The Deep

The dark side of Reel Big Fish

If you can stand it, allow me, for a minute, to tell you about yourself.

You have grown up watching MTV and reading magazines. You have been taught to believe that fame brings happiness, that famous people are happy, and that you should want to be famous. Even though you've heard stories about famous people who aren't happy, half of you doesn't really believe them and half doesn't care because nothing will shake your fundamental belief that it's cool to be famous.

And if there's one thing you can't, cannot stand, it's famous people complaining about fame. I mean, talk about ingratitude. If fame is so hard, you think, why don't they just switch places with you and they can go flip burgers or be an office drone and you can go be famous?

If this is how you feel, you're going to want to push Reel Big Fish singer Aaron Barrett's quandary aside because it's a bummer. And when he describes being backstage at rock concerts ("There's nothing back there. It's just a bunch of guys eating Chee-tos"), you're going to want to make him stop. Make him just go back to talking about all the fun and the cool things he gets to do, all the fun and cool people he gets to meet, and how his life is fun and cool.

It is, damn it, you just know it is, even if he doesn't. And the really crazy, sick thing about it all is that fame is such a narcotic that even famous people who are unhappy continue to believe the myth, even though they're living proof that it's just a myth, and they continue—confused—to wait for fame to work its magic and make them feel happy and famous. And then they're really fucked because not only are they unhappy, but also no one understands why they're unhappy—because, fuck, they're famous!

"There's just so much stuff to worry about," says Barrett. He's sitting in his manager's office and dressed in black. He cannot stop squirming in his chair. He rocks back onto the chair's hind legs. He bounces his leg rapidly up and down. He fidgets with his ring (a large metal ring that says ROCK), twisting it around and then pulling it off and pushing it back onto his finger. His movements suggest, ever so slightly, those of a caged animal.

After touring extensively in support of their last album, 1998's Why Do They Rock So Hard?, the OC six-piece ska-pop-rock band is now ready to record their follow-up. Before they do, though, they must write songs in the presence of their chosen producer, Val Garay.

Four or five months ago, the band recorded a few songs and gave them to their label, Mojo. The label rejected the songs and sent the band back to write different ones. In retrospect, Barrett is happy this happened.

"They were okay," he says. "They were cute little catchy songs, but they weren't amazing, and that's what we need right now." But amazing is hard to shoot for, especially when you have writer's block—which is caused, perhaps, because you're shooting for amazing.

"Are people going to like this? Are we going to like this? Is the record company going to like this?" asks Barrett, allowing you to hear the thoughts that go through his head when he tries to write songs. He pauses and then heads back into the litany: "Is the radio going to play this? Are the kids that like us now going to like us when this comes out? How can I . . ."

He stops himself. "Do I have to get a job?"

When Barrett says something that sounds self-pitying or sad, or maybe weird, and he doesn't know how you're going to take it, he lets out this little sound that's a cross between a sigh and a laugh. And, because he's goofy and charming and animated and ill-at-ease but in a non-alarming way, it would be possible to sit through an entire conversation with him without ever really feeling the full weight of what he's saying, which is probably how he wants it. There's a strange disconnect between what he says and how he sounds while saying it.

The same could be said of Reel Big Fish's music, which makes an art form of self-deprecation, pessimism and sarcasm (title of their first album: Everything Sucks) while sounding peppy and happy and catchy and funny and fun. This chasm is not unusual in third-wave ska—horns seem predisposed to sounding happy, and musicians are predisposed to unhappiness—but it's more pronounced in Reel Big Fish, used more effectively as a constant attention-grabber.

"I just wrote a song that's fast and kind of bouncy. It sounds like an anthem," says Barrett. And the lyrics? "I got a funny feeling that we're all born to lose/I got a funny feeling that this life ain't worth living through."

Barrett lets out a big, huge, uncomfortable laugh. "That's the last one I wrote."

Another new song called "Brand New Hero" has the lyrics "I've got big dreams but no self-esteem/I'd reach for the stars but I can't find my arms/All this time we've accomplished so much/Why can't I believe? Why can't I feel loved?/I'm going away/I'm leaving today/You've got to find a brand-new hero."

This time, you let out the big, uncomfortable laugh—partly because Barrett is recounting the lyrics like an exaggerated Sunday-morning preacher and partly because they're just so, well, sad.

"I don't think we're really anything right now," he says. "People think we're big and famous and huge and popular, and a lot of people know who we are. But when I first started and I was dreaming of fame and fortune and rock stardom and stuff, well . . ."

(Big pause)

" . . . this isn't . . ."

(Big pause)

" . . . it." And then a big laugh.

"Do you think you'll ever feel like you're famous?" you ask.

"Yeah, if we had a big hit that was on the radio all the time and on the charts and in the Top 10. If I were walking down the street and people recognized me. That's famous. That's fun." He pauses. "I'd probably hate that, too."

"But do you want that?" you ask.

"As far as I know, that's what I want," he says.

"Are you more insecure now?" you ask.

"Probably, I'd say so," he says. "It's hard to explain. I think what's depressing is when people tell you you're great and you don't think you're that cool." He laughs and exhales.

"See the way I talk? That's the way I write. It doesn't make any sense. Sometimes I feel old, but I also feel like a little kid who can't do anything for himself," he says. "I'm shy and stupid and stuff, and, like, I can't, you know . . . if I didn't have a band and a manager to take care of me . . ."

He lets his voice trail off and picks at something on the edge of his manager's desk.

"I think Aaron's the type of guy who wants to have a good time, who wants to be happy, who wants everyone to be happy and enjoy things," says the band's manager, Vince Pileggi. "But then he's got a really dark side—and I mean a really dark side—that I don't think people realize."

Reel Big Fish and a whole messa bands play the Sixth Annual Fullerton Earth Day Festival at the Hub Cafe, 124 E. Commonwealth Ave. (in Amtrak Station parking lot, does not face street), Fullerton, (714) 871-7469. Sat., 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Free. All ages.
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