Less Than Jake guitarist on 25 years in punk rock heaven
By Gary Graff
March 3, 2017
Twenty-five years ago, the members of Less Than Jake came together in Gainesville, Florida, fusing punk, ska and pop together into a sound that’s both catchy and provocative — and that’s proven to have legs. Starting in 1995, the quintet has released eight studio albums and nine EPs — the latest of which, Sound The Alarm, came out in February. Chris DeMakes has been at the front of it all since the beginning with co-founders Roger Lima and Vinnie Fiorello, driving Less Than Jake’s songs with his energetic and propulsive guitar — a lead style that nevertheless holds down the groove in the tradition of the best rhythm players. Meaty and muscular, DeMakes favors substance over flash, and abundant energy above all else.
FGPO: So does it feel like Less Than Jake has been around for 25 years?
DeMakes: It feels like 25 minutes sometimes; it feels like 250 years other times. It’s weird; the time has definitely gone by in the blink of an eye, a really colorful blink of an eye. I’ve gotten to see the world, meet some amazing people, do things, what have you. We’ve gotten used to that over the years — and something to deal with, like be careful what you wish for… [laughs.]
FGPO: How did the group arrive at this particular sound?
DeMakes: I started getting into punk rock in the late ‘80s, when I just started high school and I met our drummer [Fiorello]. By the time I got to college a couple of years later — the University of Florida, where I met the rest of the band — punk rock had kind of changed my life. I was in a town where there were a couple of punk rock clubs, and bands were always coming through. We were just immersed in the culture of what was going on in Gainesville and we started writing these three-chord punk rock/ska songs. We wanted to play some shows and maybe record some of the songs we wrote. That was it. There was no grand plan.
FGPO: Even within that scene you must have been a unique kind of band.
DeMakes: We definitely stuck out like a sore thumb in northern Florida in the early ‘90s. It was right in the middle of the Nirvana/Pearl Jam grunge thing. Every band was trying to sound like them or just was just really outdated or were playing really bad ‘80s hair metal stuff, and here we are. We definitely stuck out amongst everything — which we didn’t mind at all.
FGPO: Was there ever any trouble at gigs for being that different?
DeMakes: Oh yeah [laughs]. We were playing redneck bars in north Florida — you tell me. There were some hostile crowds, certainly. And, of course, mix that with alcohol and us being 19 years old, so we were stupid and would shoot off at the mouth. Some nights didn’t end well. But that was where we came from, that whole punk thing.
FGPO: Gainesville has a pretty rich musical history, especially in classic rock with Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, Don Felder and so many others. Was that something you felt as you were growing up and getting started in music yourself?
DeMakes: It was just, without sounding corny, a magical place to be part of in the early ‘90s. I grew up in a small town about three hours south, a small retirement community. It wasn’t liberal. It wasn’t a college town. It wasn’t any of the things Gainesville was, so I was pretty sheltered. Then I move three hours north into the most wonderful place in the world where there were shows every night, bands coming in all the time, and a great sense of music community in general. It was the perfect storm in which to form a band.
FGPO: How did you get started playing guitar?
DeMakes: I really started playing around the time the band started, when I was 18. I grew up in a musical home. My dad was a guitar player. I grew up with a guitar and I knew some chords, but it wasn’t until I went to college; my brother got a guitar for his birthday, and I took it with me when I went to college. I think I auditioned for two or three bands who were playing just really dated stuff; one of them sounded like Queensryche. And I was like: “Ah, I’m not feeling this. Screw it. If I want to do the music I’m hearing in my head, I’ve got to figure it out.” So I just started writing songs and putting choruses together. That’s how it started.
FGPO: Did you have any models or influences for your playing?
DeMakes: Tons, starting from the heavy metal days like [Metallica’s] James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine from Megadeth and going into a lot of ska stuff. Nate Albert from the [Mighty Mighty] Bosstones, he had a killer, killer style. Stephen Egerton from the Descendents, he’s amazing.
FGPO: You seem to make your guitar very present in Less Than Jake’s sound, but kind of understated, and the horns do a lot of the heavy lifting.
DeMakes: It’s minimalist, yeah. It’s what fits the songs. I’ve never been overly flashy or too crazy; I always said I know how to play three chords and play them pretty well, and that’s enough.
FGPO: What was your dad like as a player?
DeMakes: He played a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. He played a solo act for a long time, then my mom joined him and they sang together for a long time. He retired about 10 years ago. A couple of years ago we did Less Than Jake karaoke at one of our shows; my parents came up and sang and killed it. The audience went nuts.
FGPO: Less Than Jake’s latest release is an EP. Why that rather than a full album?
DeMakes: The honest answer is we were on the road a ton last year and we planned to do a full-length, but got to the point we realized we weren’t going to have enough time to record a full-length but had to do something ’cause we wanted new music out in 2017. So it’s these seven songs and then get out and tour. There was other stuff, but this is the best out of the bunch, so we picked those. It was going to be six songs and it turned into seven, and we’re happy with the way it came out.
FGPO: Sound The Alarm sounds like you’re making a statement.
DeMakes: It’s a good question, but, no, it’s a lyric on the first song, “Call To Arms.” We were just searching for what to name the EP and that song was one of the last things we did so we honed in on that lyric and said: “That’s cool. We should call the record that.” We didn’t have any intention of political leanings, but if someone wants to take it that way, that’s awesome. It’s punk rock, after all. [laughs.]
FGPO: What’s next?
DeMakes: I know that the goal is to record a full-length this year — at this point I’m not sure when. We’re booked up right now through June and the rest of the year’s getting penciled in, so we’re crazy. Being a band for 25 years, the more we keep chugging along the more people know about us and things are just going really well. We’re getting offers to play and do cool and interesting tours all the time, and we’re not getting any younger so we’re taking them on. So hopefully we’ll have time to record a full-length. It’s just so crazy.