For those Tahoe locals who have a special affinity for funk, Thursday night’s show at the Crystal Bay Casino was a must-attend as Lettuce triumphantly returned to the Crown Room after a blowout show from last year.
Take a listen to the band’s albums and shows and you know they’ve just got it. It’s powerhouse playing, dexterous ingenuity and bounty of jams that stick inside your mind, like a globs of funky peanut butter are of a polished pedigree that shows up in the likes of Tower of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire and Funkadelic. They also are a product of their generation and are pushing the envelope in the funk arena by deftly incorporating the influences of hip-hop, electronica and psychedelia into its sound.
The band’s latest studio album, “Crush,” is another showstopper that takes the Letucer to new level. During a stop in Portland, guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff and drummer Adam Deitch were kind enough to share their time with Tahoe Onstage over the phone in order to shed some insight into the making of the album, as well as to show love for Lettuce’s unofficial lead singer, Nigel Hall, and talk Lettuce’s fantasy Super Bowl halftime show set list.
Editor’s note: This conversation was edited for continuity and clarity.
Tahoe Onstage: When I listen to “Crush,” there is something different going on here. I couldn’t necessarily put my finger on it. I was wondering if there was an aspect of Lettuce that you wanted to showcase on “Crush” that you think has not been shown on the previous albums?
Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff: I think what we did on this record was different because we really worked hard on arranging and writing the songs while we were touring. So we had a good two months of touring, if not more, to actually develop the songs. By the time we got to the studio they were polished pieces of work, whereas on our other albums we wrote the songs and fleshed them out in the studio and then developed them on the road. So that is why this album has a little more of that together, finalized feeling.
Onstage: Was that a conscious decision to do that? Was that a “hey, we want to switch up our creative process,” or does that just come out of necessity?
Adam Deitch: I think it was born out of our schedule at the time, our availability and just the way the universe worked its way out. We wanted to interject new material into our live shows and Adam (Smirnoff) started by bringing “Phyllis” to the table and then new tunes just started coming out. By the time we got to the studio this time we already had ideas of what we do live with them and we were able to really open up in the studio a little bit more.
Onstage: What kind of setting leads Lettuce to be at its most productive or most creative?
Deitch: Well one, the inspiration from the fans we get from coming to the shows and giving us this blast of energy and making us feel like there is a place for funk music in 2016. That is what gets us into a creative mode and makes us excited to write and create and form. That is part of it, as well as how we relate to each other as friends. We’re really inspired right now as a whole band.
Smirnoff: I think every time I get together and get to pick up my guitar and “Jesus” (Coomes) is playing bass and (Ryan) Zoidis is playing saxophone and Deitch is playing drums and Neal (Evans) is on keys and Nigel (Hall) is on vocals. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning (laughs), you know what I mean? I get to play guitar and I’m like the luckiest dude in the universe. I’m about to play funk music with these awesome friends of mine and it is really fun to do it. It is really keeping that perspective about how much fun it is and how lucky I am and I think that brings fresh ideas to the table.
Onstage: I wanted to talk real quick about my personal favorite on the album, “Trilogy.” I think it is the best on the album and now I point to it like “Madison Square” or “Nyack” when I want to give something for people to start off getting into Lettuce. What is the origin of that song and how did it come together?
Smirnoff: Well there are three different parts to that song, hence “Trilogy,” and I think each one is creatively born from a couple different people in the band, including Ryan Zoidis and Jesus and Adam (Deitch). I think they are all contributors on that one.
Deitch: It is essentially a three-part hip-hop odyssey. We took three different beats that are popular in hip-hop culture that originated in different parts of the country— so West Coast hip-hop, down South and some Northeast hip-hop and we tried to take those beats and build psychedelic jams from them, so it is kind of like combining hip-hop and psychedelia.
Onstage: I wanted to pivot a little bit to your live show. Now, you guys are mainly an instrumental band, although you occasionally have singers on albums and on tour with you. Mr. Nigel Hall seems to be the one you bring out the most and maybe could be considered a de facto lead singer of Lettuce, if there is one. What about Nigel Hall as a musician makes him a good fit to be Lettuce’s singer?
Smirnoff: Wow, that’s a great question. First of all, his passion for music in general is unparalleled by anyone I’ve ever met. I mean, he engulfs himself, (pause) he is the biggest music fan I know. He is so excited about music in general, and not only that, he is one of the most talented human beings on the planet. I’ve never heard him not be able to hit a note or sing a certain style of song. As a singer he is virtuosic and as a keyboard player he is able to step-in when Neal is not here and completely fill the spot and tour with us year-round. His role has definitely grown together with the group. We’re really lucky to be able to play with someone like Nigel Hall.
Onstage: Does anyone else in the group do some singing? If you had to nominate someone else in the group to do singing, who would it be?
Deitch: Well we all sing background to every show. Nigel is actually our vocal coach. So now he has both of us singing, he has Benny (Bloom) our trumpet player— who also has a great voice— he has him singing. That is three of us that barely sang our entire life and now through his coaching and his help and confidence in us, we’re now able to sing confident backgrounds when we are playing. It’s another element of the band and it makes us really excited to go with him on key and blend with him perfectly. It is another challenge that we love.
Onstage: Thank you once again so much for your time, I just had one more question before I end. With the Super Bowl halftime show coming up, I was wondering if something like that would appeal to Lettuce? Is that something you would want to do, and if so, what would be your 12-minute Lettuce set with all the lights, explosions and dancers money could buy?
Smirnoff: I think if we are involved with anything at all on television that has that kind of exposure and I think we would feel lucky. I know they’ve been playing our music in general during some of the football games, and who knows, maybe when we’re watching on Sunday and we hear our music playing in the background we’ll all celebrate and enjoy it. We’d feel very happy about that (laughs).
Deitch: We’d probably play a medley of songs, probably three or four songs going in and out. Probably the most exciting, uptempo things we could possibly play including “The Lobbyist,” which I think is a very football sounding song (laughs). We’d probably do “Sounds Like a Party to Me” with Nigel Hall and get the whole crowd up.
Smirnoff: We could do a “Lobbyist,” “Madison Square” medley into “Sounds Like a Party.”
Deitch: That would work really well (laughs).
Related story: Lettuce creates new fun standards with “Crush” LINK