It’s an especially hot fall weekend in Chicago, and scads of punk bands have migrated to a few of the city’s top venues for weekend residencies. The reason? Riot Fest. Now in its sixth year, this midwest mainstay has assembled perhaps its biggest lineup yet. The weekend will see performances from keystones of the punk rock world like Bad Religion, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Jello Biafra, and dozens more. Among those taking the stage: Less Than Jake, whose performance coincides with the release of their latest album, a cover record of songs from the boob tube called TV/EP (read my review).
I sat down with band front-man and guitarist Chris Demakes on the afternoon of Less Than Jake’s Riot Fest performance, at which they would debut several tracks off TV/EP. We took shelter in the ultra-swanky Red Bull Scenic Cruiser parked in front of the historic Congress Theater, which the band would later rock. Chris took a few minutes post-sound check to talk with me about commercials, Grease, Cheap Trick, and standing tall on the wings of one’s dreams.
Let’s start with the obvious. Why did you guys do an album of TV covers? What was the idea behind that?
You know, early on in our band’s existence we did a lot of cover songs, and it had been awhile since we’d done anything like that. We contemplated what our next move was in terms of recording new music. We hadn’t put a record out in awhile, and it’s to the point now where doing a full-length release kind of seems silly to us. So we’re gonna probably just do little EP projects and we wanted to do something fun and something spontaneous.
Why the songs you did? Any reason?
It was a combination of us sitting around, lots of brotherly arguments – “that song’s lame, dude, f*ck that” or “that’s cool, we should do that” – and it finally just ended up with those 15 or 16 tidbits. There were more ideas on the table but they kind of went to the cutting room floor.
Were there any songs that almost made the cut, that were right there until the end?
No, not really. It was stuff we didn’t actually rehearse, but stuff we had talked about doing. We talked about maybe doing the Jeffersons theme at one point, a couple other ones, but it didn’t come to fruition.
Perfect Strangers was my hope. I was a little sad that wasn’t on there.
It’s funny that you should say that, because our trombone player Buddy wanted to do that.
Maybe a sequel or a “season two” some time?
Oh yeah, and Perfect Strangers will probably make that. Can you turn that off real quick? I want to call Buddy.
[At this point in the interview, I turn off my audio recorder so Chris can call his trombone player and tell him he’s got another vote for the Perfect Strangers theme. I switch the recorder back on just in time for Chris to prove that he does indeed know how to sing that song.]
“Standing tall… on the wings of my dreams!” We listened to it, we just didn’t rehearse it.
It’s powerful, man. Powerful. Any favorites on TV/EP for you… songs or shows?
I just think for the sheer ridiculous obscureness of the song, the “Pac Man Cereal” commercial.
Yeah, I’d never heard that before!
That one, to me, is hilarious because most people that are listening to our band probably weren’t even alive when that cereal was around in the early ’80s.
“Toys R Us Kid” was another one … I don’t think they’ve used that jingle for decades.
No, it’s been awhile.
I like that you slid in some songs from “real” recording artists, like They Might Be Giants and Big Star/Cheap Trick. Was that intentional?
It wasn’t really intentional, we just happen to like those songs. We thought we could do cool renditions of them. The only song we really bastardized was “That ’70s Show;” we added a second verse that was actually Cheap Trick’s second verse but we kind of made it our own.
Let’s switch to more general cover talk for a second. You guys are no stranger to covers; you’ve done a ton throughout your career. Any that stay in the regular set, any favorites of yours?
You know, not really. We haven’t really done too many covers in our set in awhile. We were doing a Cheap Trick cover, “Surrender,” that was on our Anthem record; we played that every now and again, but this has opened up an opportunity for us to delve back into some of that stuff hopefully.
Do you have a favorite cover you’ve done in your career? Is there one that you really look to with pride?
Probably this EP, just because we really put a lot of effort into really making sure that all the chord changes and the notes in the vocals were all… you know, we wanted to do it for real. When we did covers years ago we were on a shoestring budget, and we didn’t have time to really make things right. Now we own our own studio and we can just sit there and make it sound how we want it to sound. It’s kind of cool.
Any bands or songs you refuse to cover?
No, if you’re a musician with a halfway-open mind I think anything is fair game. Anything can be cool with the right twist; anything can be atrocious too. You gotta be careful what you cover, but no, I don’t think anything’s off limits.
This isn’t the first time you guys have done an EP of straight covers; you’ve also done Greased [a punk reading of the Grease soundtrack]. Any chance for a live performance of that? I’m talking costumes and set pieces…
Probably not. You know, that was a project that was pre-Internet. We were running a snail-mail operation out of our apartment at the time. We toured so much back then… like ten months out of the year… and we had taken these orders for this Grease record that we had promised everybody that we hadn’t recorded. So now people were sending money in and it was like “aw f*ck,” so we had to record it. We went in literally in two days and blasted it out. I know some people like that record, but I find it very difficult to listen to. It’s something that, if we were to perform it, we’d have to go back and retool some of it.
Maybe when you guys get to the “Evening With…” period of your career you can bring that out.
Yeah, sitting on stools, sipping a scotch… yeah [laughs].