In the late ’80s and early ’90s there was something in the water along the California coastline, just south of LA. Bands like Reel Big Fish came crashing onto the scene with rage-filled lyrics, punk-inspired rhythms and contagious horn sections, and from this stew of sounds, ska punk reached the mainstream. While the Huntington and Long Beach crews owe a massive debt to the likes of Fishbone and The Specials, everyone else can trace their success to Reel Big Fish, Sublime and company.
Somehow Reel Big Fish are still kicking it with the best of them – albeit after many lineup changes and a dizzying turnover of horn players – but the heart and soul of the band, frontman Aaron Barrett, has always managed to find kick-arse players willing to follow him to the ends of musical sanity and ever-deeper into rhythms that will blow the mind.
Drummer Ryland Steen is excited to be doing Vans Warped Tour as it makes its triumphant return to Australia. No stranger to gigging on this scale, Steen has been manning the skins for over a decade and notes that the audience on Warped is comfortingly familiar. “It’s all the same, in a way – though after all these years, the only thing that changes is the fashion,” says Steen. “Kids are angry and confused and excited for life, and that hasn’t changed at all since we were kids. They’re kinda pissed off at life too, so I guess we’re just there to tell them that everything’s OK, at least for an afternoon.”
A Reel Big Fish gig can easily have an audience of two generations sharing the pit and dancing in communal joy. Despite this, Steen reckons the biggest change he’s noticed over the past ten or so years has been the growing connectedness between youth cultures. “There’s no more division between people who live in the big city and people who live in the country; it’s almost like everyone is a part of this one giant culture whether you live in Australia or America or Europe,” he says. “I think there seems to be this unification within youth culture in particular that makes playing shows around the world very interesting. There is something exciting about the connectedness between culture that’s so different to how things were a decade or so ago. It’s like everyone knows what’s going on and it’s an even playing field. That natural progression that people take as they grow up, that is the one constant, though – that has never changed. You see a crowd of kids when everything seems possible to them, and as a band that’s been around for 20 years we’ve seen that a lot.”
Steen says the era of instant communication means there is an increased expectation on the band to speed up their output, but there are no immediate plans for new material. “It seems like we’re always trying to cook up new project ideas, but right now we’re still so focused on touring. Even if it’s just having a jam and not consciously working on new things, there’s always stuff being created in a way. Most of it all reverts back to Aaron, who’s the musical mastermind of Reel Big Fish. Once the stew has been brewing enough and is ready for consumption, then he lets us in on what he’s wanting to do. I’m just as anxious to find out what’s next. It’s good; it keeps you on your toes, being in this band.”
Reel Big Fish’s sound has profited from existing in a niche, but this has its pitfalls. There’s not a lot of room to experiment – or at least, there doesn’t appear to be – within the style of music they so comfortably inhabit. Somehow they’ve still remained fresh for over two decades. “I think the natural progression of a band when you first start is just to create music, to get it out there and to start building a fan base, and I think what happens is that if you’re lucky enough to tick all those boxes like we were, you can get comfortable.
“Some bands end up taking their situation for granted, and I think what then ends up happening is that you reach this point where feel like you need to prove yourself to your fans again. I think we reached that point a little while ago, where we wanted to show our fans that we’re just as excited as we ever were, and that we want to bring that fun and chaotic live show to our fans. As far as creating music – I mean, the band has had a lot of lineup changes over the years – but the common thread is with all the musicians that are in the band, and that have ever been in the band, is that we all feel compelled to play music. None of us can imagine doing anything else or being as passionate about something as we are about playing music. They’re the key reasons as to why the band has survived to this day.”
If Barrett is the mastermind in creative control, does he remain content in the leader’s role, or could Reel Big Fish be winding to a close? “I’m usually pretty good at answering a lot of questions but that’s a good question and a question for him,” Steen laughs. “It’s probably the only question that I cannot answer at all, so yeah – good on you for asking it, and I just don’t know.”
BY KRISSI WEISS