Interview with JR of Less Than Jake
St Louis Music Press interviewer Angie Knost got to talk with JR, saxophone player of the legendary ska band Less Than Jake, after his recent show at Pops nightclub in Sauget, IL, which is very near to St Louis, MO. Check out the conversation, where JR discusses angry fans, getting kicked in the sax, and why he’s not flipping burgers….
Angie: You guys were here…well you were near St Louis at Pop’s in Sauget about a week ago. [Note that Sauget is rightly pronounced like “Sew-shjay”, presumably being of French origin.]
JR: Yes, I like to refer to it as “Soggit”. [Laugher from both] I’m not playing that game. No one’s gonna convince me that that’s how it’s pronounced. It’s “Saw-get” where I come from. It’s “Saw-get” where you come from, too. Let’s not French it up.
Angie: Okay, agreed. I wasn’t able to make it to that show, and I wasn’t able to interview you before the show because of scheduling conflicts, so… tell me, if it’s still fresh in your mind…it was on a Friday… How did that show go?
JR: It was great! That St Louis area and surrounding towns, as well as “Saw-get”, have always been really wonderful to us. So it’s kind of like a feeling of going home, and the show was just a lot of fun. We always look forward to going back to that area of the country, and they never let us down.
Angie: That’s exciting that you think so highly of the li’l Midwest here.
JR: Oh, for sure, it’s great.
Angie: The first time I saw you guys live was a couple of years ago when you came to The Pageant, which is in the St Louis area. Your show had a lot of energy…there was confetti blasted out at the crowd and it just felt like…being in that crowd, there was such a singularity there; I mean everyone was happy and dancing and jumping. It wasn’t just like ‘watching a concert’; it was like ‘we’re all in this concert”. You know what I mean?
JR: Yeah, that’s kind of how we always try to make it when we play. It’s not about the band as much as it is about the band and the crowd; there’s no separation, really. We try to make the crowd as much a part of the show as we are, or as the confetti blasts are, or the songs are. That’s what we’ve always strived to do. The fact that we’re able to achieve it …sometimes …[cracks up laughing]….is great. Everybody has tough ones, you know. But yeah, that’s what our goal has always been. If you grew up in the 80s where it’s about going to see the band and there’s nothing really going on, you sit there and kind of…whatever….But we came up in the 90s where it was more about the unity and oneness of the whole thing.
Angie: I can’t help but think, [the reason for ] you guys being around for 16 plus years as a band, that has to be a factor…that the crowd has fun!
JR: And if you don’t have fun, you don’t go back, do you? There’s no real reason to. You’ve seen bands and I’ve seen bands where you go and you’re like “This sounds just like the record” musically, and …I call them shoegazers; they just sit there with their head down, staring at their shoes while they’re playing their instruments. If you spend $20-$30 to watch somebody stare at their shoes, that, to me, is not a show. That to me is like….me going to watch my niece at her piano recital. You know, I actually get more enjoyment out of that, because at least it’s somebody I know and who actually cares about what they’re doing and doesn’t look so jaded that they’re just sitting there going through the motions. We’re not that band. The best part of our day is that hour and a half that we’re on stage; whatever time of day we’re given to play music, that’s the best time of day for us. It’s not an illusion. We’re genuinely pleased to be there. We wear our hearts on our sleeves, and nothing’s really scripted. We try to keep it fresh and new. And that’s what keeps people coming back… even though a lot of times it feels like it’s old and the same thing to us. [Laughs] We try to keep it fresh and new for our fans.
Angie: Yeah, each show is another day of work for you, but there could be someone in the crowd that…the show is like, THE night of their life. You know?
JR: Yeah! I came off the stage before feeling like I played the worst show in my life…and then when someone is like, “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!”…how do you argue with that? [Laughs] You know, you can’t really argue with that. So I say “Thank you,” and move on the next one.
Angie: You guys are kind of in the middle of a tour now, right?
JR: Well, we’re almost done with this one, actually. We have six shows left. We’re in Colorado Springs today. And we have this show and five others, then we go to Australia for like two weeks. We’ll be off for a little bit. We’ll be doing the Warped Tour this Summer. We haven’t really been announced yet. I think we get announced next Monday or Tuesday…? But we’re getting announced soon. You’re the first interviewer that I’ve even mentioned it to.
Angie: Breaking news!
JR: Yeah, breaking news. I figure, it’s in a place we’ve already played, so it’s [the announcement is] not going to matter . We want people to come to this show on this tour, rather than just go to Warped Tour. Because a lot of times, people wait and say “Oh, we’ll just go see them on Warped Tour”.
Angie: Yeah, and Warped is a really condensed set. You don’t get as much of a feel for the band when it’s 100 degrees and the band can’t play their whole set.
JR: Yeah, we only play for 30 minutes. You know, it’s a fun tour to be a part of, but it’s not quite the same as being on a club tour. And this is our only US club tour that we’re doing this year, sans Warped Tour, I don’t think we’re going to tour the US again until late, late next year, if we tour in the US at all. So, hey, we’re just stoked to still be on tour!
Angie: Your most recent release was the TV EP, the cover songs, right?
JR: Yeah…it’s a release. I wouldn’t call it a ‘proper’ release, but it’s an EP that was done…by us….for fun. That word ‘release’ is kind of a blanket statement, isn’t it?
Angie: Yeah, I guess so.
JR: Because people get really mad when they see, “Oh, they’ve got a new release out” and then they see it’s an EP. …Some people got really mad at us.
JR: They thought it was a proper release, and it was an EP, doing covers and that ….we haven’t put out a covers album in…[sighs].. since I’ve been in the band. Eleven years. Some people loved it, and some people were like, “This isn’t a real record! What a waste of my time!”. Well, you didn’t buy it anyway. dude, you f—-n’ listened to it for free. You downloaded it, and then disposed of it, so why should I care what you think? Some people got really mad about something that’s just meant to be fun. I wanted to do something that my niece and nephew could listen to and get stoked on, you know? We did iCarly and Sponge Bob Square Pants, and they’re stoked on that; they’re ten and fourteen. And they can listen to that, and it’s awesome. And then their parents, my sister and brother-in-law, they’re in their forties, and they can listen to Different Strokes and Laverne and Shirley and feel like kids again, too. Something that everybody can listen to, and it only takes ten minutes out of your life.
Angie: And who doesn’t love the Oscar Meyer Wiener song?
JR: YEAH !!! It was meant to be fun and funny. I think some people took it so…… I don’t know what they want! Like, does everything have to be Album of the Year, Grammy, Arcade Fire record or something? Come on, man! There’s nothing fun in that. I’ve done records for years; I’ve done ‘recordings’, whatever…this is fun! I don’t know when music stops being fun. That’s my question.
Angie: You guys surely have enough street cred to do a set of covers.
JR: Eh, I don’t care. People can talk about us all they want, as long as they’re talking, I don’t care what they talk about…. Music is opinion based. I have an opinion. I speak it all the time, freely. I’ll tell you whatever I think. I also have to think, too, that if I speak freely, then people should definitely have the right to speak freely on my band. And hey, if they bought records and come to see shows and bought shirts and support us, then they definitely have a right to tell us what they think, too. And we listen to them. That’s the difference between us and a lot of other bands. We actually listen to our fans. People don’t believe it, but we do. We’re the only ones that read the Facebook and the Twitter. We don’t have a record label anymore. All the responses and things that happen are because of us.
Angie: That’s good to know. I’m sure fans will be excited to know that, that they’re really talking to you.
JR: Well, I mean, we care. We always have. Labels are starting to write down in marketing plans: “Interact with your fans. ” [laugher] I think that’s crazy. Uh, I’ve been doing that for two decades! Now you’re just finding out about it?
Angie: Since you guys are so busy touring, and then with the Warped Tour, are you going to have time to work on some new material in the foreseeable future?
JR: Yes, in April. In April we’re actually going to be writing and recording. We’ll be doing stuff in the fall, too. We’ll have a bunch of new releases coming up this year and into next year. People just have to go to lessthanjake.com and find out all about it.
Angie: Any ideas of subject matter that you’re toying around with for the next one?
JR: Good magicians never reveal their tricks before, or after, they’re performed.
Angie: Can’t blame me for asking.
JR: Hey, you’re doing your job. I’m doing my job.
Angie: I have to confess to referencing Wikipedia to check some facts before this interview, and I read on Wikipedia…it says that Fat Mike [of the band NOFX] cut your hair at one point because you lost a bet.
JR: I didn’t lose a bet. That is an untrue statement.
Angie: It’s internet lore?
JR: It’s a lore. I don’t know who even put that. I don’t even know who writes that stuff. For me, I looked at it, and I thought, “I could care less”. It was not a loss of a bet. Mike and I are friends. We’ve been friends for a while. On Warped Tour in 2006, like the first or second show, they were playing the same stage as us. They played before us, and Mike looked over and saw me and said, “JR, your hair is too long, and it’s time for you to cut that f—–g hair, hippie!” And I said, “Only if you cut it, A–hole!” And he said, “You got it!” And I said, “Well…I guess I gotta get my hair cut.” [Laugher] So then, I’m like, “We should do it on stage. Make a deal out of it. Do it in Orlando.” And then I told him I wanted scissors and not clippers, you know, the whole thing, and it definitely was funny. He cut my hair into a mullet.
Angie: Oh no!
JR: Yeah, and then threw my hair out to the crowd. And he was right; he said, “Once I cut your hair, you will never grow it back.” Yeah, yeah. And he was right, I haven’t grown it back since. Basically all it did was make a really great friendship even tighter. We laugh about it; we still laugh about it all the time. There was no bet involved. The only bet that was involved was him being and a–hole and me trying to be a bigger a–hole, and he won.
Angie: Maybe we can set the Wikipedia record straight now.
JR: Oh, it doesn’t matter. We can let the legend continue. Actually, you can find a video of it on YouTube, I think.
Angie: I’ll have to find that link.
JR: I’m sure it’s up there. I know it’s there. I watched it not that long ago.
Angie: Part of the ‘enjoyment’ of being in the public eye, I guess…certain things you do just live on, for people to watch them over and over.
JR: Hey, good for them, if they have the free time to look at it all. Enjoy, enjoy.
Angie: A bit off topic, I guess, but I’ve been running across so many newer bands that are getting national attention that are from Gainesville, Florida [where Less Than Jake is from]. I was just wondering, what is the climate of Gainesville… it just seems like there are so many artistically inclined people and successful acts coming out of there, that I have to ask, “What is it about this place?”
JR: Well, you know, it’s a rotating town because it’s a college town. University of Florida is there. Go Gators! And like, there’s a constant influx of kids coming in every year, and these kids, a percentage of them will start bands, and there’s already , and has always been, a strong live market. If you’re in a band in Gainesville and you play, there will be 50 people who will show up for your show. And that doesn’t happen everywhere. But people like to go out to live shows, still. It’s still a very artistic little place. It’s also expanding. It’s become a lot bigger over the last ten years. So as the college expands, as the people who live there expand, as it becomes more of an urban area, more of a city than what it has been up to this point. It’s still growing and stuff. It’s a good live music place. There’s a strong scene there. There’s a couple of labels from there.
I don’t know what really makes it more artistic than other places, however I do know that in the Presidential election when George Bush was elected, if you look at the state of Florida, it was all red except for the one blue dot in the middle, which was Gainesville. So it’s definitely an artistic and liberal minded town amidst a very conservative state. There’s bands like Hot Water Music, Against Me!…you know…it’s always been strong, It’s always been good, and I don’t know why! I wish I could tell you. It just is. Like why is the sky blue? I’m sure there’s some kind of chemical makeup and scientific theory why it happens, and I’m sure there’s the same kind of scientific theory as to what happens in Gainesville, too, but I’d rather just leave it a mystery. Or I guess I could look it up on Wikipedia…
Angie: Ah, but Wikipedia would probably be wrong, though. [laughter]…
As far as your choice of instrument, the saxophone surely has it’s place in rock music, but it seems that most people want to play guitar or be a drummer. What drew you to the saxophone?
JR: I don’t know. When I was a kid I played piano, and then when I got in elementary school, I wanted to play saxophone, in the 4th grade. But they used instrument rentals, and they would always run out of saxophones first, and I got there late or whatever… I couldn’t play saxophone so they gave me a clarinet. “Well, clarinet is close”…I was like “uhhh…okay”. Then I played clarinet for a couple of years, but I always wanted to play saxophone. When I got into middle school, the band director at that time asked me, “Did you ever think of playing tenor saxophone?” And I was like, “I always wanted to play saxophone!” The school had a loaner at the time, and he let me use it. And the rest is history, I guess. It just kind of happened. I don’t know why I started playing in bands; it just happened. I’m the first one to admit, I’m the luckiest SOB wallkin’. Sax player in a ska band and still going somehow. I’ve worked to get where I’m at. It’s not like anyone’s really given me anything, other than opportunities. Something to be said about me just being a sax player in a ska band, almost twenty years later. There used to be a lot more of my contemporaries. My contemporaries don’t exist as much anymore. Strange.
Things go in cycles. And there are still kids playing horns; I love it when kids come to me and say, “I play sax, too.” So can talk to them about what kind of horn they play, what kind of mouthpiece, which kind of reed. That kind of stuff is cool. And a lot of people are like, “I used to play saxophone” and then I’m like, “Why’d you stop?” “Oh, college…” That’s usually the number one answer. College or sports took over, whatever. When people still play horn, it’s awesome. For me it’s different, because everybody does play guitar. They look at me and are like, “What does that guy play? Saxophone? That’s weird.” But I love it.
Angie: Out of your catalog of, oh, over a decade and a half of songs to perform, what’ is your favorite song to perform?
JR: I don’t have a favorite. I wish I did. They’re all my favorites. It’s like trying to pick your favorite kid. There are some that I don’t like playing as much as others. It would be easier for me to answer, “Which one don’t you like playing as much?”
Angie: Okay, which one don’t you like playing as much?
JR: There’s a song called “Suburban Myth”…it’s still a good song, I just don’t like playing it live for whatever reason. I don’t like playing a couple of songs off of our B-Sides record live, because people just don’t really know it a lot of times. There’s a couple of songs off of our Losers, Kings and Things record that I just don’t know. There’s such a glut of material, some songs I don’t even really remember. There’s about a dozen songs, and I would have to actually look at a list of songs to say, “Oh, this one I’m not too stoked on or we don’t play too much”, but mostly I like playing all the songs. It’s based upon crowd reaction of why I don’t like playing certain songs live. We could play one song one night, and the crowd could totally sh-t on it, and then next night we could play in another town and the crowd could totally go crazy…
Angie: Have you ever had a really embarrassing moment playing live, or something unplanned that happened that you had to improvise and work through?
JR: Actually, when we were on tour, this kid came up on stage and just jump-kicked…I don’t know why…and kicked the front of my saxophone in, might as well have just taken the f—-n’ bell off my horn, and I couldn’t play. I had to just run out to the bus, thank God I had a backup, just grabbed it and put it together and played it. You just run and do it. There was nothing I could do about it. I just threw the other horn at my tech and ran to grab the other one…in mid-set, mind you. It the middle of the song, I just ran off stage. What can you do, you know? The one rule I’ve always lived by is ‘never let them see you sweat’. Be professional and keep smiling! I’ve fallen flat on my a–. That stuff happens. It’s how you recoup from it. If you fall, you go, “Eh, I fell”. Mick Jagger fell. If he can fall down, so can I. When he falls down though, he breaks a hip.
Angie: Wasn’t he the one who said he didn’t want to still be singing “Satisfaction” when he was forty-five or something like that? He must have changed his plan at some point.
JR: If I could still do it at his age, I’ll do it. [laughter] If someone’s going to pay me to do it, I’ll do it.
Angie: If you could become any cartoon character that you wanted to, any one ..if you had to be animated… what would you choose?
JR: Garfield the cat.
Angie: Garfield is awesome.
JR: He had a pretty good life. A dude took care of him. He ate a lot of lasagna. He’s fat and stoked on it. Yeah, I’d be Garfield.
Angie: As far as future plans for Less Than Jake, you have some recording coming up, the tour you’re currently finishing up and the Warped Tour…Anything else foreseeable in the Less Than Jake plan?
JR: I don’t know. We’re always planning. Plotting and planning. Nothing really to speak of yet, but we are very active on our Facebook and Twitter. If people want to come and check us out on any of those, or go to our website, that usually is going to tell what we’re doing, where we’re going, and how you can be a part of it. Those are definitely good ways to find out what’s going on.
We do have two new re-releases of two of our classic records. One’s called Hello Rockview and one’s called Losing Streak. And people can purchase those two records, they’re CDs that also come with companion DVDs of each of those records played live at shows we did in 2007. Those are available at lessthanjake.com. You can order them, or you could probably go to your local record store, as very few of those as there are these days, I’m certain you’ll be able to find them there. They’re available on Sleep It Off Records, our record label.
Angie: Anything else that you would like to say to your fans?
JR: Thank you for all your support over the years. If it wasn’t for you, I would be flippin’ burgers at Mc Donald’s.