The stage is Adam Deitch’s kitchen. From perfectly timed broken beats to tight one-handed buzzes, Chef Deitch flavors Lettuce’s funky instrumental jams with his tasty grooves and spicy syncopation. From start to finish, he knows by heart the recipe to get people moving.
STORY BY JOE BOSSO | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT DOWNS | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
For Adam Deitch, funk music is nothing without dancing, and that means the success of his job hinges on his ability to make audiences boogie. “I’m always checking the crowd when we play,” he says. “Most nights, they’re totally into it — they’re dancing and bopping. Even guys who aren’t super dancers, they’re swaying this way and that. It’s like an involuntary reaction. When I see that, I know I’m doing my thing well.”
He takes pride in his work, and after those rare gigs in which the boogying seems subdued, he retreats to his dressing room or the back of his tour bus with a recording of the show for a little post-game analysis in the form of solo dancing. “I’m a pretty good dancer, so that’s my litmus test — does it make me dance?” he says. “Most of the time, everything’s cool. Things are funky and psychedelic; we’re swingin’ and I’m groovin’. But sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s sluggish and slow. Something’s off, I can’t move to this.’ Other nights it’s a little too rushed, and I’m like, ‘I can’t find the middle in this.’ Dancing is what we’re all about, and I take my role in this very seriously.”
When things are going right onstage — whether he’s holding down the fort with a pile-driver groove or taking flight on the occasional solo spot — Deitch is a model of elegant simplicity and sophistication. Recalling one of Paul Newman’s most memorable lines from The Hustler, he says, “There are nights when I just can’t miss. The music is playing itself and I’m just floating on air.” When the groove is off, however, he berates himself mercilessly. Sometimes one of his band members will even shoot him the stink-eye. “I pick up on it pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s like [they’re saying], ‘You’re playing a little busy there. Bring it back.’ It’s never too harsh. These guys are my friends. So I’ll just smile and I’ll do my best to lock in. We’re all pulling for one another, and we want to bring out the best in ourselves.”
Key to the band’s groove — and indeed, essential to their longevity — is camaraderie. The seven-member funk collective formed as incoming freshmen at the Berklee School of Music back in 1992, and Deitch insists that Lettuce operates as a democracy with each member having a say in musical and business decisions. “If it’s something that can make our show a little better, I’ll speak up,” he explains. “I’ll say, ‘Guys, I’m thinking of this vamp that you can play behind my drum solo.’ Or sometimes it’s a business thing: ‘How’s our record sales going? What’s up with social media?’ We all try to keep things honest, and we always try to be patient. The most important thing I’ve learned is that you need to speak up about issues at the right time.”
Asked to offer an example of the wrong time for discussing band business, he laughs and says, “I’ve learned that late at night, after gigs when everybody’s had a few beers, that’s the worst time for getting anything done. I call that ‘drunk biz.’ Nothing gets solved when you’re talking drunk biz.”
IN THE GARDEN
Much of what Deitch knows about running a band and playing drums stems from his parents, Bobby and Denise Deitch, both of whom are Berklee-trained drummers who would gig in and around their home base of Nyack, New York, while raising their son. Deitch remembers picking up the sticks at the age of three and practicing on his parents’ Gretsch and Yamaha kits. For a time he even served as his mom’s roadie: “I had to pack up her drums and put them back into the van for her gigs. Then I would load them back in the house and set them up again downstairs so I could practice. I don’t recall getting paid, though.”
The power of funk hit Deitch early. At the age of five, he fell in love with Earth, Wind & Fire, and one of his first concert-going experiences was seeing the band at Radio City Music Hall. “[It was] one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen,” he says. “The songs, the lights, the horns, the counterpoint and rhythmic structures — the whole thing knocked me out.” He was equally impressed by one of his father’s bands, Cookbook, which specialized in EWF and Tower Of Power covers. “It’s pretty amazing when you see what your dad can do as a musician,” he says. “He was singing lead and doing harmonies, and then he’s doing all this cool David Garibaldi stuff [on drums]. I remember thinking, Wow, he’s like, limitless.”
Deitch’s father continues to play — these days leading the eponymous Bobby Deitch Band — and still impresses his son with his musical chops. “My dad has serious single-stroke rolls that I just can’t replicate,” the younger Deitch says. Asked to name anything he can do on the drums that his old man can’t, he scoffs. “Not much,” he says, before quickly adding, “Well, maybe there’s a difference in our feet. I’ve spent a lot of time working on my foot technique so that I don’t even have to think about it. He always compliments my foot speed, and I give him exercises for playing sambas and shuffles, just dotted eighths. That really helps with the foot technique.”
Growing up, Deitch’s basement practice routines lasted up to six hours, as he dutifully played along to EWF, Michael Jackson, and Star Time, the James Brown box set. When he became enamored of hip-hop, he began programming his own rhythm tracks on a Roland drum machine his father had bought. “The drum machine would keep time for me, and I would solo over it,” he recalls. “I went between playing with records to playing with drum machines, and then people could come over and play and I’d play with them. I was pretty intense about the whole thing.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus were big influences early on, and Deitch played in a high school band called Yummy that he calls a cross between both bands. He even blended some Rage Against The Machine rap-metal with a generous splash of hardcore in a band called First Born. “I liked rock, but I always leaned more toward the funky side of things, like Fishbone and Living Colour,” he notes. “I watched the hair metal bands on MTV, and while I marveled at some of the drummers, I mostly thought they were funny. It wasn’t my era. As an adult, I can now appreciate a lot of the drummers from that time, but back then I was coming from another place. I was waving the funk and soul flag.”
Back then the only things that occupied his mind more than drumming were skateboarding and drawing, and for a couple of years the idea of a career in art became his sole focus while his drums sat unplayed in the basement. “I got hardcore into drawing,” he says. “My friend Jeremiah and I would draw for 14 hours a day. I wanted to work for Marvel and make comic books, and then I thought I’d work in movies doing CGI effects.” He did an about-face in the summer of ’92, when his parents enrolled him in a high school summer program at Berklee. Also attending classes were future Lettuce bandmates Erick Coomes, Adam Smirnoff, and Ryan Zoidis, along with guitarist Eric Krasno. “Meeting those guys and playing with them was remarkable,” he says. “Suddenly, I was into the drums and funk again. We knew we had something.” The young musicians went their separate ways once the program was over, but remained in touch over the next two years. When they returned to Berklee as freshmen, they picked up right where they left off.
Deitch clicks off the names of some of his instructors at Berklee: “Jamey Haddad, Dave DiCenso, Jackie Santos… so many great guys. I learned so much from them.” He credits Rick Constadine with unlocking some of the secrets of Steve Gadd’s playing. “I would be like, ‘How can I play like Gadd?’ And people would say, ‘You gotta go to Constadine. He knows Gadd. He can show you the way.’” Deitch remembers the competition among Berklee drum students as being fierce, but he likens it to a “friendlier, cooler version of Whiplash. It wasn’t based on speed. It was more like, Can you make things groove? Can you bring some spirit into the room?”
One night, Deitch was one of several Berklee drummers scheduled to take part in a school concert. Up before him was John Blackwell (who, before his death in 2017, would go on to play with Cameo, Patti LaBelle, D’Angelo, and Prince). Deitch was so impressed with Blackwell’s performance that he almost backed out, but Blackwell wouldn’t hear of it. “John rolled the sticks across the table at me and smiled, like, ‘It’s your turn, man. Let’s see what you got,’” he says. “That was his way: He loved to push and poke you, but it was always cool. And that was the whole spirit at Berklee. It was like, Step up. Play better. But it was always friendly.”
That same spirit held sway over Deitch and his jam pals (now augmented by saxophonist Sam Kininger and keyboardists Neal Evans and Jeff Bhasker), who blew off steam from classes by playing together. “That was the whole idea behind the band — we wanted to play with our best friends,” he stresses. If they had songs, they played them; if they didn’t, they simply free-formed it. Some nights, the guys would pick a tempo or a key and ride it out as long as they could. “We would jam in E or G, and music would come out of it. We would take off on these amazing explorations, really throwing down. But the beautiful thing was, we were playing simple and not abusing the freedom.”
Finding their sound came fairly easily; getting gigs was another story. The boys pestered Boston club owners so much to “let us play” that the phrase soon morphed into their moniker. By now, Deitch was considering dropping out of Berklee — and then one day he got a phone call that made the decision for him.
A bassist friend recommended him to Average White Band, who was looking for a replacement for drummer Fred “Catfish” Alias. Deitch flew to New York and aced his audition. He was 22 and on top of the world.
“Man, I was ready. I was like, ‘Let me at it!’” he enthuses. “When they heard me play, they said, ‘This kid is a natural. He was bred on our music.’ I wasn’t like some guy who heard their stuff once and had to cram. I had it down. Everybody thinks the Beatles’ White Album is ‘the white album,’ but to me the only ‘white album’ was by the Average White Band. And the live album they did, Person To Person, Steve Ferrone is on fire on that. Playing with them was an honor, and I learned so much from them.”
Deitch’s stretch with Average White Band lasted two years, during which time the various Lettuce group members explored side projects until he returned. In time, the gigs got better and more frequent, including a weekly run at New York City’s then-jam band haven Wetlands, where guests would often join in. One night jazz guitarist John Scofield sat in with the group, and he was so smitten by Deitch’s playing that he kept cutting everybody off so that he could hear only drums. With Lettuce’s blessing, Deitch joined Scofield’s band for a series of groove-based tours and albums, including 2003’s Up All Night, on which the drummer shared songwriting credit on five tunes.
“Playing with Scofield was another highpoint,” Deitch says. “He’s had so many incredible drummers over the years — I studied Dennis Chambers and Sco when I was younger. I had videos of them, and I’d set up my drums and play in front of the TV. I still don’t know why he wanted me to play with him, but I guess he wanted somebody who played funk with a jazz feel. He molded me. I was playing hardcore funk and really hitting too hard. He taught me how to lighten up, loosen up, embracing a bebop kit sound but still making it funky and futuristic.”
During their first decade and a half together, Lettuce operated as a semi-loose affair, issuing only one album (2002’s Outta Here) while side projects continued to occupy most of the band’s time. Notably, there was Krasno and Evans’ organ-driven groove trio Soulive (which sometimes features Deitch as a guest). In 2002, Bhasker left the group to focus on his burgeoning career as a songwriter and producer, and the results have been no less than meteoric. His writing and production credits read like a Who’s Who of modern pop: Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, fun., Adam Lambert, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Katy Perry, among others. In 2016, he received a Grammy for Producer Of The Year for his work on Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special (he shared writing on “Uptown Funk” with Ronson and Bruno Mars) and Nate Ruess’ Grand Romantic albums. “Seeing Jeff go that far has been a beautiful thing,” Deitch observes. “We always knew he was a supremely talented guy, and now the whole world knows it.”
Starting in 2008, the band accelerated its album output, issuing five studio albums in the following decade, including 2016’s high-energy dance extravaganza Mt. Crushmore and 2017’s cosmic tribute to Miles Davis, Witches Stew. Asked why the band so earnestly dedicates itself to the full-album form at a time when the format has lost its dominance in the music marketplace, Deitch offers the following assessment: “I’ve never lost my faith in albums, and as a band we believe in the art of the record all the way. If people want to click on tracks on Spotify or wherever, we understand that. But we’ll never stop making albums. Vinyl’s making a big comeback, and that’s a lovely thing. I always say that I want to be buried in a big stack of vinyl.”
At the time of this interview, the state of Lettuce’s forthcoming seventh studio album was still very much up for grabs. The band tracked a whopping 27 songs with engineer Russ Elevado (D’Angelo, The Roots, Norah Jones), and Deitch hopes all of them will ultimately see their way to the public.
The group has been test-driving the new material in concert, as it usually does, and thus far, everything’s been going over like gangbusters. “Fourth Dimension” is a wicked slice of lighthearted, trippy space funk driven by Krasno’s Edge-like guitar lines. Deitch mixes up his beats throughout, alternating between a DC go-go rhythm and a subtle hip-hop swing borrowed from Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. “I’m trying to recreate what he did with a MPC drum samples, which were live drums,” he explains. “It’s a tricky combo that I’m doing, but it works really well.”
The aptly titled “House” is the group’s tribute to Chicago house music, and it highlights Deitch’s spirited, nimble hi-hat work — an approach that almost recalls ’70s disco. “It’s interesting that disco sort of de-syncopated the funk of its time,” he notes, “whereas Chicago house was a more organic form of electronic music. I’ve got the swing of the eighth-note here — it’s almost close to jazz — but I’m doing a deep 4/4 kick underneath everything. I’m trying to keep it pure but I’m doing my own thing with it.”
Speaking of tributes, the band tips its collective hat to the righteous sounds of the ’80s Minneapolis revolution on “Prince SMNZ.” “Mix up Prince and Morris Day — this is our take on that feel,” Deitch says. “I’ve got the 2 and 4 on the snare, 1 and 3 on the kick, and between all that I can go off on the toms and do lots of cool accents. But the spirit of that tune rests on the Minneapolis beat, so I keep it driving and moving forward the whole time.”
“KHRU” is a luminous and expansive funk ballad that unfolds like a dream in four unique sections. “That one was a little tricky, because I wanted each part to have its own vibe, but I still wanted them to tie together,” Deitch explains. Within each section, he allowed himself room for improvisation following an approach he’s perfected over the years. “You have to know how you’re going to begin, and you know how you’re going to end. Whatever happens in the middle, that’s just spontaneous,” he says. “A lot of times, I’m surprised at what I do.”
MIX IT UP
Deitch fits in sessions and one-off collaborations during breaks in Lettuce’s tour schedule. Over the years he’s worked with the likes of 50 Cent, Justin Timberlake, and Matisyahu, to name a few, and on occasion he hits the road for extended stints, like his 2013 tour with electronic maven Derek Vincent Smith, aka Pretty Lights. More and more, however, his side band — electronic/acoustic dance duo Break Science (which also includes keyboardist, DJ, and programmer Borahm Lee) — is taking on equal weight to Lettuce. “I’m able to balance the two out, so it’s never overwhelming for me,” he says. “Borahm loves Lettuce, and they love him, and now we even have the Lettuce guys as the Break Science live band, so it’s all good. Lettuce and Break Science are my comfort zone. Everything else I can do is just a bonus.”
Deitch says he’s practicing more than ever these days, now that he’s moved from a tiny apartment in New York into a house in Denver, Colorado. (It also helps that he doesn’t have to unload Mom’s drums from the van and set them up each time to be able to play.) He’s rededicating himself to stamina and strength-building exercises, and enjoys blissing out and jamming along to jazz records, especially anything with Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, or Tony Williams. “I just want to come up with different ways of expressing myself in solos and trying to marry bebop and funk. I’ll start around midnight, and I won’t stop till three or four in the morning.” With a laugh, he adds, “Luckily, my neighbors are cool.”