Interview: Reel Big Fish

bill bodkin continues to show his love for ska by ‘selling out’ …

The sound of ska music wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that happened in 1997. It’s a sound that resonates to this day with old-school fans and fresh-faced beginners alike who gather around the happy horns, the epic sing-a-long choruses and those finger-lickin’ good riffs.

Reel Big Fish has always been one of the bands at the heart of the ska movement. In ’97, that fateful year, the band scored national success with their MTV hit “Sell Out,” an ode to signing a big record contract. Fourteen years later, the band is still on the road, ferociously touring the planet to throngs of ska fanatics.

For me, Reel Big Fish will always be a part of one of my favorite concert experiences — a favorite because it proved what true dedication to music is.

In 2001, Reel Big Fish was performing at Rutgers University’s annual Rutgerfest, an end-of-the-year music festival, opening for hip hop sensation Ludacris. During the band’s very fun and crowd-motivating set, a beer bottle flew from out of nowhere and cracked lead singer Aaron Barrett in the side of the face. Instead of stopping, Barrett continued on, blood streaming down his face for three straight songs, never letting on he was hurt, keeping up his same intensity and energy through the songs. It wasn’t until members of the band (and their management) forced him to stop that he did. Nothing shows more love and dedication to your craft than performing in humid, New Jersey summer conditions with blood pouring down your face.

Seven years after that incident (one he remembers quite vividly), Barrett spoke with Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin about ska music, the band’s ever-evolving lineup and their favorite covers.

Pop-Break: The band has a number of lineup changes over the years, and you’re the only original band member left. Is there something about this current lineup that brings something different, new and exciting to the table?

Aaron Barrett: Ever since the band started, it’s been me writing the songs. I started the band, and it’s been pretty much whoever I could get to play with me at the time. I think right now the lineup we have is people who all want to be here from the right reasons and everybody in the band is an awesome musician. Whereas, before it was a friend or someone we knew and it was like, “Oh you can play that — that’s cool. Come on in!” But now it’s great musicians with good attitudes who want to tour. So everybody wants to be 100 percent doing what they’re doing, and that really makes a big difference. Everyone gets a long a lot better than any other lineup than we’ve had. There was a lot clashing personalities in the old days. A lot of fighting and arguing and bickering all the time.

PB: Since you write all the songs, do you think there will be a new Reel Big Fish record soon? Have these guys inspired you to get into the studio and write new material?

AB: We’re probably going to do a new record — it’s been a while. 2007 was the last time we had a new song come out, a new album come out. I’m always writing songs and always working on stuff. So it’s just a matter of having a couple months off the tour, getting in the studio and putting stuff together. We’re not in really any hurry to do an album. Everyone really loves our old songs. [laughs] We can tour for the rest of our lives on those old songs, and the audience would be mostly happy. We’ll do a new album just for fun.

PB: When I saw you in 2001, one of your bandmates, when introducing your hit song “Sell Out,” said, “It’s time to cut the shit and play the hit.” Do you guys ever get tired of playing “Sell Out”?

AB: No, not all. It’s not like we had this HUGE No. 1 worldwide smash hit. It was a successful single. It was the radio for a while, it was on MTV a for a little bit. It’s not like the one song that [German accent] defined us. Because we’re still playing, we’re still around. A lot of the new fans don’t even know that was a hit. They don’t even know there’s a video for that. I think the songs that are bigger than “Sell Out” are “Beer” and “Take On Me” from the BASEketball movie. I think more people know us from that movie than “Sell Out” being a hit way, way back then. We’re not the type of band that’s like, [grumpy voice] “Oh, you like that song, we’re not going to play that song. Ugh … we’re artists.” That’s bullshit. Somebody came to your show and paid to see you — you’re lucky they want to hear anything from you. And it just feels good to play a song the whole crowd knows and everyone goes crazy. That feeling never gets old. So I never get tired of playing “Sell Out,” “Beer,” “She’s Got A Girlfriend Now” and just watching the crowd go nuts. It’s awesome.

PB: Recently, I did an interview with Less Than Jake, and they said that they have to go out everyday, especially when they’re on the Warped Tour, and they have to convert new fans. They said it was a challenge, but one they look forward to. Do you guys have similar experiences?

AB: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s always new places to play and new audiences to play in front of. Warped Tour is definitely good for winning new fans over that may have never seen you. Otherwise, we play a lot of college shows and I think that helps getting in front of an audience that may have never seen you before. We tour with all different kinds of bands — playing and trying to get new fans, getting our music out to different people in different parts of the world.

AB: I’m glad to hear that because ska music doesn’t seem to be on the forefront of the mainstream consciousness, and yet every time I see photos from your tours, it’s always a filled house and a highly energetic audience.

AB: Well, I think the ska scene is still going strong. Just because there’s no hit ska song right now or they’re not talking about it in Rolling Stone, doesn’t mean the scene isn’t huge. So, I think just because of the ska scene alone people are always finding out about us. And I think we’re a good band, constantly on tour and our fans keep coming back year after year to see us. We put on a good show and play songs people want to hear. We’ve toured with awesome bands. Just all the little things helps keeping you going and keep the fans coming back.

PB: You’re currently on your 20th Anniversary Tour. Are you guys doing anything different on this tour?

AB: Yeah, we’re doing kind of the opposite of a greatest hits tour. We’ve [traditionally] been doing all the songs we know and everyone loves. This tour we mixed it up, putting in some random, weird songs, songs we haven’t played in a long time or ever while still playing the hits and songs people love. [laughs] Don’t want to piss anybody off. But we’re definitely trying to mix it up for the people who’ve seen because we’ve got fans who’ve seen us 10, 20 times. They always complain, [whiny accent] “You guys always play the same songs.” But that’s for a reason — everyone loves them. We’ve got a lot of songs, so we dug some weird songs and we’re mixing it up for the first time in a long time.

PB: You guys have been known for being a number of cover songs and even cover albums. Can you pick out two of your favorites?

AB: I love to play “Kiss Me Deadly” [by Lita Ford] — that’s my favorite to play. I love to listen to our cover of Oingo Boingo’s “We Close Our Eyes.” That’s just a weird song. [laughs] I don’t think we’ll ever play that live. I like “Boss DJ,” that’s fun to play.

PB: Why’s wouldn’t you play the Oingo Boingo track live?

AB: Mmm … it’s more of a studio thing. It’s got a lot of little noises, a million guitar tracks and overproduced things. That one’s not really possible, and “New York, New York” isn’t really possible. We’d need about 30 more people in the band. We do an all a capella part. People always ask us to play it but I’m like, “We can’t do that. We’d need an a capella group to do that.”

PB: Last month, you released a deluxe version of your greatest hits compilation — Best Of Us For Rest Of Us. I read that you were able to do this because you re-recorded all your hits. Can you explain how you did this because I thought your old label, Jive, owned the old songs?

AB: Usually when you sign a record deal, the record label owns the recordings that you make — they don’t own the songs. You don’t give them your publishing, your rights to the songs, you just give them your recordings, and that’s what we did. When we were signed to the label, they owned the albums we made — the songs are ours to re-record and do whatever we want with. We made a live album five years and then we just did this “best of” thing. It was fun, just something to do — take our songs back because people would ask for them for some random reason like an independent movie or TV commercial. And they don’t want to use the live versions, so we did it for that reason.

And just because it’s been a long time since we recorded a long time and we felt maybe we could do better. We also wanted something together, since we have so many albums, for new fans that are just getting into us that are like, “What do I get, what album do I get?” It’s a good way to catch up.

PB: When you back into re-record, did you guys touch-up or re-do any of the songs?

AB: There were times when there things were done horribly wrong and we were like, “Wow, we didn’t know what we were doing — that doesn’t work at all.” So we tried to improve a couple of things, but for the most part we tried to keep things in their original form and how they’re supposed to go. We played them the way they’re supposed to go. And we did the SKAcoustic disc/ which was probably the best part of that.

PB: Speaking of SKAcoustic/ what was the inspiration for that?

AB: We did this show in Hawaii where they wanted us to play acoustic/ and it was really fun. We started out adding two or three acoustic tracks to the Best Of Us disc and then it just turned into a whole disc. First, 14 songs, now it’s 20 songs.

PB: So it has horns and acoustic guitars?

AB: Oh yeah. It’s got everything — it’s not all sleepy and slow. It’s fun, fast, energetic, and it’s got horns and acoustic guitars, different percussion instruments. There’s a lot of different arrangements, some songs have just one acoustic guitar and vocals, some have horns and acoustic guitars. We mixed it up, it’s fun and very interesting to listen to. That’s the probably the best reason to buy the Best Of Us. Because I know people don’t like re-recorded greatest hits.

PB: Have you included them into the live show?

AB: Not yet. Still trying to figure out a way to do it. I don’t know if we’d do a whole world tour of SKAcoustic. I don’t know if the word would get out. I think people would be disappointed, “Why are they playing acoustic? That sucks!” So maybe a couple of songs. Right now on this tour with Streetlight Manifesto, we don’t have as much time on our set as we usually do, so there’s not enough time to switch over to acoustic instruments. Hopefully in the future, that’d be really fun.

PB: We’re based out of New Jersey. You guys play here every year without fail. Is there something special about New Jersey that keeps bringing you back? Do you get a lot of love from the Jersey crowd?

AB: Yeah we play The Starland Ballroom every year … forever! And it’s always one of the best shows on the tour. The people are so loud and crazy and they dance and are insane! Luckily for us, everywhere we’ve gone in the world we’ve had pretty amazing audiences. We’re lucky that ska kids all over the world come out to our shows to support us.

PB: Finally, what can we expect from Reel Big Fish in 2011?

AB: 2011? I think we’re just going to do another leg of this tour with Streetlight Manifesto in November and December. And we’re playing South American in October. Touring that’s what we do all the time.

PB: Wait, one last question. You guys tour ferociously every year. How do you keep up the energy and passion to perform at 110 percent every night after all these years?

AB: We’ve been doing it for so long. The first few years of constant touring, some of the people in the band kinda lost their minds, and got home sick and went crazy. Me personally, after the first few years of getting used to doing this, I’ve just always play shows and go to shows every night of my life. So, that’s what I love to. I never get sick of it, I just love to play. When I’m home and we’re off tour, I just feel awful and I want to get back on the road. I think most of the guys in the band feel the same way. They just love to play every night, love to travel and tour.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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