Why Fans Are Still Hooked on Reel Big Fish's 3rd Wave Ska Sound

Why Fans Are Still Hooked on Reel Big Fish's 3rd Wave Ska SoundEXPAND
Jonathan Thorpe

"The record company's gonna give me lots of money, and everything's gonna be ALL RIGHT!" More prophetic words have never been written about being a young adult, but the last line of Reel Big Fish's "Sell Out" better sums up teenage angst: "I can't work in fast food all my life."

We consciously put so much emphasis on what it is to be successful, while subconsciously, we put more of an emphasis on what it is to fail. Oddly, the Orange County band became a success by writing songs about teenage failure. This song, as well as everything that is Reel Big Fish, is relatable to just about everyone, no matter your socio-economic background or where you call home. Who can't remember a day when you sang into a hairbrush or in the shower, pretending you were a rock star on some grandiose stage to a bazillion screaming fans. Sadly, as time rolls on, we grow up and our dreams of being a star fade.

Luckily, there are some people out there who can walk that walk—such as Reel Big Fish front man/guitarist Aaron Barrett.

Founded in 1991, Reel Big Fish called Huntington Beach home. They were in the right place, as Orange County is the birthplace of third-wave ska or, as some call it, ska-punk. The group's success wasn't overnight; it took a ton of gigs to perfect their stage show. They were soon signed to Mojo Records, and the indie label's president Jay Rifkin and former Oingo Boingo bassist John Avila produced their breakout album, Turn the Radio Off, catapulting them into the mainstream. In the spring of '97, "Sell Out" received heavy airplay from such influential radio stations as KROQ in Los Angeles. Not long after that, "Take On Me" was included in the feature film BASEketball. Reel Big Fish then found themselves on regular rotation on radio stations everywhere, as well as on MTV and VH-1.

Since their introduction to the mainstream, Reel Big Fish have produced eight studio albums, their latest being 2012's Candy Coated Fury. As with any band with longevity, Reel Big Fish have experienced a few lineup changes. After Scott Klopfenstein left the band in 2011, followed by Dan Regan two years later, their fans had a moment to pause. Some felt the band just wouldn't be the same and perhaps the end was near. But John Christianson (a.k.a. Johnny Christmas) and other band mates took up the slack in performance, sound and vision.

Reel Big Fish's current lineup includes Barrett (the sole original member), Billy Kottage on trombone, Christianson on trumpet, Matt Appleton (a.k.a. Saxl Rose) on sax, Derek Gibbs on bass and Ed Larsen on drums. Collectively, these cats put on not only a show, but also an experience. Barrett puts so much into his performances that he resembles a spinning top with his hair on fire; he has gotten so involved that he's actually fallen off the stage. The horn section mirrors Barrett's energy, belting out a heart-stopping sound.

There are few things to be said about the band's dynamite live show that haven't been written before. But what you won't get from a concert review is that the band are genuinely humble dudes. And local pride isn't lost on them; Barrett can be spotted at shows supporting up-and-coming OC bands. He and longtime engineer David Irish have offered their producing and engineering skills to dozens of bands, including Half Past Two, the Maxies and Chase Long Beach.

It takes skill for a band to stay connected with their fan base. At every Reel Big Fish gig, Barrett asks concertgoers how many of them have previously seen the band, and more often than not, about 50 percent of the crowd respond affirmatively. And you can often catch the group kickin' it with fans, shaking hands and taking endless photos. But in the end, the music is what fans love most. Fans still scream for such classics as "She Has a Girlfriend Now," "Monkey Man" and "Beer."

In honor of Turn the Radio Off's 20th anniversary, Barrett and the band are hitting the road, stopping at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana on Saturday. Where other bands of their generation have lost their ska roots, Reel Big Fish have become a staple of OC's ska community—and beyond.

Reel Big Fish perform with the Untouchables, Slime Kings and the Zero Class at the Yost Theater, 307 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (888) 862-9573; www.yosttheater.com. Sat., 7 p.m. $20. All ages.


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