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Astrolabe 12: King of the downside with Less Than Jake's Chris DeMakes, time travel travails, and the cure for white women
Chris DeMakes is King of the Downside
Staying creative and productive during challenging times
A year ago, the world shut down.
For many people, work stopped, and doldrums set in as the world slammed to a standstill. Some people (like me) were left creatively paralyzed, and others, like Less Than Jake founder and guitarist Chris DeMakes, found a silver lining in the rapidly changing world. Hot off the release of his first book—a visual history of Less Than Jake called Blast From the Past—he launched a podcast in May, 2020. Over forty episodes later, Chris DeMakes a Podcast has a dedicated following, and features some of the biggest names in punk rock history—from NOFX’s Fat Mike to Mark Hoppus of Blink 182.
I marvelled watching someone launch an ambitious project while the rest of the world was dazed by a knockout punch. So I joined DeMakes for a conversation about creativity during troubling times, silver linings, and his advice for people struggling to pick their projects up off the mat.
“I never had a chance to get to that mindset,” DeMakes told me when I recollected my own experience at the beginning of the pandemic. “And I'm glad I didn't, because that could have really done a number on me, like it has a lot of my friends in the industry.”
DeMakes was quick to point out that the “industry” he was talking about included everyone along the chain of production for creative industries—from artists to editors, “promoters, booking agents, and managers. Everybody. I've seen people go through hell, because the bottom of their life dropped out.”
Less Than Jake is near-legendary when it comes to their touring schedule—a fact that hasn’t changed even as DeMakes and other bandmates enter middle age. But after recording their latest album, Silver Linings, at the tail end of 2019, the band decided to take four months off before launching a promotional tour. DeMakes saw an opportunity in that downtime.
“I had been thinking a lot at the tail end of 2019 that, you know, I'm on the back nine of my life,” DeMakes said. “I'm past middle age.”
He started wondering who he was away from the band. Less Than Jake had always fulfilled him creatively, but with young kids, and the creeping recognition of time’s onward march, DeMakes wanted to stretch himself as an individual artist.
Around the same time Less Than Jake was wrapping up Silver Linings, a friend approached DeMakes and asked if he could write her a song. “Her dad had passed away. She was having a hard time. It had been three years.” DeMakes said yes, happy to help a friend and fan of the band. He remembers her tears when she heard it for the first time, and he saw the potential his personal art had to reach people in a new way. “This bell went off,” he said. “I should write custom songs and jingles. I'm really good at it. I have these four months off, this will just give me something to do.”
Then DeMakes also started doing Zoom consultations with bands, sharing guidance and the knowledge he’d gained from decades in the music scene. He hired a manager—Chris Fafalios, founding member of Pennsylvania punk band Punchline—who one day told him, “You should start a podcast.”
“I don't want to do a podcast,” DeMakes told him. “Everybody has a podcast.”
“No, you'd be really good at it,” said Fafalios. “It should have a central theme of songwriting. Because you're doing these custom songs. It'll all tie in together.”
So Chris started DeMaking a podcast.
And then Covid hit. DeMakes’s four month hiatus became a five month hiatus, then a six month hiatus, and then an indefinite hiatus from touring that still has him trudging down to his basement office with purpose to work today. Seven days a week.
A huge reason for the show’s success is DeMakes’s focus on story—an intentional decision he made while conceptualizing the show with Fafalios. Each episode brings on a guest to discuss the songwriting origins of a single song from their back catalog—usually their most famous. It’s a fascinating deep dive into punk rock history, and DeMakes has an uncanny knack for storytelling that brings out the best in his guests.
“I told [Fafalios] that I wanted it to be complete 180 of who I am from Less Than Jake,” DeMakes revealed. While he loves telling a good fart and dick joke on stage, he wanted something different for the podcast. “I wanted it to be focused. I know people are gonna be listening in the cars with their children. This is a PG-13 podcast. I didn't want it to be dirty or crass or I wanted it to be informative and fun.”
One of the keystones of DeMakes’s podcast is the way he’s able to pull out the the best stories from his guests, humanizing their work and making it accessible. “What makes your mind tingle and your heart tingle? It’s that human emotion—and I feel that we really do get that across with the podcast.”
The best compliments, DeMakes told me, come from listeners who don’t have a technical background in songwriting, yet walk away with a better understanding of their favourite songs. So, he goes out of his way to explain jargon—like “What’s an A&R guy?”—to help listeners understand the conversation.
Crafting a persona comes naturally to a lot of musicians. It’s a skill they practice on stage, said DeMakes, and it’s transferred effortlessly to his podcast. “Back in the day, when you'd see a band, they'd say ‘And the next act is!’ because it essentially was your act. It was a routine that you practiced. That's why I got into punk rock: to piss people off, you know. And I still hold on to that, but this has a different dynamic.”
Chris DeMakes a Podcast has been a valuable social outlet for a singer who’s used to touring most days of the year, and that might be one reason why he was able to so successfully launch the project during a socially-strained time. It’s helped to keep him connected. “Not just with my friends in the business, but with other people […] making those human connections.” Chris recently hosted Mark McGrath to talk about Sugar Ray’s 1999 hit “Every Morning.” He hadn’t talked to McGrath in years. “We had a ball. We laughed our butts off. It was a great conversation, and it gives me that interaction during the week.” It’s like heading to a coffee shop to meet up with friends, he said.
Creative momentum, especially after you make it past the first adrenaline-fuelled stage, like forming the band, or writing the first chapter, is all about staying in the moment and focusing on achievable goals. “I'll get bands that do these consultations with me,” DeMakes said, “and they'll say, you know, where do you get your T-shirts made? I'm like, hey, let's back up here for a second. I haven't heard one song from you guys yet. I don't want to talk about your T-shirts.” DeMakes cautions about getting too far ahead of yourself, and never taking those first steps because you’re thinking a thousand miles down the road.
“The song always comes first. After you get the song, then you can make another song. When you get enough songs, you can go play your friend's party, or you can go play the local bar. Then someone goes ‘Well, hey, do you have any of these recorded?’ No. ‘Well, I have a record label. You want to put these songs out on my label?’ Well, you’ve got to go record it.”
One achievable step at a time.
“Staying in the moment is really important for me,” DeMakes said. “Especially with something like this.” For him, it’s all about know what the next step is going to be. “What do I have to do today? Some people might get up, and that's the dread they're feeling: I'm lost. I don't know what to do today.
“Pick up the pen, start writing about your feelings, write them down. If you end up writing for eight hours one day, and that's all that you did, you have eight hours of journaling that you may be able to turn into a book.
“You may be able to help somebody with those writings.”
Chris DeMakes is the co-founder, vocalist, and guitarist for Gainesville, Florida’s Less Than Jake. He can be found on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Cameo. Blast from the Past is available now from Smartpunk.
Announcing Transmission Received
This interview above is the first of many planned for future issues of Astrolabe. As part of my initiative to launch new paid subscriptions, I plan to broaden the scope of Astrolabe’s conversation by bringing in a variety of guests for focused discussion. These topics will include everything from the conversation you just read about creativity during troubling times to wrestling, releasing a pandemic book during an actual pandemic to the similarity between SFF and sports fandom.
In addition to their appearance in the free mainline Astrolabe issues, I’m also announcing a new series called Transmission Received. A few days after each new issue of Astrolabe featuring a guest, I’ll be publishing the full interview (via YouTube video or text transcription) in a separate mailing! This will be a regular, ongoing feature for Astrolabe—but while these will be free emails at first, they will eventually become exclusive to paying subscribers.
So, get ahead of the curve and subscribe today!
Out & About
(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)
Over at Uncanny Magazine, you can now read my essay “Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood” for free! It’s a deep look at how Miyazaki uses magic to highlight the divergence between childhood and adulthood in three of his most famous films: My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, and Spirited Away.
It’s difficult to ascertain in Miyazaki’s films whether the magical elements occurring on screen are real—or a figment of the beautiful imaginations of children untainted by responsibility, unjaded by social pressures of adolescence, unburdened by the backbreaking demands of adulthood.
Ask any child and they’d tell you the magic is real. These are stories told through the eyes of children. To them, massive oak trees sprouting overnight, goldfish that turn into little girls, and soot gremlins inhabiting shadowy corners are, of course, a facet of reality. Their reality. If you look more closely, however, you can see the adults skirting the edges of these films are also affected in small ways by the natural magical world.
The children and their parents are living in different worlds, and the truth lies somewhere between them.
This is one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written, and I poured a lot of my experience a parent into it. So, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.
Open Your Eyes: Link’s Awakening (Switch, 2019) (Insert Cartridge)
LTTP—Let’s Play Chrono Trigger (1995, SNES)
( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)
Late to the Party is a little different this week! Instead of a single episode devoted to a game y’all helped me chose on Twitter, I’d like to shine some light on a related project I’ve been working on for the past couple months: “Let’s Play Chrono Trigger.”
It’s impossible to read Astrolabe or follow me on Twitter and not pick up on my lifelong love for classic SNES game Chrono Trigger. Last year I wrote a deep (deeeeeeeeep) dive look at the history of the game and the people who made it called “Timeless: A History of Chrono Trigger.” This year I launched a companion streaming series where I’m playing through it one episode at a time. “Let’s Play Chrono Trigger” happens every Tuesday on Twitch, and I’m currently about halfway through the game. Poor, Crono.
If you haven’t already, join me and other readers for this casual, fun playthrough of one of the best Japanese RPGs of all time. Whether you’re a big Chrono Trigger fan, a newcomer to games, or just curious why I love it so much, “Let’s Play Chrono Trigger” is sure to please you.
Need to catch up? I’ve got a playlist of archived Let’s Play Chrono Trigger VODs starting with the very first episode on my YouTube channel! I’m looking to grow my audience on Twitch and YouTube, so give me a follow, subscribe, hit the notification button, like the videos, and SHARE!
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies was passed down to me from my wife’s book club, and I was wholly unprepared for what a riveting, gutting, hilarious, and touching book I was about to read. Noopiming follows several characters through stories that span from spiritual heights to the idiosyncrasies of daily life in a modern Canadian landscape dominated by colonial society, from the routines of racoons to the migratory instincts of geese, and the importance of a good deal on a tarp. Simpson has an utterly compelling voice, infusing her characters with charm and heartache, and stories that have stayed with me for weeks since turning the final page. As a white reader, this felt like a glimpse into something larger than my own personal experience, and a challenge to recognize my place within colonialism and Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples since its inception. I’m immensely grateful to Simpson for lending me the the window to look through.
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is available now from House of Anansi Press.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
YouTube: The Life of Satoru Iwata (Gaming Historian)
"Qanon for nerds": Fandom isn't immune to online radicalization (Transfer Orbit)
Pokémon Is a Huge Hit Because It’s Cooperative (The Verge)
Panzer Dragoon Saga: An oral history (Polygon)
The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free (Current Affairs)
Whew! I’m so excited to be announce Transmission Received, and cannot wait to bring more stories and voices to Astrolabe. It’s impossible to understate how much Less Than Jake has meant to me for the majority of my life, so bringing Chris on board for this interview was a literal dream come true. Let me know what you think of the new series by leaving a comment here or messaging me on Twitter!
There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!