Originally published online at BLUNT Magazine.
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that brief moment in the late ’90s where ska was the hit genre. You’ll also remember the subsequent disowning of anything related to it shortly thereafter. While most ska bands ended up changing their sound, or just quitting all together, some persevered and kept the black-and-white checkered dream alive. California’s Reel Big Fish are one such band, releasing the majority of their catalogue throughout the 2000s. With their co-headlining tour with Less Than Jake coming up, we spoke to frontman Aaron Barrett about surviving the ’90s and what keeps Reel Big Fish going after all these years.
You guys have been around since 1992 – what keeps Reel Big Fish skankin’ after all these years?
What keeps us skankin’? [laughs] The fact that I won’t quit and I won’t give up; I won’t retire. I don’t know, I just like to play shows and lucky for us people keep coming to them. It’s all working out very well.
You’ve developed an incredibly dedicated fanbase over the years. How does it feel knowing that your music still affects so many people after this many years?
It’s really weird, very surreal to think about it. I think about myself and I remember being a little 15-year-old kid learning to play guitar because I loved all these bands and looked up to them. To think that I’m in a band that people love and look up to, and we inspire other people to make music is pretty crazy. 25 years in and I still can’t get used to it. It’s amazing.
This year celebrates the 20th anniversary of Everything Sucks. How does it feel looking back at it given it’s the record that launched everything for you guys?
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already. We put that album out on our own; it was an independent release. Back then, it was the mid-‘90s so all the local bands were releasing cassette tapes, so when a band put out a CD that was a big deal. So we thought we were really on our way somewhere, we were a real band, so we put out a CD instead of a tape.
Is that the album that means the most to you, personally?
No, I mean, every album is personal. They’re the songs that I wrote, that I love. Every album means something special to me. But that was definitely when we felt we were really on our way. We’d been working up to a point, and we hadn’t made it yet, but we were a real band that was going to do some big things. The album’s horrible – it sounds terrible! It’s probably the one I hate the most, but I’ve got some fond memories of that time [laughs].
How do those songs sit with you today when they’re essentially from half a lifetime ago? Like is it almost as if your younger self is preserved in those songs?
I guess so? I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it like that, but that makes a lot of sense. I mean, those weren’t my first songs, I’d probably written 50 songs before that batch of songs, so I had gotten better at writing by then. But even then, when you’re first starting out as a songwriter, anything goes. You don’t know any better, so you just follow inspiration. That’s why a lot of bands’ earlier stuff is better than their later stuff. I think all my stuff is good, but that’s because I wrote it [laughs].
You guys are constantly referred to as being a “‘90s band”, even though a majority of your albums were released in the 2000s. Is that pigeon-holing something that bothers you?
I think I have a good attitude about it. It’s weird, bands that I love from the ‘80s I’ll call them an “awesome ‘80s band”. It’s not an insult, it’s just kind of the way people refer to a band when they first came out or when they had their first real big hit. With a band like The Rolling Stones you don’t say, “Yeah, they’re a ‘60s band!” Or like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, you don’t say “They’re ‘70s bands!” Not that that has anything to do with anything. We have a lot of fun these days especially because there are people who are not just ska fans, they’re nostalgic for the whole ‘90s thing. We’ve been putting snippets of ‘90s songs in our songs and having fun with that.
‘90s revival is one of the “it” trends recently – have you seen an increase of younger fans checking out your stuff?
Yeah, there are both ska fans and ‘90s music fans who are into us. It’s weird because I love the ‘80s which is why we cover so many songs from that period, like “Take On Me”, so it’s weird that people are nostalgic for the ‘90s now. I was there! I remember it!
Your covers are something I’ve always loved. What’s the process when it comes to picking a song to cover? Is there a wishlist somewhere of covers you want to record?
It’s usually just totally random. An idea will pop up and we’ll be like, “Hey, what about this song?” On Candy Coated Fury we did “The Promise” by When In Rome – another classic ‘80s song – and that was because we were doing group vocals, trying to get in tune. One of the guys had a piano app on his phone and I was like, “Hey, can you do ‘The Promise’ by When In Rome!” But he’d never heard that song, so I said, “We’re going to cover it”. Every cover song has a stupid story where it just suddenly happened. But I do have a wishlist of songs I’d like to cover too.
Last year you released a Christmas themed EP, which either makes complete sense or absolutely no sense for you guys. How did making that come about?
We’ve always wanted to do a Christmas album – I love Christmas music, I have ever since I was a little kid. We did a Hawaiian Christmas song, “Mele Kalikimaka”, back in the ‘90s. That’s floating around the internet, somewhere. We always meant to do it, but just never got around to getting a studio to record it. Finally we didn’t have a new album to record, we didn’t have any projects or tours going on, so Christmas EP!
Your last full-length album came out in 2012. Is there a new, non-holiday themed record in the works?
Well, next we’re going to do an Easter album [laughs]. I’m always working on new music, so eventually we’ll get a new album out. We never really sit down, write songs and say, “It’s time to make an album!” I’m always putting together little ditties in my head until I have enough and then I say, “Hey guys, we’re going to make an album!” Then they say, “What? When did you write these songs?” and I’m like, “Oh, you know… in my head”. That’s how I do it; I never sit down with a guitar and a recording device and come up with ideas. If I can’t remember it in my head then it’s not good enough. And even if I can, sometimes it’s still not good enough.
A lot of ska-punk bands shifted genres during the 2000s, like the Aquabats and even Less Than Jake for a bit. Did you ever consider switching up the RBF sound to something much less ska-orientated?
Not really, I just love playing ska. Once we figured out our sound in the early ‘90s, we figured out how to do it. There’s so much you can do with it, especially ska-punk. We’ve written different kinds of songs just for fun. I think a lot of bands did their best to please the record label or get on the radio once the ska-punk thing had run its course and wasn’t getting as much airplay anymore. I always thought that was stupid, because we’re a ska band and love being a ska band. We’re coming to our shows and they’re always packed, so why would you want to fire the horn section and become an emo band or something? I think that’s another reason why we’re still around, people like us because we’re still going strong.
You’re out here soon with Less Than Jake, and I’ve seen nothing but overwhelming hype for it. How did this team-up come about? Is it something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
We’d played together at random shows throughout our careers, but we never did a tour together until 2007. I’ve always loved Less Than Jake and I’d always wanted to tour with them. I was constantly asking agents and booking managers to let us do a tour with Less Than Jake, and then when we did it was totally sold out. So we decided to do it again five years later… wait, no seven, eight – I’m good at math! That tour did so well back in 2007 we figured that eventually it’d happen again, and now we’ve toured most of the world together. Europe, the US, Canada… okay, some of the world, not the whole world. We haven’t been to India together. We may be on tour with Less Than Jake for the rest of our lives, and that wouldn’t be so bad.
Why do you think the ska genre fell out of fashion at the end of the ‘90s? And going on from that, why do you think you’ve preserved while so many others fell to the wayside?
Whenever ska gets into the mainstreams it’s always for a couple years; a couple bands have a few hits. For serious rock radio it’s a little too wacky and weird, whereas reggae is more laid-back and cool. People that like ska love ska because it’s so much fun and energetic and crazy. It’s wacky, but you kind of have to pay attention to it. A lot of pop songs on the radio are very static, they don’t really change – there’s not a fast part then a slow part. I think ska songs make people pay attention, so that’s a reason why it doesn’t last long on the radio. Another theory, who knows! [laughs] Also, in the ‘90s boy bands came along shortly after, so we never stood a chance. They were much too handsome.