By Adam Lovinus
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Ah, the glories of being an American ska band in the 1990s. Back then, the third wave of the Jamaica-bred genre collided with mainstream music, allowing bands such as No Doubt, Goldfinger and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to showcase their sunny sound on movie soundtracks and the Billboard charts. But by the time 2000 rolled in, ska was quickly going out of fashion, gradually following the swing revival toward the wasteland of dated '90s sounds. Even some of the biggest names ditched their brass sections and rebranded themselves as rock and pop acts. That might've been fine for other bands of ska-ship jumpers, but Reel Big Fish vowed to do no such thing.
The Orange County outfit—best known for "Sell Out" and covering A-ha's "Take On Me" for the BASEketball soundtrack—were a major '90s-ska success story who have held fast to the genre, despite the shifting tides of popular music, from their breakout days with 1996's sophomore effort Turn the Radio Off (during the beginning of their FM popularity) to 2009's Fame, Fortune and Fornication. "I feel pretty lucky, being a part of this band because now that it's been around for 20 years, there's a certain respect that starts to come, [having] been around for this long and still [playing] to a thousand or more people every night," drummer Ryland Steen says. "Whenever we play festivals, we always have all these younger bands—screamo, metal-type, all sorts of bands—coming up to us before we play, like, 'Oh, I've been listening to you guys for years.'"
However, he also admits that in recent years, ska is sometimes treated as though it's a red-headed stepchild by those who used to go to Reel Big Fish shows in their younger years and skank the night away.
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Steen is in a curious position as a newer member of the band's six-piece lineup. The affable Lincoln, Nebraska-bred, Orange-based drummer joined Reel Big Fish in 2005 after building his résumé as a session player and sideman for Maroon 5, American Idol's Kris Allen and Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens, among others. Realistically, Reel Big Fish's mainstream glory days are long gone, but Steen doesn't seem bothered by not having been around then. He argues that the band have cultivated a deep enough fan base that they're isolated from the ridicule other such groups might endure, adding that a lot of their devout followers have outlasted some of their former members (of which there are many).
"It's almost like people don't look at us as a ska/punk band anymore. They just look at us as this band that have been around for forever, and people like to come to the show and have fun," Steen says. "But to all those other haters of ska out there, I would just like to say, 'Lighten up.'"
Reel Big Fish's sound favors a bright, party-starting sensibility, but beneath those hooks, Aaron Barrett's lyrics have delivered sharp doses of self-aware sarcasm to juxtapose the sweetness and sincerity. Their new record's title, Candy Coated Fury, brilliantly sums up the group's aesthetic. Steen, meanwhile, looks at their sound as a blend of varied ideas. "We have the uptempo ska music. We have the punk. We'll even throw in some of the reggae vibe and midtempo rockers," he says, pointing to Barrett's affinity for Poison and crucial '70s/'80s ska band the Specials. "We definitely call ourselves a ska/punk band, but we have a whole lot of different influences in the music, as well."
In past interviews, Steen talked about how Reel Big Fish audiences "recycle," as teenage fans grow older and feel the need to listen to "more 'serious' music," passing their CDs onto younger brothers and sisters, creating new fans. Even so, he believes those original fans will return once they're in their late 20s or early 30s— right when they want to relive the good times of their youth.
"Our live show has always been about trying to have fun—this sort of symbiotic circle we create with the audience and the band," Steen says. "We're all here to have fun, and we're all in this together."
This article appeared in print as "Keeping It Reel: Twenty years in, ska punks Reel Big Fish are still skanking for good times' sake."