Carving Mt. Crushmore: Erick ‘Jesus’ Coomes Talks New Lettuce EP & More

Words by: Ryan Dembinsky

The latest recording from funk vets Lettuce serves as a powerful reminder how immensely talented this band is in the studio. Entitled Mt. Crushmore, the new EP consists of seven previously unreleased songs culled from the cutting room floor of last year’s Crush sessions. You’re probably thinking, “Eh, it’s a bunch of B-sides that didn’t make it onto the album,” but instead Mt. Crushmore finds Lettuce in its finest form, developing menacing pockets of funk and tackling some fan favorites in the studio setting.

From the opening track, the Shady Horns announce the album with a melody that beckons like a 5 a.m. wake-up call and the band follows suit with a spellbinding groove. The album proceeds to “116th Street,” which is pure Harlem swagger. The group highlights “The Love You Left Behind” as the EP’s lead single with expressive vocals from frequent collaborator Alecia Chakour, but it’s the kaleidoscopic “Lude. Pt 5” that cements the quality of the release. This instrumental almost feels as though it could be a backing track on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Overall, Mt. Crushmore is anything but an EP of B-side cast-offs. Rather, it is a concise recording of modern funk that could strip the paint off a radiator.

As the band geared up for their celebratory EP release weekend at Best Buy Theater in New York City earlier this month, I spoke with bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes to discuss the EP as well as Lettuce’s present, past and future.

JAMBASE: I can’t believe you guys have been together 24 years already. I know it’s been discussed before that you guys met while at Berklee way back when, but would you mind sharing some details on how that meeting actually went down?

Jesus Coomes: As you mentioned, it’s well publicized that we met at Berklee, but there was an open jam session one night of just bass and drums. I went in there and Adam [Deitch] went in there and we both listened to these cats playing this simple, simple funk and we both were enamored by it. That’s where I saw Deitch for the first time. Then he went and got on the drums right after this killer had just destroyed the whole drum set. We were just little kids and I saw him get up there and I couldn’t believe he had the guts to sit down on that drum set. I thought this kid is crazy as hell.

I said, “What’s up?” to him afterward, but it was almost like we barely liked each other at all. We had barely paid attention to one another up until that point, but we came to realize that we were each a lot cooler than we originally expected. So we actually met up and played later and realized that we had a chemistry. There were a couple of other cats that we had each been playing with, so we assembled a group and realized that we could make this pocket and create this thing that we had heard and seen other people doing.

It started working really quickly. It was really cool to see how when you play simply, how well it works. Simplicity was one of the main things that really brought us together: just learning to play your role and seeing how that mixes with everyone else’s. You learn to hear yourself play a little tiny part that doesn’t seem so important, but when you put it together with everyone else’s little tiny part and they all make this amazingly huge thing out of the minimalisms. Next thing you know, everything has so much power and so much energy.

JAMBASE: I noticed Joel Hamilton has a producer credit on the album. What does a producer mean on a Lettuce album?

JC: As far as producing, my dad has actually been a producer all his life and I’ve seen him do it all my life. He taught me that if you do it right, it should be really subtle. If you watch Rick Rubin produce, he’s trying to be really subtle and let the band and the music be. It’s a pretty hard thing to put your finger on in Lettuce because we are all producing, playing, and writing it at the same time. The reason we give Joel Hamilton a producer credit is A) because he asked for it and B) because he brings a great deal of organization to the session when there are six or seven of us running around like crazy kids. He is trying to make sense of the session. It really takes all of us to do that though, so we actually all produce it together. There isn’t really one thing that you could say, “That was production.” It takes everyone to make something out of this pretty crazy environment and turn it into an album.

Joel is really an incredible engineer. He has his finger all over the sound of it: the tones and whether it feels cold or dark or dirty or rough around the edges. That is Joel. The crazy way the horns sound – that’s all Joel. He is a genius engineer, really. Back in the day, producer and engineer were always separate and they worked together really closely. Now, those to jobs kind of get mixed together. Part of it is organizing the sessions and making the best use of the time, and part of it is working with all these sounds. I plug my bass in and he can do a lot of different things to make it sound a lot of different ways. He has the ultimate say on the tones and how thick or thin each element is, which puts a lot of his personality on the record.

JAMBASE: In terms of these EP songs, what are some of the most challenging songs or what songs have interesting nuances or stories that people might not know about?

JC: The first thing I can think of is the title song, “Mt. Crushmore,” which is a song that we have been opening sets with for years. If you’ve seen shows or you like the band, you’re going to recognize it. It’s something we use as an introduction for our sets. So, we have been really excited to put it out, it just never ended up on any of our records. We all like the song so much that it’s kind of surprising that we never put it on Crush, but that is a cool thing. We have new material that is familiar which is something I really like a lot, because it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started playing the new songs out first before we put them on a record.

We always used to put them on the record before we played them. This is a song that we’ve played probably 50 times, but people have no recording of it. Its title used to be “Evil Wu,” which was a working title. It’s funny, none of us really ever thought it sounded that much like Wu Tang, but we just kept calling it that. So it felt appropriate to give it an important title and make it the title track.

That song actually came from a soundcheck, which is cool since that is a different side of the process as opposed to songs when one person writes a song and brings something in. We sit there at our soundcheck on our instruments and just create. That’s how we wrote “Phyllis” too from Crush. Deitch just counts something off, and he starts playing what he played on the record and I start playing what I played on the record, and spontaneously wrote a song together. That’s the same way “Mt. Crushmore” came together. We started out with nothing and next thing we know we realized we definitely had something.

JAMBASE: At this point, you guys have played virtually every festival. Do you have any that either you personally or as a band that you like above and beyond the others?

JC: Oh my god, I love Hulaween. That place is totally breathtaking and magical. It’s down in Florida and it’s just a magical place. Sometimes they find these locations that are just beautiful any day of the week, and they build these amazing festivals around these places. Electric Forest is another amazing one. Bonnaroo was really special for us this year for the first time was really special for us.

Finally, playing Lollapalooza this year was really special to me. That for me was really a home run, because that was one of the first music festivals I went to when I was a kid. I went to Lollapalooza when I was visiting Berklee College in 1992, so it was really emotional. I was standing onstage with Perry Farrell right next to me. I was like, “What up Perry?” I couldn’t believe this was actually happening in my real life. These are the dreams as kids and when you dream as kids it’s pretty bangin’, but when you dream with six of your friends and it comes true, it’s pretty breathtaking. I talked to Deitch about this last night and that’s how we feel about this whole thing. We are really blessed and thankful about all of this.

JAMBASE:: Since you mentioned the old Lollapalooza lineups, I’m curious to know a bit about all of your different influences. Obviously there are mutual funk influences, jazz influences, and hip hop influences in the band, but then a lot of you have played with iterations of the Dead projects and more jam band-type projects. Where do the overlaps exists and where are some places where it’s like, “All right man, enough of the noodling?”

JC: We have all been big fans of music for so long. I personally had a pretty big Grateful Dead experience early on. I wasn’t able to go to a show, because it was this bad place where you aren’t supposed to be allowed to go, but I listened to the band a lot and Jerry’s influences are crossovers. They were improvising heavily which is where Lettuce comes together. We all love improvising, but we all have different ways to throw down to make that magic happen.

In the improvisational segments of the shows, we want to reach for the Miles Davises and the Jerry Garcias and the really heady jazz players of the world – the truly great improvisers. There are so many ways to do it when you get to that part where the whole band gets to essentially make up a song. As a band, we can’t wait to get to the part of the song where we get to freestyle it. We are all studied musicians and we want to play our parts, so we know that it doesn’t mean everybody gets to play a solo. We all have perspectives on what that means to improvise and how to perform it and create art from scratch. It’s like imagining a painter who is sitting there doing his thing. Then imagine five or six people just start moving the paintbrush. That’s a big thing for me. You need to turn it into one painter’s mind and even one hand. You really start to hear each other thinking.

JAMBASE:: Moving on to 2017, what do you think Kras’ [Eric Krasno] level of involvement will be and what do you guys have in store for the next year or so?

JC: I talked to Kras yesterday. He’s stoked and he’s doing his thing with the solo band, but he wants to do a couple shows with us. Basically, I tell him look at the schedule as though it’s a menu and pick out anything you like on the menu. He is more than welcome to come and play whenever he wants. We are all homies so hard, there will never be any hard feelings. He just wanted to have his own solo career like Eric Clapton or someone like that. He wants to sing and write songs and we respect that.

From our perspective, we hope he comes to a couple shows, but as he doesn’t come to shows Shmeeans [Adam Smirnoff] has started to murder the guitar so hard. Whatever happens as far as that goes is going to be great. I don’t know if you know guitar players, but guitar players like to play solos [laughs]. This dude Shmeeans has been waiting to take a solo for like 22 years, so I’m gonna let the dude play some solos [laughs]. He’s playing some really wonderful stuff.

As far as 2017, we are all really moving toward unity in the playing and more improvisational sections – and more energy and more Shakedown Streets [laughs]. I have to just mention this one thing, we literally had a one-man Shakedown Street at one of our shows last week [laughs]. There was this dude Trevor who got there like six hours early and was blaring tunes out of the back of his truck and there were no other Shakedowners out there, so I just wanted to give that dude props. I thought that was awesome. We’re really looking forward to the rest of the people coming out and we’re looking forward to playing a lot more shows.