to tour with us full time. Nigel already had a little keyboard set up when he would sing with us. He was doing more and more every night at that point. When Neal ducked out, Nigel was there to fill in the gaps; he knew all the tunes and he knew the set. We just got him an organ and a clav, and he figured it out. Now we have the greatest singer and keyboard player; I’m pretty stoked about it. We’re really lucky to have him. 

A Landmark Experience

AS: Elevate was nominated for a Grammy [for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album] this year. We went to the ceremony and all really bonded watching Chick Corea play with this all-star band. I know it’s cliché to say that it’s an honor to be nominated, but to be there with all of these people who have essentially dedicated their lives to music is really special. Then, later that night, I bumped into Chick Corea as we were both going into the ceremony—that was really cool. Robert Randolph and The Family Band were there, staying at the same hotel as us, which was nice because I toured with them for a long time. They were also nominated, so we got to hang out with our friends.  

RZ: It was a big deal for me to have my mom there. She was the one who got me my first violin lesson and my first piano lesson. And us just being together as a group for so long—going through the different phases that we’ve gone through—definitely amplified the experience too. It was great; it was an incredibly enjoyable time. It felt like a landmark experience for us.

[Before we committed to Lettuce full time a few years ago, after being a part-time project], we had a lot of conversations, like “Could we do this? Should we do this? Is it possible? When should we do this?” [Laughs.]

Sometimes things just work out, and we all took a gamble together— and there are no promises or guarantees in this industry or this business. We’re lucky to spend time with our friends and that we get to make music and touch people, especially now. Adam said something the other day like, “If we can make you escape—if we can take you away from your problems for a song and take you on a journey—then we’ve accomplished our goal. That’s our role in humanity.” That gives us joy.

Quarantine Collaborations

AS: We are lucky to be working with some incredible students during this time as part of our “Lettuce Teach” initiative. It’s been really fun and really inspiring. There are so many young, incredible musicians who are coming up. The world is definitely in for something with that. I’m also taking care of my two-year-old every day.

RZ: We’ve still been collaborating a lot as a group, which is awesome. We all have our home studios set up, so we’ve been sending stuff around and layering it up nice. That’s been a blast and has been keeping us busy, along with the teaching. I have a daughter as well—she’s nine. I’ve been having some amazing moments with her—great uninterrupted time with a different mindset. We’re not running around doing the normal routine; it’s more intimate and more focused and more together. We’re creating the curriculum as we go. She’s playing a lot more piano and we’re jamming together. Every day has been a blast. I’m cooking a lot—I love to cook. The biggest thing is that we’re home now for the longest stretch that we’ve been home in about 10 years, and I’m really appreciating that.