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Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t turn on MTV or the radio without hearing a horn riff blowing out of control. In the ska scene’s heyday (a.k.a. the mid-’90s), No Doubt were selling millions of records worldwide while still playing local shows. Every coming-of-age movie had a soundtrack marked with a Goldfinger song. And Save Ferris, the Aquabats and Reel Big Fish were drawing consistent, thousand-strong crowds everywhere from clubs in Huntington Beach to warehouses in Anaheim before they got signed and cut record deals.
As Reel Big Fish’s front man Aaron Barrett says, it did feel like a revolution, even as it was happening. “[No Doubt’s] Tragic Kingdom came out, and you heard the word ska in a lot of articles in Rolling Stone. Rancid’s ‘Timebomb’ and Sublime’s ‘Date Rape’ were out—it was huge, and we were all part of it.”
Everyone in Orange County was in the eye of the storm—it was the spot on the map where “third-wave ska” was being made, after all. Purveyor and Irvine resident Tazy Phillips, who started a radio show called Ska Parade, credited it to audiences who just wanted something fun.
Unlike Orange County’s punk-rock scene, the ska revolution wasn’t an antagonistic reaction to suburbia. “I was never into politics, and I wasn’t angry at the government—we just wanted to have fun,” Barrett says.
And the OC ska scene was made up of pure zaniness. “When it got sillier and wacky, way more kids came to shows. We definitely didn’t take ourselves seriously—we didn’t play our instruments very well, I wore Hawaiian shirts, it was all bright and colorful,” Barrett says. “The scene just happened—we watched shows and saw the way it was. It happened on its own very naturally.”
These days, Phillips says, there are signs pointing to a ska revival on a similar level. “Or, at least, I’ve seen an uptick in terms of awareness of the music, more folks attending shows.” Phillips just curated a stage for four Warped Tour dates that consistently drew the tour’s largest crowds, in no small part due to Reel Big Fish.
“It’s nice that people still want to watch us,” Barrett muses. We’re sitting at a modest studio in an Orange strip mall, where he sometimes helps Reel Big Fish’s sound guy record various local bands. He has fanned-out sideburns and a cheeky grin, and every other line he drops is self-deprecating. Not the kind of conversation you’d expect to have with a bona-fide rock star. “I like to think we’re a pretty good live band and put on a pretty good show. I love ska, and I love playing the music that we play. That’s never going to change.”
That’s not to say that Reel Big Fish (who were originally to be named Fisher King after the Robin Williams movie) haven’t weathered various challenges, such as lineup changes and label issues.
“No one thought in a million years we would put out albums and be on MTV,” Barrett says. “We’re just a bunch of nerdy guys with low self-esteem.” Barrett explains they were at the right place at the right time: In 1996, Mojo Records was looking to promote a band similar to the only one on its roster, Goldfinger. “[That band’s] singer saw us play at the Barn in Riverside and liked what we did,” Barrett says, “so we put out an album with them.”
For a little while, ska was cool in the industry, Barrett says. “But as soon as it was out, like in ’98, ’99, it was bad—no ska band could get a record deal.”
With the music industry trumpeting, “Ska is over,” bands stopped calling themselves ska—and it seemed that ska was, indeed, dead. “We’re definitely one of the few bands that always said, ‘We’re a ska band!’” Barrett says. “Not, ‘We’re rock with horns!’ Or, ‘We’re reggae!’ You can’t be ashamed of the kind of music you love and play.” (Ahem, Voodoo Glowskulls.)
Reel Big Fish never listened to the industry—even though after their first hit album was released, their record label asked for mixes of the album without horns. “We just said no, and luckily it sold ’cause then they left us alone,” Barrett says, laughing.
These days, Reel Big Fish could be seen as one of the last few local ska bands standing. Barrett credits their longevity to consistently playing music they love. “We’re definitely spreading the good word about ska music whenever we can,” he says.