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A Slap in the Face - Reel Big Fish: Friday, August 24, 10:30 p.m. PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 22 August 2007 02:43

Reel Big Fish Reel Big Fish's new record, Monkeys for Nothin' & the Chimps for Free, features "Another F.U. Song," which begins "Hey kids! It's time to use the ‘F' word!" and includes, among its tamer phrases, "with a big rusty pole or a splintery post." You can guess the context in which those words are sung.

But it's a gleeful minute-long screed, not at all bitter. And that's quite a change for the California ska-punk band, which spent most of this millennium on a record label that wanted nothing to do with it.

"It [the record label] was getting swallowed by larger and larger corporations, and so we kind of got shuffled lower and lower on their artist roster," said John Christianson, who has played trumpet in the band since 2004. "So it came down to a point where they weren't giving us any attention. ... We kept asking, ‘Just let us go.'"

That happened last year, after the deceptively titled Cheer Up! (2002) and the accurately titled We're Not Happy 'Til You're Not Happy (2005) on Jive.

"The records came out pretty pissed-off," Christianson said, and that was a function of both band and label turmoil. Christianson goes by Johnny Christmas on stage, and "it has something to do with my demeanor, with being happy," he said. "When I came into the band, a lot of people were just not happy."

That was reflected in the music, he said. "[Singer and chief songwriter] Aaron [Barrett] would write songs from the blackest pit of his heart. ... It's premeditated. ... He knew what he was doing."

Anger and misery are certainly valid emotions for music rooted in punk, but they present a problem for Reel Big Fish, which is a feel-good party band. "People just want to laugh and have a good time at a show," Christianson said. "They don't want to take everything so seriously."

So Monkeys for Nothin' ... is a welcome return to form for Reel Big Fish, which scored an MTV hit in 1997 with "Sell Out" when ska briefly emerged from the underground. The new record - released last month on the independent Rock Ridge label - is frequently juvenile, often dumb (in a good way), sometimes clever, never oppressive, and almost always a lot of fun.

Growl metal and Queen-ly operatic cheese mingle with the ska on the album's lead track, "Party Down." One song bemoans the unreliability of an imaginary friend. "Everybody's Drunk" steals from Twisted Sister, and that follows a propulsive version of "Another Day in Paradise," which lightens and brings immediacy to the leaden Phil Collins song by polishing it off in about half the time of the original.

Monkey's for Nothin' was initially planned as a B-sides collection but ended up a hybrid of new songs (called "Monkeys") and re-recorded or re-worked old stuff (dubbed "Chimps").

But the evident joy of the new album masks the reality that the band was in a precarious position once Jive dropped it.

Last year, the band self-released Our Live Album Is Better Than Your Live Album. The two-CD, one-DVD set was an attempt to generate some revenue from record sales when the band didn't own the rights to its studio recordings.

"I think the band still makes the record company money," Christianson said. "The record company doesn't make the band money. The band has sold almost a million records, and it's never seen a dime from record sales."

But without a label or a distributor, Reel Big Fish paid for everything out of its own pocket. "We were trying to play a catch-up game," using sales to pay for manufacturing, Christianson said. But "we could never catch up," and the band ended up $150,000 in the hole. "Sometimes it's scary. Sometimes we don't get paid. Aaron had to put up his house in order to keep the band going when we were making the live record."

And then there was the band's former record label, which put out a Reel Big Fish greatest-hits record less than four months after the band's own live set.

"That was kind of like a slap in the face, 'cause we did the live record to be a greatest hits for Reel Big Fish," Christianson said, "so we had something that we would actually be able to see money on, so we could actually keep going, we can keep making records, and we can keep touring."

After the financial fiasco of the live record - "We're paying the [mortgage] loan back" now, Christianson said - Reel Big Fish signed a distribution and manufacturing deal with Rock Ridge, which meant the band only had to pay for the three-week recording session for Monkeys for Nothin' ... and (for a change) had its choice of producer and studio.

Although ska doesn't have the chart power it did in the commercial prime of No Doubt, Sublime, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Christianson said it's still a vital form.

"Ska is the underground movement of music," he said. "It's absolutely amazing if you turn on the TV how many ska tunes you'll see in movies and commercials. ... It's always there."

And the band's fans, he added, are "rabid. They love you. They want to rip your clothes off - not in a sexual way. They just want everything that you have.

"We were in England one time, and I got a little bit too close to the audience playing a solo, and they ripped my shirt off. It was awesome! You never get that playing a jazz gig."


To listen to the Reader interview with John Christianson, visit (

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