Backstage: A Reel Big Fish Story
SETTING THE STAGE:
I am always pleasantly surprised when (inter)nationally touring bands take the time to sit down for an interview. For the majority of bands, touring is not the “glamorous” spectacle filled with free catering, alcohol and backstage groupies that many fans imagine it to be. Rather, touring is not stop work, with unpredictable pay checks, local beer, cramped green rooms and gear hauling. In the midst of the hectic tour schedule, sitting down for a half-hour interview isn’t always at the top of a band’s priority list. So, when I learned that ska-punk-pop legends Reel Big Fish would sit down with The Pier during their stop at the Ogden Theatre in Denver, Colorado I felt very lucky.
Reel Big Fish’s rise to fame came in 1996 with the release of the single, “Sell Out.” The single received heavy radio play throughout the U.S. and MTV’s support for the song’s quirky video. The band’s twenty-year history is marked with several milestones, including multiple line-up changes, a messy separation from Jive Records, the release of seventh studio albums, including 2012’s “Candy Coated Fury,” as well as a greatest hits album and a full-length album of covers. Along with No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime and others, Reel Big Fish helped to launch the genre into the mainstream—ultimately, allowing them to take their rightful place among the most influential North American bands of the third wave of ska.
Promptly at 5 p.m. Reel Big Fish’s manager escorted me downstairs to the Ogden Theatre’s green room, where I met up with long-time band member and trombone player Dan Regan and bassist Derek Gibbs. After exchanging the usual pleasantries we pulled up some chairs, among the telltale signs of extensive touring—including, instrument cases, schedule printouts and cases of water. The guys discussed the bands seventh studio album, “Candy Coated Fury,” the ska-punk community, touring and the band’s next steps.
NEW ALBUM: Candy Coated Fury:
Past albums “Turn the Radio Off,” “We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy” and “Why Do They Rock So Hard?” all possess particular themes. The three albums are part of a trilogy that explores the band’s struggles, successes and jaded feelings about the music industry. Continuing in that tradition, “Candy Coated Fury” also communicates a very clear theme—namely relationships, very bad relationships.
“He (lead singer Aaron Barrett) is a passionate guy. So, when he goes through a break-up he gets a lot of material. That’s a lot of what the subject matter in this record is—a messy break-up or two. There was definitely a divorce involved. So, it was pretty serious,” says trombone player Dan Regan. “He (Barrett) doesn’t write about big world topics. He is concerned with the things that are right in front of him, like the people he is dating or how well the band is doing,” explains Regan.
Reel Big Fish frontman Aaron Barrett is not only the face of the band, he is also the band’s songwriter, producer, guitarist and lead singer. On past records there has been limited input from other band members, with Barrett in control of nearly every aspect of the recording process. However, this dynamic was different during the making of “Candy Coated Fury” as band members worked in collaboration with Barrett on various aspects of the record.
Bassist Derek Gibbs explains, ”This feels like the first real album that I’ve been part of…he (Barrett) didn’t just write it all out and say ‘play this,’ we’d sit there and he’d play the guitar and sing over-and-over. I’d keep playing and jamming over it. And he stop and say, ‘yes that!’ Sometimes I was just screwing around between takes and he’d go ‘oh, what’d you just do!?’ That’s where some of the weird stuff on the record comes from.”
Much of the recording process continued in this way. Barrett came to the band with sixteen demos to work out in the studio. After laying down outlines for many of the songs, the band headed out on the road for a European tour. Much to the chagrin of venue sound guys, the band utilized sound check time to get a feel for the songs live.
“We figured that if we played the tunes live, then it would prove that the arrangements were working. A lot of our performance is physical; we are up there moving around—and if something is just not working you can actually feel it in your body. After the tour we went back into the studio and changed them (songs) all up again,” says Regan.
COLLABORATIONS, COVERS AND THE SAXOPHONE:
“Candy Coated Fury” features a collaboration with English ska-punk rockers, Sonic Boom Six and ska veteran Coolie Ranx on the reggae-infused tune, “Hiding in My Headphones.” Reel Big Fish has been connected to Sonic Boom Six for several years, following a tour in a Europe. When it came to producing the new song, Laila and Barney Boom of Sonic Boom Six had free rein.
“Aaron let them do whatever they wanted. (He said)…here is the key, here is the tempo, say something about headphones, and sound English.” The song also features the return of ska veteran and collaborator Coolie Ranx. “Coolie sent in a ton of stuff. So, much of the work on the song was editing it down—and taking a little from here (Sonic Boom Six) and a little from there (Ranx)” explains Regan.
The song is a bit of an inside joke for the Reel Big Fish guys. The drum beat that starts the song is the same beat that drummer Ryland Steen checks his drums to nearly every day, for hours upon hours. “For years we have heard it (drum beat) everyday. The theory is that Aaron was walking with headphones, but this beat was interfering with whatever he was listening to…he started singing over the beat…and that is the genesis of the song.”
It wouldn’t be a Reel Big Fish album without at least one cover song. On “Candy Coated Fury” the band puts their personal touches on a couple of cover songs, including Wonderstuff’s “Don’t Let Me Down Gently” and When in Rome’s “The Promise.” “Don’t Let Me Down Gently” made the cut because it was one of Barrett’s favorite songs. “The Promise,” however, came about by accident…
“We cut a bunch of songs that weren’t working. We were doing some keyboard overdubs and (saxophonist) Matt Appleton was in there doing organ parts for the more reggae-kind of tunes. And, he started playing ‘The Promise’ without realizing that was what he was doing. Aaron went ‘Yes! Let’s do that!’” says Regan. In typical Reel Big Fish fashion they decided to harness the energy of the moment and returned to the studio to record the song.
In addition to collaborations and covers, “Candy Coated Fury” also features—for the first time in nearly twenty years—a saxophone. Historically, Reel Big Fish has been a brass band, featuring two trumpets and two trombones. The addition of the sax was the momentum behind the album’s jam-instrumental, “Don’t Stop Skankin,” which features Appleton on baritone sax.
The addition of the saxophone did more than just add a wind instrument to the band’s line-up; it shifted the band’s entire live show dynamic and sound. Regan explains, “(in the past) The horn section was split across the stage because the lead singer and harmony singer had to be next to one another…sharing equal ego space. That (splitting the horn section) proved to be a real problem for over a decade, in terms of staying in tune, listening to each other and getting the vibe.”
With Appleton’s lack of interest for being a front man and the subsequent elimination of ego concerns, the horns are left to play as a true horn section for the first time. The addition of the sax has also changed the band’s brass sound—adding smoothness to the raw, harsh sounds of the trumpet and trombone. “The saxophone is like mayo on a sandwich, it just makes everything go together,” explains Regan with a smile.
COMMUNITY AND TOURING: Ska-Punk Community and the Summer of Ska Tour 2012:
Reel Big Fish has played a big part in creating and maintaining the ska-punk community. Over the last twenty years the band has sold thousands of records and continually played to packed venues. The band went back to their roots on the latest album “Candy Coated Fury,” in hopes of carrying on many of the genre’s traditions.
“There is a steady amount of kids going to ska-punk shows all over the world. We can sellout of 1,000 seat venue in Saint Petersburg, Russia or Buenas Aires. It is amazing how similar all these kids are; we all like the same bands, we all know what to do and how to act (at the shows)…you could be walking down the street and have the same conversation with a kid from anywhere in the world,” says Regan.
Ska-punk continues to thrive and draw audiences because fans can connect with the song’s messages and themes. Young people all over the world go through similar struggles in life—especially in the teenage years when there are expectations to act like an “adult” without adult responsibilities or respect given in return. Live ska-punk shows allow for the release of frustrations created by these struggles.
“At ska-punk shows you get to go crazy and swing your arms, go nuts and be sweaty…but, not in an angry aggressive way. It’s more of a ‘I need to go crazy’ sort of way.” Like most music, ska-punk shows create a sense of freedom and a place where fans can express themselves and connect. “It happens all over the world, these kids may be the band geek or the one that doesn’t quite fit it at school. But, at the show they’re the ones that are wearing the cop helmet with the siren on top, and other fans recognize them at every show,” says Regan. In other words, the live shows can satisfy a social void for young fans that is often left unfulfilled at school, work or home.
While the band has made music that includes varying degrees of ska, Reel Big Fish has always made it their mission to stay true to ska-punk and keep it alive-and-well. There is a constant push-and-pull to remain creative, while, at the same time, staying true to the band’s roots…
“For us, it’s a balancing act, because as an artist the natural state is to progress—try new things and expand. But, one of reasons we have been around for twenty years is that keep flying this flag of being a ska-punk band….We have always felt this affinity that someone needs to be flying this ska band flag as people jump on-and-off the bandwagon. We feel a real sense of responsibility to keep it going.” It seems that given the band’s longevity and packed tour schedule, they are flying the ska band flag nice and high for kids across the world to see.
Reel Big Fish has been out on the road in support of “Candy Coated Fury”, playing venues from coast-to-coast. The band has slowly woven in a handful of new songs from the upcoming album into the set, including “Don’t Stop Skankin’, “P.S. I Hate You” and “The Punisher.” According to Regan, the band chose these songs because “they were the ones we could perform the best during sound check. Ha, ha! We can perform them all, except for ‘Headphones’ because we are all a little nervous about stepping up and rapping.”
Reel Big Fish averages about 250 shows a year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them line-up several more dates throughout the year. Who knows, they may even find time during sound check to work on another album.
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Article & Photos By: Kit Chalberg
Candy Coated Fury teaser: