Ska hooks and lines

Reel Big Fish turns 21

L. Kent Wolgamott | Boulder Weekly

Be ready for instant action when Reel Big Fish takes the stage — no matter where or when.


That’s the word from RBF drummer Ryland Steen.

“Pretty much from word go, from note one, we do our best to give the audience an action-packed show,” Steen says.

“These days, you want to leave a show feeling like you’ve been somewhere. We do our best to give them a fun show, that kind of experience, and the music, universally, just makes people go crazy — in a good sort of way.“ The music is ska-punk, something RBF helped pioneer in the United States in the 1990s along with other Orange County, Calif., bands like Sublime and No Doubt.

For Steen, a native of Lincoln, Neb., playing the fast-paced, highly rhythmic music that incorporates elements of 1950s Jamaican music with American R&B and punk rock was, at first, a challenge.

“Growing up, I had knowledge of reggae music, but I didn’t know anything about original ska, much less the third wave of ska music that Reel Big Fish came out of,” he says. “It was definitely a challenge. It took me a couple years before I really felt comfortable, like I knew what I was doing.

“It’s very active. I’m definitely worn out by the end of the show. It’s definitely a bit of a trick, but it is really fun music to play. It’s not just pure ska punk either. Aaron Barrett [RBF singer and primary songwriter] is a big fan of ’80s hair metal. Some of that peeps through here and there.”

Barrett was a backing vocalist when Reel Big Fish got together in 1992. The band’s original singer quit, Barrett became the lead vocalist, and RBF changed its sound to ska. That’s been the band’s direction for two decades, whether on major or independent labels.

The band enjoyed a major burst of popularity in the late 1990s when groups such as the aforementioned No Doubt and Sublime helped push ska to the forefront of the alternative rock scene. “Sell Out,” the single off of the group’s 1996 CD, Turn The Radio Off, reached No. 10 on Billboard magazine’s modern rock chart, and the video for the song saw considerable play on MTV.

But the popularity of ska (and skapunk) proved brief, and Reel Big Fish never again cracked the upper tier of the modern rock charts.

After 20 years, Barrett is the only remaining original member of RBF.

The other current members are Dan Regan (trombone), John Christianson (trumpet), Derek Gibbs (bass) and Matt Appleton (saxophone). On March 1, Steen will mark his eighth year in the band.

“They go by in a blur,” he said. “When I first joined the band I thought, ‘I’ll be in it for a year or two.’ Eight years later, I feel really lucky to be in this band and to have it turn into the experience it’s become.”

Steen moved to California in 2000 with his band Square, a trio that also included Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine. He met Reel Big Fish when the Nebraskans played and won the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands shortly after moving west.

Steen became friends with the RBF guys and filled in for drummers when they couldn’t make shows. When Justin Ferreira decided to quit the band in early 2005, Steen got a call asking him to join.

Since Steen joined the band, RBF has released three studio albums, a rerecorded hits package, an EP and a couple of live packages. All of them except We’re Not Happy ’Til You’re Not Happy, on which Steen did not play, have been released independently.

RBF is now touring behind Candy Coated Fury, released in July 2012.

“It’s kind of a return to the abandon Reel Big Fish had back in the early days, when some of them were still teenagers,” Steen says of Candy Coated Fury. “At least that’s what I’ve been told. I do know it’s like what we do live — playing it loud and proud.”

The band played the Warped Tour last summer and has also done an extensive run through Europe. Touring internationally is standard operating procedure for the band. But playing countries from Australia to Dubai isn’t like being a tourist.

“Being able to be on a bus and tour the world six or seven months a year is so great,” Steen says. “Wherever we go, we seem to have a great group of people to see the show, at every show. Because we’ve toured so much, the band has built its reputation on the live show. We try to bring it every night and the people always do. We feed off of that. They feed off of us and it’s fun, man. It’s just fun, every night.”