Words by Nick Hodgins | Photo by Nicole Kibert
When you picture a band with eight studio albums, four live albums, five compilation albums, and eight EPs on their resume, the term “wacky” might not be the first adjective that comes to mind. But for the Florida-based punk-ska rockers Less Than Jake (approaching 20 years as a band this July) being wacky is how they’ve managed to keep things fresh for so long.
How many bands can say they’ve hosted a full-blown wrestling match during one of their sets, or a live-action game show? How about releasing a 16-track EP covering different TV show and commercial theme songs for fun?
Less Than Jake has been making music, touring and being wacky for nearly two decades. Before they kicked off their summer tour with Reel Big Fish, we had a chance to talk with vocalist, guitarist and original member Chris DeMakes about tour stories and upcoming plans for the summer.
“I’m looking forward to the whole thing,” DeMakes said this past April, one week prior to hitting the road. “Half the U.S. tour is with Reel Big Fish and those guys are friends of ours from way back, so it’s going to be a blast.”
With 20 years as a band under their belt, summer tours are nothing out of the ordinary for Less Than Jake. They maintain a grip on what songs they have to play (the “hits”) then rotate in whatever songs they choose from their extensive backlog. But their biggest goal is to keep things interesting and fun.
Explaining how he prepares for touring, DeMakes jokes, “I start drinking heavily about three weeks before and hopefully I remember to get on the plane.”
One way Less Than Jake keeps things from getting stale is through their unusual live performances. DeMakes remembered a show in their hometown of Gainesville, Florida, where they held a live wrestling match on stage — complete with ropes, turnbuckles, a bouncer and referee.
Whether they’re playing a club of 800 fans or a festival of 50,000, DeMakes says they approach all shows the same. With plenty of experience playing small and large atmospheres, they use what they’ve learned to their advantage in all settings.
“You give them the same show,” DeMakes explained without hesitation. “When we play in the small venues, it’s ten times as powerful as when we’re at a huge festival — because we’ve had to learn how to control a festival crowd. How to get them motivated, into it, hyped up and having a good time. When you bring it down to 800 people, it’s like a time bomb going off.”
For live shows, DeMakes currently uses his Electra Omega Guitar – a company based out of Tampa,
Florida – which he runs through a Kemper Profiler amp. In studio he’ll switch it up, using a Gibson Les Paul for the heavier stuff, and occasionally a Fender Telecaster as well.
“It’s a pretty simple setup,” he said. “When you listen to the records we’re not doing too much crazy stuff, it’s three chord punk rock. I try to keep it simple.”
The band’s upbeat songs consist of fantastic harmonies, intricate bass lines, blaring brass sections and positive lyrics. DeMakes and Roger Lima (bass, vocals) are the band’s primary songwriters, with saxophone player Peter “JR” Wasilewski contributing occasionally as well.
“I’ll have a collection of songs and demos that I’ve worked on since the last record, and I’ll go through stuff and start presenting it to the band. The good stuff kind of funnels itself to the top and the rest sinks to the bottom. You pick from there and start working on the best songs,” DeMakes said.
When choosing the setlist, DeMakes admits he finds playing new songs more challenging, but ultimately he enjoys playing old and new material.
“The minute you hit the stage and connect with that audience, you can play a song that’s twenty years old and it still feels fresh and new,” he said.
Of course with every handful of shows that go well, there’s bound to be a few bad apples in the mix.
DeMakes remembered one set in particular at Asbury Park’s Bamboozle festival a few years ago, where time constraints forced Less Than Jake’s set short.
“I almost got arrested that night,” DeMakes recalled. “They couldn’t go over the curfew, their headline acts, the later bands wanted their full set and they started cutting sets somewhere. I got off stage and the stage manager, he didn’t like what I had to say to him and I’ll politely leave it at that.”
Outside of shortened sets, DeMakes isn’t bothered by whether or not a festival decides to throw them on a side stage or a main stage, because in the end they’ve done it all by this point. As long as there is an audience, they’re showing up ready to rock, and ready to entertain with whatever bizarre ideas they can think up.
“It keeps it interesting for us, it’s wacky, we’ve always been kind of a wacky band, and it might be a challenge to find something to do, and something that no audience has ever seen before. I can’t think of a band that’s ever put on a live game show during a punk concert,” DeMakes concluded.
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