Saturday, June 21, 2008

Look What Happened


An Exclusive Interview with Buddy Schaub
of Less Than Jake


It's not every day that you get to have a conversation with someone who's responsible for making music that you live by. For the better part of the last decade, Less Than Jake has served as the soundtrack to my youth. No other band has more accurately represented growing up for me as much as these five guys from Gainesville, Florida, and they've followed me into adulthood. Since their inception in 1992, they've transitioned from being the new kids in the punk rock scene, to the mainstays, and now to the legends. Over the course of sixteen years, they've seen more than a hundred releases on independent and major labels and have captured the hearts of a million sweaty adolescents on the heels of their notorious live show. With the release of their seventh studio album, GNV FLA (June 24), Less Than Jake has forged a new chapter in their career. The band left Warner Brothers Records last year, and started their own, entirely independent label, Sleep It Off Records to handle matters themselves. By all accounts, it's a re-birth. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to trombonist Buddy Schaub about this frenzied time in the band's career: their new beginning.

So you’re still in Florida today, right at the start of your summer tour. You’re traveling the country this summer with bands like Goldfinger, Mustard Plug, Suburban Legends, Big D and the Kids Table – all bands that, in some point or other in their careers, have been classified as ska. You toured last summer with Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto. Was this a conscious decision on the part of Less Than Jake, to start touring again with more ska bands?

The tour itself is called the Shout It Loud tour. Last year when we went out with Reel Big Fish was the first batch of that, and this is the second year. We wanted to start a tour with a name, so that we won’t have to go on the Warped Tour ever again. [Laughs] I mean, not really, but yeah, we definitely consciously decided to have a ska theme going on. We’ve been out with the newer-sounding bands a lot for the last few years, and decided to go back and have some fun ska stuff over the summer.

Do you feel like there’s been somewhat of a resurgence of ska music recently? Or has it ever really gone away?

It’s never gone away. Nothing ever really goes away, it just kind of leaves the limelight for a while. We’ve somehow avoided all of those trend issues, and I don’t know how we’ve managed to survive. We’ve just stayed relevant by being a band that keeps touring. But I do kind of think that there is a little resurgence going on. Ska’s getting a little more of a public eye, I guess. But I don’t know, it doesn’t really concern us. We’ve never really tried to pigeonhole ourselves into anything, which is probably why we’ve outlasted the whole thing. We just go out and do what we do. We’ve never really tried to follow any trend. Like when the ska thing died out, we weren’t gonna change our sound to nu-metal to try and ride the wave, you know?

More with Less Than Jake after the jump.

It’s the dawn of the release of GNV FLA, an album that – by a lot of pre-release hype – is your “return to form.” Faster songs, more horns, etc. Do you agree with that assessment, that this album is a return to the Less Than Jake that people know and love?

Definitely. I feel that the last record got softened up a bit, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that we were still on Warner Brothers, and we were just searching for too many opinions instead of just relying on ourselves. None of us were really that happy with the record. I mean, I still love a lot of the songs on In With The Out Crowd, but I think that during the writing and recording process, a lot of the stuff just got jumbled along the way. After IWOTC, we went out and toured the rest of the year, and we played those six record shows, where we played each record in its entirety per night. So I think doing that actually consciously helped this record a lot. It was like doing your homework before a test, like doing a bunch of homework the whole year and then taking your midterm. So we went back and re-learned some of the songs we haven’t played in forever, and basically reviewed everything we’ve ever done as a band. It helped you kind of see, “well, we haven’t done that in a long time”, or “that works, that doesn’t work.” You know, it wasn’t really a conscious thing, but it did influence some of the way we were writing this time. And really, it was only the five of us writing this time. We didn’t have anyone else who heard the songs. Right before we got to Chicago, our producer [Matt Allison] came down to Gainesville, and that was sort of the first time anyone ever heard them or had an opinion. We kind of wrapped ourselves up and went at it again like we used to.

Does it offend you that some fans completely bastardize In With The Out Crowd, with some even refusing to count it among your albums?

Yeah, obviously. It’s like one of your children. Whenever you have a record, you’ve worked on it for a couple of years, and all of a sudden for it to be ill-received is always kind of a bummer. But when it came out, like I said, none of us were really that hugely excited about it. Like, we all liked some of the songs that were on there, and we did our best to do what we were doing, but I think there was a whole of fatigue going on with that record.

What do you think went wrong? Was it a case of the label [Warner Brothers] trying to fit square pegs into round holes? In the oral history of LTJ in Alternative Press a few issues ago, I know that there may have also been disagreements with Howard Benson.

I think in his [Benson’s] defense as well, he was getting it from all sides too. The label was whispering stuff in one ear, and we were saying stuff in the other, so he was like the middle man in the whole situation. He was trying to do what he does: make another hit record for Warner Brothers. That was also when the whole downloading thing was really taking off, and everyone at the label was starting to get worried and freaking out, like, “It’s gotta be like this!” I mean, they never said, “this is what you have to do,” and they weren’t coming in with like, charts of what we were supposed to be playing, but a lot of suggestions were made. We worked with some outside writers, and it’s partly our fault too, because we didn’t stand true and be like, “We’re not gonna do any of this stuff!” We were willing to explore all these ideas and check out what all our options were. It just didn’t end up being the most positive environment for all of us. It was an experiment gone awry, which is essentially what happened. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It wasn’t all Warner Brothers, and it wasn’t all Benson’s, it wasn’t all of us, all of our managers. You know, everyone who was involved with the whole thing led to what it was. That’s just how anything works. That’s why I think this record is different in the sense that we did kind of lead everybody else to the wayside. We left Warner Brothers, went out on our own and just take the reins ourselves. I think this record came out as what we are as a band.

At this stage of the game, and this far into your career, why go independent now with Sleep It Off?

When we were deciding to leave Warner Brothers, it mainly came about because we did kind of feel like “we can do this better.” We entertained other ideas. Of course, Fat Mike came up to us, and said we can go back to him any time. He’s always said that- “come be on my label.” But you know, we realized that at this point in our lives and our careers, for as long as we’ve been doing this, we’ve been done there and done that. It’s like, we’ve seen how everything works in all those different worlds. We know how to do it ourselves. Why are we gonna get someone else on board to do it again where we can just do it? It was a matter of whether or not we wanted to put in the time and effort, so we decided that the best way for it to really come out was being just us. There’s always someone else to blame when something goes wrong, whereas this way it’s all on our shoulders, so there’s a lot more responsibility involved. When something goes right, we’ll get all the rewards. I think that where we are in our careers, this is the best time to do it. And yeah, we could have done it a long time ago, like when we left Capitol for the first time. But I don’t think we were ready at that point, and now as a band and as people, we’re ready to take on this huge challenge.

Tell me about the making of the record. How did the band hook up with Matt Allison, who is known for his work with bands like Rise Against and Alkaline Trio? Was it a conscious effort to get it to sound rawer than the previous records?

Well, we chose him over other producers because we didn’t want someone who was gonna come in and be a heavy-handed producer. We didn’t want someone who was gonna say, “change this” or “change that” – someone with a lot of suggestions. We wanted someone who comes from the same world we do, and he does. With the bands that he’s done before – he’s a punk rock guy – it makes sense for us to try to make our record more on the punk rock side of things. It wasn’t because our last record was what it was – it’s just, that’s what we wanted to do. If we had done some of those songs [on IWTOC] differently, they wouldn’t have been as polished and whatever they were. They could’ve been a little more raw, like you said.

Roger [Fiorello, bassist and vocalist] shares a co-producing credit on this record. I know he’s done demos in his home studio for the band for quite some time, but in what capacity did he take on this time? Obviously he’s very involved in the creative and arranging aspect of producing, but as far as engineering, how big of a hand did he play?

You know, he’s always been from day one the guy that’s been the recording nerd in the band. He’s been learning since we were in high school, when we were doing things on four-tracks. So he’s been turning knobs for a long time. He’s done our demos, but he’s also done some other bands over the last ten years on different levels. He keeps building up his studio at home, and that’s where we pretty much wrote the whole record. We started out doing it in our warehouse, but it’s a lot easier just going into a studio setting to record some ideas, and in the future kind of play off of those ideas. It’s easier to actually work with something when you’re not just sitting in the warehouse trying to figure it out all in one step. From the writing side of it, he’s very involved in it all the time. And since we did it at his house, he’s there after we all leave at night, still tinkering around with stuff. And then once we got to Chicago, we were all in there for twelve hours a day, but he was very heavily involved beyond that. On previous records, we’ve always gotten the “co-produced by Less Than Jake”, but he’s definitely the guy that’s in there tweaking things out.

I’ve been watching the YouTube series you guys recorded for the album, and it’s a great view of each member’s outlook on the band and the album. You mentioned that with the exception of losing and adding a few members over the years, the same four core members have been in the band for sixteen years. Just how much has that helped the writing process? Is it still as democratic as it was sixteen years ago?

It’s definitely shaped the way things do happen. Chris and Roger will write a majority of the music, or have a shell of a song, like a chorus or something like that. Vinnie has scrap papers with lyrics around, and we try to shove it all together. Then JR and I figure out horn parts. It’s definitely been the same throughout the years. As Roger’s interview was saying, the way we go about writing a song has kind of changed a little bit, with the more gear that we have and the technological advances that have sprung up in the past ten years. Just being able to lay down the basic idea for the song and then working over that is a lot easier, especially when you get to the phase when you try to write horn parts and harmonies. It just makes it a lot easier to kind of build the song from the foundation. Before you could do that all just sitting in the warehouse, and try and come up with it on the spot, but that’s harder to do.

Scott from Reel Big Fish plays trumpet on the album. What was it like collaborating with him? You and J.R. [Wasilewski, saxophonist] probably spent the most time with him. Did you guys arrange the parts for him, or did he lend his hand?

We were on the road with them [Reel Big Fish] all last summer. We actually tried to get the trumpet player from Streetlight Manifesto to come play too, but they were really busy. And then we were like, “Oh, we should just call Scott.” He came in, and it was really easy, just because we hung out all summer. We had him come in and lay down some harmonies over the horn parts we had already. It wasn’t like he came in and worked with us the whole time. It was cool to have one of your friends come in and do it too, as opposed to some studio musician come in and lay something down.

Are there ever any plans to implement more of the trumpet sound in your music, whether it be on record or live?

In a live setting, no, I don't think so. The five of us have been in this band together for eight years – it’s like The Brady Bunch out here – we’re like a bunch of brothers. Trying to add someone else to that at this point would be hard to do, especially with the chemistry that all of us already have. I think JR and I pull it off well. For the record, though, we did want to try to get that extra high-end sound on there, just to have a little more punch to the horn section. Just some of the songs on the new record, we thought that having a trumpet would be really cool.

Can you compare GNV FLA to past works? I’ve heard a lot of people likening it to Borders And Boundaries. Musically, what does it revoke? Lyrically and thematically, what can it be compared to? What mindset is the band in right now? I love the meaning behind the title – changing things that didn’t need to be changed. Is that a loose theme behind the whole record?

I’ve heard that a lot too, with the comparisons to Borders. And that’s weird, because that’s not what any of us were thinking. But I guess it kind of really is in that realm. We can’t really compare it to Losing Streak or [Hello] Rockview, because of the production level on those aren’t as good as what we’ve got going now, and in terms of the songwriting, we’re not gonna go as far back to that. Borders is a good comparison because it was kind of a mix of that newer rock sound that we have mixed with the older stuff too. Like I said, I think when we went out and did all of those record shows before, it was like us gathering information on the best things we’ve done in the past. We just tried to put all of that together. I kind of feel like the new record is a conglomeration of everything we’ve ever done. That’s how I look at it. It’s hard for me to pick one album that it sounds like, because I think it’s got pieces from everything.

A lot of the songs have a bunch of different themes. The first and second tracks are about Gainesville, where we grew up as a band, and the state of Florida. “The State of Florida” is really the best example of that. It’s about how Florida’s constantly changing. Things are going up building-wise, and things are disappearing. That’s kind of what they were saying about the title. But there are definitely lots of other themes going on in the record. It’s a lot of the same things we’ve talked about before, but it’s just another angle on it.

What are your marketing plans for the album? Will Sleep It Off have the same distribution as majors? Are there any plans to work the single to radio, or to shoot a video? How big of a role is the Internet playing in the promotion?

Well we definitely have plans to make a video. It’s just about finding time at this point. We almost tried to squeeze it in right before we left for tour, but we didn’t want to rush it, you know? We do have a pretty good idea for a video. I can’t say what it is, but yeah, we’re for sure making a video. Maybe another one. Who knows where it’s gonna end? As far as radio is concerned, we’re just getting whatever we can. Whoever wants to play it – college stations, whatever – can play it. That’s fine with us. We’re not really hardcore on that side of things. Mainly the marketing that’s been going on so far has been online, a lot of viral stuff.

We’re definitely embracing the Internet. People in our demographic – teenagers to college kids, whatever – are on the Internet like, eight hours a day. Half of them don’t even listen to the radio anymore. As far as promoting your record, that’s the easiest way to do it. It’s worldwide, do-it-yourself. So we’re definitely embracing that whole-heartedly. To answer your distribution question, we made several distribution deals with different places around the world, so we have an American distribution company, which is RED, and in England and Australia we have Cooking Vinyl, and then in Japan it’s another one. So we’ve definitely got the world covered here.

Is it safe to say then, now that you’re done playing the major label game, that Less Than Jake doesn’t care about being popular anymore, or scoring that elusive hit single? You’ve got a remarkably solid fan base that’s stuck with you for more than a decade now, through the ups and downs. Do you need any more than that?

I mean, as a band, that’s kind of how we’ve gotten where we are. We always need a little more than what we’ve got. I think that’s what screws a lot of bands up, that they go for way too far out of their reach. They aim for the stars before they’ve gotten off the ground. So we’ve always tried to do a little better than what we’ve done before. So that’s what we’re trying to do now. We’re definitely going to work with the fanbase we already have, and then you always want to be a little bigger – so we’re going to do whatever we need to get to that point.But those days of getting a hit are over. We just want to get out there, tour, play to the people who love our band already, and do what we can to get the word out to people who haven’t heard us.

What are YOUR expectations for this album? Is it all self-fulfillment, or would you like to prove some of your critics wrong?

As long as everything is as good as it was before, then I’m happy. I actually think this album should take us a little further, because I really think we’ve gone up a step from what we did. Whenever you take steps like that, and move up from where you were prior, more and more people will follow along with you. And we feel good about it. I’ll use our last record as an example. You know, not all of us felt really good about it. So it’s hard to go out there and be like, “Oh, here it is! We’re gonna go take the world by storm!” Whereas on this record, all of us are really positive about it and really happy with how things came out. I think that’s going to show. And that’ll only lead to us doing better. We were talking about how the Internet is taking over everything, too. As far as like, sales, and whether or not we’re going to go out and sell a bunch of records, no one’s really worried about that. I mean, hopefully we sell a nice amount, but I don’t think any of us really view that as an option anymore. More so, your record is like a promotion tool for your tour. “Our new record is our marketing tool! Come see us play live!”

So far, what’s the reception been like to the new songs? I know the tour is really young – what, this is the second day? – but how have audiences responded to the material?

We played the song that we’ve had up online for a while [“Does The Lion City Still Roar?”] and people seemed to have a grasp of it. There are some superfans that we’ve seen at a bunch of shows, and they all knew all the lyrics, screaming them from the front row already. We played a couple of shows over in England before we came back home, and the new stuff was really well received. No one knows the new songs yet, cause the record’s not out, but I think it was good. It’s not like anyone started booing or throwing things at us, which is always nice.

With this album, have you been creatively re-energized? I guess what I’d like to know is, when you look at your future, is there anything else you can see yourself doing other than being in Less Than Jake?

I really think that turning point happened a while ago. We’ve lost some relationships over the band, and there have been so many changes. When you’ve been in a band for as long as we have, you either break up because you don’t get along with each other anymore, or you get closer and turn into this strong thing that’s just impenetrable, and that’s really what we are at this point. With the last record, just going through the whole process, it was tough, but we emerged out of it together. The way that this record was written re-established that we do still have something. That was kind of starting to worry me before… were we going to be able to write together anymore after that last record? It was such a weird thing, that whole experience. On this one, it was just the five of us, and everything went really smooth and we couldn’t be happier with out how it came out. And I think that’s really going to spur future adventures in the same way. What I’ve been saying is that we’re going to be the next Rolling Stones. We’re going to do the “Real Steel Wheels Tour”, coming out on the stage in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks. I’m excited about the fact that we’ll be doing this for a long time.

I didn't think I'd have you this long, so let me get the trivial questions out of the way while we're at it. What's your favorite city to play?

Right now it might be Chicago, just because we recorded there, and our fans have always been super awesome there. I can’t really give you more than one, can I? I’ll go with Chicago for now.

We’re based around Philadelphia and New York. What can you say about the northeast, and your fans up here?

That’s the thing, too. The whole area of New Jersey, Philly, and New York has been a hotbed for us. The craziest stuff always happens at our northeast shows. The kids there are really energetic and know how to go to a punk rock show. Whereas, if you go to the west coast, sometimes people look at each other and ask, “is it okay to move around? Should I be like him or should I be like her?” In New Jersey and Philadelphia, nobody really gives a shit.

What is your favorite Less Than Jake song? Favorite album?

Wow. That’s a rough call. Right now, my favorite album is the new record. And it really kind of is. It’s a conglomeration of all that stuff. But my favorite song that I like to play live is probably “Last One Out of Liberty City.” It always gets the crowd riled up, and it’s fun to play, and it’s not one of those songs where I’m like, “shit, am I gonna be able to hit that note?” I can nail the part in my sleep.

A lot of fans have been clamoring for an official LTJ live album. Are there any plans to release one in the future, especially with the advent of Sleep It Off?

The possibility of that is very strong, actually. Roger just put together a road Pro-Tools rig, so that we can take all 24 tracks off the board mix. There will quite possibly be something like that in the works. We can even start putting stuff online, as we go along the tour. Like, “Hey, here’s a song from last night’s show.” That kind of thing. I’m sure that will lead to a live album.

What are you listening to right now?

Let me look at my iTunes. Teenage Bottlerocket is a band I’m into right now. The Ergs. A band called The Figgs. A lot of this other stuff is just what I’ve listened to forever. I’m always huge on Superchunk, especially right now.

Tell me about Black Ice, your solo project. Are there any plans to develop it beyond what it is now?

I don’t know, it’s really just a way for me to play with myself. And then once Myspace came out, it was kind of like, “ooh, I can put this up and hear me playing with myself!” It can turn into something at some point, but it’s so sporadic, in terms of actually having the time to do stuff with it. It’s weird too, because as time has gone along, I’ve learned to do a lot more. The stuff I’m working on now I like a lot more. So yeah, I can definitely see it expanding in the future. The other thing that I do is called Coffee Project. We are planning on doing something. It’s an acoustic thing that I do with my buddy Jake. We’re putting out a 10 inch on Vinnie’s label, Paper and Plastick.

What would you say your biggest accomplishment has been in Less Than Jake?

That’s rough, because it’s weird. Throughout the span of our career, that can mean so many different things. The thing about our band is that we always set our goals only so high. Like the first time we had a CD out, which is comical now because they’re essentially obsolete, but we were like, “Wow, we have our own record.” That was huge. And then playing with Bon Jovi was big. That band was a monster when I was in high school, and then to go on tour with them was just crazy. Touring with the Descendents was a huge accomplishment for us too, because of the fact that they were our huge punk rock influence. We didn’t want to blow that. That whole tour with those guys was amazing, and it’s weird to think that they’re actually our friends now. I guess the biggest accomplishment for us is just being one of those bands in that world of punk rock… I’m trying to use the right word, and not sound pretentious… but like a NOFX. Just to be a band where people know who you are, and to know that you’ve made it in the punk rock world. That’s tops for me.

Let’s end on a downer, then. What has been your biggest regret?

I’m trying to figure out if there really is one. I mean, there are things that we’ve done as a band that have been blatant mistakes – that we’ve all looked at and said, “ooh, maybe we shouldn’t have done that.” I think we’ve learned from them, so as a learning tool, I can’t really look it any of those things as regrets. I hate to be cliché, but I look at all the negatives as positives, and try to use that half-full approach.

That's admirable.

I mean, I got divorced, and a lot of that had to do with the band, but I still don’t regret that. I wasn’t going to stop doing what I love doing. I wasn’t going to like, leave camp for something else. This is what I love, man.

-This interview was conducted over the phone on June 18, 2008. A million thanks to Buddy for the interview, and to the band's publicist, Rey Roldan, for setting it up. GNV FLA is in stores June 24 via Sleep It Off. You can hear the album's single, "Does The Lion City Still Roar?" on Less Than Jake's MySpace.

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