Interview: Less Than Jake Are the Ska Antidote to 2020

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Photo by Florian Denis

It perhaps comes as no surprise that in 2020, possibly the worst year of our modern times, ska would aggressively reassert itself in the mainstream consciousness. Ska has always been there, of course, from its origins in Jamaica in the late ’50s and becoming popular in the U.S. in the early ’80s. But there’s no denying mainstream interest and radio play dissipated in the 2010s as ska retreated back into the underground, though discussion of a fourth wave of ska has gained steam in the last couple years.

And then, in 2020, ska, perhaps knowing how much it was needed, burst back onto the scene. Skatune Network captured our hearts with their delightful covers, Goldfinger announced their first new album in three years, and 2019 tourmates Less Than Jake did the same.

No, it’s not some sort of ska conspiracy. Music tends to cycle every 10 to 15 years, Less Than Jake’s resident saxophonist and backing vocalist Peter “JR” Wasilewski points out. You can pinpoint the era in which you become aware of ska. Was it the ’60s, with Millie Small’s U.K. and U.S. hit “My Boy Lollipop”? Was it the ’70s, with The Specials and Madness? How about the ’80s, with Fishbone, The Toasters, and The Bosstones? It’s very likely the ’90s and Less Than Jake, Goldfinger, and Reel Big Fish who first got you into ska, but if you’re younger, perhaps it’s We Are the Union and Skatune Network. It never went away, Wasilewski says. 

“Ska music was always an uplifting type of music, so the fact it would come back during the midst of one of the darkest periods in modern world history isn’t that surprising,” Wasilewski said by phone the week Less Than Jake’s new album, Silver Linings, is releasing (out today 12/11/20). “It puts people into that time where they were at a show watching Less Than Jake or watching Goldfinger or the Bosstones. Maybe it lifts their spirits. In broad strokes, it’s unbelievable it’s come back and that people are excited by it, but it’s not that shocking if you look at the actual genealogy of it all.”

In 2020, heavyweights like Less Than Jake and Goldfinger, on one hand, and rising stars like Skatune Network, on the other, have met at a perfect point in time to revive ska once again. But there have been other signs of its resurgence, too. In the last few years, bands like Mr. Incommunicado, The Steady 45’s, The Prizefighters, and The Interrupters have introduced an entirely new generation to the sounds of ska, blending ska punk and 2 tone influences. In 2018, Mike Sosinski started Bad Time Records to primarily sign and promote current ska punk artists, including but not limited to Catbite, Kill Lincoln, Grey Matter, Still Alive, and Japan’s Free Kick. 

Skanktral Ska Hotel earned some attention—and some ignominy—in 2016 with their ska cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and they were back for more in 2020 with their ska cover of blink-182’s “Voyeur” for the cover comp It’s Never Over Til It’s Done. (If 2020 is the year of ska, it’s also the year of blink-182). And Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 getting re-released on PS4 and for the first time ever on Xbox let those of us who are…no longer young relive their glory days set to the soundtrack of Less Than Jake’s “Bomb Drop,” Reel Big Fish’s “She’s Famous Now,” and, of course, Goldfinger’s “Superman.”

“When we heard our song on [THPS] we were like, ‘This is rad,’ but we didn’t realize how many people were playing that game and how it would impact their lives,” Wasilewski said. “Music is an interesting art because you’ll hear something and it will put you right back in a certain place.”

But with their new album, Silver Linings, out today —their first on Pure Noise Records— Less Than Jake are doing more than just showing people a good time—though that, of course, is the goal. They’re allowing themselves to be vulnerable, letting down the shroud and opening up about their personal lives, relationships, and losses. On standout single “Lie to Me,” which is as good as anything Less Than Jake have ever put out, bassist/vocalist Roger Lima sings, “The flames we hold the closest burn the worst.”

The album title, funny enough, was actually chosen before 2020 really began to wreak its havoc. In the past, Less Than Jake had sometimes decided on an album title before they’d even written one song. This time, they considered the full body of work that is these 12 songs and tried to find a common thread or meaning within them. The working title was The Hero Instinct, but then trombonist Buddy Schaub suggested Silver Linings, which immediately stuck.

“People always think of negative connotations to silver linings, but ultimately it’s not about looking for them,” Wasilewski said. “Because if you’re in a bad enough state, and I’m sure everybody now has really felt that, you’re desperate to find a silver lining. I don’t think it’s about finding them; it’s about taking a moment and appreciating how much those silver linings mean and how they can take something that is so destructive to your emotions and flip it.”

As for Less Than Jake’s sound in 2020, the word urgency came up multiple times in conversation with Wasilewski. In 2018, Matt Yonker joined the band as drummer after doing “every job for us you can imagine” for 20 years, Wasilewski says. It’s Yonker drumming on Silver Linings. And while he says it’s not fair to draw comparisons between Yonker and former drummer Vinnie Fiorello, Wasilewski acknowledges Yonker’s extensive knowledge of music theory is also a strength he brings to the band. “Matt brings a sense of urgency to us playing,” Wasilewski says. “He allows us more flexibility, musically speaking.”

Yonker joined Less Than Jake right after the final Warped Tour in 2018, and while he performed with the band on their 2019 tour, the five-piece is chomping at the bit to get back onstage. Ska occupies a distinctive space within the sphere of live music; while listening to Silver Linings at home this weekend is sure to put a smile on your face, there’s nothing like skanking the night away at a show. Less Than Jake feel that deeply. 

“What will it be like when we come back?” Wasilewski ponders. “Will it be sold out, packed places, half-filled venues? I don’t know. After this last year, I am never going to complain about being on tour until I’m back on tour.” In the meantime, Less Than Jake, who are entering their fourth decade of existence (feel old yet?), will focus on the things they can control: online shows, new kinds of releases, new ways to survive in the 2020s. 

To wit, today, to celebrate the release of Silver Linings, they’ll be putting on a (virtual) party. A worldwide livestream, “Late Night with Less Than Jake” will have “doors” at 6 p.m. ET. and will be available to watch on demand from Dec. 12 to Dec. 14 at 6 p.m. ET. 

“It’s not like a typical Less Than Jake show, but it is like a typical Less Than Jake show,” Wasilewski teases. “I don’t want to give away the excitement of it all, but we’re taking some risks from what we’d normally do.” Fans can expect to hear some tracks from the new album as well as all-timers from the band’s entire catalogue. 

When Wasilewski was growing up and watching late-night shows on TV, his grandmother would walk by, look at him, and say, “They wouldn’t stay up late and watch you.” “It made me laugh,” he says. “But it’s true!” But today, Less Than Jake fans around the world desperate for an infusion of joyous ska will do just that.

Michelle Bruton | @MichelleBruton

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