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Crazy, Shreddy, Raw: Less Than Jake's 'Losing Streak' Turns 20

Thursday, 10 November 2016 Written by Huw Baines

Photos: Less Than Jake at Fest 15 by Gaëlle​ Pitrel

History will show that ska-punk’s time under the mainstream spotlight was as short as it was goofy and weird. Most people filed it away in a box alongside a battered pair of check Vans a long time ago. But not Less Than Jake. Nor, it’s fair to say, the thousands who packed out Brixton Academy a few weeks ago to sweat away a Thursday night with them.

Fifteen years ago, I walked through a similar crowd at the same venue as the Gainesville band headlined an all-dayer also featuring the Vandals, the Ataris, Voodoo Glow Skulls and 311. Back in 2001, fresh from the release of ‘Borders and Boundaries’, they were conquering heroes still a few years out from their commercial peak with 2003’s ‘Anthem’. These days they’re more like a widely-loved fringe concern, but their approach hasn’t changed.

Less Than Jake live in 2016 looks a lot like it did when those check Vans were still sticking to venue floors. They play so fast that it appears everything might fall apart at a moment’s notice. They kick out the hits. They don’t stop. “The older songs are better,” bassist Roger Lima jokes from the stage. “Most bands are delusional.”

But, when talking to drummer Vinnie Fiorello and guitarist Chris DeMakes beforehand, it’s clear that their bandmate’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek. Less Than Jake are fresh from the studio and next year will put out their first new music since 2013’s ‘See The Light’, as well as celebrating 25 years as a band. Theirs is a balanced diet of past and present, with their setlist decisions on the night (less than a handful of songs released post-’Anthem’ make the cut) rubbing shoulders with obvious excitement at soon having untested material to play with again.

Before they turn the page on the next chapter, though, there are more candles that need blowing out. The birthday cake belongs to ‘Losing Streak’, their second album, which will turn 20 on November 12. Arriving a year before the Mighty Mighty Bosstones took ska-punk to the upper reaches of the Billboard charts with the addictively slick The Impression That I Get, the record was blown out, hyperactive and brilliantly odd. Even among the many sore thumb major label debuts released in the mid-’90s, it sticks out.

Signing with Capitol put Less Than Jake in the crosshairs of punk’s sellout monitors for the first time, but their reaction was to double down on the wild-eyed delivery that emphasised their eccentricities. A leap forward from the race-to-the-finish-line of ‘Pezcore’, released a year earlier and recorded in a single 20 hour burst, ‘Losing Streak’ found the band growing older and wiser in public after becoming a reliable touring concern for the first time.

“We had the luxury of learning things,” DeMakes said. “We were under a microscope and we had time. When we did ‘Pezcore’, if you didn’t mess it up too bad it was a take. We learned a lot on ‘Losing Streak’. The guitars are so shreddy and crazy and raw. We wouldn’t record them like that now, but that's the cool part. You can never go back to that time. We were coming from a different place.

“Ultimately, [signing with Capitol] meant distribution on a grander scale. At the time it was all about marketing and we felt as a young band that we got a pretty decent deal. The people we were managed by and first started working with at Capitol saw our vision. Vinnie got close with the art department. We had some people on our side. But people made such a big deal about it.

"These days nobody gives a shit. Kids don’t care. They don’t care if the prime minister funded the record. Is the music good, or is it shit? It was different then. We felt we found a good place to take our band to the next level and it worked out great for us. We never hit that ‘selling a couple million records’ thing but we were marketed pretty aggressively on a grassroots, street level.”

Like a lot of people in the UK, I first encountered ‘Losing Streak’ in tandem with ‘Hello Rockview’, its 1998 follow up, when the records were paired together for a reissue in 2000. By that point, they’d come through the other side of the major label wormhole and would soon put out ‘Borders and Boundaries’ with Fat Wreck. Of those details, I was oblivious.

Less Than Jake didn't so much fall into my lap as land in the lap of a school friend who'd perfected the sort of vanilla grift that, in hindsight, seems a lot of effort. To avoid work during maths lessons he’d sit pen in hand, eyes apparently focused on the task in front of him, and read a paperback or comic balanced below the desk on his knees. When it came time for our teacher to mark 30 or so incorrect algebra exercises, he’d ensure that his book was the last one added to the pile. As we slouched out of the classroom he’d skim it off the top and put it back in his bag.

One morning his attention was taken by something different. As the rest of us plucked numbers from the air and hoped they’d add up to a GCSE pass, he flicked through the pages of a CD booklet dotted with images that looked like they’d been lifted from a suburban noir. They were the lyric sheets to ‘Hello Rockview’ and from the seat next to him I thought they were the coolest fucking things I’d ever seen. In short order I was at the counter of Spiller’s Records in Cardiff picking up a copy to devour on my own time.

And devour it I did. I mashed the disc into my dad’s computer to watch the CD Rom video for All My Best Friends Are Metalheads and took my own turn at poring over Steve Vance’s inventive artwork. After a while, I let my attention land on the fact that, along with my new Unequivocal Favourite Record of All Time™ I’d got a second album as part of the bargain.

‘Losing Streak’ sketched out a blueprint that Less Than Jake would initially follow closely and later adapt to suit changing tastes, cleaner production techniques and a blossoming power-pop core. It was here that DeMakes and Lima first had time to invest in the vocal sparring that would come to define their outsized melodies, while the horn section of Buddy Schaub, Derron Nuhfer and Jessica Mills significantly upped the complexity (and regularity) of their contributions. Fiorello, meanwhile, used his lyrics to reach beneath his own skin consistently for the first time.

In Automatic, Happyman, 9th And Pine and Sugar In Your Gas Tank (its opening four songs remain bulletproof) and the repackaged Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts, they had songs that fizzed with kinetic energy. Thanks to the production work of Michael Rosen, who’d recently completed a stint on AFI’s ‘Very Proud of Ya’, ‘Losing Streak’ retains a wild edge that leans towards the definition of Less Than Jake as a punk band with horns. That trend would continue - ‘Hello Rockview’ opener Last One Out of Liberty City is a close relative of ‘Losing Streak’ highlight Rock ‘n’ Roll Pizzeria - but never again would the band have this much dirt under their fingernails.

“It was the first time we’d worked with a producer and had a budget,” DeMakes said. “On ‘Pezcore’ we had good enough ears to know that things were off  but we didn’t have the money or time to change it. We were recording everything to tape. ‘Losing Streak’ was recorded to tape, too, but we had time to sing in key and in time and all that good stuff. The producer helped us do that. It definitely wasn’t over-produced. There are parts of it that sound like what I would consider to be a demo for our band now. It was rough but it was produced in the sense that the vocals lined up and the horns were pretty decent on it. It was a step up.”

The words that DeMakes and Lima would put to music on ‘Losing Streak’ were also a step up. Unusually, Less Than Jake’s lyrical voice doesn’t belong to one of its twin mouthpieces, but here Fiorello’s writing easily pushed through that disconnect. His personality, hopes and fears became an important element in the band’s rapidly developing sound.

These songs found a dude in his mid-20s working to understand where he fits in the world, having laid the adolescent bluster of a punk attitude to one side and realised that, actually, he does give a fuck. On Sugar In Your Gas Tank, a song that Fiorello loves to play live, that friction is plain. “If I had it in me to stop my random thoughts and my dumb dreams,” DeMakes sings. “I could deal with this nonstop spinning world.”

“Albums are a snapshot of who the band is at that particular time,” Fiorello said. “For ‘Losing Streak’ it was the first time that, while there were some jokey songs, there were some very serious songs on there. When you first realise “OK, I don't care, it’s me and my mates and we’re having a good time” things are awesome and you have your little world. But then you realise, somewhere in there, there's a much bigger world out there and you’re just a microcosm. You strain to figure out your place in that. That's ‘Losing Streak’. It’s a look back on some things, a look forward on some things. I ask a lot of questions in those songs. That was our movement forward to asking some larger questions as you get older. You should be asking those questions.”

As a broadly hopeless 16-year-old I lapped up the specifics in his writing. From my commuter town on the south coast of Wales, Less Than Jake’s music added three dimensional colour to that separate world Fiorello was investigating. The listener is there with him as things go down at 9th and Pine, they’re in the room when Doug Hastings decides that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to throw it all away. Throughout, there’s an apprehensive approach to social situations and big decisions - see 107 or Never Going Back To New Jersey - along with a dose of self-flagellation. If Fiorello felt a little out of step writing it, then there were plenty of people out there who’d later push play and feel a little out of step alongside him.

“When you’re talking about ‘Losing Streak’, and ‘Hello Rockview’, you’re asking the same questions that are universally asked,” he said. “It’s a very internal dialogue. At times very internal. But at the same time it’s like you’re talking to a friend. That’s a thing...I wrote a lot of those lyrics sitting down and talking it out with friends who passed through. They were very intimate conversations but somehow we encapsulated, with the energy of the music, them to go out further than a two or three person conversation or a conversation inside yourself.”

This is where the image of Less Than Jake as a party-only band leaves the tracks. Beneath the horns and upstrokes on ‘Losing Streak’, behind the accusations of selling out, were songs that sought to put an arm around the listener. The people in them fuck up. Just like we fuck up. Decisions get made that will have repercussions, while at other points everyone disappears into the night with a grin on their face. Seeds are also sown for themes that will recur on later records: the difference between public and private personas, self-destructive impulses, social responsibility and, above all, faith in the future. “That whole record, for me lyrically, I’m feeling it all,” Fiorello said. “Emotions get crazy.”

I only got caught skipping school once. It’s not that I was particularly good at it, more that I didn’t really do it. I was an anxious kid, much as I’d become an anxious adult, and my rebellious streak had some pretty beige boundaries. My grand plan amounted to walking out of the gates and into early afternoon freedom along with a few friends. Obviously, we were spotted immediately and hauled before our head of year, who was in the middle of teaching a lesson.

We stood in front of the class and explained that if we didn’t leave that second then we might not make it from Cardiff to Birmingham in time to see every second of Less Than Jake’s show later that night. She let us go, more out of bewilderment than anything, and promised to call our parents. Luckily for me, my old man was driving our getaway car. I remember almost every detail of that night. It’s a big nostalgic indulgence. But seeing my teenage heroes tear into Last One Out of Liberty City straight out of the gate in Brixton brought it bang up to date: there is still life in this band, still life in these songs.  

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