Reel Big Fish is one of those bands that you look at and think, “Man, have they really been at it for that long?” On one hand, it feels like the California ska act has always been there, doing their thing. On the other, it seems strange to actually say the number: 26 years.
As one of the last holdovers from ska music’s “third wave” of the early 1990s, Reel Big Fish keeps on blowin’ its horns with a relentless touring schedule. After finding early success on the Mojo label, they’ve been independent since 2006. And while seemingly everyone knows that the major benefit of having a label behind you is the money it provides for recording, trumpet man Johnny Christmas says that Reel Big Fish is finding post-label life to be a lot less stressful.
“The industry has really changed,” he said, looking back on the band’s quarter century of life. “The first three records that we did were all $300,000 records. So having to recoup all that cash before we saw any money was crazy. Now the records we make are $10,000 to $20,000.”
“It’s so much easier now to get albums written and out to people,” he continued. “I think the real challenge now is marketing. How do you distinguish yourself? Fortunately, we have this fan base that already comes out to our shows. And it’s a revolving fan base, too, so that helps. (Our fanbase) is always different. I think that’s because (frontman Aaron Barrett) has written the soundtrack to everyone’s lives, from 12 to about 25.”
It’s true: Reel Big Fish is less a band of its time, and more a band for a time in everyone. Barrett and his bandmates — whomever they have been over the years — have always, along with bands like Sublime and Fallout Boy, been acts best appreciated while you are young.
“When people are in that age range, I think they’re looking for stuff that’s fun and light and upbeat,” Christmas said. “When you get older, you get a little jaded, and sometimes you move on to looking for stuff that’s more, I don’t know, real? Grumpy?”
Which isn’t to say that Reel Big Fish hasn’t had their grumpy moments, they just don’t bring them to the stage with them. But at one point in the band’s life, tensions were running so high that it almost brought everything to an end.
“The band was almost destroyed by (2002 album) “Cheer Up”,” Christmas said. “Aaron thought that album was going to tear the band up. There was lots of tension between members. People find out eventually that being on the road eight months of the year isn’t what they want to do. If you don’t take care of yourself, the show is going to suffer. This life is not for everyone. It takes a certain kind of person.”
Those tensions led to lineup changes, as trumpeters Tavis Werts and Tyler Jones and drummer Carlos de la Garca were all cycled in and out. Christmas joined up with the band after Jones’ departure, and the lineup has been more or less stable ever since.
Also stable is the band’s workload. There’s a new album every couple of years, and Reel Big Fish continues to tour constantly. It’s something that never gets old for them, even as the odometer ticks over another year.
“When you see the faces of the crowd, all your problems go away,” Christmas said. “You think, how can I not want to play “Beer” when the crowd is screaming for it? And then you take a minute and look around and think, “I get to do this for a living.” That’s a well that will never dry up.” CV