Less than Jake singer/guitarist Chris Demakes is almost 40, and he no longer has any illusions about the music business and his band’s place in it. “There are bands that won’t admit it, but we’re a catalog band at this point,” Demakes says. “After 21 years, we can still do this until we croak. There are enough people that want to hear the stuff we put out in the ’90s and the legacy of those songs. But we want to be an active band in our own minds as far as making music.”
The ska-punk-pop quintet from Gainesville, Fla. has accomplished more than Demakes and his Less Than Jake comrades ever expected, including two stints on a major label. Now, seven years after their last major label release, In With the Out Crowd, and five years after their last album, GNV FLA, the band is about to release its ninth full-length album, See the Light. The new LP is set for a Nov. 12 release date, but Demakes isn’t making any dramatic claims.
“People ask me how the record sounds, and sonically it sounds amazing, but how are the songs? I just tell people honestly, if you liked Less Than Jake before, you’re going to love it, and if you didn’t like our band before, it’s not going to change your mind,” he says matter-of-factly.
The musical bug bit Demakes early. His parents were singers who performed everywhere from birthday parties to nightclubs. “As long as I can remember, I was in smoky, sweaty bars and nightclubs,” he says. “They sang together, so a lot of my earliest memories were music. It was always played in the house. I grew up on everything from ’50s and ’60s music to Motown up through ’70s rock.”
Demakes met drummer Vinnie Fiorello, who was a couple years older, while in high school, and Fiorello turned him onto punk. The future Less Than Jake frontman could really appreciate the passion of the day’s punkers. And there was another attractive thing about punk. “It was three chords that I could play real well,” Demakes says. “It was way easier than trying to play an Yngwie Malmsteen solo.”
In high school, Fiorello and Demakes played in a punk band together, and they started another one while attending the University of Florida. Influenced by early British ska bands like the Specials and Snuff, they added a horn section just a few moments before every other band with horns suddenly blew up.
“There were never any delusions of grandeur on our part. We were a band in the redneck state of Florida. Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet are from here,” he says. “Around the time we were starting, grunge was really happening and everybody wanted to be Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Stone Temple Pilots, and we hated that shit. That was the last thing we wanted to be, so we were this punk band that had a horn section.”
The band’s 1995 debut Pezcore expressed the group’s sugar-addled spirit. Not long after, Capitol Records scooped them up and put out 1996’s Losing Streak.
“We were never a ska band. I always felt that label was an insult to the Specials, Madness, and English Beat,” he says. “Fairly or unfairly, we got lumped in with that. And what started happening in the mid to late ’90s was everybody was doing it because the major labels were signing it. They went, ‘OK, grunge isn’t popular, what’s next?'”
Less Than Jake rode it out better than most, securing a second deal from Sire Records. The band’s 2003 Sire debut, Anthem, remains Jake’s highest charting album, and produced the group’s two biggest hits, “The Science of Selling Yourself Short,” and “She’s Gonna Break Soon,” which featured a video with Gilmore Girls and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants actress Alexis Bledel. After a B-sides compilation and another album, the band left Sire.
The quintet’s next album, GNV FLA, was not only a love letter to their hometown, but a return to the roots of their sound, a blend of punk energy and ska bounce that disguised tales of disenchantment and disappointment. This was followed by a pretty long studio break, interrupted by the release of a couple EPs that were eventually combined into last year’s Greetings and Salutations.
“After we made [GNV FLA] we were like, ‘Nobody is buying records, nobody gives a shit, they’re just going online and downloading it,'” he says. “But during that five years we never stopped touring.”
This past May, Demakes and company recorded See the Light with bassist and producer Roger Lima, went out on tour to get some distance from the record, then returned to finish tweaking it in mid-July. Though their music still resonates most with teens and 20-somethings, Demakes reports the crowds are more diverse than ever.
“The reason that punk rock lasts and has a shelf life probably longer than any other music, is just because it’s real, and it strikes a chord,” he says.
Then again, it might also be that even as they grow older, Demakes and his bandmates are still little boys at heart. Being a member of a long-standing rock act has its privileges. “You don’t have to grow up,” he says. “Fart jokes and dick jokes are always funny, and they’re still funny to us.”