Interview: Less Than Jake (2015)

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When harkening back to the golden era of the ’90s, the most striking difference when making a comparison between now and then was how such an eclectic array of genres dictated the flow of mainstream music. The thought of acts like R.E.M., TLC, Soundgarden, and Wu-Tang Clan reaching multi-platinum status within the same year seems unrealistic in today’s manufactured pop scene. Inhabiting this Wild West in the mid-90s, a third wave ska band from Gainesville, Florida known as Less Than Jake rose from the underground by channeling the purest essence of pop punk into a full-fledged barrage of youthful energy.

Since 1992, Less Than Jake’s grassroots ability to garner a loyal following represents how non-stop touring and word of mouth appraisal from concert attendees will never falter — despite the music industry’s fickle practices. Seriously, look no further than Less Than Jake’s legendary reputation on the Vans Warped Tour. Sad but true – today’s version of the festival no longer resembles the punk atmosphere of the late ’90s. Among this full-day excursion now inhabited by the second wave of metalcore, this veteran band was the sole representation for all things ska related last year.

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Speaking from personal experience, I witnessed Less Than Jake steal the show from a plethora of young acts. By displaying a carefree spirit the band inspired everyone in the audience to lose their minds. Within the midst of the boiling sun, this band summoned some sort of energy that I haven’t felt in years. Truth be told, I wound up skanking like a maniac and crowd surfing like I was fourteen all over again. I’m fortunate enough to attend many live shows but there is something contagious about ska music that brings out the greatest aura from the audience. Towards the conclusion of their set, everyone preceded to high five one another since we all had the time our lives seeing Less Than Jake together.

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s commendable to see this band show such enthusiasm for their catalog. Even from a musical standpoint, Less Than Jake’s eighth studio LP See The Light holds onto the vintage spirit and contains the addicting melodies heard on masterpieces like 1997’s Losing Streak and 2003’s Anthem. Unlike a majority of acts approaching double digits in calendar years, this group’s passion for performing and recording new material outshines a majority of artists in the music scene.

Less Than Jake is currently on tour with fellow ska legends Reel Big Fish, (which should be dubbed ‘the ultimate ska experience,’) and will headline the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey on January 30th. In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I spoke with Less Than Jake vocalist and guitarist Chris DeMakes for an in-depth conversation covering all aspects of this band’s historic career.

Photo Credit Katie Hovland
Photo Credit Katie Hovland

Let’s start off by talking about how Less Than Jake’s been going strong for 23 years now. Could you describe the level of commitment shared by the entire band in order to make this group successful? 

We’ve had the same four guys in the band for 23 years now and our saxophonist JR has been with us for 15 years so we pretty much have been the same band this entire time (laughs). Yeah, it does take a lot of commitment and there are a lot of sacrifices and things missed at home but those are sacrifices we chose to make when were younger. We’re very lucky to still go out there and play music.

For the unfamiliar listener that’s never seen Less Than Jake live, how would you describe the experience of attending a Less Than Jake show? 

Without them going on YouTube and seeing it (laughs), I always tell people when they come to see our show, ‘We want you to leave your problems at the door.’ I’ve had many people come up to me over the years and tell me how that’s exactly what happened. They walked away and had a great time.

What components come together in order for your band to deliver such high-octane performances on a nightly basis?

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Lots of alcohol (Laughs). We feed off the people who come to see us. When the audience is a little more tame than usual, we feed off that. When the audience is going completely ballistic, we feed off that as well. That’s kind of the yin and yang of it – you feed off each other.

I know you’re frequently asked about Warped Tour, however, I saw your band twice last year and I thought you guys stole the show because it felt like you were the purest act from a musical ethos standpoint. Being the only predominant ska/punk band on Warped Tour, what have the most recent experiences been like since the Warped Tour has deviated from its original punk essence?

For us, I kind of like it better. When we were touring back in the late ’90s, the Warped Tour had 10 or 11 bands with horns and we were one of them. We kind of blended in a little bit more than we do nowadays where we stick out like a sore thumb.  You called it pure – I think that’s a good word to describe it. We have been a band for something like eight times as long as a lot of the younger bands on the bill and we’ve played a lot more shows than they have. With that comes experience – we’re able to be ourselves, we don’t have any agendas, and we’re not trying to have the cool haircuts or makeup because we’re beyond that age and we can’t pull it off (Laughs). We already are who we are. We can’t change that and all we could do is go out and be ourselves. That’s why you use the word pure because it is genuine. I’m not trying to slander anybody but a lot of those younger bands are trying to make first impressions and we already did that years ago.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Pezcore. Looking back, what emotions or feelings arise when you reflect on your debut? Where does Pezcore sit with you as the years have gone by? 

It’s funny, we toured so much during that period and whenever we got off the road, we went into the studio and recorded a bunch of songs. We didn’t even know what the hell we were going to do with them. We got a call from Mike Park from Asian Man Records, but it was actually Dill Records at the time, and he wanted to release the record. And it literally wasn’t even a record; those songs were demos. The fact that people like it so much, it’s funny because we recorded all those songs in two days. And again, maybe people like those songs because of that reason – it’s pure and raw. Would I do some things differently today? Sure. As what it is, I think it’s a really cool record.

Could you describe your mindset when you recorded Pezcore? The band started to gain huge momentum and transitioned into a national touring entity within a few years.

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It was great and again, we just kept playing shows. It was weird. It wasn’t like we quote on quote ‘made it’ because we signed to a label. We were still doing our thing and we were touring all the time and that’s what broke us. Capitol certainly gave us more exposure in the mid-to-late ’90s. We were always playing with the right bands and if we went out on the road, we made sure we were on a compilation record in Chicago, Boston, or Detroit. We would get there and we would have a couple hundred kids at our shows and we would try to align ourselves with the big bands from those areas. If we toured through those cities, we tried to reach out to those bands and we tried to play in front of as many people as we possibly could. We felt we were playing with like-minded ska and punk bands and we thought we had a pretty good shot at earning a lot of fans.

Some of your contemporaries from this era had some huge hits yet suddenly disappeared afterwards. Your band gained a huge following based off the strength of your catalog and live performances. Do you feel this contributed to your longevity?

For sure, a lot bands will have the one-hit wonder and people tend to forget about them. For us, slow and steady wins the race and we kept plugging away. We never stuck to one thing and we never tried to pigeonhole ourselves like, ‘Oh, we could only play with punk or ska bands.’ We went on some different and creative tours over the years. That helped expand our fan base and helped us play in front of people that were like, ‘This might be different but I still like it.’ We could play in front of Korn or Linkin Park audiences, which we have done before, and we knew there were people, that we could win over as fans.

I know you’re touring the U.K. with Yellowcard in March. After that tour concludes, are there any plans to possibly celebrate Pezcore’s anniversary? Has the idea floated around to perform the entire LP live? 

We haven’t talked about it but I’m not going to rule it out. We have played all of our albums in their entirety before. We did six shows in Florida a few years ago and we also went over to London and we played six of our albums in a row. In the sense of going out on tour and performing a record from beginning till the end, we actually did that already and I know a lot of bands do that nowadays. For the anniversary of Pezcore, maybe we’ll do something but I don’t know. Again, that’s a weird record because we have another album called Losers, Kings, and Things We Don’t Understand. That was a compilation of 7-inch records and different stuff that we wrote and that was really our first thing that came out. Pezcore was our first official release but a lot of those songs had been around for years and were rewritten and re-recorded a bunch of times so we’ll see.

It’s been about a year and a half since the release of See The Light. Alongside your previous EPs like Seasons Greetings, See The Lights revisits your roots and captures the spirit of your first few records. From what I gather, it’s seems like the last few releases have been some of your most enjoyable songwriting excursions….

It was awesome. We went in and we did what we do we best. We wrote a bunch of songs and picked out what we thought were the best songs to record. We didn’t have any label pressure, we recorded the songs ourselves, and the last couple records have been pretty easy in terms of making an album for sure.

Has the idea floated around to record a new EP or full-length sometime in the near future like late 2015 or early 2016?

All of us individually are always writing. We’ve been on the road and we did a pretty good amount of touring last year and we’re pretty much booked all the way till September this year. There are talks of getting together at the end of the year to rehearse and write some new songs. But yeah, hopefully we could write as soon as possible but we just tour too damn much (Laughs).

Which format do you prefer to release your music, EPs or full-lengths, since this band has reveled in both formats?

Once we started doing the EPs, I wanted to make a full-length again. Now that we made a full-length album, maybe we’ll write another EP again. When the mood strikes, you have to be ready. When we did the EPs, we didn’t really feel like we had anything to say in terms of having a collective idea for an album, and that’s why we went that route. I have no idea what this next one is going to be (Laughs).

Photo Credit: Katie Hovland
Photo Credit: Katie Hovland

As a vocal tandem, talk about the chemistry between Roger and yourself? How do you two compliment each other and decide when to switch on and off or harmonize together?

We know who’s going to sing a song 80 percent of the time. Sometimes we’ll surprise each other and we’ll be in the studio right down to the last minute and he’ll say, ‘Oh, you should sing this part,’ or I’ll say, ‘Oh, you should sing this part.’ Either he or I will do a lot of the backing vocals but a lot of it comes down to spur of the moment decisions in the studio. Even live, sometimes he’ll sing some stuff that I sang on the record. We flip flop a lot. There’s no rhyme or reason to it but we somehow make it work (Laughs).

Going off my last question, could you take me through Less Than Jake’s songwriting process? How does your band go about organizing song arrangements and piecing different ideas together?

Roger and I write the majority of our songs and our drummer Vinnie writes about 99 percent of our lyrics. Our horn section writes 99 percent of their horn parts and we’ll kind of throw our ideas into the blender and it’s like ‘boom, there ya go.’ Sometimes Roger will write more of a song than I will or vice versa. Roger will even bring in a full idea sometimes and our sax player JR even brought in some chords for a couple songs off the last record. Like I said, we all write and whatever comes out comes out.

Your band has seen all sides of the music industry whether it’s working with major labels, indie labels, or applying a D.I.Y. attitude and independently releasing your own material. You have since come full circle in collaborating with Fat Wreck Chords and I was wondering how that relationship has grown over the past few years?

We’ve known them forever and they did a record for us years ago so it seemed like a logical step for us. We wanted to put a new full-length out and they wanted to release it so I think it helped spark the interest and get our music heard. Everything was great and it was successful and we’re still touring behind the album.

Correct me if I’m wrong but you guys actually released Mp3s online in the late 90s yet your label didn’t understand your ambition to develop an online presence?

No labels understood the reasoning behind it back then at all. We as musicians could see the writing on the wall and we were right. The labels didn’t embrace the technology back then and they wound up fucking themselves. That’s why nobody buys records anymore. If they would’ve said back then, ‘Hey, come download this record online for $4.99.’ People would’ve bought in and been like, ‘Holy shit, that’s so much cheaper than going to the store and buying the CD.’ It also would’ve been cheaper than having to put gas in the trucks to deliver plastic CDs to the stores. People would’ve been like, ‘Oh, you could electronically wire me the music for $4.99? What a fucking deal?’ If the labels would’ve done that, maybe we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in now, which is the younger generation doesn’t even equate buying music – it’s free. If you grew up and cheeseburgers were free than why the fuck would you even pay for one (Laughs)?

That’s a solid comparison (Laughs).

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So the label’s screwed themselves. Why would people go to Best Buy or whatever mall in the middle of America and spend $18.99 on a CD? I remember some CDs were up to $19.99 or $20.99 for a disc of whatever band – that was just ludicrous.

I’m going in a different direction but I know you’re also quite the metal fan. I’ve seen you mention groups like Metallica, Iron Maiden, and W.A.S.P. in the past. Are you still heavily intertwined in the current metal scene?

I still listen to everyone you just mentioned (Laughs). Maiden and all the old school stuff – I’m a fan like anyone else. As far as new stuff, I’m not really into too much. They’re not even new and they’ve been around for a decade now – I really like Mastodon. I like some of the newer metal but I still really dig the old school stuff for the most part.

It’s almost become a tradition for Less Than Jake to headline Starland Ballroom and you certainly have a rich history with this venue. Would you consider New Jersey a second home since there’s always been a healthy ska scene over here?

Absolutely, the first time we ever went to Jersey – we were playing basement shows and VFW halls and it was just insane. Our first tour we ever played in Jersey – we had 400 or 500 kids showing up at these halls. It was a real scene where people would support whoever came to town. We were accepted early on. That whole area – Jersey, Philly, and New York City has always been great to us.

Less Than Jake performs with Reel Big Fish and Authority Zero at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey on Friday January 30th. Click here for tickets.

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