Reel Big Fish Reminds Us They Loved Horns Before They Were Cool (Again)

Reel Big Fish (Credit: Jodie Cunningham)

More than 20 years after asking to “Turn the Radio Off” and being called a “Sell Out,” Reel Big Fish are back with another record to prove that (sadly?) ska didn’t die in the 1990s.

The OC-based band which consistently seems to be on tour and represent a scene that was largely abandoned by like-minded groups decades ago returns with Life Sucks… Let’s Dance, their ninth studio album and first release in six years.

Unlike past Reel Big Fish records, this one is a little less self-deprecating and more on the positive side. In a way, you can kind of blame it on a dog.

“I guess I’m in a little better place now, a little happier than I used to be,” says vocalist and lead guitarist Aaron Barrett, attributing his newfound attitude to his rescue pup, Walter, and his new bride. “So this album is not as hateful and mean and depressing and sarcastic as others have been. It’s not like I wrote this sappy, lovey-dovey, don’t worry be happy kind of cheesy album. But it does come close at times. I think it’s still very Reel Big Fish, but more of the funny, whimsical, silly RBF and not the really hateful, depressing RBF, which is what I think most people like anyway.”

Out on Dec. 21 through Rock Ridge Music, the album features 14 tracks that exemplify the dancey and horned-up sound Reel Big Fish has become known for.

Life Sucks… Let’s Dance samples a mix of genres, which Barrett said made the writing process and final product that much more enjoyable.

“I did have a lot of fun doing a little bit different stuff on some of these songs,” he says. “Not everyone has a punk part then a metal part then a reggae part, you know. I feel like in a way, some of them are ‘real songs,’ whatever that means.

There’s a couple that are pretty much just straight traditional ska, there’s some straight reggae in there, there’s one that can only be described as ‘hair metal.’ … There are a lot of good old ska-punk songs though, too. I think I’m just extra proud of the songwriting and arranging this time around. Maybe I’m finally getting better at what I do.”

The title track and “Ska Show” easily support the idea that you can’t be sad while listening to this horned-up music that’s often made fun of by outsiders. Others, like “Pissed Off” and “I Should Know By Now” exude the same attitude heard in fan favorites like “Beer” and “Everything Sucks.”

“Bob Marley’s Toe” educates listeners on how the reggae legend died (spoiler alert: he suffered from melanoma that started in his toe). “Walter’s High Life,” the record’s last track and an all-instrumental tune, easily encapsulates the whimsical life of a dog. (And Walter’s life is better than most. Barrett and his wife regularly take him on tour. With how much Reel Big Fish travels the world, it’s safe to say the hound has marked his territory in more places than most of his comrades.)

In fact, Barrett cares so much about Walter that he quips most of the songs started off as ditties he’d make up about the dog.

Eventually, those tunes and others he had come up within the last five years turned into full-fledged Reel Big Fish songs that Barrett began putting together last year.

“I’m just always playing around with a whole collection of little song ideas that are floating around in my brain,” Barrett explains. “I don’t record any ideas or make any demos when they are at that stage; I just figure that if they aren’t catchy enough or good enough for me to remember, then why would I show them to other people. … Everybody has been bugging me for the last few years; management, booking agent, the rest of the band, the fans asking, ‘When are you gonna make a new album?’ So maybe around mid-last year, I started to finally feel like maybe I had enough complete song ideas for an album.”

In January, Barrett walked into David Irish’s Pot of Gold Recording Studios in Orange and tracked a few quick demos. He played all the parts on a drum machine, bass and kazoos before presenting the ideas to the rest of the band (John Christianson a.k.a Johnny Christmas on trumpet, Derek Gibbs on bass, Matt Appleton a.k.a. Saxl Rose on saxophone, Billy Kottage on trombone and Edward Larsen on drums).

Irish, who has worked with Reel Big Fish before, says working on “Life Sucks” was different than any other record because the band wasn’t pressured by a deadline. He admits that led them to become “a little too relaxed from time to time” and distracted by the studio’s resident cat, Iggy Fluff, and Walter.

“However, they both made the process fun,” Irish says about the animals. “I really think the relaxed pace showed up in the finished recording. Everything is exactly how it should be.”

Barrett says that while a lot of Reel Big Fish’s songs are comedic take “She Has a Girlfriend Now,” for example most of his writing is personal.

He doesn’t aim to tell stories through the tunes; they all just show his feelings about an idea or situation.

Like ‘Life Sucks… Let’s Dance,'” he says. “It’s kind of a funny idea but it is also kind of a positive, ‘let’s make the best of things’ kind of message. Then there’s ‘Bleached Thang, Baby’ which is totally stream-of-consciousness nonsense just like the poems that I used to write in high school poetry class.”

For better or worse, ska appears to be here to stay. But don’t place the credit (or blame) entirely on Reel Big Fish even though they have refused to trade in their horns for pop songs with Pharrell and fashion lines, unlike one other OC ska band from the ’90s… but we won’t name names. Barrett notes a ska revival of sorts, exemplified by other groups from the genre releasing new records this year. (He says he’s especially stoked The English Beat recently released their first album in more than 30 years, and he’s excited to see The Interrupters earning radio play and carrying the checkered torch.)

Barrett says while he’s happy to see the ska scene seemingly rise from the ashes, he’s confused about why it’s happening now.

“Maybe enough time has passed now,” he says. “Even though ska is still thought of as kind of a guilty pleasure and a joke to some, it’s just been around long enough now that it has touched so many people’s lives and there are just so many people that it has made happy.”

2 Replies to “Reel Big Fish Reminds Us They Loved Horns Before They Were Cool (Again)”

  1. Nice article. I’m a commercial trumpeter and started playing ska in 1986. Ska still makes me smile.

    My old ska band was called Square Roots- a ska/reggae/jazz 10-piece from Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz.
    NoDoubt, Skankin’ Pickle, Dance Hall Crashers, et al, used to open for us. While we were older than those kids, it was just such a fun scene. Ska musicians were always the kindest that I’ve run into to.

    Keep swinging,

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