Reel Big Fish has a reputation as a fun-loving live band, a good show to see if you want your spirits uplifted. While that’s something that longtime band member Johnny Christmas acknowledges, he also points out that some of the band’s songs have a downbeat side, too.
“One of our songs, ‘Where Have You Been,’ is a straight-up serious song, no joke aspect about it, no hidden meaning, and people love it when we play that song,” said Christmas, Reel Big Fish’s trumpet player, from a recent tour stop in Philadelphia. “What I think we do is make it personal. You may not think something is funny or enjoyable, but you can take a second look at it and say, ‘Oh, I can laugh at that now.’
“The more serious you take things, the more problems you cause in the world. Now, I’m not talking about sincerity. I see a difference between being serious and sincere. But when you are serious all the time, there’s a pressure that’s on top of you that goes with it. So for me, we can be sincere about things and it’s coming from an aspect of love and kindness, and a much more lighthearted view of life.”
Christmas and his ska-punk band mates will bring their sincere fun back to Reno for a show on Feb. 14 at Cargo inside Whitney Peak Hotel. On this tour, Reel Big Fish is sharing top billing with Anti-Flag, the longtime Pittsburgh punk band that has a sing-along but strident political message to most of its lyrics. It would seem to be a contrast with Reel Big Fish’s melodic ska-punk, but Christmas sees it as a good fit.
“(Anti-Flag) is a hardcore political punk band, but they do that message in a way that works great with us,” Christmas said. “They are a great bunch of guys, and when you have band that are also good entertainers and fun to watch, like Anti-Flag, the audience really enjoys it.
“We are an anomaly, I think, in that no matter what the situation is that we’re put in, our music will always go well. Our whole modus operandi is having fun and taking people out of the daily grind everyone goes through in your day-to-day existence.”
The art of the ‘Sell Out’
Guitarist/vocalist Aaron Barrett is the only member of Reel Big Fish that is from the band’s original lineup when it formed in 1992. The rest of the band includes Christmas (since 2004), Derek Gibbs on bass (since 2007), Saxl Rose on saxophone (since 2011), Billy Kottage on trombone (since 2013) and Ed Larsen on drums (since 2014).
Barrett began the group while in high school in Huntington Beach, California, and played all over the West as one of the bands leading a revival of ska-punk music. A popular, self-released debut in 1995 called “Everything Sucks,” led to a contact with a major label and the release of “Turn the Radio Off” a year later. That album has the band’s best known song, a tongue-in-cheek one about alterna-rock fame called “Sell Out.” It earned a lot of radio play on modern rock stations.
The band is playing all of “Turn the Radio Off” during this current 21st anniversary tour. Christmas said that playing songs from the band’s earliest days every night is not a burden.
“There’s really a magic in those songs and those performances and that’s part of the reason why the band’s been around for so long. They’re just great songs on that record, so we’re very fortunate to we have these songs that everyone seems to identify with.”
From that early high-water mark, the band released more albums and continued to tour constantly. Leaving the major label world, they joined up with indie label Rock Ridge for their 2007 album, “Monkeys for Nothin’ and the Chimps for Free.” That’s been the arrangement since with two more albums being released, including their latest one in 2012, called “Candy Coated Fury.”
Reel Big Fish is also known for its cornucopia of cover versions. One of its most popular is a ska-punk adaptation of A-ha’s deathless ’80s synth-pop hit “Take on Me.” Other covers have ranged from Morrissey to Tracy Chapman, Poison to the Eagles, Sinatra’s “New York New York” to When in Rome’s dramatic ’80s tearjerker “The Promise.”
“Aaron has a vast storage of songs that he’s learned over the years — that is how you learn to write songs,” Christmas said. “So, we were playing a college show, in like Iowa, and we’re at sound-check and he starts playing the chord changes to ‘The Promise,’ and all of us went, ‘Oh, Man! This would be great.’ It’s this really beautiful, heartbreaking song.”
Christmas then sang the song’s hook as a horn line two ways: once in its original form and then secondly with a reggae beat, all to demonstrate how Reel Big Fish transforms tunes to suit it.
“The whole purpose of doing a cover is like cooking,” he continued. “You add some things to it and then I put something in and then that makes it special and all our own.”
The Future of Fish on Record
But will there be another Reel Big Fish studio album? Christmas said that band leader Barrett — who writes all the group’s originals and produces the band — has told him he’s not interested in releasing a new album, but that’s a difference of opinion within the band itself.
“I keep encouraging (Aaron),” Christmas said. “The great thing about getting older is that you get better. It isn’t like there’s a window of opportunity that’s really small you have to get through. I think you get better as a songwriter and better as a performer, and I think the band still has something to say.
“But, it is a big responsibility to make a record and unfortunately it all falls on Aaron’s shoulders. But, we’re also all willing to help write the songs and help with the recording. The great thing about this band now is that we all want to serve the greater good of Reel Big Fish. Not one of us is like, ‘Yeah, I have a solo project now.’ We love Reel Big Fish and know a lot of other people do, too.”
Christmas then related a few stories about fans that have talked to him recently, including a woman who he was told was stationed in Afghanistan and used the band’s fun, optimistic tunes to get through a difficult time.
“I ran as fast as I could to her after I heard about her, to give her a big hug and thank her for her service,” Christmas said.
“We’re so lucky that we can have a positive impact on people’s lives, and it’s really important that we can do that, and can continue to do that.”