bill bodkin interviews Less Than Jake saxophonist JR about life, the Warped Tour, Bon Jovi and so much more …
Growing up in Central Jersey in the mid-to-late ’90s, you couldn’t escape the infectious skate-board sound of the punk and ska movement. Leading the way with happy horns, outrageous song titles and a sound so infectious, so laden with sing-a-long anthems and hooks so big they could’ve snagged Moby Dick was Gainesville, Fla.’s Less Than Jake.
For nearly 20 years, Less Than Jake has remained a vital cog in the punk world. They’re mainstays on the famed Vans Warped Tour and have evolved from youthful headliners to the grand daddys of the tour — showing younger bands how it’s done, converting throngs of eager, sweaty teenagers to the sound of Less Than Jake, like they have so many times before.
And even though we, like Less Than Jake, have grown older, it doesn’t mean that the sound the band puts out doesn’t still affect us. When an LTJ song hits our iPod, the toes start to tap, the head starts to bop and thoughts of half-pipes on hot summer days, mix cassette tapes and reckless youth crawl out from the deeper recesses of our mind. In essence, Less Than Jake brings us back to happier days. And for that, can we ever thank them enough?
Recently, Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin spoke with Peter “JR” Wasilewski, the saxophonist for Less Than Jake — and he gave us an extremely honest and thoughtful interview about the band, the music industry and of course, Bon Jovi. As this interview goes up, we urge you to check out the MLB Fan Cave’s website as Pop-Break’s very own Mike O’Hara (who contributes to the site with his column The Got to Be Scene) hosts Less Than Jake performing live in New York City.
Pop-Break: Less Than Jake is currently on the Vans Warped Tour and it seems like you guys are on that tour every year. Have you ever missed one?
JR: Yeah we have — this is our 10th domestic Warped Tour and the tour has been going on for 17 years. We do it every other year. In terms of full, actual, entire Warped Tours, it’s actually six full Warped Tours, maybe seven. All I know is we are officially the band that has done the most Warped Tours. So it feels like we’re out here every summer.
PB: And since you’ve been on the tour since the beginning, let me ask you this: How has the tour changed both in terms of the actual tour itself and the music that’s performed on it?
JR: Yeah … we were younger then, now we’re older — that’s the only difference. It’s still outside, it’s still big crowds … the catering is better. The music is maybe less punk rock based … well, not maybe — it’s definitely less punk-rock-based than when the Warped Tour started. The only thing that’s really changed is the people who used to go to the tour — i.e., myself when I was kid — are now middle-aged. We’re not kids anymore and the Warped Tour is a youth culture based tour. Obviously it’s catered more toward the youth and the youth dictate who’s on this tour. Luckily, we’re still asked to be out on the tour. A lot of people don’t know who were are and are seeing us for the first time each day. So that’s what makes it kind of a challenge still. After being a band for 19 years, we’re still challenged by people that we have to convert on a daily basis. The only that’s really changed is that we’ve gotten older.
PB: I remember I saw you guys perform at the last Warped Tour to be held in Asbury Park, N.J., in 2003 and you guys did a great but brief set. It was like 10 minutes of you and two hours of Suicide Machines. Not that they’re bad or anything, I was just like “I missed every band I wanted to see except for them, and that’s all they performed for!”
JR: Everybody has that Warped Tour story — where they got there to see the bands they wanted to see and they didn’t know the bands played different times. I think that’s everyone’s first experience with the Warped Tour. That’s the still the same thing [about the tour], we don’t know what time we’ll be playing until we wake up in the morning. Today [Friday July 22] it was 1 p.m., tomorrow it could be seven. It’s hard to say.
PB: You just mentioned how you have a new audience that you have to go out and convert to be fans. Is it tougher to gain more fans these days or are the crowds filled with the same crowds of kids like in 1998 that eat your music up?
JR: I don’t know how it is, man. All I know is when we go up on stage in a festival setting like this, it’s a constant working thing. It’s not easy to get up. For a bunch of 20 year-olds, it’s probably easier than for a bunch of 30 year-olds, and we’re actually late 30s. [laughs] It hurts a lot, it takes a little more out of you, but the reaction is still great. I don’t know what anyone’s thinking when they see us or if they’ve seen us before. All I know is: When we play, it’s my favorite 40 minutes of the day. It makes me laugh multiple times and we’ve been complimented multiple times by many, many people on the tour or [people who are] just coming out to the tour for the day and they say we were their favorite band. At the end of the day, when the last ticket is punched and the last person has left the parking lot, that’s all that really matters. If we effected and touched a couple of lives, I guess we’re doing our jobs.
PB: listened to your new EP, Greetings From Less Than Jake, and it was fantastic. However, it’s funny, I just read a press release where Vinnie [LTJ drummer and Fueled By Ramen Records founder Vinnie Fiorello] was quoted saying, “Bands always say that the newer material is the strongest. We’ve made jokes about it before from the stage. BUT in this case these five songs are something that we are proud of and think are the strongest we’ve had in a long time.” Do you agree with your bandmate?
JR: It definitely felt strong when we recorded it and listened back to it. Of course ,I agree with what he said. Sometimes it’s just, you get in a rut. You’re not sure if it’s good or it’s bad or you’re indifferent about it. Things kinda lay there, but then you go in and record and listen back to it and if you feel something from it — mission accomplished, that’s what it’s supposed to do. I definitely agree with my bandmate in saying that this is some of the strongest stuff we’ve written in a long time. It’s also some of the first stuff we’ve written in probably three or four years so it had to feel somewhat good for us to be excited about it. We did go through like 20 different songs before we ended up with those five — there’s about two albums worth of music [that they recorded]. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you, and being a band for a long time, sometimes you feel you’re just doing the same thing over and over. It’s trying to break new ground but not lose your identity musically speaking. It’s a very difficult process and it becomes more difficult when you get older. It’s constant challenges and it’s those challenges that keep us being in a band — writing songs, recording them, being on the Warped Tour, fucking whatever we do, we constantly try to challenge ourselves. Maybe that’s why we’re still on Warped in 2012 or 11 or whatever fucking year it is.
PB: Speaking of challenges, you put this EP out on your own label and even did you own distribution on the record. Talk about pressure on you guys for not only being your own bosses, but being in charge of getting your record out to the masses.
JR: There is no pressure. To be honest with you, it’s no different than when we started as a band. I think we feel more comfortable working this way than we do working with a label. Because when you work with a label, you have to do things that you don’t think are necessarily good for your band. We have definitely done that, but it’s all been done to maintain or achieve some kind of success. At this point, doing it on our level, like some guy asked me yesterday, “How many EPs have you sold?” And I’m like, “I don’t fucking care.”
I don’t care. I mean, at the end of this thing, I guess you can count your merch money and you see how much you’ve sold. It doesn’t matter — it’s not about selling records, it’s about touching lives. I know that sounds kinda weird, but it really is. There’s band out here that have sold way more fucking records than we have and there’s band out here who’ve sold nothing. It’s really not about how much money you make or where you are on the charts or whatever to us. It’s about touching lives and making fans and making friends. Everybody else is more concerned about how many units they sold last week and where they are on the Soundscan and how they can pad the Soundscan.
Because dude, I’ll tell you, all the numbers you that see, especially for numbers for bands that are out here, they just pad ‘em — it’s called venue Soundscan. And venue Soundscan means they fill in a piece of paper that says how many units they sold at each place. And they never put in the correct number — they always put in more units than they sold. Because the more units you sell, the more of a deal you seem like. The more of a deal you seem like, the bigger tours you get. The bigger tours you get, the more fans you’re supposed to get. And you want to know something? That machine worked … sorta, and it doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t work in a lot of ways, and it doesn’t work for our band.
We just do what’s right for us. I hope this doesn’t come off sounding the wrong way, but if it does, I can’t help it — I don’t give a fuck what anyone else does. They can do whatever they want. They can go sign their lives away for five records. They can go be on bad tours, sell their souls to try get their band what they think is the right thing. You do what you go to do and we just don’t fit that role or that model anymore. We’re never going to be on the radio, we’re never going to be on MTV, and we don’t really care if we are. We’re content with just being who we are, and I guess that’ the ultimate win, isn’t it?
PB: It definitely is. You guys have been around, like you said, for close to 20 years. A lot of contemporaries who were signed to majors and national tours don’t even exist anymore. But you guys, as a band, have always seemed really fan-friendly and people have shown you love for that all these years.
JR: Yeah, man. [Today] all these labels now they have this thing called “fan-to-fan marketing.” They write it in the band’s marketing plans. “Band goes to merch booth, signs fans’ CDs for promotions.” Well, no shit. That’s what we’ve been doing for fucking 20 years and now all of a sudden, it’s this new mind-boggling thing in the industry? Come on, man. It’s just better to be who were are and continue to have fun while we’re doing it. And that’s what our band has always been and what we’re always going to be and when that stops then we’ll stop. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
PB: Now, we’re a New Jersey-based site, and I have a random question for you. I remember reading few years back that Less Than Jake toured with Bon Jovi. How’d that one go? From what I can remember, there were lots of stories of you and Bon Jovi not getting along and the audiences didn’t appreciate your music. Any truth to this?
JR: [laughs] It was fine! I don’t know who said we didn’t get along. Those guys were the nicest dudes. I mean, it’s not like they hung out like the way we hang out with bands we go on tour with. We got on the bus and drove to the next gig, and those guys got on their Lear jets and flew home. It’s different. But in the interactions we had with anyone of those guys, they were all total gentlemen and awesome. They treated us as well as any opening band on a adult-contemporary, metal/rock tour should be treated. Some days we didn’t get dressing rooms, we got like little closets. Catering was good, and it was just us and Bon Jovi every day for a month, and they were all really nice. So, it was definitely great experience to play our half hour set, take a shower and then watch Bon Jovi for two hours.
PB: Earlier, you said that when you recorded the EP, you had enough songs for two records. Will Less Than Jake be releasing a new, full-length album in the near future?
JR: We’re going to do something in 2012 because it’s going to be our 20th anniversary. Right after Warped Tour, we’re going to go home and take the rest of the year off. We’re old and we’re tired and we want to go home and be crotchety old men. I’d say in the new year, as long as the world doesn’t end, you’ll hear some new music from us and you’ll see a definite world tour not just one spot. We’re going to go Iron Maiden-style on this bitch.
PB: I know this is way, far in advance, but any ideas or concepts that you guys are kicking around for the tour?
JR: Most magicians will tell you they will not reveal their secrets, nor will we. So you’ll just have to wait and see!