Reel Big Fish Are Ska-Punk Survivors

Looking over his shoulder
Kevin Knight

Ska-Punk Survivors
OC’s Reel Big Fish remain relevant more than a decade after ‘Sell Out’

Following the ska-punk trail to stardom blazed by fellow local acts No Doubt and Sublime, Huntington Beach’s Reel Big Fish scored a breakout hit in 1997 with the self-mocking novelty number “Sell Out.” Pundits dismissed the band as a one-hit wonder; front man/primary songwriter Aaron Barrett admits that the tune has kept the group from being taken seriously. But now, more than a decade later, the music industry that “Sell Out” skewered is on life support, while a vibrant Reel Big Fish continue to entertain a rabid, global fanbase.

Despite constant lineup changes and drama with their record company (the group left Jive about four years ago), they’ve managed to issue six full-lengths, three live DVDs and regularly tour the world.

And Barrett? He has continued to express himself through fun, fast and furious ska-punk ditties, as evidenced by tracks from 1996’s Turn the Radio Off (about trying to be rock stars) and 2005’s We’re Not Happy ‘til You’re Not Happy (about dealing with being a rock star). “I’ve always just written about what was going on in the band,” he says.

Reel Big Fish are no longer signed to a major label and pretty much over the pressure of stardom. A mere distribution deal affords them greater creative freedom. “We’ve done DVDs, covers, live albums, lots more stuff,” Barrett says. Their latest release, the covers collection Fame, Fortune and Fornication, dropped about a year ago. “We don’t have to ask for permission from a record label, so we can have a fun idea and put it out—just like that,” Barrett says.

It was originally planned to be an all-Poison outing, “but I was the only person in the band who thought that was a good idea,” he adds with a chuckle.

In the end, Reel Big Fish chose just two Poison numbers—“Nothin’ But a Good Time” and “Talk Dirty to Me”—and fleshed out the rest of the record with mostly fan-surprising dad-rock stuff such as John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song,” the Eagles’ “The Long Run” and Van Morrison’s highly overworked “Brown Eyed Girl.” Incidentally, Barrett’s favorite piece of outside material—Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly”—isn’t on the album. “But I love playing that song,” he says. “We’ve been doing that one for 12 years, and it’s still my favorite.”

Reel Big Fish are working on a new record, due out next year. “The lineup is the most solid, and we have fun on- and offstage,” Barrett says. The band’s constantly evolving cast has always confused fans, but, Barrett says, it has helped their evolution—as a recording unit and live band.

Although Barrett comes into rehearsal with 75 percent of a song ready, everyone in the group is welcome to contribute. “Usually, the song will turn into something I didn’t expect, which is good,” he says.

So what will Reel Big Fish’s upcoming recordings be about?

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“Any new ideas I have are totally top secret!” Barrett declares with a good-natured laugh. “Mostly because they’re not that complete yet. . . . I don’t know; there’s always bad relationships with girls to write about.”

As hard as it is to keep huge ska-punk bands together, it’s a chore Barrett relishes. In addition to singing and leading the songwriting process, he’s also a producer. “I don’t do any of those things very well,” he says, chuckling, “I was just always the one who was too stupid to quit.”

But being “too stupid to quit” has its benefits: The band are set to play all over the U.S., Europe and Australia. The end-of-the-year, three-date Southern California tour that runs through Houses of Blues venues in Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego will be a primer for their world jaunt.

Barrett’s looking forward to playing hometown shows, even though having friends and relatives in the audience can be nerve-wracking. “But I like that I can drive to the show and back to the house in one day,” he says. “I like living in Orange County, in suburbia. It’s quieter.”

So is playing exuberant ska punk Barrett’s reaction to the calm of OC? “Nah, I always liked ska because it’s fun and fun to dance to,” he maintains. “I just heard it and knew it was my favorite music ever.”

Reel Big Fish at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778–2583; Mon., 8 p.m. $23.50-$26.50.

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