In the summer of 1996, as California-based ska rockers Reel Big Fish were putting out what would become their most successful album, John Christianson was focused on his studies.
“I knew what was going on, and I knew what was happening, but I was such a jazz head, buried in books and buried in trumpet playing, that I missed the whole scene, pretty much,” said Christianson, better known by his stage persona “Johnny Christmas.”
Less than a decade later, and after the Aaron Barrett-led group had achieved moderate commercial success with the songs “Sell Out” and a brassy cover of the 1980s hit “Take On Me,” Christianson joined Reel Big Fish on tour. Replacing the band’s existing trumpet player, Christianson was one of the many personnel changes the group has gone through since releasing “Turn the Radio Off.” Barrett, who was originally the group’s backup singer, is the only remaining musician from the lineup that put out that record, which reached No. 57 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in the midst of the mid-90s ska craze fueled by radio hits from No Doubt and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Reel Big Fish, in its current configuration, will play “Turn the Radio Off” in its entirety Friday night at The Knitting Factory, part of the band’s 20th anniversary tour for the record. Also performing will be Pittsburgh punk outfit Anti-Flag, which happen to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its debut album, “Die for the Government.”
Christianson said crowds at the anniversary shows have been somewhat perplexed by the deep cuts off the album, which kicks off with the band’s most recognizable radio hit, “Sell Out,” a tongue-in-cheek single that predicted the band’s overnight success.
“We get some blank stares about halfway through that record, which is awesome,” Christianson said. “There is a reason why we don’t play all of that album, all the time.”
After several snazzy, radio friendly tracks, like “Sell Out” and “Beer,” the record takes a tonal turn on its B side with “Say Ten,” an indictment of the vegan lifestyle, and “Skatanic,” a song about an obsessed boyfriend that turns dark quickly.
Christianson said his favorite song to play has been “Nothin’,” a song that doesn’t even feature his instrument.
“That one has come into the rotation, and the set list, just occasionally – a handful of times – in the 13 years I’ve been with the band,” Christianson said. “That song is a lot of fun, and the crowd really reacts to it well.”
Reel Big Fish tours extensively, often joining the Vans Warped Tour for legs or an entire summer, as they did in 2016. That’s left little time for recording new music, a trend Christianson said he hopes will change.
“Aaron is of the mindset, we’ve made enough albums. He doesn’t want to be a band that has 40 records and you don’t know what to start with,” Christianson said, referring to lead singer Barrett. “But we need to record new music, not only for the fans that want to hear the new music, but for ourselves, too.”
The band last put out a full length record nearly five years ago, 2012’s “Candy Coated Fury.”
Through its many iterations, Reel Big Fish has continued to play ska, a brassy, rhythm-oriented genre pioneered in Jamaica in the middle of the 20th century. The music has seen ebbs and flows in popularity, with devotees referring to the different periods as “waves.” Reel Big Fish hit it big just as the third wave of ska was about to crash into the surf, an iteration that included elements of punk music.
Christianson, who studied classical trumpet in college in California, said ska is just “one radio hit” away from another revival.
“Ska music is all over the place. It’s in every movie that you watch, it’s on commercials every day,” Christianson said. “I watch cartoons with my daughter, the PBS cartoons, it’s in the background. It’s people that grew up loving our band, and loving the scene, are now in the industry and creating music like that, that is getting put into these movies and TV shows.”
Though ska is omnipresent in our culture, it’s the devoted fans that still show up to see bands like Reel Big Fish play, Christianson said. And the band has stepped its game up in reply.
“I play it much better than they played it, when they were 19,” Christianson said, laughing. “Now, the band is the best it’s ever been. We play the living (crap) out of these songs. We play them really, really well. It’s a pleasure to play these things the way they should be played.”
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