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Matt Yonker on Joining Less Than Jake, the Endurance of Ska

Hailing from Gainsville Florida, the same college town that gave us ’90s melodic hardcore and pop punk institutions like Hot Water Music and No Idea records, it was clear from the beginning that Less Than Jake offered more gravity than their ska-punk peers. Their uptempo pop-punk sound rarely strays into serious territory, but keeps out of the overly cheesy bubblegum trend that many bands fell victim to. Less Than Jake is as completely listenable today as they were from the start.

Formed in 1992 from the remains of an early pop-punk project, vocalist Chris DeMakes and drummer Vinnie Fiorello added bassist Roger Lima to form the foundation of the band. Fiorello wrote much of the lyrics. In an attempt to emulate the sound of pop-punk powerhouse Snuff, they decided to add a horn. And with that move, we ended up with one of the most enduring pop punk-ska bands in the game.  Between a large number of releases, massive touring schedule, clever packaging, and quality of music, Less Than Jake has stood as the untouched king of the ska-punk mountain.

Last year, citing touring fatigue, Fiorello announced an exit from the band. LTJ made a seamless transition by incorporating veteran pop-punk drummer Matt Yonker into the mix. Beyond Yonker’s long history of drumming for Teen Idols, Screeching Weasel, and The Queers, he’d also been working with LTJ in a back of house capacity. He was a perfect fit.

With Yonker comfortably taking over the stool, the band dove right into new material. On December 11th they will release their 9th studio album, Silver Linings. It’s a down to brass tacks ska record, with a very much needed upbeat sound. Leading with the single “Dear Me”, Less Than Jake demonstrates that they’re making some of their most exciting music to date.

I sat down with Matt, and we discussed the pop-punk glory days, the upcoming album, and music in the time of the COVID.

You’ve been attached to a lot of pop-punk royalty over the years. You must have a ton of interesting stories.

Oh man, so many. Ok. Teen Idols were on tour with NOFX, it was our first big US tour. We had toured with mid-sized bands, but this was with No Use For A Name and NOFX, which was just mind-blowing every night. We were in North Carolina and a bunch of stuff went down in the venue, and some guys said they’d meet us all outside. And sure enough, as we were packing up one of the guys from No Use For A Name runs in and yells “Teen Idols! Fight!”

So we ran outside into this 30 person brawl. NOFX and No Use For A Name’s crew are fighting all these guys. We all ended up getting arrested. Phillip and Heather from Teen Idols were charged with assault with a deadly weapon — a beer bottle — and we all ended up in jail. Fat Mike had to come down and bail us all out. This all turned into a huge lawsuit. We had just signed to Fat Wreck and they paid for all the lawyer’s fees. It got thrown out, but when it was all said and done, we started our career $80,000 in the hole. 

Damn, those were the days. It seems in the last few years, pop-punk has taken a more mature direction with bands like Pup, Knuckle Puck, and Iron Chic. Are you feeling a push towards that?

I don’t know if there’s necessarily a push, but this all works in a cycle. There’s going to be this era of fun songs, and then something happens that seems to push towards all these serious songs. It’s definitely more serious. There used to be a million bands singing about proms, but that’s gone.

How does the feel-good energy of pop-punk and ska work with the complete shitshow of a world we are experiencing?

It’s very welcome, with the virus going on. Out of the blue, we were just told to stop everything. It took me a good minute to even want to play. I was so bummed out, but after a month I just got behind the kit and just started playing fast punk stuff, and it felt unbelievably good. My thing now is putting on old pop-punk records. It could be anything from Green Day to The McCrackens. I’ll just play along to music that’s fun and it takes my brain away from all the serious stuff right now. I just try to enjoy some fun and light-hearted things. It’s much needed. 

What do you think is behind the longevity of LTJ?

Firstly, it’s the core guys in the band. The attitude is just different than a lot of other bands. It really is like a brotherhood type of thing. They’re very authentic. Bands can feel forced, but it never does with LTJ. Even on the new record, we’re trying new things. 

LTJ has been pretty consistent sound-wise since their inception. With the loss of some players, will we see any new direction?

Musically, it’s all still Less Than Jake. Lyrics will be a little different on the topic side of things. On this record, we were all open to write lyrics. Sure there are songs that are mostly just one person, but this was a collaborative record. And the lyrics don’t have to be on one topic. But it’s still solidly a LTJ record.

The new album is great. Were there any additional challenges making it during a global pandemic?

We actually made the record before the pandemic. We recorded it in November in Gainesville. The plan was to have it out in the Spring because Lagwagon and LTJ were going out in May. And then everything stopped, tours just disappeared. So we thought we’d release it in the Summer, but nothing changed. We had to put it out this year…so December 11th it is.

Beyond the album, what else can we expect to see from Less Than Jake, and yourself this year?

We have a live stream on December 11th. It’s called Latenight With Less Than Jake, and it’s not a normal show. It’s got a LTJ live set on there, but there’s plenty of surprises. People are going to be stoked, and if you’re a Less Than Jake fan you’re going to be really stoked. Everything else is still on hold. We’re recording some home shows and have some future live streams to look forward to.

Listening to anyone good?

There’s a couple. I have recorded almost everything for The Dopamines and the new demos I’ve got from them are excellent. Also, this band called The Bad Signs, which is garagey, trippy stuff. But other than that I’m just listening to the old stuff.