RYAN ZOIDIS OF LETTUCE: BRINGING FUNK TO THE FOREFRONT
“It’s a dream come true, beyond,” says Ryan Zoidis, the saxophone player for Lettuce, on the band’s massive two-decade career. The self-described “future funk collective,” consisting of Zoidis and friends Adam Deitch (drums), Adam Smirnoff (guitar), Erick “Jesus” Coomes (bass), Nigel Hall (keyboards and vocals), and Eric Bloom (trumpet) began when its members were just fifteen years old and really took off during their studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Their name, “Lettuce,” comes from their mantra in those beginning years, the three words they repeated over and over to jazz club owners and venue managers: “Let us play.” Over twenty-five years and several albums, legendary collaborations, and even some outside projects later, that phrase remains as the embodiment of the band’s purpose.
They just want to play, to share their unique sound, a spin on traditional “funk” music (if funk can be “traditional” at all). Consequence of Sound has said it “goes beyond the typical blues/funk wanking,” while Billboard describes it as “weird/awesome.” It’s just good. Lettuce’s music certainly sounds different from any traditional or commercial sound, yet it appeals to anyone and everyone who listens, the literal definition of “popular” music. That all being said, Lettuce’s latest release is Witches Stew, a tribute album / rework of the legendary Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, recorded at the 2016 Catskill Chill festival in Lakewood, Pennsylvania.
To learn more about the band, we spoke with Ryan Zoidis before the New Year rang in and talked about the band’s evolution as well as his own musical journey.
INTERVIEW WITH RYAN ZOIDIS FROM LETTUCE
ALLI (HIGHLARK): Hi, how are you?
RYAN ZOIDIS (LETTUCE // SAXOPHONE): I’m great, how are you?
ALLI: I’m good, I’m cold. I’m actually in Philadelphia right now.
RYAN: I’m in Portland, Maine.
ALLI: You definitely have me beat there. Ryan, I know you’re in a few bands, but your band Lettuce in particular has been around for around 26 years. So I’m interested—how did that come about? And what’s it been like since, with all the changes in the music industry and technology?
RYAN: We were kids. We were 15 when we got together, and it’s a dream come true, beyond. Not only do we all get to play the music that we really want to play but we get to do it together. We’re basically brothers at this point. We’ve known each other for so long.
It’s actually constantly inspiring, too, because we’re always reaching for something new, and we’re usually on the same page with that so it’s really easy to get momentum together, creatively, because it’s such a comfortable chemistry that we have with each other.
ALLI: Amazing. It must be an incredible environment. And how do you manage being in several different bands aside from Lettuce, and how do you keep them separate? What distinguishes Lettuce from a band like the Rustic Overtones?
RYAN: Over the past five years Lettuce has become more of a full-time thing. Before that it was on and off, we would kind of surface here and there. Now it’s our main focus—all of us. We are more fired up to do that than anything else.
I haven’t been able to do Rustic Overtones for at least a few years. But I do keep in touch with those guys and hang out, like if they’re making a record I pop by and play some keyboards or something. But I hang with them still and they’re here. [Adam] Deitch keeps Breakscience going and they find their pockets [of time] when they can play, but Lettuce is so full-time that we don’t really have a whole lot of time to do other things. I’ll pick up some work, put something together that I can really improvise in and really stretch out, in the breaks just to play, to get inspired.
I was just down in New Orleans and we got to do this gig with George Porter Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich – it was a completely free, improvisational gig and that was great.
So I’ll do stuff like that once in a while. I did a thing with Borahm Lee and the drummer from Brazilian Girls, Aaron Johnston, who actually got the David Burn gig as well. Johnston wanted to do something like that too, where we just booked some gigs and play free music without having to learn a bunch of tunes and improvise all night.
I also like recording—I have an analog studio here where I like to record, and make music at home too. That is really all I have time for since Lettuce is playing a lot of gigs and travelling. We just recorded a record, Witches Stew, which I’m really happy about because I feel focusing my energy into one thing instead of spreading myself thin over a bunch of different things.
ALLI: How is it then, physically, having to play sax all the time? I imagine it gets tiring.
RYAN: It is great actually, not too bad. My neck gets a little sore from time to time. I remember, I played violin for about a year at first and I couldn’t stand having to hold that thing up above my chin. Physically, sax isn’t too bad. I’m not playing [the heavier] baritone sax all the time. I’m just playing alto and tenor so it’s chill.
ALLI: [Laughs] Maybe I’m just weak, so I don’t know.
I’m really interested in how your own sound has evolved since its first stages. For example, in an interview with UpstateLIVE from 2012, you said when you first went to a rehearsal for the Rustic Overtones it went well, although you didn’t love the music initially. But then when you saw them play live and the crowd was so into it, you decided that you wanted to play music that appealed to the masses. Also, in a recent interview about your Full Plates Full Potential benefit, you talked about how making music and making food both require skill and depend on creativity to deliver a tasteful and consumable product. I just thought that shift was so interesting, where at first you maybe didn’t really like the commercial sound, but then changed your mind a bit.
RYAN: It wasn’t even really like it was commercial. I guess there was something a little bit more commercial than what I was used to at the time, but musically it wasn’t completely what I was into. It was more ska and punk rock, stuff I really didn’t know a lot about, but I was definitely intrigued by it.
The energy was a lot different than a jazz show which is more intimate, and where I was coming from at the time. Dave Gutter, the singer of Rustic Overtones, was such an inspiring energy. And he has so much energy live. As a frontman and as a writer he’s just really gifted, so that was another part of what swooped me up and got me really excited about being a part of something like that.
It was really a special time, getting signed by Clive Davis, and hanging with Bowie in New York was so cool. We were kids and didn’t know anything; I wish it could happen now because I would have handled it a little differently, but it was great. During that time Lettuce was still kind of functioning and I would play a gig with them here and there, but the band took almost a ten-year break where there was only a gig or two a year. The music really started growing, changing and developing again after the Live in Tokyo record [in 2004]. After that our next record was Rage!, which was a turning point creatively for us. We really got to capture the hip-hop that we grew up on and those kind of grooves. We were going for that, to improvise with that as the stylistic undertone. That is what we have been developing over the years even more and now we can do it comfortably, which is so fun.
ALLI: In another interview with one of your bandmates from Rustic Overtones, they said you were vigilant about everything having to be funk all of the time.
RYAN: I learned that all from the Lettuce guys. Once I got into a room with Deitch, Kras (Eric Krasno), Jesus (Eric Coomes) and Shmeeans (Adam Smirnoff) my whole perspective on pocket, funk and how a rhythm section should sound and feel completely changed. I was spoiled by that forever. Every musical situation I got in after that moment, I was craving that or thinking that it might happen, but when it didn’t it was frustrating.
ALLI: Definitely, especially with music, anything unfamiliar makes you wonder if it will all fit together.
RYAN: Yes, exactly.
We thought that we should just be ourselves, really listen, really stretch and converse with each other musically in the same vein that Davis and his band did.
ALLI: Tell us more about the Witches Stew record, the tribute to Miles Davis, and his influence on the band.
RYAN: We were at a festival in the Catskills and the promoter had the idea to call it Bitches Bloom, named after our trumpet player Eric Bloom, which is how he decided to bill it on the poster. The set was around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. It was early and we had played late the night before.
All of us were exhausted and none of us knew the tunes, they were so abstract and not all of them were from Bitches Brew, but from that era of Miles. The songs we chose were the ones [Davis] would try to do in the studio, which were more improvisational and didn’t have much of a melody line. They had a bass line and one little part that might repeat, but not much else.
With Miles in mind, instead of regurgitating what he did—which he wouldn’t have dug—we thought that we should just be ourselves, really listen, really stretch and converse with each other musically in the same vein that Davis and his band did, or what they were going for back then.
We didn’t know what to expect, it was completely unrehearsed and it was fresh which I think gave it the energy that it needed. Our sound man happened to record it nicely, and when we heard it back we decided to put it out as a record.
It pushed us in a different direction and challenged us to think about improvising differently. It was great for the band too because we used that kind of study to bring that into the music and other situations. In school, we used to listen to Miles records and sing solos at four in the morning. We will always be Miles Davis fans.
ALLI: Going back to the Full Plates Full Potential campaign, what inspired that?
RYAN: Around that time, our manager hung out with Elon Musk‘s brother out in California. He had a food-related charity out there, so we then started this thing called the Lettuce Give initiative, which was a way for us to bring in different charities for different shows.
I heard my friend Ilma Lopez on the radio talking about it. I did some research and found out a lot of my friends have worked with Full Plates Full Potential in the past, so I got excited about doing it. They were all stoked and down to commit to it immediately, so that made it easier. The promoter was really cool, everything happened naturally and everyone was very excited about it. This is something we are looking to do every year.
ALLI: Artists are often influenced by their surroundings. What is the music scene like in Portland, Maine? How is it living there?
RYAN: Jaw Gems is really cool, they just got a record deal with Alpha Pup records. They are a young instrumental band from Maine that used to play weekly at a restaurant on Tuesdays. It was the most ridiculous music and vibe ever.
It is amazing in Maine. there is so much space to be creative. I am also raising my seven-year-old daughter up here. I can walk to the ocean from my house, the food scene is ridiculous and I have a bunch of chef friends. The quality of life is amazing up here. I’m travelling all the time, so when I’m home it’s a peaceful place to be. There is a great music and art scene. Artistic people are flocking here because there is a lot of great space and it’s way off the beaten path.
Witches Stew is available for streaming along with Lettuce’s other discography. Lettuce plans to release their next album sometime in 2018.
Photos and Video © Alex Varsa. All Rights Reserved.