Ska-Punk Veterans Pepper and Less Than Jake Bring Co-headlining Tour to the Agora

click to enlarge Ska-Punk Veterans Pepper and Less Than Jake Bring Co-headlining Tour to the Agora
Jodie Cunningham
Two veteran ska-punk acts who first met each other about 15 years when they were both on Warped Tour, Less Than Jake [pictured] and Pepper stand out as survivors. Currently on a co-headlining tour, the two acts each spent time on major labels before reverting to the indies for their latest releases.

On their new album, Ohana, the guys in Pepper channel the spirit of Sublime with tunes such as "Start You Up" and "The Invite." Less Than Jake sounds particularly fired up on its new EP, Sound the Alarm. The album commences with the snotty punk number "Call to Arms" and includes several rousing, horn-driven tunes.

St. Pauli, the Hamburg football club that welcomes refugees (imagine that!) and supports charities, is the tour's sponsor.

In separate interviews, Less Than Jake’s Chris DeMakes and Pepper’s Yesod Williams spoke about the tour,
which brings the bands to the Agora at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.

How do the two bands know each other?
DeMakes: We’ve known the Pepper guys for years. They’ve been doing Warped Tour for a long time beside us. We got to know them out there. We did a tour in England in 2008 and got to know them then. We’ve been talking about doing another tour together. We were just on the Warped Tour with them this past summer. Us and them and Reel Big Fish and a few select other bands were flying the geriatric flag. While on that tour, we realized we needed to do a tour together. We got our combined acts together and now, here we are.
Williams: It started a long time ago. We’ve both been doing Warped Tours and we met first in 2001 I think. We just met in passing that year. Flash forward a few years later and then we went to the UK together. We spent about a month just in the UK together doing 21 shows. That’s a great place to get to know each other. It was rainy and cold every day and we just had each other to hang out with. We had a blast. Being elders in the business, we got to learn so much from [Less Than Jake]. We call them our uncles, even to this day.

Tell me about St. Pauli, the tour’s sponsor.
DeMakes: They’re trying to break German football/soccer into the United States. They’re looking at different ways to reach out to a different audience. It’s been great so far. They have all sorts of great merch — hoodies and hats and stuff.
Williams: First of all, I had to get up to speed with what St. Pauli is because it’s a soccer team in Hamburg, Germany. They’re forward-thinking and super progressive. They’re good friends with lots of bands like Dropkick Murphys and Streetlight Manifesto.  I’ve been told that they’re like the Raiders. Last year, they didn’t have the best record but they sell more merch than anyone because the logo is a skull and crossbones. It makes total sense. They got us to fly the flag out there for them. It’s super rad. We’ve been wearing their clothes too.

What first drew you to punk rock?
DeMakes: We played our first show in July of 1992. What got me into it is I like punk rock’s simplicity, I guess. It’s so different from what was going on in the '80s. Everything was big with the hair and the clothes and the look. Music was bloated and overinflated. Punk rock was refreshing when I heard it. It was regular guys who had learned three chords, but it had substance too. It just hit home with me.
Williams: I think for me personally, it was the videos we would see. I remember the Sublime documentary and seeing footage of Gwen Stefani. It wasn’t so much a genre but a crazy ball of energy we were seeing on things like the Warped Tour. That was more the draw. It was just a different kind of thing.

How did you discover ska specifically?
It’s funny. The sound of ska was starting to show up on punk rock records. There would be one ska song. I was introduced to bands like Operation Ivy and Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Fishbone. That’s when it all clicked. Prior to that, I didn’t know what ska was but heard bits and pieces of songs and a lightbulb went on. I lived in a really small retirement community in Florida. We didn’t have any record stores. This was pre-internet. It was more difficult to find out about music.
Williams: For the 2-Tone style, I first got into Bob Marley and then as I listened to him more, I started branching off into different styles.

Talk about how the songs started to come together for your new album.
We had a busy touring year last year. We had written double the amount of songs that are on the EP. We had enough to do a full album. We knew we wanted to have new music out for this tour and that it was better to have an EP out than have nothing out at all. I don’t know if we’ll go back and mine the songs that didn’t make the EP for the next project. The seven songs we put on the record were the strongest. There’s a good chance we’ll start from scratch. We were scrambling for a title and “sound the alarm” was a lyric in the first song on the record and we gravitated to that. It does relate to what’s been going on, but we’ve never jumped into the political or religious arena. That’s the cool thing about lyrics. You can take from them what you want. If the song means something to you from a political perspective, that’s awesome.
Williams: I think the main thing we always talk about is that we acquired our own studio in Redondo Beach. It’s Pennywise’s old place. The goal is to get in there and just jam and play as three guys as this band that started in the first place to just get together and play some music. It just sounds like three dudes playing in a studio. We’re trying to emphasize our roots and where we came from. It’s like with the Warped Tour. We’re not trying to chase a sound. It’s more about getting back to that thing that defines us. It’s great to play these summertime songs in winter and bring some sun with us.

At one point in your musical career, you signed to a major label. What was that experience like?
We put out a bunch of records and have been on several labels. At one point, Capitol Records showed interest in the band. We did three records for them technically. With the third one, we left the label and Fat Wreck Chords put out the third record we were supposed to release with Capitol. Then, we signed with Warner Bros. The experience was good. It was different. Labels had money back then. They had marketing money. That’s not out there anymore. There aren’t too many labels with that kind of marketing money. The deals are structured so that labels take some of the band’s merch and concert tickets sales too.
Williams: There were a couple actually. We were on Atlantic for our self-titled record in 2013. We’ve been down different routes. If someone wants to use our song in a commercial, you have to run it up the flagpole. Now, with Ohana, if we want to license our songs, we don’t have to go through that process. We might not have as much pull for those types of things, but we have the freedom, which is awesome. Like anything else, there are ups and downs.

So many of your musical peers have stopped touring and recording. What’s kept you going after all these years?
We just kept it equal, monetarily. We figured from early on that’s why bands beak up. It’s because things aren’t fair. We’re all involved in the decisions. We have the same decision making input as when we started. The money thing is funny. You have bands out there where it’s just the singer and guitar player and everyone else gets replace. A lot of times, the singer will be living in a mansion and the other guys will be eating peanut butter and jelly.
Williams: We’re just having a good time and making sure we’re not just stagnant. I always chalk it up to the fact that we were friends before we started the band.

Talk about how the current tour has brought together generations of fans.
This tour’s been great. We do see the different generations. Parents come out with their children and that’s super cool. Sometimes, the kids are even bigger fans than their parents.
Williams: Oh yeah. It’s amazing. There are people who have been with us the whole time and they bring their kids. It’s very humbling.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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