Stony Brook ska-lers were treated to a skank-tastic performance by ‘90s third-wave ska veterans Reel Big Fish Sept. 5 on the Skaller Steps. The band opened with fan favorite “Trendy” and skanked through more than three hours of ska-mazing horn-infused pop rock classics, closing with their ska-bove ska-verage cover of “Take On Me” by one-hit wonders Ska-Ha. With a crowd of several hundred students in search of a back-to-ska musical skafari hungrily awaiting skatisfaction before the show, The Stony Brook Press was able to steal a few minutes with drummer Ryland Steen—whose résumé as a drummer also includes Maroon 5, Suburban Legends and Phantom Planet—to discuss Reel Big Fish’s signature sound, their cult-status skareers heading one of pop music’s most polarizing subgenres and how apparently, it’s pretty awesome to get paid to be in a band, even if it is a ska band.
Stony Brook Press: When exactly did you join Reel Big Fish?
Ryland Steen: I joined almost seven and a half years ago. But they’ve gone by in the blink of an eye, I’ll tell you that.
SBP: Where had you been performing before that?
RS: It was just kind of a bunch of random bands.
SBP: Any other ska bands?
RS: No, actually. I grew up in Nebraska and I hand’t really been exposed [to it]. The only sort of ska music I had been exposed to was probably the 2-Tone (Editor’s note: Steen is referring to the so-called “second wave” of ska, the period that first brought the genre from the Caribbean Islands to England and the U.S. between the ‘70s and ‘80s after it got its start in 1960s Jamaica. 2-Tone is the name of a seminal ska label from the era.) ska from England, like The Specials and Madness and Bad Manners and Selecter and stuff like that. It wasn’t until I moved to Southern California in 2000 that I started getting exposed to more of the ska-punk, style, or the “third wave” as they call it.
The band I’d moved out to California with played this battle of the bands, and Reel Big Fish, they were one of the judges. We met them and became friends with them, and that was how the relationship started. It was weird, because I was friends with them before I even heard their music. It was cool to be able to see them play and go, “oh, this is really fun music.”
SBP: Had you heard of them before that? Maybe in the ‘90s ska fad?
RS: Maybe when I was 15, and I heard them in the movie BASEketball. It wasn’t until later that I was like, “oh yeah!” But over the next few years, there were a few times when I filled in for previous drummers, and then it was in March of 2005 that they asked if I wanted to join full-time, and I didn’t have anything else going on at the time, so it worked out great. Fast-forward seven years later.
SBP: You moved into a hotbed of music that now has a cult following, but for a while, ruled the world for a couple of years.
RS: By the time I came in, it was back underground by then, but Reel Big Fish had established themselves as their own entity. I mean yes, we’re a ska-punk band, but I don’t think people think of us as a ska-punk band. I think they just go, “we’re gonna go see Reel Big Fish play.” Obviously our singer, Aaron Barrett, is the musical mastermind, but they’re not coming to see any one member of the band. They’re coming to see us play Reel Big Fish songs. Which is kinda weird, because even though you’re in the band, you end up feeling like you’re almost like a tribute band.
SBP: And over the course of 20 years, you’re going to have some turn over. All ska bands, members come and go all the time.
RS: Aaron is really “the guy.” We’re actually kinda happy about that. It allows a band to have a direction. It’d be cool if everyone really has their own voice, but it seems like total chaos. I think it’s great that we have someone steering the Reel Big Ship as it were. As members have come and gone I think it’s been great that we have a big pool of musicians to choose from in the Southern California area. And even though Aaron is the one coming up with the songs, we’re all still able to put our own fingerprints—our own personality. You can’t help but do that when you’re in a band. Whatever instrument you play you’re gonna put your personality down in your instrument. With this new album we have, Candy Coated Fury, we really show that.
SBP: Speaking of the new album, your own hometown newspaper called Candy Coated Fury a return to your roots. Do you think that’s true, and how do you feel about the idea of “returning to your roots” in general? You’re obviously always going to sound like Reel Big Fish. It’s always this ska-influenced kind of pop rock/punk that you’ve been doing forever.
RS: You’re totally right. And there’s a reason the songs have been written that way over the years. Because our fans love us for that. We’ve been one of those bands that thought we need to play more artistically, or we need to get into this or that. No, we love playing ska-punk music. Getting back to the roots of it? I think really what that comes down to is trying to bring in more of the reckless abandon into the music. There was a number of years when we’d go to make a record we’d focus on making everything perfect or doing a million takes. And with this record, it was more like we’d almost put a time limit on recording. We wanted to be able to just capture an energy. When you put time constraints on yourself, you have to step it up a notch and perform in a way you wouldn’t if you had all the time in the world.
When you’re young and making records, you’re not thinking about making things perfect. You’re thinking about having fun and getting as crazy and energetic as you can. We were trying ot capture an energy—we’re trying to be young and dumb teenagers again. One of the great things is because this band has been touring so long…
SBP: You’re known for a tight live performance.
RS: And now, we know we can play these songs. Now you have to just go in and do it. It was cool to accomplish that on this record.
SBP: So after all this time what still movitates you as a band?
RS: We love what we do, and we feel lucky enough to do what we do for a living. We’re able to keep the bills paid and have a place to live and have families and still be able to do it. I have friends in bands that make good money and they’re like, “uuuh, I don’t want to do this.” And I’m like, “dude, you get to play music for a living.” We’ve always been able to maintain perspective on where we are and what we’re doing. So many bands dream about trying to make it, but what I think happens when you’re younger is you don’t realize life is long. You get to that point but you want to keep it going. And what do you do when you’re 30 or pushing 40 and you’ve already been doing it for 15 years? The short answer is we feel lucky that we get to do what we do, and that’s what keeps us going.
SBP: I can predict what your biggest triumph would be—the opportunity to do this for a living. But have there been any failures or disappointments that stuck with you?
RS: If there were, I guess I haven’t dewelled on them too much. The band, since I’ve been in it, has been on automatic pilot. We’re always touring and making records and doing things. There hasn’t been a moment where I was like “oh , that was an epic fail,” fortunately. But the biggest triumph is that we’ve been able to keep going the way we have over the years. I think that’s amazing.
SBP: And it’s a polarizing style. You play for people that absolutely love your music, but the whole genre pisses some people off.
RS: I do feel like there’s some sort of universal quality. The music is just fun. Because we’ve toured for so many years, the band has built its reputation on the live show. Plenty of fans will come up and talk to me and say, “I don’t own a single one of your albums, but I come see you guys play every time you’re in town.” Just because they know it’s going to be a fun show. As far as live goes, there seems to be a certain sort of quality that people just want to come and have fun. It’s great that we’re able to provide a couple hours of fun and help people forget about any stresses and anxieties they have for at least a couple hours.
It’s not so much that people hate us. They usually go, “I don’t know who that is.”
SBP: Aaron has this schtick where he has an insensitive jerk thing going on. He plays up a jaded character of himself onstage. At one point during a live show, he said, “Hey, I had a moderately successful single in the late ‘90s (“Sell Out,” from the record Turn The Radio Off). You can’t talk to me like that.” But he’s obviously a sensitive guy. How real and how deeply felt is that bitterness?
RS: I think even when people are being sarcastic there’s a certain amount of sincerity. Maybe as disappointed as Aaron could be with certain things that have happened with the band, I know he feels totally lucky to be able to do what we do. Some bands could say, “oh, we’re doing the same tour again last year.” But I say, “yeah, and it was a pretty awesome tour we did last year!” He feels so lucky to be able to continue to make music and have a group of guys to back him up every step of the way. He’s always doing what he feels is best for the band. As far as the sarcasm onstage, he is a humble person. It’s that sort of self-deprecating kind of push and pull. Everything sucks, but by the end of the song, everything will be okay. I think everybody has those same emotions, whatever their story is. He just happens to have a microphone right in front of him. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.
SBP: You joined the self-releasing movement after Jive Records dropped you. And it seemed to give you a new wind.
RS: The thing that changed with not having to deal with a record label was it gave the band a new freedom. You didn’t have to worry about the A&R guy standing over your shoulder saying, “we don’t hear a hit.” It took some pressure off to let the band do what it does and feel good about it. It allowed us to be able to enjoy the music we were making again, moreso than when we were on a major label, because those labels make bands second-guess themselves. It’s been nice having that freedom, just being able to put out albums and be proud of what we’re doing.
SBP: You released an album of covers, and a lot of the times, the songs a band covers exposes their influences. Which of your covers best exemplify your influences?
RS: That’s tough, because we can take a crotch rock song from the ‘80s and make it sound like a Reel Big Fish song. But Aaron is a child of the ‘80s and he grew up loving bands like Quiet Riot and Poison. But he also loved all the old-school ska, like Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker. When you put that together with what was going on in Orange County at the time, you had the punk influence. When you put it altogether with what Aaron was listening to growing up, I think Reel Big Fish’s music spans a lot of areas. I think that’s another reason people like to come see us live. It’s not just a one-trick pony playing the same songs. There’s a little something for everybody.
SBP: Anything you think we should know?
RS: I think that’s all. You can check out our tour dates and our record on our website.
SBP: Thanks a lot.