Interview by Kristen Swanson
I could go on forever about the wonders of the ska/punk band Less Than Jake. These guys have been making a name for themselves ever since their first full length Pezcore came out in 1995, and they’re still going strong. LTJ is still dedicated to their music, they still put on an amazing show, and their music still sends a nostalgic chill down your spine. Check out this interview with saxophonist JR Wasilewski as he discusses the dynamic of the band, record labels, and what it’s really like to be a part of a legendary band.
LTJ has been together for almost two decades now. How has the band managed to stay together?
JR: Number one, Jägermeister. Number two, communication. Like with any relationship, if you can’t talk and say what’s on your mind or feel like you’re able to say what’s on your mind, then you’re gonna fail. Communication is maybe a little bit more important than Jägermeister, but it’s definitely up there. Then, just trusting in each other. There’s four other dudes I can totally look at and they’ll have my back. We trust in each other, have good communication skills most of the time, and we drink a lot of Jägermeister.
Bands like We Are The Union have stated that ska bands seem to be more popular overseas now than in the States. Would you agree with this, and what are your thoughts about the current state of ska music?
JR: Ska music was always underground, and then at some point, as major labels did what they always do: They find something that seems profitable and grab it up, they put it through their machine, they knock it through the ringer, they squeeze every bit of life out of it that they can, and then they just throw it back into the garbage pile. Ska music never really went anywhere. In the United States, yes, it’s not as big as it once was. There’s also a lot of competition in the United States. It’s the entertainment capital of the world, so people’s entertainment dollar is pretty stretched to begin with. I think this year will be our 19th year in existence. To be able to be shy two decades and continue doing what we do and have people continue to come see us play, is pretty mind boggling. I don’t think ska went anywhere. It was just removed by the mainstream. So, what’s the state of ska right now? I couldn’t tell you. I do know there are a number of bands like WATU, The Flatliners, and other bands that are playing ska and ska/punk, and people still go to underground venues to see these bands play and they enjoy it. The reason ska music has survived and will continue to survive is because people like to have a good time, and that’s what it provides. It provides a fun soundtrack.
LTJ’s most recent work is the TV/EP, which received some mixed reactions where people loved it but thought it was too short, or they wanted more. What were the band’s expectations with the TV/EP?
JR: Our expectation was that we had talked about doing it for four years and we just wanted to fucking do it! We just wanted to make our conversation become a reality. I think people put more thought into trying to figure out what we were trying to do than we actually put into doing it. All we wanted to do was something that was different. Everybody releases cover records and does cover songs, but nobody that I know of has released an EP of all TV songs. We wanted to see how far we could take the idea, so we put it out on CD, we put it out on vinyl, we made a viral video of all the intros of television shows and commercials we found on YouTube. I think our expectation was to just do something that was fun, and it was. People are going to say what they’re going to say regardless. If we came out with a full-length record of original material they would probably say, “Oh, well it doesn’t sound like their old material,” so we’d still get mixed reviews. My father once told me opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and everyone thinks that everyone else’s stinks. I just let everyone have their opinion and appreciate the fact that people are still talking about my band. And there’s always some dude who will come up to me and be like “So dude, I really like that Spongebob Squarepants song.” Of course you do! It’s a guilty pleasure just like anything else. When you have a forty-year-old man come up to you with tattoos on his neck and say that to you, it makes it all worth it.
LTJ is reissuing Losing Streak and Hello Rockview in March. What would you say are the benefits of a reissue for the fans?
JR: We’ve always been a little cautious on reissuing things because both of these records are considered our classic records, but we wanted to add a little bit to it. What we did is back in 2007 we recorded six live shows, and during those shows we played each one of our records in order. So what comes with this new record is the artwork, a DVD of us playing the entire record live, plus little extra add-on clips. There’s a little extra value added to what it already is. The reason that made me feel so weird about releasing things is that you’re asking somebody to re-buy what they’ve already purchased. Or maybe they’ve already stole it, or downloaded it, or whatever. So we’re just giving the option for people who maybe didn’t get that record or wanted that record because some people still collect CDs or vinyl records. But we don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Go take all of our music for free, and come out to a show and buy a shirt. People get so caught up in what it is. For us, the reissue was just to make it available to our fans because it’s really hard to find in stores.
Sleep It Off Records is LTJ’s own record label. Has the band considered releasing other band’s work on the label?
JR: We’ve talked about it, but it’s a lot of work just to do our band. To be a label is tough, because bands have expectations of what they can use and what they deserve. A lot of times, the labels don’t have the kind of capital that bands would think that they have. In other instances, the label might have the capital, but they want to spend it on bands that are building a profit. Then, it would have to be a band that we all agree on. We’re five pretty different personalities, so to find one band that we all agree on that’s still together is tough. So at this point we don’t want to be a label to anybody but ourselves because who the hell do I want to work for as hard as I work for my own band, that’s what it boils down to.
Vinnie runs Paper + Plastick. Did LTJ ever consider releasing records off of his label?
JR: We’re doing something with P+P in the future, but we keep that separate. That’s Vinnie’s thing. We all support the bands that he signs just like when he started Fueled by Ramen, and we supported him and took the bands out on tour. We’ll still do that, we still take bands out if they’re on P+P, and it’s totally cool. He’s got a great staple of bands that he put on there, but we do try to keep it separate. It should be its own entity, kind of like Fueled by Ramen became. You know people forget that Fueled by Ramen was started by us, by Vinnie. And it’s cool, just start another one.
When you consider doing a full-length album, does the huge success of past album’s like Pezcore and Losing Streak ever add pressure?
JR: No, of course not. You just write a record. People put pressure on themselves, but in reality a record is an aural meaning, like an aural photograph of where you are at the time being recorded. You’re not going to look the same in a picture when you’re 19 as you do when you’re 35. So musically speaking, it’s not going to be the same thing either. The only expectations we have are the ones we put on ourselves and they’re pretty high to begin with. We just write songs and record them. That’s what we’ve done for as many years as we’ve been a band, and that’s what we’re gonna continue to do.
So many bands, from WATU to the Dopamines, list LTJ as an influence for their music. What’s your reaction to being such a huge influence to these newer bands?
JR: I don’t think any of us think about it, because we have those bands that are influences to us. And as we’ve grown up now, we’ve met a lot of those influences, and those influences have become friends. We try to just not think about it too much. We just continue to do our own thing. It’s very humbling and it’s a little embarrassing. You don’t really know what to say a lot of times. “Thank you” is a good thing to say, I say “thank you” a lot. I would just rather we hang out and be friends. It’s not awkward. I just know what it’s like to be on the giving end of something like that and a lot of times you’re just speaking from your heart. Then to have the person on the receiving end just walk away and not even acknowledge it, that’s tough. That’s a shitty thing, especially from someone that you put on a pedestal. So sometimes it’s just better to knock yourself off of the pedestal.
LTJ still creates this fun-loving and carefree vibe, but I think sometimes people forget the sacrifice and hard-work that goes into a band. Would you say that being in a successful band is like having a full-time job?
JR: It’s weird, I was talking to one of the guys in Off With Their Heads and he goes, “You know, we were talking in the van the other day how difficult it must be to be in LTJ. Sometimes you gotta get on stage when you’re bummed and you gotta fucking play Animaniacs or whatever.” I never really thought about it that way, so I just kind of thought about what he said. And yeah, it sucks. Everyday is not a great day and life continues even though when you’re in a band you live in some kind of weird bubble. Some days are just not good days and creep into the bubble and ruin your day, and you still gotta get on stage and play. If you’re sick with a 102 fever, there’s no calling in, you still gotta get on stage and play. I think the perception from a fan is that it’s a party 24/7. They don’t tell you about the loneliness, they don’t tell you about the fucking fear, and they don’t tell you about the questioning that you do. So unless you live it and experience it, it’s hard to explain it. There’s always sacrifices, but if you don’t sacrifice then you don’t gain any reward and you just stay in limbo. You stay very static. We’ve never been a band that just stays static. We like to push forward and not look back. We’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, but you know, if you’re not failing then you’re not trying.
I know this might be hard, but if you HAD to choose, what’s your favorite LTJ song?
JR: Probably “P.S. Shock the World,” the last song on In with the Out Crowd, for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s the last song on the record that a majority of our fans think is our worst record. Also, it says probably the most potent things that we’ve ever said as a band. And again, a lot of times people don’t look beyond their own nose to dig deep enough to find a tact like that. That’s probably my favorite song that we’ve created as a band. It really encompasses how we feel after almost two decades of being in a band, lyrically speaking.
What’s the most common misconception people have about LTJ?
JR: To be honest, I don’t really read any press. I try to stay away from it because people make judgments about someone without knowing the person. I think the misconception is that maybe we’re stupid or we don’t know what’s going on. Or that we don’t care and we just write a bunch of shitty songs. That’s the stuff that we care about. We care about the music probably more than most of these bands that “care about the music.” And honestly, I don’t think I even give a shit what other people think whether it’s positive or negative. I appreciate it if it’s positive and I could give a fuck if it’s negative, but that’s not going to make or break me. I used to have this misconception when I was a kid that I had to be nice to everybody all the time and not speak my mind because it’ll ruin my career. And now almost two decades later, the only person that can ruin my career is me. I’m not afraid of anybody and I think that’s the whole thing, we’re not afraid. We’re not afraid to make mistakes, we’re not afraid to fuck-up, we’re not afraid to speak what’s on our mind, and we’re definitely not afraid of the repercussions. We’re just us. We’re not gonna put on tight jeans, comb our hair over, and start fucking screaming. We’re still LTJ. We’re still gonna be LTJ tomorrow when we wake up.