During Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP Music Festival in February 2019, Lettieri played guitar for one of the band’s three headlining sets. This year’s festival gave Snarky Puppy a chance to debut the music from their latest album, Immigrance.
Photo by Stella K.
Those videos on Instagram really took off. What was your process for putting those together?
I think the first Instagram stuff I ever did was all done with an iPhone. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I started doing the baritone thing, I was running through a Kemper and recording it in Logic and then syncing up the audio to the video. All the drums are programmed by me, and I played everything. It was simply, “Here’s a goofy kind of little funk track,” and the response from people was not something I expected at all. Once I noticed people were really responding to it, I felt I had to make it into an album because I would have been wasting a lot of stuff if I didn’t.
How did your musicianship improve after doing a whole album of baritone funk?
It helped me learn how to arrange guitars. A lot of what I do here at the home studio is produce my own guitar parts for records. Almost everything that comes through here is remotely done with varying degrees of direction from clients. Sometimes they’re very specific, but most of the time I have to read someone’s mind, which is really hard to do. The album was just another extension of arranging parts and stacks and different things to get the most out of a tune without maybe overdoing it—even though on a couple of songs I overdid it on purpose.
It sounds like “Stoplight Loosejaw” was one of those.
There are a ton of guitars on that song—on purpose. I wanted people to be looking left and right when they heard that song on headphones. And then when you try to play it, they would be like, “There’s no way I can play all this. I need 42 guitar players to play this live.”
Do you think any of these songs will make it into the trio’s live set?
That’s the problem I’ve created for myself. Tell you what, if people buy the record instead of stream it on Spotify, there’s a chance I can afford to put together a band large enough to come play the record in your town.
What type of band would you need to pull it off?
I could do with a keyboard player who had a couple keyboards, a drummer, a bass player. Then it gets difficult. Probably three guitar players. “Stoplight” is baritone, standard guitar, and 7-string guitar. I could maybe do that one with a 7-string and baritone, but the baritone record has so many stereo stacks, which are essentially horn parts, played on guitar. It’s not impossible; it’s just a logistical nightmare.
From what you described, that college band sounds a lot like what you are going after with your solo albums.
Yeah, it probably is an extension. That’s always been my thing: instrumental guitar stuff with melodies, harmonies, and riffs. But I try to keep an emphasis on the tunes, at least in some respect. Maybe I have split personalities or something. For example, if you go to my Instagram, you probably have no idea what kind of guitar player I am because there’s all kinds of crap up there.
When you write a tune, do you have a specific group or instrumentation in mind?
I try to make everything work for the smallest amount of people possible. Maybe subconsciously. Most of the stuff I write would be a stretch to think it would work for a large ensemble. I just haven’t matured in that way yet. A majority of the writing I do, I plan on using for the trio because I have an outlet for it and the ability to play it with people and for people. I have to be honest with myself. I need to get that music out because deep down inside there’s a 13-year-old kid and that’s what he wants to do.
I can totally hear you cutting through everything on Snarky’s “Bad Kids to the Back.”
I played baritone and regular guitar on that. I’m trying to think how they mixed it. Sometimes it’s kind of weird who they put to what side. I have to go back and listen to it. Well, I should listen to it, since I have to play it on tour. [Laughs.] But yeah, there’s definitely some Lettieri-esque comping rhythm, but Justin [Stanton, trumpeter and keyboardist] actually programmed a lot of that stuff for us to play with our interpretation.
Also, I thought that was you playing the second solo on “Chonks.”
A lot of people did. Bobby [Sparks, keyboardist] played that through my Supro Statesman head. I don’t know what he used for pedals, but it’s Bobby, so he probably turned them all on. He phrases like a guitar player, which is really cool. Bobby’s really funny. He’s like “Man, you know, I love guitar but, like, the feeling of the strings makes my skin crawl, man. I can’t do it.”
Let’s talk about the Jeff Beck influence on “Seuss Pants” from Things of That Nature. You really nailed how to phrase vocal-style melodies with the whammy bar.
I hope I don’t get sued by Jeff Beck. [Laughs.] I was practicing some new intervallic melodic things and just happened to have the whammy bar in my hand. That song came together in about a day or two. And then the title was just named after the pair of my wife’s pajama pants that have this really wild print on them. We just call her “Dr. Seuss pants.”
One thing I hadn’t heard you do on a recording is play acoustic and slide. Both are featured on “Ojai.” Did you write that in Ojai, California?
No, but the inspiration for that tune was David Crosby. It uses a tuning that he taught me. The tuning is C–G–D–D–A–E. It’s like an open 6/9 chord. I’m super self-conscious of my acoustic playing because I never really do it publicly, although I do some fingerstyle stuff on pop and gospel sessions. I just wanted a simple thing based around that tuning. I almost didn’t put it on the record because I was so nervous about my playing.
With so many different sounds and projects coming out this year, what’s your guitar/amp setup like? Other than the baritone stuff, do you start with a certain combo and move from there, depending on what’s needed?
I took almost everything to the studio. The guitar tracks are a blend of either a Supro Statesman, Pure Sixty-Four Mean Street, or a Naylor Dual 60. My engineer and I blend those amps all the time, so that was a big part of it, and I used a Kemper on a couple of songs.
Did you run a stereo setup with multiple amps or just a dual mono?
Yeah, dual mono. Exactly. In fact, I think all of the guitars on “Seuss Pants,” for example, were a blend of the Kemper and the Pure Sixty-Four, which I combined with a Suhr Reactive Load.
What were some of your favorite profiles in the Kemper?
I think I used a 3rd Power profile on that tune. I used all of Michael Britt’s stuff, and going back to the baritone record … that’s all Kemper. There are no “real” amps on that, and I used a bunch of different profiles.
“Naptime,” from Things of that Nature, opens with a hip funk riff. Sounds like the title was inspired by your life as a new dad.
That’s exactly what it is. “Naptime” happened because my kid was asleep for an hour and I felt like I should do something productive with music. I had that main riff stored in my phone somewhere. That song happened very quickly. “Seuss Pants” happened very quickly. “Blockheads” took a little more time because I rearranged a lot of it. Same with “Bubinga,” which is on the 7-string.
As if you didn’t have enough albums coming out this year, the Fearless Flyers just released a new EP, Fearless Flyers II. How did that collaboration come together?
I guess it was [Vulfpeck leader] Jack Stratton’s initial idea, and then I got an email from [Vulfpeck guitarist] Cory [Wong]. I had never met him, and I had never met Nate [Smith, drummer]. Of course, I knew about all the guys. Cory just emailed me through my website. They didn’t say anything about the kind of music, which is interesting. I called him and initially I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do it, because I just didn’t know what was going on. So we talked, and I was like “Well, let me think about it.” After I thought about it, I realized I would be stupid not to do this. So, I called him back and said, “Yeah, sorry. Let’s do this.”
Going into those sessions, you still didn’t have any real idea about what it was about?
I remember asking “Do you want me to bring in any songs?" They said we would just do it all there in the studio. I brought a pedalboard that I had put together, specifically to get a lot of sounds from the baritone funk videos I was doing at the time. They said “We’re not going to use any of that. We’re just going to plug into the computer.” Also, we had to wear flight suits and our instruments were on these stands. I was thinking, “When’s lunch?” [Laughs.]
Taking that chance has now led to a gig at Madison Square Garden. What’s it going to feel like when you step out on that stage for the first time?Well, I won’t be able to step that far, because I’ll be standing behind a guitar that’s bolted onto a mic stand. The dream of me running out and playing rocking guitar solos is not going to be fulfilled that day, but I might just have to rip it off the stand and just drag that sucker out there.
This live take on “Seuss Pants” was filmed during a residency in Dallas with Lettieri’s working trio of Jason Thomas on drums and Wes Stephenson on bass. The decidedly Jeff Beck-ish melody was born out of a practice session where Lettieri was focusing on improving intonation with the whammy bar.