Rank Your Records: Less Than Jake's Vinnie Fiorello Rates the Ska-Punk Band's Eight Albums

Gainesville's finest looks back at their catalog, from 'Pezcore' to 'See the Light.'

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Jun 25 2015, 4:16pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

In the mid-90s, a catchy, pulsating sonic wave began to spread across the US and the rest of the world. A combination of traditional, rhythmic ska and the fast, melodic punk rock—ska-punk, ska-core, or whatever you want to label it was a fusion that became the characteristic sound of commercial rock and roll during that time. One of the bands leading that wave was—and is—Less Than Jake. Less Than Jake drummer and song writer Vinnie Fiorello says that being the torchbearers of this “third wave of ska” was a purely an accidental role, if not a reluctant one.

“We didn’t really fit in any genre at the time,” Fiorello says just minutes after a show in Charlotte, North Carolina. “When we started, there was no blueprint to write a song. We’re just writing songs we were really influenced by and we were influenced by Operation Ivy, early Green Day, Screeching Weasel, early Descendents. The closest facsimile to what we were doing was Op Ivy and Mighty Mighty Bosstones. We just wanted a different swing to it and add that East Bay punk influence to it.”

He says the role, at times, “could be a fucking burden,” but something he has found some peace with over the 23 years being in the band.

“People pigeonholed us and was like, ‘This is the type of band you are, it doesn’t matter what song you write, you’re still a frat, party band,’ he says. “It was laughable at times, especially reading reviews of like, In With the Out Crowd record, which was the farthest cry from what a frat, party-ska band was. At times, it was a bit overwhelming to be in this genre, but now, man, to be honest with you, it’s great because there are a lot of awesome memories and a lot of great things I see for the future. We’re comfortable in our own skin now and we’re doing it ourselves, which is a great thing.”

And even when the fast guitars and pulsating horns became less prominent on the airwaves, Less Than Jake has continued to forge ahead releasing eight quality full-lengths as well as numerous EPs and live albums. During one of many tours with fellow ska-punkers Reel Big Fish, we asked Fiorello to take some time out of his hectic schedule to rank the band’s albums, and to reflect on what has been an interesting and unconventional musical career.

8. GNV FLA (2008)

Why is this the least favorite?
I think I look at it as a transition record. We weren’t on a major anymore and on the record before we kind of jumped out of the box and veered as far away from our original sound as it possibly could be. With GNV FLA, we recorded it in Chicago with Matt Allison. That was a great thing and he was a great dude, but it was in the winter and my focus was a bit dark on the lyrical side. I don’t know… I just feel the overall production is stiff and dark. It’s not so much the songs, I don’t think, it just feels stiff and I think we were searching for something else at the time as far as where we were going to from In With the Out Crowd.

Was the whole album a bit of a tribute to your hometown?
Yeah absolutely. It was tribute to the state of Florida. I focused a lot on the darker side of what Florida has, instead of the good things. I concentrated on drug dealers and tourists and real estate scams and trailer parks and transients. It seems very odd for a Less Than Jake record if you look at the subject matter, but it’s where I was. There’s a song on there that’s about a guy self-immolating, which is setting yourself on fire. [Laughs] So it was definitely a darker record lyrically and it was the end of winter in Chicago so I kind of colored it with where I was at as well.

7. In With the Out Crowd (2006)

I read previously that you described this as a mix of Hello Rockview, Borders & Boundaries, and Anthem. Do you still feel that way?
Yes. In retrospect though, it wasn’t any of those things. At the time, I was trying to describe how we pulled all of our influences into it, but that wasn’t really the case. We were under a super, super amount of pressure from the record label to work with producers that had hit songs. And when we were writing it, we were like, ‘We really don’t want this and we want this,’ but the harsh reality was that at Warner Brothers, if we didn’t work with certain producers, our record would be shelved—they would make us write and write and write until they thought we had a hit song. So we picked Howard Benson who we had worked with on Hello Rockview. He had massive success with other bands. But Howard had a very different view of production and mixing and a very different headspace than what we wanted, so we found ourselves boxed in. I think there are really good songs on there and unlike anything we’ve ever written and that’s a good thing, but the mix and production on it is flawed. Instead of showing off who Less Than Jake was as a high-energy entity, it was drawn back and glossed over and slowed down. At the time it was different, but now when we play “Overrated,” or “Landmines and Landslides,” or “Rest of My Life,” the crowd embraces them now because they’ve gotten over the overblown production of it all.

I remember how this album had a lot less horns on it…
It did. Again, I think it was in that search for a song that could get us success. Whether that was with horns or without horns, it was just searching for the song that could get us to the next point in the label. We stand by the songs and the songwriting, but the production and mix was flawed and it was flawed because we were between a rock and a hard place. Howard is very talented at what he does, but it wasn’t who we were at the time.

6. Borders & Boundaries (2000)

How do you feel about this one?
At the time, it was great. We were coming off of touring nine months out of the year, we had half the songs written, and this was our first chance after moving to Los Angeles to record at a famous studio called Grandmaster. It was in Hollywood and we were excited. We had Steve Kravak, who had done friends of ours, MxPx. It was an exciting time and was our third record for Capitol and also we had new management. It was cool and was our first time recording away from home and it was a blast. But weirdly enough, at the end of the recording, our bari sax player, Derron [Nuhfer], said “I’m going on this next tour but I’m not going to be in the band anymore.” So it got colored in a bad way because of it, but other than that, I have nothing but good to say. For the songs, for the time period and recording it, I feel nothing but the warm feels for it.

Was there some confusion at the time about what label it was coming out on?
Yeah, there was, absolutely. When we were recording it, we thought, 100 percent, it was coming out on Capitol Records. After it was all said and done and we submitted the finished mix, there was a new president that came in who was very R&B, rap and pop-focused—his name was Roy Lott. So he wasn’t feeling the band at all and he said, “I can put the record out if you want, but I don’t know how it fits into the vision of what Capitol is now.” So we said, “That’s cool. Let us out of our contract.” And we went somewhere else, which was Fat Wreck Chords. We had submitted to Fat before but they denied us. Funny enough, I still have the paper of the pass—it said “Don’t quit your day jobs.” [Laughs] So we thought they were the right label and they agreed and Borders & Boundaries came out of Fat Wreck Chords. Thankfully, that was the right move.

When a major label says you can take your record back and you’re not even worried about it in the least and don’t give a fuck and you still believe in it and you’re like, “We’re charging forward anyway,” it’s liberating and awesome.

5. Hello Rockview (1998)

This one is probably my favorite.
Yeah, it was the first time we worked with Howard Benson and was recorded in Gainesville out at Mirror Image. Man, we didn’t have any songs for it at first. We had some rough demos, we were touring a lot, and we didn’t have shit—we wrote most of the record in the studio, on the fly.

A pretty spontaneous record then.
Yeah, it was spontaneous, but you knew everything was going to be okay because there was so much energy collected from being on tour—it was going to be cool because we believed in it so much. I mean, we had a few ideas beforehand like “History of a Boring Town” and a few other songs, but that was it. It was wild.

Is it a concept record?
It turned into a concept record because the art, but for the most part, lyrically, I was focused a lot on things behind me… things that happened in the past. It definitely turned into a concept record about me, turning the page. Like, I used to live in New Jersey and then I moved down to Florida and this is my life now and me moving forward. That was Hello Rockview, the title says it all. Rockview is prison in Pennsylvania and when we’d go play State College, I’d always see the prison. It always struck me as a funny thing in that these suburbs, this is what locks us into who we are and who we’re going to be. So Hello Rockview is like a “hello” to this prison of suburbia and my struggle to get out of that.

On your Wikipedia page, it says the album was dedicated to Niki Wood. Who was that?
She had worked with Howard Benson and got hit by a car and passed away right at the end of our session. It was really weird how such a jubilant thing ended with this dark exclamation point. We decided it was the right thing to do and the dedication made sense and still makes sense to this day.

4. Losing Streak (1996)

Would you say this is the album that made you big?
This was on the crest of us getting bigger and bigger and then Losing Streak came out—it was on crest of that wave that was going on. On this one, we had worked with Mike Rosen, who had done some AFI records, and we liked what he was doing. We had about the half the record written and the other half was just sketchy ideas. For this, we went down to Miami and stayed on Roger’s [Lima, bassist] mom’s floor. That’s just who we were at that time.

I heard MTV refused to air the video for “Dopeman.” Is that right?
Yeah, their censors, when we submitted the video, had a lot of issues with the lyrical content and the poppiness of it. They just flat-out said no, it’s not going to happen. If we did want it to happen, we would have had to do a bunch of other things to make it right, which we didn’t do. We had spent a bunch of money on the video and they were basically asking us to spend it again which we couldn’t do.

3. Pezcore (1995)

Your next pick is your first full-length, Pezcore. Were those pretty exciting times?
It was awesome, man. We were doing a lot of singles, playing some shows around the state and out of the state a bit and we were going to a warehouse we rented three, four, five nights a week and working on songs and learning how to be a band. At that time, nobody was really doing what we were doing except for Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Operation Ivy, and The Clash as far as mixing ska and punk. When we were there, mixing the two together, we weren’t sure if it was working or not. After Pezcore came out, we found a lot of likeminded bands that were following the same course at the same time as we were. Slapstick was one of those—they were our brother-band at the time and we found them after that fact. It was a great time to be in Less Than Jake.

Is it true that it’s named after Roger’s collection of Pez dispensers?
Yeah, actually both of us started collecting around the same time. It’s obviously named after the candy dispenser, but it was more so a mock on everything else. I mean, you had skacore and you had hardcore and all these other genres, and everyone was trying put a band in a place and pigeonhole them. We were taking a piss out of it and making fun of it and making fun of people trying to put us in a certain category.

2. Anthem (2003)

This was a pretty successful record, commercially.
It was our most commercially successful record. We worked with our dream producer and that was Rob Cavallo who’s worked with Green Day and a lot other bands we respected. We were blown away that he wanted to bring his ears and eyes and head into what we were doing. At the time, I learned a lot of personal things about being in a band and writing songs and being in the music industry. It was one of those moments… we recorded the bass and drums in this crazy-old studio in New Orleans and had this woman who did voodoo come over and the bless the session. And then from there, we took it to Morning View Studios out in Malibu, which is this massive house that’s a block and a half away from the beach. We stayed there for weeks and weeks and weeks. We lived the lifestyle. That was our first record for Warner Brothers and we did what we wanted to do. Not only did we record Anthem at the time, but we also tracked B Is for B-sides, another full record. As far as writing songs go, it was the most fertile time for the band. Not to sound cliché but we were living the dream.

And on top of all of that, you got artists to do pieces for each song?
Yes. Every song had a piece of artwork. Each song had a different modern artist do their take on it. We had like, David Choe, Camille Rose Garcia, Shepard Fairey—some great artists and it was amazing. All together, we just were at the highest high we could be at.

1. See the Light (2013)

See the Light was your first full-length in close to five years. Why the wait? Taking a break?
We didn’t really have a break. We did a bunch of EPs during that time—we did TV/EP, Greetings from (Less Than Jake), and then Seasons Greetings (from Less Than Jake). So we were still writing songs and we were releasing music, but for once, we just resisted the full-length. People don’t really consume records anymore—they just consume songs. When we decided we wanted to have a full thought, we did See the Light.

Lyrically, it’s super-positive. We were looking through this dark tunnel and seeing the light at the end of that tunnel. We hadn’t done a super-positive record in a long time. So, it was just an amazing moment.

Why is this your number one?
Because it was the first record in a really long time that had no fingerprints of other people influencing how we did things. Roger produced it and tracked it at his home studio. We did everything we wanted to do. We sat in a large circle while we were writing songs and called bullshit on each other when we had to, we supported each other and we threw out ideas when we had to—it was a very democratic and very organic process of writing songs. We got to record it in the Blasting Room, Bill Stevenson’s studio—he mixed it. It was a liberating moment. 20 or so years in, it was a liberating moment to do everything ourselves and led the charge.

When you look back on all of the records we’ve done, See the Light is all of us and that’s an awesome feeling after all the time. All of the lessons we learning with song writing over the years and on all of our albums, we applied to See the Light. So when you listen to that album, you’re listening to influences from two decades. That’s why it’s number one for me.