They are often misused and mistaken for one another, but there’s a big difference between what’s simple and what’s simplistic. Simple is straightforward, uncomplicated, easy to understand, from point A to point B, with no detours or side streets. There’s something beautiful about simplicity. Think black and white. Think punk rock. Think Apple. In The Lord of the Flies, William Golding wrote, “The greatest ideas are the simplest”. Albert Einstein was said to have suggested that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. “Simpler” implies being simplistic; by definition, “treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are.” Simplistic ideas tend to be problematic and ineffective. However, with that being said, the music of Reel Big Fish is both, and that’s precisely what makes it so glorious.
Reel Big Fish has been around in one incarnation or another for over twenty years. Lead singer Aaron Barrett is the only member who has been with the band since its inception in 1992. Trombone player Grant Barry was fired after an altercation with a security guard, drummer Andrew Gonzales left to spend time with his family, trumpet player Tavis Wertz departed too, and so on. But despite the lineup changes, the band’s sound and attitude have remained constants. Their sound is the purest ska punk, all trombones, trumpets, punk rock riffs and anthemic choruses. It’s relentlessly upbeat, but the lyrics balance out the equation by matching the ostensible joyousness with unbridled cynicism.
Reel Big Fish is the perfect embodiment of an attitude that consumed a whole genre during its heyday in the mid-90s. That genre was ska punk. Regular ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, and there was nothing punk about it. A precursor to reggae, ska featured guitar, saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums and a “monotonic grassroots rhythm,” as per the wonderful 1964 program This is Ska!. It was played at a relatively fast pace and incorporated a strong offbeat that was both easy to dance to and remarkably relaxing. In the 1970s, there was a ska revival, particularly in England where bands like Bad Manners, Madness and The Beat experienced moderate success by fusing ska with other music styles, like pop, new wave and, yes, punk. The music from this wave of popularity is commonly referred to as Two Tone, and it continued through the 80s. Like plenty of other music from the 80s, it hasn’t exactly aged gracefully. As early as the 80s, though, a third-wave of ska, began growing in the underground. This is the wave that is often associated with the explosion of ska punk. Ska punk finally began to take off in the early-90s. There was technically ska punk produced in the U.S. from coast to coast – for example, in the east, there was the infectious The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – but the western ska punk scene, particularly the southern California variety, produced the vast majority of the most successful, memorable and distinct bands of that era.
Cali-flavored ska punk was both buoyant and brash, yet there was always something irresistibly juvenile about it. The lens through which they viewed the world was so simplistic. Bands like Reel Big Fish saw problems and threw a blanket of cynicism over them; all the while their tongues were placed firmly in their cheeks. Looking back, their approach is in stark contrast to the style that supplanted their genre. Ska punk had a relevant moment in the mid-90s, but by the turn of the century, its popularity was receding in favor of its angst-y cousin, pop punk as well as its weepy offshoot, emo. Whereas the emo/pop punk movement was all about taking relatively modest problems and treating them extremely seriously, as if they were the end of the world and life itself – “you could slit my throat/ and with my one last gasping breath/ I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt,” etc., etc. – ska punk was about looking at problems, big and small, and making a joke out of them. Both approaches have their charms, and I’m not immune to either one, but in 2014, neither is particularly popular. I like to joke that, as pretentious and me-oriented as the Facebook/Instagram generation tends to be and as popular as self-reflective and emotional artists like Drake are, you’d think emo music would be more prevalent. Ska punk, on the other hand, seems like it undeniably belongs in the 90’s.
But that hasn’t stopped Aaron Barrett and his magnificent sideburns from continuing to release albums and tour as Reel Big Fish. I had the pleasure of catching them last week, and let me tell you, it was as if the 90s never ended. I realize that’s a polarizing sentiment to some, but I promise in this case that was a good thing. After a raucous set by opening band Suburban Legends, Reel Big Fish kicked it off with “Everything Sucks,” a perfect, cheeky mission statement. Sometimes, when you’re trying to make it big in a band, and otherwise, it seems like nothing is going your way. Why dig deep and persevere when you can throw your hands up, say, “Everything sucks!” and leave it at that. Simplistic? Sure, but seductive too, and it turns out, awfully fun.
The majority of their songs have a sentiment somewhere along these lines. They’re celebrations of giving up and giving in, of not taking everything so seriously, and of shirking responsibilities. It’s not exactly an effective blueprint for living life, but it’s not meant to be taken at face value. Like emo, it’s simply a fantasy. In emo music, you’re the protagonist, pouring out your broken heart because you’re honest and you’re real – it’s a heightened sense of reality, obviously, but it’s how you feel, man. In ska punk, you’re the protagonist too, but you’re a bit of a carefree asshole. You don’t have time to cry about life because you’re too busy laughing about it. Some of Reel Big Fish’s best songs are goofy perversions of idealism and self-seriousness. In “Trendy,” the band lampoons nonconformity and conformity alike. “It’s not so bad bein’ trendy/ Everyone who looks like me is my friend/ Please don’t hate me because I’m trendy/ They’re not gonna laugh at me again”. It’s a simple little jam that asks the question who deserves more ire, those who follow all the trends or those who act superior for not following the trends? In “Sell Out,” they tackle the age-old artist taboo of – surprise, surprise – “selling out,” with winking wit. Ironically, “Sell Out” was the band’s biggest hit, a fact they lament in another song, the self-aware “One Hit Wonder”.
Be that as it may, though, Reel Big Fish still has a pretty impressive discography full of cult favorites, classic covers and undiscovered gems. Their most recent album came out in 2012 to little fanfare. It’s aptly titled Candy Coated Fury and features an explicit lead single that emphatically answers the question of whether or not Reel Big Fish has decided to mature in its older age. “This is about how everyone else in the whole world is an asshole, except for you.” Aaron Barrett told the excited crowd before the band tore into “Everyone Else is an Asshole”. Life’s never that simple, but sometimes it’s pretty appealing – and fun – to dream about if it was.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.