This is the fourteenth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.
Four-time Grammy-winning guitarist Mark Lettieri ‘01 had humble beginnings in a “jackpot” M-A talent show victory as a member of his high school rock band. He remembered, “We performed an original song onstage, and then one of our buddies came out and rapped a Nate Dogg and Warren G number. We won first place, and the prize was $100. But, we were a five-piece band, so my dad threw in 25 bucks so we could each have $25.”
Lettieri began playing the guitar at age 11. “My dad had an old guitar hanging around the house, and so I would just kind of mess around on it,” he explained. At M-A, Lettieri started a rock band with his friends. “We sometimes played on campus at lunch, and at backyard parties, but most of the time, we would just get together and jam in our garages. It was epic. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything,” he said.
Lettieri also started a club called the Rock N’ Roll Appreciation Club, advised by math teacher Bobby Wong. Wong said, “I remember the Rock N’ Roll Appreciation club! That was during my 4th year teaching. One of my AS Algebra II students asked me if they could host the club in my room at lunch, and I agreed. Although, I’m not much of a rock n’ roll appreciator.”
English teacher Liane Strub and history teacher John Florio were some of Lettieri’s most influential teachers. “Florio was one of my all-time favorites,” he said. “He was just the sweetest guy. I still have a T-shirt he gave me, actually. It was a Sopranos T-shirt, because he was Italian and I’m Italian and we had a joke running about the Sopranos. And my senior year English teacher Ms. Strub was awesome! I remember in one of my English classes—I think it may have even been Ms. Strub’s—our teacher told us to write down goals, and one of my goals was to have a signature model guitar. That dream ended up coming true—I recently designed a guitar with a company called Paul Reed Smith.”
Lettieri’s advice to current M-A students? “Get to class on time, man.”
“I studied really hard at M-A, did the AP classes and college prep—you know, staying up until three in the morning writing papers and all that,” he said. “And then, I got to college and I was like, ‘Wow, college is kinda easier than high school!’” Lettieri studied advertising and public relations at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas, where he currently resides.
He continued, “After graduating from TCU, I was doing pretty much every music-related thing I could find that would pay money: teaching, playing with original bands, playing with cover bands, doing recording sessions. In all different styles of music, too. That was the routine for quite a few years before my career really started to form.”
On his creative process, Lettieri said, “When I’m writing a song, sometimes it takes me a really long time. Sometimes, I just don’t feel creative. Sometimes, I try to force it, and that sometimes works but often doesn’t. I like to have equipment around, so I can kind of write and record at the same time to catalog ideas that way. The ideas could come from anywhere. I might just hear something in my head while I’m driving, or something funny will happen to me during the day that I want to express in song, and so I’ll think about that. I just kind of go with where the inspiration leads me.”
Lettieri described his music as “very danceable—if you like the guitar, you’ll probably dig it.” He performs as a solo artist with the Mark Lettieri Group, is a member of two bands—Snarky Puppy and the Fearless Flyers—and has worked for artists such as David Crosby, Tori Kelly, Kirk Franklin, 50 Cent, Erykah Badu, and Phillip Phillips. He also recently created a set of instrumental guitar loops for Apple’s GarageBand app.
Lettieri logged onto his Zoom interview in a room filled with guitars of all shapes and sizes. “These aren’t even all of them!” He exclaimed. “I have way more guitars than I know what to do with. I own over 40 guitars. There’s about 30 of them in here between this wall and the closet, and then I keep some at my parents’ house in their closet. They just keep showing up! I always wanted to have a room like this and now I do, so mission accomplished.”
On tour, Lettieri has performed on every continent except Antarctica.
“I tour a lot,” he said. “I just finished a couple trips to Europe, actually. I love traveling, seeing new places, meeting new people and eating new food. Trying the food in every locale that we go to is something I make sure we make time for.”
Lettieri explained, “The travel could be driving in a van, car, train, plane—it all depends on the size of the tour, the budget, and the logistics. You might travel in the morning, arrive at the location mid-day, eat lunch, do your sound check, set up, do your gig, go back to your hotel, go to sleep, wake up in the morning, and do it again.”
He added, “Life on tour can kick your butt sometimes, because it’s kind of like in that movie Groundhog Day when the guy wakes up and has to repeat the same day over. Sometimes on tour you’re like, ‘Man, all these clubs are starting to look the same. Where are we? You know, what day of the week is it?’ Everyone kind of struggles with that from time to time. But it’s awesome. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
In his free time, Lettieri said, “Sometimes I binge-watch Netflix shows or watch college football. I also like hanging out and being a dad. My daughter is five years old. She’s downstairs plinking on the piano right now, actually. She is a constant source of inspiration for my music. Sometimes when she says funny stuff I write a song about it.”
On his favorite books, Lettieri said, “I really like reading military nonfiction, like about battles and stuff—I know that’s kind of dorky. I also like this author named Chuck Klosterman—he writes social essays where he just sort of waxes his opinion about all kinds of things, and I think he’s a pretty funny guy.”
On his favorite musicians, Lettieri said, “I love Prince. I love Metallica. Oh, gosh, Steely Dan. I love Van Halen. Basically, I like old music. I love R&B. I love rock. I love soul. I love jazz. I love hip hop. My iTunes folder goes all the way from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top.”
The Mark Lettieri Group is playing at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View on January 21st. Lettieri said, “Come hang! We’re pretty loud—they’re probably gonna yell at us to turn it down.”
Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. All have wisdom, entertaining anecdotes, and book recommendations to share. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!