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Turn the Labels Off

blog reel-big-fishReel Big Fish remains active after late ’90s boom and record label woes

Ryland Steen, drummer for the punk-ska band Reel Big Fish, has been with the band for six years. Six years is about the length of time it takes to obtain a degree in medicine, but considering the band just celebrated its 20th anniversary in January, Steen is the perpetual freshman.

When the 31-year-old was still a high school kid in Nebraska, Reel Big Fish’s single “Sell Out,” off the 1996 album Turn the Radio Off, peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Alternative Songs list. Along with bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Save Ferris, they were part of the vanguard of the Third Wave of ska—the genre enjoyed 15 minutes of fame in the mid- to late-’90s before swing took over and emo rose out of suburban basements.

Steen joined the band full time in 2005 after filling in intermittently, and remembers being surprised by the band’s rabid audiences, both foreign and domestic, even after the late-’90s “fanaticism,” he says, had worn off. “I didn’t know how big a deal they were, or the crowds we’d be playing for. [I was] in awe.”

Shortly after Steen’s addition, the band underwent another change. In 2006, Jive Records released Reel Big Fish from their contract. But the band’s reaction was different than you might expect: “I’d never seen a band more happy to be let go,” Steen says, remembering the high-fives and hugs. “It relieved the pressure of wondering if something’s going to be approved or not.”

Being with a label meant having to conform to popularity, which, Steen says, was why many of their ska band peers simply stopped playing ska when the market moved sideways. Independence meant the band could stay true to its vision. “Now more than ever it’s so easy to get your music out to people,” he says. “Labels aren’t as necessary as they used to be.”

Even Jive’s attempt at profiting off its former band with the 2006 compilation Greatest Hit . . . And More—which, since all of its masters were owned by the label, meant that the band didn’t see a cent—did little to irk the band. They kept touring. They kept writing. And they kept moving forward.

“Labels can be great if they’re your friend, but as soon as you stop selling records—at least as many records as they’d like you to—generally the phone keeps ringing and you never get a hold of anybody,” Steen says.

Reel Big Fish’s most recent record, A Best of Us for the Rest of Us, was the band’s answer to a “best of” album that the members could actually make money off of. Re-recording their hits—along with supplemental disks of covers and quirky “Skacoustic” versions of their songs—was an opportunity for the band’s new members to put their mark on the catalogue. It was also a fitting metaphor for a band that is constantly adding young fans to its established base.

“Now, when you look out, it’s definitely teenagers between the age of 13 to 19. That’s the bulk of the audience,” Steen says. “[But] you have people in their late 20s, early 30s, even creeping up on their 40s that will come and say, ‘I’ve been listening to you guys forever.’

“As a band, we’re able to stay in this arrested development, as far as the fans go,” Steen adds.

Reel Big Fish is not a band making deep observations about the human condition—at least in the way you might think. Their message and purpose is simple: “People want to have fun, and I think we’re able to provide that for an evening. We all want to have a good time,” Steen says. And as they close out 2011, Reel Big Fish has no plans to change. “It’s become an institution.”


Reel Big Fish plays at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18, at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21. For more information, call 423-1338.

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