Less Than Jake

Less Than Jake

with Super 04

Club Quattro, Osaka, Japan • October 8, 2000

The later half of the ’90s turned an underground music into the soundtrack for endless car, taco, and “Gen-X” commercials. The generic capitalist beat was so strong and so bad, it overkilled the scene. The fate of the music and its culture is still debatable. But who could forget that cute little talking Chihuahua? And who could forget ska, a music with decades of cultural wealth, internationalization, and psychotic die-hard fans?

The scene and the music changed a lot during the past decade. A lot of killer bands came out and a lot bit the dust. With the swelling interest in the music and scene came a powerful new sound that peeled out of the tradition and essentially fought its way to become the leader in the “new breed” or the “third wave” of the taco-fed ’90s ska boom. Ska-core. Ska-punk. Whatever you want to call it.

One of the bands that lived through the whole thing is still out there kicking ass today, but you couldn’t call them a ska (or ska-core) band, exactly. And they wouldn’t care what you called them (“hairy motherfuckers” seems appropriate to me). The truth is, this is a band that never placed much importance on names, genres, or styles. They’ve survived about a decade of personnel shifts, foot fetishes, and a record label deflating its support all because they’re good at what they do and they like what they do, and that, my headbanging friends, is ROCK!

Are they just a rock band? Nah, not exactly. There’s elements of punk, hardcore, heavy metal, ska, and a touch of coprophalagous-devil worshipping in there, so to pin them down would be tough to do. But they have a character sound that is all their own, one almost everyone recognizes whether they know it is Less Than Jake or not. They’re a hard, fast, and fun band who seems to be smitten with Iron Maiden graphics (judging by their shirts) and glam rock. Just like a glam band, Less Than Jake rocks balls out. Unlike a glam band, no one really holds their lighters in the air at their shows, but if they did, you can bet that LTJ would take that flame and keep it burning in their hearts where it’ll never go out, baby!

It was no surprise to learn that Less Than Jake was playing shows in Japan — they’ve got a fan base over here. You’ll see someone wearing an LTJ shirt or a sticker sometimes. Occasionally, I hear their horns and that stickity beat coming from some hipster shop. My best run-in with their music in Japan was at my high school’s (I’m a fucking teacher) “sports day,” a track and field event, when some kid sabotaged the “1812 Overture” with a Less Than Jake CD, blasting it over the stadium’s loudspeakers! Excellent.

But I’d never been to any “punk” shows in Japan, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I recruited the help of one of my evilest pupils, Suguru, a hardcore motherfucker if there ever was one. He and I hooked up and bum-rushed the show. Osaka got rocked! That’s all I need to tell you.

Super 04, an unheard-of Japanese group, took the stage and lukewarmed the crowd with their overdone, American-sounding hard funky core. The addition of the sax player was nice, but the DJ? Jeez, that’s both original and inaudible. The crowd moved not, and the band’s energy waned. I felt kind of sad for these guys. I stood at the bar and drank “sparkling malt liquor.”

Everyone in the club finished their drinks and smokes and ran for the “dance floor.” I realized I was the only person holding a cup on the floor — apparently there’s an unwritten rule about the drinking/smoking policy at live shows in Japan.

The flame-jobbed Less Than Jake banner sagged at the back of the stage as white and red strobes flashed epileptically. Some funked-up samples started playing, a little Elvis warm-up music, too, and then the Devil himself jumped out onto the stage and the crowd started cheering. Chris took the stage in blue sunglasses and a lovely white wig ala Patty Duke, then the rest of the band came out, and, oh shit, it began.

Sneakers squeaked, pores swelled, and a tight-packed crowd of hundreds of Japanese kids suddenly went totally apeshit! Everyone was jumping and moshing around and yelling and then the stage diving began. For a brief instant, I forgot about how long it’d been since I’d been to a punk show. I forgot about my sparkling malt liquor. I forgot about my nice shoes. I jumped in, beat along, and completely FORGOT that I was taller than every single person in the crowd until a foot slammed into my right ear. A heavy, black faintness in my head consumed me, and I was done.

I like my nice shoes, drinking lots of beer without getting it knocked around, and not having to sweat at shows. OK, so maybe I felt a little bit old, but the back of the club was much better. I could see the whole band, hear them really well, and watch Japanese people act like fucking freaks on a crack binge, which they did for close to two hours as LTJ went buck wild for about thirty songs. A great set for a Japanese show, and on a Sunday night? Shit. Unheard of.

“This is the second time we’ve come to Japan,” Vinnie, the drummer, told me later. “It’s been really cool. This time’s better than the first — that was a little weird. You know, culture shock, I guess. I like Osaka, too, it’s like San Francisco, kind of.” [Well, I disagree with that, it’s more like Detroit, or maybe just like a big fucking factory with people living in it. Oh, yeah, that’s Detroit.]

Now, I’d gotten separated from Suguru, but that’s OK. He’s young and strong enough, to handle the front of the stage. He gave me a report later on. “How was it up there, man?” I asked. “FUCKING GOOD!” he said. “Many many people stage dive!” Yeah, I figured. I occasionally saw him flying through the air thrashing about. I was amazed at how manic-violent some people were getting during the show. They weren’t just stage diving — they were punching, kicking, and screaming. They weren’t just moshing, but running (individually) from one end of the club to the other in a wild circle of hatred and fury, punching and flying their sweaty shirts and launching themselves off unsuspecting shoulders. Not just the boys, there were tiny girls who weighed less than 90 pounds kicking shit up, too. I’m going to assume that Less Than Jake represents relief for a rather repressed group of teenagers in Japan, as 90% of the crowd was probably under the age of 20, and 80% of the club was going completely mad.

Musical highlights of the show? I can’t name any. As usual, the band was incredibly solid and tight, with the (double-trombone action) horn section, guitar, bass, and drums all coming in and out perfectly. The man in the red suit with the skull mask was integral in getting this audience to fuck shit up. He has the hottest job in the world, but it doesn’t keep him from shakin’ his moneymaker. “You know, he used to dress as a clown for our shows,” I was informed. That’s fucking cruel, you bastards!

My favorite part of the show was watching the crowd react when stickers (sponsored by Napster) were thrown out by the devil, and seeing the kids line up for autographs after the show. Mania. Backstage was pretty chilled out, as the group was departing for the UK the next morning. After some dates there, it was off to tour the US in November with Bon Jovi.

“It’s gonna be all stadium shows,” Vinnie exclaimed calmly. “Somewhere around 20,000 people a show! But our biggest show ever was in Canada on the Warped Tour. It was fucking unbelievable, too big.”

Yeah, but Bon Jovi? Sounds like fun, but not really the best matched bands to play together. What about that whole “punk” thing, too? “Fuck it, man,” Chris said. “If you got a call to open for Bon Jovi, wouldn’t you? Someone actually started a petition online to get us out of the tour with Bon Jovi!”

OK, but back to being underground and independent and all the shit-controversy that occasionally surrounds Less Than Jake. Starting out as a ska-core band that played parties around the student ghetto in Gainesville, Florida, they surprised a shitload of people by getting signed to Capitol Records. But they deserved it, they worked their asses off touring constantly and putting out tons of shit. Many said the Capitol deal was selling out, but they never seemed capable of doing that and, in the end, did a good job of staying true to their profession of making music. And now they’re out. The deal is over.

“We didn’t sell 300,000 records or whatever, ‘cuz we’re on Capitol. It’s because we’ve got a great fan base and we tour a lot and people bought our records. It doesn’t matter what label we are on.” And so, the band was able to buy their latest release out of the clutches of Capitol, who, since their signing, only wants to support more “urban” acts and ones getting playtime on MTV. Less Than Jake’s new home is Fat Wreck Chords, and everyone in the band seems pleased about that.

My man Suguru was thrilled to get backstage and drink Mountain Dew for the first time and meet the band. Every other word out of his mouth was fuck, and I felt a great sense of pride in my pupil, my amigo. Using him as my Japanese liaison, I asked him how LTJ compared to other shows he’s seen in Japan (most recently Green Day at a summer festival). “ICHIBAN PSYCHO! They’re the number one, best. Their show was better than all of Summer Sonic Festival” — a 12 hour “alternative” music fest in Japan. He told everyone in the band that they were “fucking good” and he’s right, they are.

The thing about Less Than Jake is that they really, really seem to be enjoying what they do. They don’t just fucking play a show, but they live it. They are the show. They get the audience to sing along, they make kids dance on stage, and they make you feel like you’re in the group. Every guy in that band looks at the audience directly in the eyes and plays directly to you. It’s fucking cool.

So with the end of the Capitol deal, Less Than Jake moves on through another transition in their lives and the music scene of the underworld. But nothing really changes: They’re gonna keep on putting shit out, keep on touring round the clock, and keep on kicking ass and rocking, maybe even harder than Bon Jovi.

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