Seminal Ska-Punk Band Less Than Jake: "The Cockroaches of the Music Industry"

Less Than Jake
Less Than Jake Photo by Jodi Cunningham
Like other ska-punk bands of its era, Less Than Jake owes much of its success to recurring performances on the Vans Warped Tour. Beginning in 1997, the band traversed North America with the pop-up city for punks for 12 summers, playing a total of 441 shows — the most in the festival's history — including a handful of concerts during the Warped Tour's final cross-country run last year.

"The tour opened us up to new audiences, a new batch of 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds every year," cofrontman Chris DeMakes says. "Up until last year, kids who had never heard of our band before would walk up to our merchandise booth and want an autograph. We were like a new band to them."

Less Than Jake is still here even though "the best summer ever" is over, and many of the ska-punk bands associated with skate/surf/punk subculture in the late 1990s and early 2000s have long since faded into the sunset. Even after more than a quarter-century of instigating mosh pits via a catchy mix of palm-muted power chords, blasting horns, and mild angst, the Gainesville-based band is still playing 130 to 150 shows a year, including one at Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale this Saturday.

DeMakes says the steady touring helps explain why Less Than Jake has outlasted so many luminaries. 

"A lot of bands we used to tour with stopped for a while. They took three, four, five years off, and some of them couldn't come back," he says. "Instead of playing to 800 or 1,200 people a show, they were playing bars to 150 people. I hate to look at this as a business, but that's what it is. When you go away and don't nurture something, that could be troublesome, so we've always tried to stoke our fan base."
Of course, it's possible to burn out a fan base too. DeMakes says the band saw a steep downturn in attendance at its U.S. shows beginning around 2008.

"We'd pull up to St. Louis on a Thursday night — not the worst night of the week to have a show, in a market where we used to do great — and instead of 1,000 people being there, we'd look out at the crowd, be like, Man, there's like 500 people here, half of what we'd normally see. What's going on? Are we kind of done in the States?"

Here's how DeMakes makes sense of what happened: Many of the kids who had been introduced to pop-punk through the videogame Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and attended Less Than Jake concerts as teenagers were, by then, adults "leaving college with student loans, getting married, and having children. They weren't coming out to shows."

The band survived that period by booking smaller venues "and just holding on," he says. They just kept on rocking, ignoring the trends of popular music over the past decade or so, and now the audiences have returned. Go figure. 

"The student loans are getting paid off; there might be a divorce or two in there," DeMakes speculates. "The kids are getting a babysitter; they've got some disposable income. It's crazy — we're playing to as many or more people in the States now, in 2019, than we ever have."

And recently, he's noticed older fans bringing their 12- and 14-year-old children to Less Than Jake concerts. It's quite a legacy for a scrappy ska-punk group that has never had a hit single and hasn't changed musically for nearly three decades. In that way, the band is a perfectly preserved ska-punk specimen.

"We're like the cockroaches of the music industry," DeMakes says. "I'm a walking bottle of formaldehyde."

Less Than Jake. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1074; Tickets cost $19.50.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Hardee is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, he has a BA in journalism and writes stories about music, outdoor adventures, politics, and the environment for alt-weeklies across the country. He is an aficionado of fine noises and has a theremin in his living room.