Ska has always had fanatical haters. In the ’60s and ’70s, the hard-rock cognoscenti dismissed ska as a frilly Jamaican creation. In the ’80s, the metal militia sneered at ska’s seeming softness. In the ’90s, punk rock’s power structure aimed much of its self-destructive venom at ska — “Ska Sucks,” a cult 1994 hit from Canadian radicals Propagandhi, pretty much says it all. And today, the Internet is full of anti-ska venom. But somehow, ska keeps skankin’ on. In fact, nearly every pioneer of the genre — The Skatalites, Fishbone, The Toasters, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Slackers — is still active today.
One homegrown keeper of the flame is Gainesville’s Less Than Jake, which celebrate their 20th anniversary this summer. Like other genre holdouts, they’ve maintained their snarky sense of humor, recording TV theme-song covers, playing up their love of all things Pez, and even pre-empting their own move to Capitol Records with the hit song “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts.” After countless music industry ups and downs and enough international tours to film a rockumentary, Less Than Jake started their own record label, Sleep It Off, in 2007. Since then, the label has re-released old LTJ classics and served as a home for the band’s recent string of EPs. Folio Weekly chatted with founding drummer Vince Fiorello about life in Gainesville and the debate over proper ska nomenclature.
Folio Weekly: Less Than Jake marks your 20th anniversary this year. Did you ever foresee the band lasting this long?
Vince Fiorello: No one ever thinks that what they start has staying power. It’s only after you learn a few lessons and travel a few miles that you can start to see over the horizon line.
F.W.: Do you view 20 years as a reason to celebrate or just as affirmation of all your hard work?
V.F.: Twenty years of any one particular thing is always reason to celebrate. I’ve gotten to do what I love for two decades, making great friends and seeing the world a dozen times over. I feel lucky and celebrate that whenever I can.
F.W.: When Less Than Jake started out, was there ever any grander ambition beyond having fun?
V.F.: Two people started with an idea in my parents’ spare bedroom, then progressed step by step. Of course, you always want to have your music heard by as many people as possible, but our ambitions were always easy to swallow — managed expectations, for the most part.
F.W.: Did you set out with the aim of forming a ska band? Or was that genre just one piece of the puzzle?
V.F.: Ska in its purest form wasn’t important to the initial inception of Less Than Jake. We essentially took East Bay punk, Chicago pop-punk, third-wave ska and this English band Snuff, mixed it all up and then turned it on its head. We’ve always been a punk band with ska influences. Ethically and scene-wise, that’s all we really knew. To call us a ska band does bands whose true roots are in ska a very big injustice. While we might be in the same boat, we’re on opposite ends.
F.W.: What was the Gainesville music scene like when Less Than Jake started?
V.F.: Very established. Gainesville was a hotbed of the Florida punk community, and by ’92, it had become a beacon and a destination — a suburban punk’s oasis of sorts.
F.W.: Your first few releases were solidly DIY. When Capitol Records came calling, what was the allure?
V.F.: We always looked at any label as a chance to grow — to get to the eyes and ears of more people. With Capitol, it was all about distribution. We were excited to be in every store that sold music. Any time a band is given the opportunity to jump the hurdle of the box they’ve been living in, they should do that.
F.W.: Why did the band leave Capitol and join Fat Wreck Chords in 2000?
V.F.: It’s actually a boring story. We were in the studio, and there was a regime change inside [Capitol]. So we were given the opportunity to take the record [“Borders & Boundaries”] and leave our existing contract. A free record and out of a long contract to go to a label we were fans of? We felt like we had truly won the lottery.
F.W.: Each of you has various side projects and day jobs. How much gas does Less Than Jake have left in the tank?
V.F.: Enough on any given day to be busier than most bands. It’s the chemistry among the five of us that keeps recharging the batteries. The energy and chemistry between the crowd and our band is enough to light up a small city.