Before signing with the majors, pop-ska rockers Less Than Jake managed to do pretty well on their own.
In years of action off the big-time music-business radar screen, they cultivated a distinctive, high-impact sound and built a reputation as scrappy do-it-yourselfers. They sold 25,000 copies of the indie record Pezcore and attracted fans so loyal they're known as the Less Than Jake Army.
However, members of that Army may be finding cause for concern. Now that Less Than Jake are backed by major label Capitol Records for their current album, Hello Rockview, a few foot soldiers may be wondering whether the band -- like so many others who've hit the big leagues -- is in danger of selling out.
If drummer Vinnie Fiorello has any say in the matter, that won't be happening with Less Than Jake. As he sees it, music is too much of a cutthroat business for the band to buy into it. "It's about greed," he said. "Here's the dirty little secret: If you knew how much bands paid for their T-shirts and how much [they charged fans for them], you'd be appalled."
"The music business has no loyalty," added Fiorello, 28, who's also the band's principal lyricist. "[It's filled with] jump-shippers. [That's] one of the more depressing things about being in it."
Less Than Jake members cite belief in their music as their reason for being in the entertainment business. They feel they've carved a unique niche in the current, third wave of ska, the Jamaican off-beat dance music that began in the late '50s and comprises bits of R&B, blues, jazz, swing and calypso.
"We started out as a pop-punk band with horns," Fiorello said. "We were fans of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Operation Ivy and the Clash, but we wanted to do something different. [Our music is] fast, hyperactive, sugary pop-punk. We made a sub-genre out of it. The Bosstones are more rock; Operation Ivy [has] no horns. ... What we were doing was new. We're the Ramones with a horn section. [A few bands] have copped it a little bit, like Reel Big Fish."
Word from the Capitol Records camp is that the label will let Jake be Jake, creatively speaking. "[They] achieved a certain level of success [with] Pezcore. We admired how they built this up on their own, [and] felt we could spring off of what they'd established by staying true to their vision," said Craig Aaronson, the director of A&R who signed the band. "With the current album, Hello Rockview, we feel we can spread them further to a larger audience."
But Capitol bean-counters may not be entirely happy with one of the band's recent, very Less-Than-Jake-like moves.
Even as Hello Rockview, which contains the track "History Of A Boring Town" (RealAudio excerpt), is being sold in stores, the band is making it available for free download on its Web site -- a move that could hit Capitol in the bottom line.
Of the free offering -- which also includes the band's previous Capitol album, Losing Streak, and the pre-Capitol Pezcore disc -- Fiorello said that, as always, the group likes to do things its own way and help its fans.
The history of Less Than Jake began seven years ago, when New Jersey native Fiorello (a.k.a. Vinnie Lee) and lead singer/guitarist Chris Demakes, now 25, began making music in Port Charlotte, Fla. When Demakes went to college in Gainesville, the band's current home base, Fiorello followed him. Demakes and bassist Roger Manganelli put Fiorello's words to music. Once the core trio jelled, a horn section was added, consisting of trombonist Buddy, sax player Derron and trombonist Pete (the bandmembers try hard to avoid divulging their last names to keep an "ordinary-guy" perspective). According to the band's official Web site (www.lessthanjake.com) it has released 50 records, counting singles.
Musically, there are some changes unfolding -- though whether they're related to the band's affiliation with a major label is an open question. The new Capitol album is more power-pop than the first, or, as Fiorello put it: "More the Plimsouls, instead of Screeching Weasels."
"You gotta mix things up; you can't make Losing Streak, Part Two," Fiorello reasoned. "It's a little bit more thought-out and methodical than [our music] used to be. The songwriting and harmonies are more on top of the game.
"The fan reaction has been amazing," Fiorello added.
That reaction will be crucial in the coming months if Less Than Jake are to heighten their profile on radio. Although the band's sales have been healthy for a "populist" group -- Losing Streak sold nearly 270,000 copies -- modern-rock radio has not flooded the airwaves with previous LTJ records.
"When a band becomes more popular, they tend to lose some of their uniqueness and intrigue," Bruce Thomson, webmaster of Bruce's World o' Less Than Jake site (www.mindtrap.com/lessthanjake), said. "The price on their merchandise tends to go up, and, as a fan, you don't feel as attached to the band."
Less Than Jake's reputation has been based largely on touring. They've done the Ska Against Racism Tour and the Vans Warped Tour, are now headlining clubs and theaters in the U.S., and are scheduled to play the next leg of Vans Warped beginning New Year's Eve in New Zealand.
The band thinks the people that pay to see it are just "jake," in reference to the name of the band. "In the 1920s, 'jake' was a gangster term," Fiorello explained. "[My family] had an English bulldog named Jake that we treated like a king. Everyone else [got] less than Jake."