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28th January 2012
Now into their third decade in existence, Californian ska-punkers Reel Big Fish have survived numerous changes in personnel over the course of twenty one years and, retaining their hegemony in 2012, remain at the forefront of the genre. Not bad for a band that hasn't released any original material since 2007 but with a rigorous touring schedule in performing over 200 gigs a year around the world, their popularity is sustained through a considerably entertaining live show that combines music with an abundance of comedic banter. Still fronted by founding member, singer/guitarist/songwriter Aaron Barrett, Reel Big Fish commence 2012 with a lengthy 29 date European tour, playing no less than 14 of those shows in the UK. Metal Discovery spent half an hour chatting to the band's trumpet player, John Christianson, and bassist Derek Gibbs in Nottingham a few hours before their show at Rock City towards the end of January...
METAL DISCOVERY: Almost half the shows on this tour out of the 29 dates are in the UK so why do you think your music is embraced by the British audience more so than on mainland Europe?
JOHN: Maybe part of it is getting the jokes. A lot of the time, even in a country like Germany where a lot of the kids speak English, they still don’t get sarcasm. I think here, in the UK, everybody gets it so I think that’s part of it.
(John Christianson on Reel Big Fish constantly attracting younger generations of audience)
"Aaron...has written a soundtrack for everybody from twelve to twenty five, you know, right to that point when you get out of uni and you’re smacked in the face with real bills..."
Derek and John in Rock City, Nottingham, UK, 28th January 2012
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2012 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
DEREK: Yeah, and we share a lot of the cultural influences too with movies and TV, and there’s more energy exchange…what’s the word?
MD: Reciprocated?
DEREK: Yeah, that’s a good one.
MD: Do you think it’s partly too because of the rich history of ska music in this country?
JOHN: Yeah, I would like to think so. I would like to think that the kids who come to our shows know the history of this music in the UK and know the bands, and know The Specials, and know Madness, and know The Beat, and all those guys. We did a tour with Dave Wakeling about three years ago and it was just so much fun to listen to him play. It was like hit after hit after hit after hit, and “oh, this was in this movie, and this was in…”… oh my god, it was so good.
MD: Entertainment is one industry that always seems to boom in a recession – have you experienced a surge in popularity lately, perhaps bigger crowds at shows?
DEREK: I don’t think we’ve experienced a surge but I think if you compare what we do to other ways of making a living, then we seem to be maintaining a little better than, say, a shop owner or something like that.
JOHN: I think that’s maybe true, yeah. We would like to have a boom, that would be awesome, but I think it’s more business as usual. People are still coming to the shows which we’re very grateful for that, when money is tight, people are choosing – “I want to go to a Reel Big Fish show”.
MD: So do you regard a Reel Big Fish show as the perfect antidote to all the doom and gloom in the world at the moment?
JOHN: Definitely, oh definitely!
MD: Because it’s not your average gig!
JOHN: I definitely thought that with trends that are going on in the world that people would be looking for happy music and not really wanting to be sad and bleed out all over the place. And I would like to think that would be true but I’m not sure that it is. People just come to Reel Big Fish shows to have a good time.
MD: It’s not just the happy music; it’s almost like stand-up too as there’s the comedy aspect between songs.
JOHN: Yeah, we realise that it’s entertainment, it’s not just music. We can’t turn our backs to the audience and play our instruments. So the crowd is involved, everybody is involved, and it is very reciprocal in the show. And I think we kind of capitalise on that and we know that it’s entertainment in a more vaudevillian kind of way. I think that we have a soft place in our hearts for that type of entertainment.
MD: So it’s twenty years since the first Reel Big Fish demo appeared and this is your twenty first year?
JOHN: Yeah, twenty first.
MD: Have you seen your fan base grow older with you over that time or do you always see new, younger generations of fans coming into the fold?
DEREK: It’s regenerating. We’re playing for people who maybe weren’t even born when we first started out and, at the same time, we’re having people come in with their ten year old kids saying – “hey, I went to your shows and now I’ve got my kid going to them too”. So there are people who’ve been around a long time but we’re constantly shocked how many people are new to the band.
JOHN: Yeah, I’m constantly amazed when we have parents that will bring their kids and the parents will stay for the show. You know, they’ll stand at the back and out of the way and I think they get the show on a whole different level that their children might not get.
MD: So the kids are there moshing but the parents are more appreciating the musicianship and banter?
JOHN: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I think of it like The Muppets. When I was a kid I loved The Muppets and thought it was funny and everything, and then I go back and watch it again and go, “oh, I didn’t get any of these jokes when I was a kid”. I hope that we’re doing that for everybody.
MD: What do you think it is about your music that attracts a younger generation then and keeps regenerating your audience?
JOHN: I think Aaron, our singer, has written a soundtrack for everybody from twelve to twenty five, you know, right to that point when you get out of uni and you’re smacked in the face with real bills and…
MD: Real life!
JOHN: Yeah, exactly, and it’s those struggling years where you’re really unsure about what you’re doing and where the world is gonna take you. I think Aaron’s written a soundtrack to that and I think it helps a lot of kids through a lot of hard times, and I think it’s spectacular.
MD: So has your fan base always been quite diverse because of the mixed genre approach in your music? Obviously you get labelled ska-punk more often than not but there are so many other elements at play in your music so do you find you get all sorts of people coming to your shows?
DEREK: Yeah, we must, because we look out into the crowd and kids are wearing shirts that say Metallica or…name a death metal band…
JOHN: Dimmu Borgir…
MD: Dimmu Borgir shirts, really?
DEREK: Dimmu Borgir, sure… Cannibal Corpse…but then it probably swings the other way too as there’s probably someone out there wearing a Madonna t-shirt!
JOHN: The last time we played the Donington festival, we did an autograph signing and Dimmu Borgir, those guys did an autograph signing before us or after us, I can’t remember, and we’re talking to those guys and they were sweethearts! They were so nice! They play this crazy music but they’re just average cool guys!
MD: Some people talk about a ska revival but I think it’s one of those perennial genres that’s always been there and never really waned in popularity but do you regard yourselves as part of a ska revival or do you see yourselves more as a band who continues to fly the flag for that genre?
JOHN: We’re kind of the elephant in the corner that nobody wants to talk about. That’s okay, and we’re still playing over two hundred shows a year for the past twenty years so it’s never gone away for us. The other bands, I guess, will come and go but we’re gonna still maintain our touring schedule and we’re not gonna stop as long as people still wanna come to the shows. We would wish for a fourth wave, for it to all blow up again - that would be awesome – and to be on TV and the radio all the time…
MD: And headline Donington!
JOHN: Yeah, yeah, exactly! We could definitely do that! But we’ll see; you never know what’s gonna happen. We just keep plugging away and touring and touring, recording records…
MD: Just doing what you do and having fun.
JOHN: Yeah, exactly, and what happens, happens.
MD: So there have been a few lineup changes over the years, of course, but apart from musical ability, what qualities make the perfect Reel Big Fish band member?
JOHN: I think part of it, maybe, now in the band, everybody wants to be here. It’s been every one of our dreams to be a professional musician in a touring band like this and I don’t think that was always the case in the past. I think those people that didn’t want to do this… because not everyone can handle this. It takes a special person and an understanding spouse or girlfriend – fortunately, I have an understanding spouse, most of the time – to be able to do this as well as playing well and the other thing… the getting along thing.
DEREK: Yeah, we have a lot of mutual respect. Sure, we kid around and have fun but we’re not playing pranks on each other. We’re all in it together and we’re more like a brotherhood or family. It’s a battle sometimes to get from point A to point B as far as this way of making a living so you have to watch each other’s back and be in it together.
JOHN: As strange as it is, this is our job… and we’re all here for the cause of what we’re doing, and we all live to further the cause of Reel Big Fish and making people happy through our music.