[Interview] Reel Big Fish Celebrate 20 Years of "Turn the Radio Off" at The Masquerade
It’s 1996. Motorola introduces the StarTAC mobile phone, the Pokémon video game franchise makes its first Japanese release with Pocket Monsters Red and Green, the N64 brings us 3D gameplay and ends friendships over Goldeneye. Turner Field is opened as Atlanta hosts the Summer Olympics, Dolly the Sheep becomes the first successfully cloned animal, the OJ Simpson trial captivates the entire nation, ska rules the airwaves, and Reel Big Fish strikes certified gold with their August release, Turn the Radio Off.
Now it's 2017, five-year-olds have iPhones, OJ is in jail (for something completely unrelated), and Turner Field is closed. But Reel Big Fish is still going strong and keeping ska alive. They took us back to the heyday of horn-infused punk music and celebrated the 20th anniversary of their most successful album. The Masquerade’s Heaven was our time machine, and front man Aaron Barrett and Reel Big Fish provided more than enough energy to power it.
Running onto the stage to a chorus of “Olés” from the audience, they immediately launched into “I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend Too." The crowd erupted, filling the room with skunky smoke and skanking ska fans. After playing hit song, “Sellout," the first track from the album Turn the Radio Off, Barrett let us in on their plan to play the entire album “even the shitty ones” in celebration of its 20th year. And that is exactly what happened. You would never know which songs were the shitty ones because they played them all with such unrelenting energy. The crowd never stopped moving, jumping, and dancing. The entire mass of frenetically gyrating people embodied the energy of the open ocean, and what better place for Reel Big Fish? The night was capped with Reel Big Fish’s beloved rendition of a-ha’s 80’s classic “Take On Me." The energy lingered in the venue and spilled out onto Kenny’s Alley as people sang and skanked their way back into 2017. 1996 couldn’t last forever.
Before the show, I had the opportunity to sit down with the trumpet player, Johnny Christmas, and talk with him about touring, record labels, and the importance of supporting your favorite artists.
Where are y’all coming from?
Pensacola, FL. We came straight off the stage to here. We got in around ten this morning.
You guys are on a bus, I’m assuming?
We are on a bus, fortunately. You can’t tour as much as we do without a bus.
So, you're just on constant tour?
Yea, touring, touring, touring, touring, touring; because if we’re not touring we’re not as able to, you know, pay for our food and pay our house payments and rents and stuff.
Speaking of paying for food and rent, was there a moment when you realized that you would be able to pay for all that purely by playing music?
That was in 2004 when I joined the band. It’s not really as cut and dry as you make it seem, though. Because this is a business, and, going back to us being on the road all the time, if you’re not on the road then you’re not making money so people don’t get paid. You are always one day off from disaster out here because it’s really expensive to have the bus. And as a ska band there’s six guys in the band and three crew that we take care of, and it’s an expensive endeavor. That’s why we’re on this tour that’s six weeks long with only three days off the whole time.
Woah, that’s a brutal schedule. I guess that’s why you’ve got the hot tea and honey.
Yea exactly, trying to take care of myself!
You said that you joined the band in 2004, but the band didn’t start in 2004. How did you get involved with Reel Big Fish?
I got in from our bass player Derek Gibbs. He was playing in another band with Aaron Barret called The Forces of Evil. And that band, the trumpet player, José [Castellaños] from Save Ferris, decided at that point in his life to become a Jehovah’s Witness, so he couldn’t really be in a band called the Forces of Evil that drank and said “fuck” every other word. And, by the way, this was probably all inspired by a girl, which, for all of you guys out there; it’s a mistake. Drastic life changes like that for a girl are always a bad idea. So Derek knocked on my parent’s door when I was home from university on break, and he said, “Hey, our trumpet player just became a Jehovah’s Witness, do you wanna come and play?”
I had been a casual, trumpet-for-hire all my life, so I went and rehearsed with them on a Sunday and played a show on a Friday. And it’s been downhill ever since. It’s been a really awesome experience.
When did you go from school band and more traditional trumpet arrangements to jamming with people in a band?
That was actually my first experience playing ska music. I had done a lot of jazz work, salsa stuff, and classical trumpet, but had never had an opportunity to play ska. So that was my first band experience. I helped out with all the business stuff because Aaron was on tour at the time. I did all of the accounting, I got the t-shirts made up, I helped produce the record and get everything mixed, I helped get it pressed – oh, wait – let me rephrase that. I’m the one who got it pressed up. And just took care of that stuff while he was on tour and didn’t have time to do it. It was a great learning experience and I’m really happy to have gotten to do that. Forces of Evil was a great band, and I love those songs.
You guys aren’t the only one’s playing tonight. Who are the other bands and how do you choose them? Does your label tell you ‘This is who you’re running with’ or do you choose bands that you personally like?
Yea, sometimes it’s great and it works out that way. Like Ballyhoo!. Ballyhoo! is a great band that we’ve toured with a lot. They’re a great reggae band and great group of guys that we like a lot and they were our choice. Direct Hit was a choice by Anti-Flag, so it was just kind of a compromise. We brought a band and they brought a band. And tonight we have another band coming out called PKEW PKEW PKEW replacing Direct Hit because they had to go home.
What are some of your musical influences?
Other than classical and jazz, I love Jamaican ska music. I love The Wailers, The Skatalites, and Desmond Dekker. I love the rich history of ska music. I love The Specials. But I’m also a metal head. I grew up listening to Van Halen, Rush, and The Scorpions. And that’s something Aaron and I share. We both are 80’s hair metal heads and so that comes in to play, too. But I like any music that’s played well. Anything where someone has integrity and they are sincere about what they’re putting forth. You can tell when someone is really sincere about what they wanna do and when it’s a put on, and I’m not a fan of the put on stuff.
Do you think you have to, to quote y’all’s hit song, “Sellout” in order to make it in the music industry?
You, as an artist, need to make your own path both with your songwriting and with the way your career goes. And at that time in the mid-90s, having a record deal was just going to the next level of success, and the band wanted to reach more people. So by signing with a major record label, that helps you get distribution, helps get your record made, helps get the record to the stores. I know people look down upon the whole record experience, and I’m speaking from the 90s; now it’s different because you don’t really have that record label behind you anymore. And neither do we. We don’t have a major record deal, we just have a distribution deal with a company called Rock Ridge. And so, part of it is the fans find it “special” and they don’t want to share it with the rest of the world. They say, “I found this band, I love this band, and I wanna keep it for myself,” and it’s kind of selfish to not want a band to succeed and to make a living playing music. If you want your favorite bands to continue to record music and play shows, they have to be able to make a living doing it, and at that time being on a record label was going to help Reel Big Fish do that. Now we survive completely off of touring. So, if you want a band and you love that band, you have to be willing to support that band. You have to be willing to buy tickets to a show and buy a t-shirt and buy a CD or else you’re not going to have any of the bands you love playing shows or recording music anymore because it’s no longer economically viable. You can’t expect your favorite musicians to starve and live in a van cause that’s really unfair.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, we really appreciate it. Do you have a sales pitch that you'd like to throw out here at the end?
Come to a Reel Big Fish show if you wanna have fun. If you like having fun then come to a Reel Big Fish show. That’s what this band’s all about. It’s about taking you out of your daily existence. Not everybody’s lives are really awesome at times, and we can give you a break from that. Make you laugh, make you smile, make you dance. It’s not something you get at every band show, and we’re a great time so come and see us.
Photos by Missy Stowell for Bullet Music