Ska punk band Reel Big Fish marks 20 years

Lineup has changed through the years, but dedication to lively shows remains

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If You Go

What: Reel Big Fish at Vans Warped Tour.

When: Gates open 11 a.m. June 16.

Where: Portland Expo Center, 2060 N. Marine Drive, Portland.

Cost: $35 to $45 through TicketsWest, 800-992-8499 or http://ticketswest.com.

Information: Vans Warped Tour

Be ready for instant action when Reel Big Fish takes the stage — no matter where or when.

That's the word from drummer Ryland Steen

"Pretty much from word go, from note one, we do our best to give the audience an action-packed show," Steen said in a recent telephone interview. "These days, you want to leave a show feeling like you've been somewhere. We do our best to give them a fun show, that kind of experience, and the music, universally, just makes people go crazy -- in a good sort of way."

The music is ska punk, something the band helped popularize in the United States in the 1990s, along with other Orange County, Calif., bands such as Sublime and No Doubt.

For Steen, a native of Lincoln, Neb., playing the fast-paced, highly rhythmic music that incorporates elements of 1950s Jamaican music with American R&B and punk rock was, at first, a challenge.

"Growing up, I had knowledge of reggae music, but I didn't know anything about original ska, much less the third wave of ska music that Reel Big Fish came out of," he said. "It was definitely a challenge. It took me a couple years before I really felt comfortable, like I knew what I was doing.

"It's very active. I'm definitely worn out by the end of the show. It's definitely a bit of a trick, but it is really fun music to play. It's not just pure ska punk either. Aaron Barrett (the band's singer and primary writer) is a big fan of '80s hair metal. Some of that peeps through here and there."

Barrett was a backing vocalist when Reel Big Fish got together in 1992. The band's original singer quit, Barrett became the lead vocalist and Reel Big Fish changed its sound to ska. That's been the band's direction for two decades, whether on major or independent labels.

The band enjoyed a major burst of popularity in the late 1990s when groups such as the aforementioned No Doubt and Sublime helped push ska to the forefront of the alternative rock scene. "Sell Out," the single off of the group's 1996 CD, "Turn The Radio Off," reached number 10 on "Billboard" magazine's modern rock chart, and the video for the song saw considerable play on MTV.

But the popularity of ska (and ska punk) proved brief, and Reel Big Fish never again cracked the upper tier of the modern rock charts.

After 20 years, Barrett is the only remaining original member of Reel Big Fish. The other current members are Dan Regan (trombone), John Christianson (trumpet), Derek Gibbs (bass) and Matt Appleton (saxophone). On March 1, Steen will mark his eighth year in the band.

"They go by in a blur," he said. "When I first joined the band, I thought, 'I'll be in it for a year or two. Eight years later, I feel really lucky to be in this band and to have it turn into the experience it's become."

Steen moved to California in 2000 with his band Square, a trio that also included future Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine. He met Reel Big Fish when the Nebraskans played and won the Ernie Ball Battle of Bands shortly after moving west and the ska punks were among the judges.

Steen became friends with the Reel Big Fish guys and filled in for drummers when they couldn't make shows. When Justin Ferreira decided to quit the band in early 2005, Steen got a call asking him to join.

Since Steen joined the band, Reel Big Fish has released three studio albums, a re-recorded hits package, an EP and a couple live packages. All of them except "We're Not Happy Til You're Not Happy," on which Steen did not play, have been released independently.

Reel Big Fish is now touring behind "Candy Coated Fury," released last year.

"It's kind of a return to the abandon Reel Big Fish had back in the early days, when some of them were still teenagers," Steen said of "Candy Coated Fury."

"At least that's what I've been told. I do know it's like what we do live -- playing it loud and proud. When we were recording, we really weren't worrying about making things perfect. We were playing a set of songs the way we play."

The band has returned from a seven-week European tour and will be on the Warped tour this summer. Touring internationally is standard operating procedure for the band. But playing countries from Australia to the United Arab Emirates isn't like being a tourist.

"Being able to be on a bus and tour the world six or seven months a year is so great," Steen said. "Wherever we go, we seem to have a great group of people to see the show, at every show. Because we've toured so much, the band has built its reputation on the live show. We try to bring it every night, and the people always do. We feed off of that. They feed off of us and it's fun, man. It's just fun, every night."