Reel Big Fish Rock So Hard After Big Splash

Punk/ska outfit follows up hit record and heavy activity with a rock-infused new album.

Sophomore jitters don't seem to have afflicted Reel Big Fish lead singer Aaron Barrett -- not if his band's new album is any indication.

"We wanted to make something that people would like -- without losing all of our fans," explained Barrett, laughing half-heartedly while on a tour bus in Newark, Del. "We were kind-of worried because we've started playing different songs. Like our first single [from the new album] -- we're worried about people hearing it and saying, 'What is this? It isn't ska!' "

And the new album, Why Do They Rock So Hard (Oct. 20), really isn't ska. Instead, songs such as "The Set-Up (You Need This)" are charged with riffs of glossy guitar-work, with the band's melodic horn-section sporadically peeking through.

Where other bands might inject their second disc with an overdose of the formula that worked the first time around, the Huntington Beach, Calif., ska outfit opted for something of a change.

Reel Big Fish's Mojo Records debut album, Turn the Radio Off (1996), sold in excess of a half-million units, thanks to the bouncy ska of the single "Sell Out" (RealAudio excerpt) -- a sarcastic take on making money and living the major-label lifestyle -- and its follow-up, "She's Got a Girlfriend Now."

Now, after two years of watching bands such as No Doubt and Sugar Ray take pop-ska into the top-40 stratosphere, Reel Big Fish are returning to the record-racks with a new sound and a more aggressive, guitar-driven set of songs. Their upcoming second album serves up a melodic clash of riffs and grooves, a rock 'n' roll update of the band's patented brand of sarcasm and ska.

And the rest of Why Do They Rock So Hard is similar -- there's a lot of guitar throughout.

Trombonist Grant Barry said the guitar emphasis was intentional. "We actually need more guitars," Barry said, laughing. "More and more guitars. Maybe some distortion on the bass."

"I was like, listening to the classic-rock stations a lot," Barrett explained. "I've always loved rock. I was always into Poison, and all that glam-metal stuff, and punk rock, AC/DC, Van Halen -- all that kind of stuff. But I love ska, too ... I love horns and reggae, UB40, the Specials and English Beat. It all comes into play."

That it all came into play when it did -- during a chaotic year of high-profile activity -- is more than minor cause for celebration.

In fall 1997, Reel Big Fish saw their song "Trendy" (with its chorus of "Do the fish, do the fish") become the official anthem of the World Series-winning baseball team the Florida Marlins. A few months later, the Fish greeted their Florida fanbase with a ska-tinged rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a Miami Dolphins game on "Monday Night Football." This summer, the bandmembers played themselves in "BASEketball," the debut film by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

Somehow, during that mayhem, Reel Big Fish found time to crank out the record.

"I'm always writing songs," Barrett said. "I write stuff on tour, I write songs in my head. I always have ideas. In between tours, on days off -- there's always something. So we wrote from that, and we learned them."

Reel Big Fish -- whose current membership, in addition to Barrett and Barry, comprises bassist Matt Wong, drummer Andrew Gonzales, trumpet players Scott Klopfenstein and Travis Werts and trombonists Dan Regan and Barry -- got their start as a heavy-metal cover-band. "It wasn't like we played in bars, with bad metal-covers," Barrett noted. "But when we first started, that's all we knew. My guitar teacher -- he taught me some Led Zeppelin songs and stuff." But then, he says, the owner of the band's first PA system introduced them to ska. "He was playing us all these tapes. And it was great -- I didn't realize what ska was."

And ska still courses through the band's sonic veins, even if Rock So Hard tends to ... um ... rock so hard. "She's Famous Now" and "Everything Is Cool" are heavy on both rock and ska elements, while "Song #3" and "The Kids Don't Like It" offer a pure ska sound -- although the latter incorporates riffs from hard-rock act Poison's "Unskinny Bop." Another track, "Big Star," is predominantly acoustic.

One element the band has retained is its sense of fun. Much of the same punchy humor present on the band's debut album is included here, on songs like "Thank You for Not Moshing" and "I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend, Too," which features the line "She's so fucking cute/ I don't know what to do/ Maybe I could kill you!"

Reel Big Fish will be playing a handful of live dates while building up to the release of the album. And for the time being, Barrett says, they'll be sticking to older material for most of their concert repertoire.

"We'll concentrate on older stuff and toss a new song in here and there," he explained. "Sometimes the fans will dance, sometimes they'll cheer. But sometimes they just sit there. And stare."