Less Than Jake's Chris DeMakes on the band's Capitol Records years
An interview about major labels' brief interest in ska in the 90s.
Hello! I threw my first SELLOUT event at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn this past Saturday with Thursday’s Geoff Rickly a.k.a. the screaming guy on the cover of the book. The event was scheduled to start at 2 PM. I got there a few minutes early and sat at the bar. Around 2:15 I checked the time and realized no one was there. I figured it was simply due to me being very unlikable and my book not being any good. Then the bartender said, “Hey there’s a line of people waiting to get in. Should we open the doors?” Turns out, people did in fact want to hear about a book on a fine Saturday afternoon!
Thanks so much to everyone who came. We filled the place and sold every copy in the house. What an honor to be on the Vitus stage, the hallowed metal ground where so many legendary shows have happened. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, I’ll be doing it again tonight with Jonah Ray at Permanent Records Roadhouse. No tickets required. Just show up and hopefully we will be able to fit everyone.
Speaking of Thursday, the band just announced that they’re dusting off the cob webs with a stacked tour supported by Cursive, Jeremy Enigk, and the Appleseed Cast. Is this my doing? Is this The SELLOUT Effect in action? Did I manifest this with my little words?
Oh and guess what. SELLOUT debuted on Bookshop’s indie store bestseller list in its first week at NUMBER FUCKING FOUR, beating both Dave Grohl and Katie Couric. As a result, though, Bookshop is currently out of stock. You all have really helped shatter booksellers’ expectations of how interested people are in reading a serious documentation of this overlooked scene. Not to get on my high horse about it, but I feel like we really planted a fucking flag in the book publishing industry here. Take THAT, celebrity vanity projects! Lesser books bow down before SELLOUT! Anyway, SELLOUT is still available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books a Million, etc. And my merch is still well stocked over at my store.
Alright, let’s get to today’s post. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been trying to expand the stories of some of the periphery characters in SELLOUT. I’ve spoken with Anti-Flag’s Chris Barker and Texas Is the Reason’s Norman Brannon about their major-label experiences. Today I’ve got an interview with Less Than Jake frontman Chris DeMakes.
DeMakes appears in SELLOUT’s chapter about Blink-182, since he was a fly on the Warped Tour tent during their rise. But while I connected them to Blink in the book, Less Than Jake actually shares more in common with Jimmy Eat World, since the two bands were signed to Capitol Records around the same time. The label even made a promo cassette for the two bands—three LTJ songs on one side, three JEW songs on the other. So how did this ska-punk band from Florida land themselves on a major label? I talked to DeMakes about those years. We also chatted a bit about his own book, Blast from the Past, in which he tackles Less Than Jake’s history, one photo at a time.
You said that Less Than Jake and Jimmy Eat World had the same A&R guy at Capitol. I’m assuming that would have been Craig Aaronson?
Chris DeMakes: Yes.
How did he find you?
So, there was a scout underneath at Craig named Loren Israel. Loren had heard a song of ours. Loren called all over at southeast United States record stores and finally found a ten-song sampler cassette at some store in Atlanta and said, “Look, I’ll give you my credit card number over the phone. I need someone to overnight this to me.” The guy at the record store was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Loren gets the cassette and he dubs the four best songs on it for Craig. A week or two later, he got a phone call. It was Craig, hysterical, like “Dude, dude, the song that says ‘soundcheck,’ who is that?” And Loren was like, “Yeah, that’s that band I keep telling you about, you dumbass. That’s Less Than Jake.” So he wanted to sign us. That would've been March of ‘95. I came home from delivering pizzas in Gainesville, Florida. I saw my answering machine was blinking. There was a message from someone saying, “Yeah, I'm looking for the band Less Than Jake. My name is Craig Aaronson, I'm an A&R rep for Capitol Records.” And I’m like, “Who the fuck is yanking my chain here? Is this one of my friends being a dumbass?” Lo and behold, it was real. Craig chased us around the United States on tour that whole year before finally signing us in November of ‘95. He was just the biggest champion of the band.
How old were you then?
I was 21.
You and Jimmy were on a very similar track. They’d put out just one self-released album and Craig tracked them down when they were 18, 19. In the same way, too. Loren tracked down a seven-inch they were on with Christie Front Drive.
It was crazy because we were starting to see the inner workings. We had no idea how any of this shit went down. These scouts and these A&R people, at the end of the day, yeah, it was about units and sales and numbers and all that shit, but most of the guys I met loved music. They eat, breathe, and sleep music 24/7, 365. They were constantly looking for talent. Who is the next unsigned, unknown band? We were out in L.A. and getting scouted, Craig took us to a Dodgers baseball game. That's back when you’d get wined and dined on the Capitol card. We got taken to Universal Studios, Magic Mountain, we were eating at $50 a plate restaurants.
Did you get the free CD tour of Capitol?
Oh, that was every time we went in the building. We’d raid the building and walk out with backpacks full of shit. [Laughs] We stayed at some place called Shutters in Santa Monica. Ozzy was there. He was recording Ozzmosis. We saw him wandering around a couple of times. It was insane. Every kid’s dream. We lived it on every level. Jimmy was right there. Then they got dropped from Capitol, Craig got a job at Warner Bros. Then of course Bleed American blew up, which kinda sucked for Craig because he hadn’t had a bona fide hit. He’d go on to have hits with My Chemical Romance, Avenged Sevenfold, and a number of other bands. But Craig re-signed us at Warners in 2002. So we had a couple of major-label runs and they worked out great for us. I'm sure you know but Craig passed away in 2014. My son’s middle name is Aaronson.
Oh, no kidding. That’s so sweet. I also wanted to ask you: This conflict where people were afraid of being called sellouts, like a punk faux pas, did that ever factor into your thinking when Capitol was interested in you?
Well, I mean, we had a song called “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts” which was kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing before we even had Capitol knocking on our door. I hated it. My band wouldn't even let me do interviews in the 90s because my position is: Is Michael Jordan a sellout? He just signed a ten-million dollar contract with Chicago. How’s that different? He made ten million because he’s fucking worth it. I wanna live in a mansion in Beverly Hills sandwiched between Ozzy and Jon Bon Jovi. Fuck you.
So you didn’t have any punk hang-ups?
Not me! Our band did. We wrestled with it. We were getting courted by Capitol, and those guys were sending letters to Fat Wreck Chords, wanting to get signed. I was like, “What? I like Fat Wreck, but this is apples and oranges. It’s Madison Square Garden versus the Viper Room. It’s not even in the same league. Why are we not going for the gold here?” It wasn't just our band. I think most bands in the punk world were so brainwashed that they had to act a certain way. I never called myself a punk rocker. I was just some dude in a band who liked punk rock.
I don’t mean to keep comparing you to Jimmy Eat World, but there is a big parallel there. They told me once they went to Capitol, the people there didn’t understand how to market them well. Any gains they made were off their own hustle.
Three years before, the label was pushing men who looked like women and the 80s hair poof. Then Nirvana hit a short four years before we got signed. They didn't know what to do with us. Loren Israel was probably the closest thing there to a punk rocker. He liked the Clash and the Undertones. No disrespect to anyone there, but they were pen-pushers. They were crunching numbers, trying to sell records. Then here comes this ragtag band from Gainesville, Florida. We were crass as hell. We were young and wouldn't shower for days and smoked a ton of grass. We were kids. But even though we were young and partying, our band was on it. We knew what we wanted to do, so we marketed ourselves.
So I can totally relate to what Jimmy was saying. [Capitol] would come up with ideas sometimes that were like… I remember we showed up one time and they had a stylist. I'm wearing my shorts and my Operation Ivy shirt and there was this woman there wanting to put makeup on us and she had shiny clothes with studs on ’em. We laughed this woman out of the building. In hindsight, we probably could’ve sold a few more records if we’d just worked with the brass a little more. But we were not putting that shit on. That, to me, was selling out. Being on a major and playing arenas, that wasn’t selling out, but being who you weren’t, that was. If you listen to those records on Capitol, those records are who we were.
Did Capitol help you with singles and things like that?
The record doesn’t sound great. How could you get that record on the radio? It’s a punk record. I don’t say that disparagingly against myself. But if you listen to a track like “Here in Your Bedroom” by Goldfinger, Rancid’s “Ruby Soho,” and then you listen to Losing Streak, I think there are songs on it that are as good as those songs but we basically made a $100,000 demo. In terms of getting the songs on radio, Capitol tried, but I think out of the 30 bands in ’96, ’97 they were trying to get on the radio, we were probably number 29.
Number 30 was Jimmy Eat World.
[Laughs] Yeah. And we knew it, but we didn't care because we had the machine behind us. We had our CDs in Tower Records and we were making money. We were selling out every place we were going—800- to 1,000-seat venues. Selling merch that we couldn't stock fast enough. A lot of bands get on majors and they're disappointed their tour support ran out and they're not on the radio. Thank God it wasn’t a 360 deal like it is today because we were making all the door money, all the merch, and that was where the money was. So anything else we could get from Capitol was gravy.
How long did you stay on Capitol?
We got signed in November of ’95 and we made Losing Streak in ’96 and Hello Rockview in ’98. We made a third record for them in the spring of 2000 called Borders and Boundaries. Right before the making of that record, Craig Aaronson and a few marketing people had left. The label was getting restructured. Gary Gersh, the president of the label, left. Craig followed Tom Whalley over to Warner Bros. Depending on who you talked to, we either got dropped or we left on our own volition. We wanted to leave. We didn't want to be there anymore. We knew the writing was on the wall. So we took the record and went to Fat Wreck Chords.
Was that legally complicated?
No, not at all, because we were an afterthought at Capitol. It wasn’t like the Foo Fighters or Green Day were leaving. We weren’t keeping the lights on. There are a couple songs that are hits among our fans, and if they’d have gotten pushed at radio properly, they could’ve been hits on radio. But because it went to Fat Wreck Chords, it had punk cred! [Laughs]
Looking back at the experience, are you glad with the decision to do two records with Capitol? If you could go back, would you do it again?
Oh yeah. I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn't change anything about my career or my life. The only thing I wish I could go back and redo, and I've talked about this with Hoppus, is that I wish I could go back and soak in the moment more. It went by so fast. It was such a blur. Things were happening so quickly. And the things I thought were important back then turned out not to be important. And isn't that just life, right? [Laughs] I’m glad we didn't have one hit in the 90s, because I don't know if I’d be talking to you now. After almost 30 years, people still want to see the band play. And what a great position to be in.
When you have a hit single or a fan-favorite album, it seems hard to come down from that with grace. You know you won’t hit that peak again and it’s all downhill. The artists that seem to have the best careers are the ones that did pretty well for a long time.
Yeah. A lot of weird things happen with huge success. Look at Blink. The last 15 years of their career have been all over the place in terms of Tom and that whole thing. It’s not just three guys in the band when you get to that point. There’s lawyers, there’s managers, there’s label people, there’s the t-shirt people, the truck drivers. It’s an organization that’s bigger than who you are. And to keep that together is enormous.
Tell me about your book.
It’s a picture book with stories from each picture, from my whole career in Less Than Jake. Basically, I’ve read every rock autobiography over the years. I just love them. Everyone from Meat Loaf to Mariah Carey to Slayer, I've read ’em all. So I've always wanted to write a book. But when I started writing, it always sounded like every other book. I struggled but I knew I wanted to do it. I’ve saved one of everything Less Than Jake did over the years. I have a museum of Less Than Jake. I have everything on shelves. I was starting to organize my basement with all my stuff. One day, I said, “I'm gonna post one thing a day on Instagram until I surpass my bassist with followers.” Our sax player commented and said, “This is really good but you won’t make it two weeks.” So I was like, “OK, I’m gonna show you, you son of a bitch.” I did it for one year. December 5, 2018 was my first post. I did it for 365 days. Probably three weeks into it, in late 2018, I woke up one day and it dawned on me: I'm writing my book one picture and one story at a time. It’s gonna follow no chronological order and it’s gonna be insane.
You said you read a lot of music books. Which ones are among your favorites?
Meat Loaf’s book is hilarious. It’s so funny it had me laughing out loud at points. There’s one part where he was talking about being at the height of his fame in the 70s, and he’d be in his hotel room and there was a knock at the door. And he was like, “Ah cool, my chicken parmigiana is here from room service.” He’d go to the door and there would be scantily clad women there wanting to fuck him. And he was like, “Go away!” He wasn’t interested in any of the rock star trappings. He didn’t give a shit about the sex, the drugs, the alcohol. He just wanted to eat.
Total respect. As a man that prioritizes his chicken parm, total respect to Meat Loaf.
[Laughs] His book is great. I did read Ted Templeman’s book that I really enjoyed. He was Van Halen’s producer all those years. Also, one that was written like 20 years ago was Davey Lee Roth’s Crazy from the Heat. It’s total Roth. Everything is probably embellished to the Nth degree, but it’s hilarious.