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It's a sign of the times that a band can achieve success with a song called "Sell Out," which claims that the band has done just that and urges its fans to do the same. But are the band members sincere, or are they just making a joke? Reel Big Fish, a ska-punk outfit from Orange County, California, originally raised the issue in 1996, with its Mojo Records release Turn the Radio Off. The CD has since gone gold, selling more than 500,000 copies, mostly on the strength of "Sell Out" and the like-minded "Trendy." At first the uptempo, horn-fueled "Sell Out" sounds like a sarcastic attack on the music industry. The "record company's gonna give me lots of money, and everything's gonna be all right," the band sings. And "Trendy" -- a song familiar to Florida Marlins fans as the team's World Championship season theme song ("Everybody's doin' the fish, yea! yea! yea!") -- claims "it's not so bad bein' trendy, everyone who looks like me is my friend."
Surely these odes to rampant clannishness could be delivered only with ironic intentions, right? No sane, with-it band, especially one fueled by punkish rhythmic fire and comprised of members in their early twenties, would promote the mindless kind of conformity that makes, say, Brave New World so terrifying, correct?
As "Sell Out" propelled sales of Turn the Radio Off in mid-1997, the answer seemed to be yes. Music Connection, a Los Angeles-based trade publication, called "Sell Out" "a humorous jab at the recording industry." Press Enterprise in Riverside, California, referred to the song's message as "industry-bashing," and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a major-market daily newspaper, wrote that the band "epitomizes the modern punk irony," later stating, "their current hit, 'Sell Out,' details the evils of the music industry,... and the band benefits from the very structure they claim to despise."
But the press got it wrong. The fact is, the band's two hits, and in many ways the band members themselves, offer not a trace of irony. "Sell Out" was actually a reaction to fans who were claiming, back in the mid-'90s, that songs from an earlier, self-released Reel Big Fish EP were garnering too much radio play. But "Sell Out" suggests that the band is eager to do just what the title says, and "Trendy" drives the point home.
"'Trendy' is nothing too deep. It's not so bad being trendy," bassist Matt Wong said from the band's tour bus in Utah. "The song is a stab at being anti-everything, anti-this, anti-that. Everybody's that way; so now you're part of a trend. You say you're not, but not being trendy is the trendiest thing of all."
Wong's argument was that Reel Big Fish's anti-rebellion is really a form of rebellion. But not every one of his statements, and certainly not all the band's lyrics, back him up. For example, Wong said at one point that Reel Big Fish is "kind of a backlash to the late-'80s, early-'90s music scene, where everything was angst-ridden and the world was crappy." But rather than counter the doom and gloom of the grunge era with clever jibes, some of the band's lyrics reveal a similar world view. "Sell Out" opens with "Well, I know you can't work in fast food all your life" and later adds, "No more flippin' burgers puttin' on my silly hat."
In "Join the Club," the singer states: "I was gonna go and start a band, but everything I wanna do has already been done... [W]e try to be different, but I guess that's nothing new." And "Everything Sucks" continues these sentiments with the chorus "I'm giving up, I know everything sucks, and this is gonna be the last time you hear me complain."
Hopelessness, career anxiety, apathy -- they're all featured in Reel Big Fish songs, and they're the same Gen-X issues that Wong claims the song "Trendy" attacks. Musically speaking he may be right. The band's music is always propellant and tuneful, with high-pitched horns blasting Third Wave ska-punk melodies. But at the core of Reel Big Fish is an apparent restlessness that the band, as individuals and songwriters, haven't faced up to. In this context "Sell Out" may be their way of saying that playing the corporate game is the only road to happiness.
"Yeah, the world is crappy," Wong says, "but I want to have fun again. The problems are still gonna be there, but what can you do about it?"
Despite the pessimistic cracks in Reel Big Fish's happy-go-lucky facade, Wong has a healthy sense of humor that allows him to appreciate the eccentricities of life on the road. The night before he was interviewed, the band played a "blind date" show in Denver. Sponsored by a beer company, the show's audience was made up of contest winners who hadn't been told who would be performing. So, when showtime arrived, 600 clueless winners were standing around, waiting for the mystery band, when suddenly someone blasted Van Halen over the PA system. At that point Reel Big Fish walked out and began to play. The crowd, perhaps expecting something more Van Halen-esque, wasn't impressed by what they saw or heard.
"Imagine a Spinal Tap thing happening. Remember the puppet show?" Wong asked, referring to a humiliating moment in the heavy-metal parody This Is Spinal Tap in which the band, attempting a comeback, finds itself on a bill with a puppet show. "Six hundred people like that, all about giving us the finger.... Oh well, it was fun. They had free alcohol, so it was all right."
Despite the bum gig, the members of Reel Big Fish continue to marvel at their quasi-celebrity. They recently appeared as the house band in the movie BASEketball. The actual filming process, which Wong described as 12 hours of waiting around to do ten minutes of pretending to play, was boring, but the band was wowed by the film's Hollywood premiere and intimidated by the models who played cheerleaders in the film. "They were very cute, and they were wearing skimpy outfits," was Wong's excuse for the band's not attempting to make contact.
Though the 25-year-old Wong sounds a bit like a rookie, Reel Big Fish formed eight years ago, when he, drummer Andrew Gonzales, and guitarist Aaron Barrett got together to play cover tunes by Jimi Hendrix, Poison, and Bob Marley, among others. Their lead singer, Ben Guzman, turned them onto ska, which Sublime and No Doubt were popularizing in Orange County at the time. Guzman left the band early on, but the others continued to develop their ska-based sound. Barrett took over most of the vocals, and the band gradually added horns. (Grant Barry and Dan Regan play trombone, and Tavis Werts and Scott Klopfenstein play trumpet.) Reel Big Fish released the self-produced Everything Sucks in 1995 and was signed to Mojo Records after the CD sold 3000 copies.
When Turn the Radio Off was released in 1996, the album sold more than 36,000 copies, thanks to touring and regional video-play of the song "Everything Sucks," according to Billboard Magazine. The following year, "Sell Out" was promoted heavily, the single took off, the video was aired frequently on MTV, and Turn the Radio Off went gold. The band's next CD, Why Do They Rock So Hard, is due for release next month.
Wong says the new record will offer a lot more rock and pop, along with heavy doses of irreverence and perhaps a dash of standard-issue hopelessness. When it's suggested that labeling anti-trendiness a "trend" is the band's way of saying that no matter what we do, we just can't win, Wong laughs.
"That's the overall theme to everything," he says. "I think you just about got it. As long as you understand that, I think everything we're saying makes sense."
Reel Big Fish performs at FU*BAR, 909 E. Cypress Creek Rd., Fort Lauderdale, on Thursday, September 17. Doors open at 8 p.m., with Spring Heeled Jack USA and Frenzal Rhomb opening. For information call 954-532-4035.