Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, August 10, 2001

Reel Big Fish has ridden their renown as far as
performing the national anthem on
"Monday Night Football."

Keeping fame
tight on the line

By Shawn "Speedy" Lopes

IF, as the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their 15 minutes of fame, Reel Big Fish acknowledges they may be living on borrowed time. It's been four years since their breakthrough video for "Sell Out" saw rotation on MTV, and by all media accounts, the third wave of ska -- all the rage a half-decade ago -- is all but over.

"When we were on MTV, we were selling something like 10,000 albums a week," remembers guitarist and vocalist Aaron Barrett, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Fort Wayne, Ind. "It really helped a lot. At first, it was like nobody had even heard of us, and gradually our audiences grew."

Reel Big Fish
with guests Go Jimmy Go

>> In concert: 7 p.m. Tuesday
>> Place: World Cafe, 1130 N. Nimitz Hwy.
>> Call: 599-5764
>> Cost: $17.50 advance

But by then, Reel Big Fish, like many wigged-out ska revival bands of the '90s, were already stars in Hawaii. It was here in the islands that maverick radio station Radio Free Hawaii, which championed many new-generation ska acts, saw a glimmer of star power in the young combo from Huntington Beach, Calif. Taking cues from its music-voting system and listener requests, Radio Free helped popularize Reel Big Fish in Hawaii several years before they broke out nationally.

"They really had a hook," recalls former Radio Free Hawaii disc jockey Dave O'Day, who took part in breaking some of the band's earliest hits in 1995. "They were sort of the alternative rock Backstreet Boys at the time, and most of 'em weren't even old enough to drink. I remember we had a 'Reel Big Fish Barbeque' in the station's parking lot, and there was an unbelievable turnout. There was a mob of teenybopper girls there that were a kind of Reel Big Fish fan club. They were huge."

If songs like "Beer" and "I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend Too" acquainted the Fish to alt-rock fans in Hawaii, a giddy rendition of the Hawaiian holiday classic "Mele Kalikimaka" -- a notorious Reel Big Fish B-side single -- endeared them to a larger audience of Oahu radio station surfers. When the band was asked to contribute a track to a Christmas compilation album for alternative radio bigwig KROQ in L.A., Reel Big Fish, already smitten with the islands, knew just which song they'd record. "'Mele Kalikimaka' was a song I used to hear while I was working at a coffee shop," remembers Barrett, who once jobbed at a Gloria Jean's outlet in California. "There'd be these songs that would play over and over, and that's the one I always liked best."

Although their label Mojo was dropped as a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group recently, the Fish are not worried about their prospects for the future. They are already touring again and furthering their reputation as a ready-for-prime-time party band. In the years since their video for "Sell Out" introduced the band to a national audience, their catchy tune "Everybody's Doing the Fish" was appropriated by the Florida Marlins as the club's unofficial team anthem. This in turn led to Reel Big Fish performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" on "Monday Night Football" before a viewership of several million.

"It was pretty scary," says Barrett of the pressure-packed gig. "It was the biggest crowd we'd played to. We're usually playing around and joking onstage, but knowing how easily people can get offended when you do the national anthem, we kind of kept it low key."

These days, Reel Big Fish is back in character and giving wild, unbridled performances as an independent touring band. Still, they would like nothing more than to have another shot at national stardom. "If we never get another video on MTV, it'll be disappointing -- I won't lie," says Barrett. "But I'm definitely enjoying what we've got now. It's fun being famous."

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