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Lettuce set to bring the funk to Ithaca

Sep 16, 2019

Lettuce, the funk-jazz-soul-hiphop-psychedelic-jam band that has been laying down its infectious grooves since 1992, will come to Ithaca Wednesday, Sept. 18, to perform at the State Theatre.

Lettuce will play the State Theatre of Ithaca Wednesday night.
Credit Casey Flanigan

After some lineup shuffling that saw the departure of Neal Evans and Eric Krasno, who both also played in Soulive, the band has settled on a roster that includes drummer Adam Deitch, saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, keyboardist Nigel Hall, bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom and guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff.

The sextet recently released its sixth studio album, “Elevate,” which spotlights their vast sonic palette and mastery of the groove. It also includes a cool cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and a guest vocal from Marcus King on “Love Is Too Strong.” To learn more about the band, visit lettucefunk.com.

Richmond, Va.-based jazzers Butcher Brown will open the 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $26. For more information, visit stateofithaca.com.

Zoidis talked about the new album, the band’s evolution and more in a recent phone interview from his home in Portland, Maine.

Q: What can you say about the new album, “Elevate”?

Ryan Zoidis: We’ve been wanting to record with Russ Elevado for a long time, and we also had a bunch of material that had piled up, so we ended up recording three albums worth of material. Which we’re planning on releasing in a much shorter timeframe than we usually do. So I’m excited about that.

The flow of the band is great right now, and the chemistry is great. The more we’re together, the more music comes out of it, obviously.

Q: Is it challenging with the band members living in different cities these days?

RZ: Honestly, no, because we’re touring enough. It’s actually good, because we’re on top of each other for two or three weeks at a time – say, a quarter of the year. So it’s good for us to get little breaks. We’re about to do a two-week tour, and we’ll have sound checks every night, so we’ll work on some stuff, and we’ll probably just write on the bus, too.

Q: How did you come with the material on “Elevate”?

A:  We did it on the road. Deitch had some demos, a few of us had some ideas, and we would just flesh them out on the road. And then we started playing those songs out before we even had recorded them, probably six months before we went into the studio. So we really got to flesh them out and get comfortable with before we went into the studio. I know it’s weird for our fans to hear a new album of material they’ve been hearing live for almost a year. But it sounds a lot different – it’s a different kind of expression of the songs on tape.

Q: Can you talk about working with Russ Elevado?

RZ: He’s one of those guys who made so many records in an era that we really loved, like the early 2000s. He did that “Voodoo” record with D’Angelo, he worked with J. Dilla a bunch, and has done a lot of great hiphop records that we really love.

The sound we had been getting on our records with Joel Hamilton was cool, and we really dug it, but Russ has a totally different approach to mixing and recording, so we wanted to hear what his take on it would be – hear some tighter, sonically proper sounds.

Our records before were a little more bombastic and little bit crazier sounding. With this new record, I feel it maintains the psychedelic freedom we’ve had in the past, but it also is sonically superior, in my opinion.

Q: How did the version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” come about? Nigel Hall does a great job on the vocals.

RZ: That’s an arrangement that’s been around in the Lettuce/Soulive camp for maybe 10 years that Deitch put together years ago when he lived in Brooklyn. Nigel lived in Brooklyn at the time, too, and they would spend a lot of time in the studio. Deitch came up with a flip of that song, and Nigel sang it, but it never got recorded properly. It was just like a beat he made on his Triton, which he sequenced the beats on, But it never got recorded. So we decided to cut for this last record. But we had been playing it live, so it made sense.

Q: How did Marcus King come to make the guest vocal appearance on “Love Is Too Strong.”

RZ: He’s amazing. We’ve been able to play some shows with him and just hang us, and he’s a cool dude. We had him in mind for the record. And I think Deitch was hanging out with him when he wrote that song, actually, so it came together pretty naturally.

Q: Lettuce has been together since 1992, when you formed in Boston. Can you talk about the evolution of the band?

RZ: Oh man, it’s crazy. We doubted this band, because we were just trying to survive as musicians early on as instrumnetalists. We thought that being in an instrumental funk band wasn’t a way that we could be successful as instrumentalists individually. So we really put it on the back burner and all went after our individual careers for probably about 10 years, except for playing a show here and there.

Eventually we decided to play a few more shows, and started selling some tickets, We all believed in it; come to find out, everybody wanted to do it, and everybody believed it was special and had some potential, even though at the time it wasn’t really marketable, or didn’t seem like a thing that would work – it was expensive with that many people on the road, hard to maintain, all that stuff.

We eventually got to a point where we were selling tickets so let’s try to do a tour. Soulive was touring pretty hard at the time, and Neal  and Kras were also in the band, so we ended up piggybacking with them for awhile – we did a couple of Lettuce/Soulive runs, which definitely helped us to skip the van stage, which we had all done in other situations.

Right now it’s the greatest situation that I ever dream of, and I think all the guys would say the same. We’re playing the most purely creative music every night that we’re all fired up about, and we’re able to make a living doing that. So everyone is really happy right now, and grateful to be doing this every single day.

Lettuce plays Ithaca Wednesday night.
Credit Casey Flanigan

Q: So the new album captures where the band is at these days?

RZ: We’ve gone through a lot of changes the past two years. Neal and Kras leaving was just like a little blip, because they wouldn’t play every gig anyway. We got to a point we wanted to tour this band, and wanted everyone to buy in completely. They had done so much touring with Soulive, they decided (to leave). So it was a good time to part ways. And Nigel was fired up to come in full time. Naturally, the chemistry of this group took off, and I feel it’s surpassed anywhere we’ve been in the past.

Q: Can you talk about your new Korg X-911 synthesizer you used on the new album?

RZ: That totally changed my life; that was another huge discovery.

We have a friend, Vinnie out in California, who’s been a spiritual guru of ours the past 20 years. He has a great synth collection, and told me that I had to try this – there’s gotta be away to use with the sax.

So I said I’ll try it out and he gave me one, and I brought it to a synth repair guy and got a makeshift pickup for $60 that I stuck on the reed and plugged into the box. The guy tinkered with it until it worked. Now it’s so dialed in, it’s amazing. It’s like a total extension of the horn, but it’s also like its own instrument as well.

Once people figure out that using a pickup is a much better way to get an effected sound on a horn, it’s opens a whole universe of stuff. You’re not dealing with feedback and the residual noise of the loud stage that can really not make a mic sound good.

Q: Will you be playing unreleased stuff at the show?

RZ: We actually just went in and recorded four more songs, at that same studio we did “Elevate.” Basically, we’re going to release two more records from the "Elevate" sessions and then add these four new songs. We also recorded this 50-minute jam that came out great and has a bunch of stuff on there that we could turn into songs. We never know what will happen in soundcheck,

Q: So things are always changing with the songs?

RZ: They’re definitely always changing, that’s kind of how we like to do it. Even if we’re playing stuff we’ve been playing a long time, it changes drastically from night to night. And the setlists will also be different from night to night, so every show is always a unique thing.

Butcher Brown will open for Lettuce at the State Theatre Wednesday night.