Some words with Aaron Barett of Reel Big Fish

Aaron Barett is the singer, guitar player, main songwriter, and founder of third-wave ska legends Reel Big Fish.  As a huge fan of Reel Big Fish for many years, being able to interview him was an absolute treat, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that his hilariously sarcastic on-stage persona isn’t really a persona at all – it’s really just him.  To be honest, reading his quotes in the form of a text interview doesn’t really do justice to his comedic energy, but I did the best that I could.  Enjoy!

You’ve been touring with a lot of legendary ska acts these days – Goldfinger, The Aquabats, Less Than Jake, and now Streetlight.

This is like our….seventh tour with Streetlight, I think.  We’ve been to Europe, Australia, Canada several times…

So you must like those guys quite a bit.

I’ve never actually met any of them, but they seem nice.  Y’know, they smile when they walk by [laughs].

You’ve been touring with a lot of bands that rose up in the scene the same time you guys did.  How has this been coming up recently?

Less Than Jake was the one that we hadn’t toured with until 2007.  We’ve been touring with Goldfinger since 1996, Streetlight for the past six years…We like to tour with ska bands!  People that go to the shows, they want to see a ska show.  We found that out the hard way, because we brought a lot of our friends out that weren’t ska bands – they were really awesome bands, but just not appropriate for that kind of show, because everyone wanted to hear a specific thing. We got our friends booed off the stage so many times that we figured out that maybe we should have more fun bands touring with us.

Considering that third-wave ska originated in the 90s, what kind of crowds are you seeing come out to shows these days?  A lot of younger crowds, or a few middle-aged folks as well?

[Laughs] Nah, it’s always young people, a lot of young people.  It’s fun, youthful, energetic music so a lot of young people find out about it.  There’s the old-school fans, but they stay back by the bar drinking.  It’s a good mix of people, and it always has been.  It’s good for us.

You recently lost Scott, a pretty integral member – [Note: I pronounced this as “in-tee-gral”, hence the rest of this little segment]

A what member?  Integral [pronounced differently]?  Do you say “aluminium” [phonetically] too?

Absolutely not!

[Laughs] Okay.

So, Scott did a lot of stuff in the band – back-up vocals, second guitar, second trumpet, and was also your comedic counterpoint live.  How has it been without him?  Has it changed the dynamic of the band a lot?

Not so much.  I could tell for the last five years that he wanted to do something else – he was ready to move on.  He wasn’t necessarily unhappy and hating his life, but you could just tell his mind was slowly drifting to other places.  He wanted to do his own thing, and start a family.  I mean, he’s been doing this since he was 16 so…I’m not saying this in a mean way, but he kind of checked out a while ago.  We weren’t really being the comedy that we used to be as much [laughs].  So we were already used to it by the time he left, like “oh man, of course, of course, we know you want to do other things.”  I hope he comes to the New York show at least on this tour.

Are you doing a New York bonanza?

Yeah, we’re playing at the Nokia Theater.  I hope he comes out, I haven’t seen him since December.

Do you guys still keep in touch?

Yup!  We do keep in touch.  He’s the only ex-member that I keep in touch with [laughs].

Really?  Not even [previous long-time bassist] Matt Wong?

No, I never see him anymore.  He doesn’t really keep in touch.  People go on with their lives.  That’s why I don’t have any friends, because I’m always on tour.

So you and [trombone player] Dan Regan are the only original members left?

He’s been in the band for 17 years.  I’m the only one who’s been here the whole time.  Dan joined after about three years.

Does it still feel like playing with a bunch of new guys, or have you become a cohesive unit?

Especially back in the first five or six years of the band, no one was ever in the band for more than a few years.  It’d be people coming in and out all the time.  First it was whoever wasn’t grounded – whoever’s parents would let them out of the house – and then after a few years it was whoever could get off work to do the show, so the whole time the band’s been around, it’s been me and whoever I could get to play with me at that time!  Some people stayed longer than others, some people were able to be there more often.  It’s not like we had this “core group of best, best friends, and we played together, and then suddenly – awww one of them left!”  It’s not to say that anyone’s not important – I mean, I love the guys that are in the band right now.  It’s the best line-up we’ve ever had, and the best that the band has ever gotten along, but this is something that we got used to a long time ago.  People come and go, and people, after a while, don’t want to play anymore and have other things they want to do with their lives.   When someone would leave it’s not the hugest shock.  It’s like “yep, alright, I get it.”  Your article’s going to say “Yeah, he’s an asshole, he doesn’t even care about his band members, he wants them to leave, he hates them!” [laughs].  That’s not what I said at all!

If my Wikipedia sources are correct, you guys have a sax player for the first time [Matt Appleton, previously of Goldfinger]. How has that affected your sound?

What, Wikipedia?  HUGE!

[Laughs].  I mean having a woodwind player and not just brass.

Dude, I looovvveee sax.  We had a sax player when we first started having a horn section.  We actually had two different sax players.  We had one for one year and then we got another guy named Adam, and he was actually on the Everything Sucks album, and he quit right before we got our record deal, to go to college.  But I’ve always wanted to get a sax player again.  It’s just like, once you get signed and everything, and start touring, you become a business; and then there’s money involved and it’s like “I want a sax player!” and then the manager says “we can’t afford a sax player!”  It’s just things like that, and then we never met anyone who would fit in the band anyway.  So, we met Matt, and he was a great guy.  We met him I think two years ago, and he was in Goldfinger.  He was just the nicest guy, and we went “you should come and play with us sometime”, and then Scott decided it was time for him to leave, and it just worked out.  Matt wasn’t doing anything so… I love sax.  I love sax solos.  It’s great to have trumpet, sax, and trombone.  That was my dream line-up of horns.  So I’m very happy!

You’ve been in the band for 20 years now; how do you keep things exciting for yourself?

Uh…luckily I have OCD, so I like to play the same songs over and over again; every night I like to have the exact same show happen [laughs].  It never gets old; playing a song and having the audience explode into cheers and applause and jumping around going crazy – that’s a good feeling that I never get sick of.  I just like to play music.  It’s not just like “aw, here’s the same song again!” It’s different when you’re on-stage, thinking about other things.  Like “can I get through it without messing up?  What can I do to make people go crazy?  I’m gonna do a kick right here! Maybe I should jump – aw, that hurts!”  There’s a lot of different things going on every night.  For me, it doesn’t get old.  I really like it, a lot.

As a ska musician, do you ever feel the need to branch out into other genres, or are you happy just doing what you’re doing?

I’m happy doing what we do, because we can make any kind of song.  We made a bunch of weird songs.  I feel satisfied, I feel like I’ve expressed myself enough [laughs].  I think I’m best at writing ska songs.  We’re all over the place, but we’re a ska band that can do anything.

As “S.R.” obviously proves.

Yeah [laughs].  We’re the masters of all music, but we choose ska because it’s the best!

Your newer material, like Monkeys for Nothing and the Chimps are for Free –

Shit, that’s old!  That’s like 2007!  It’s 2011 now!

I said newer!  And [2010 album] Fame, Fortune and Fornication –

That’s just covers!

Anyways, as I was going to say, there’s a lot more fun on your newer material.  You’ve been going back to your roots, doing 80s covers and re-recording stuff from [their debut album] Everything Sucks.

Oh, Everything Sucks is not fun, that’s a miserable album.  All of those songs are about depression, but they’re so hilarious…[pauses, laughs].  Sorry, go on.

Since you’ve been dropped from your label, it seems like you’re having a lot more fun, with your lyrics especially being much lighter overall.

Yeah, you know, I wasn’t going through any rough times, so I wrote some funny songs [laughs].  Nah, it’s definitely been a lot more fun being off a label.   Especially when we were on Jive Records; that was no fun.  But now we can do whatever we want!  I could jump in that water right now!  Nah, I’d mess up my hair.

What’s coming up next for Reel Big Fish?  Any plans for a new album?

Why are you holding your phone out at me!?

It’s my recording device!

[laughs]  What’s next for Reel Big Fish?  We are going to go to South America after this tour, with Goldfinger, and….I don’t know, we keep talking about making a new album.  A dark and depressing new album [laughs]. Just the lyrics, like usual.  The music will be light and fun [laughs].  Candy-coated fury!

Any plans to tour with No Doubt once they start their whole real reunion tour?

I would love to, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen [laughs].  They were the big local band when we were first starting out, and they were really nice and let us play a couple shows with them, but I think they don’t like us that much now.  They never really knew us that well.  We have no like [high-pitched voice] “Hey buddy, remember when we were best friends back in the day? Remember when we were one of the thousand kids who came to your show?”  “Nope, I don’t.”  But that’d be great.  I still like No Doubt; they’re awesome.

Last question: what is the one question you always wish a journalist would ask you in an interview?

[Laughs] I don’t know!  I hate the question “tell me a funny story!” or “what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened?”  I hate that one.  I don’t know, I hate talking about myself.  I’m so bad at interviews.  Yuck.  I can never get good at them.  Any question in the world?  Meet me back in here in three hours, and I’ll tell you [laughs]!  I can only think about the question I don’t want to be asked.  Which is “tell a funny story”.

So do you want to tell me a funny story?

NO! [laughs]

By Daniel Korn

Daniel wants to be a rock star when he grows up. He is currently pursuing a career in music by studying at York University, where he hits things loudly with sticks. He is in two gigging bands - New Stems and The Formalists. He writes for MVRemix and Cadence Canada. He also has a weekly podcast called Two Loud Guys. Aside from music, he likes video games, comic books, puppies, and food. You can follow him on twitter @AmateurDan.

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