Reel Big Fish Interview with Johnny Christmas and Derek Gibbs

The 3rd Wave of Ska Music came and went in a mighty rush. Due in large part to MTV and the formation of Warped Tour in 1995, Ska was thrust into a spotlight it had never before seen, and hasn’t seen since. It always intrigues me when I hear people say that they “used to like Ska” music. What was it that turned you off from it, and why can’t you appreciate it anymore? Growing up shouldn’t mean leaving old friends behind.

Whatever the case may be, there are still many highly active Ska scenes all over the place, and that makes me happy. Ska, especially in the 3rd wave, has always been a place where kids could go and have a great time, with little anxiety about the crowd. Whereas the hardcore and metal scenes often feel like an exclusive club, Ska has always felt inclusive… Come as you are, have a good time, smile a lot, dance around, and make some new friends. Let’s face it… If you’re going to a 3rd wave Ska show, you’re probably a bit geeky and fun, and that’s a huge part of the appeal.

Needless to say, I was quite excited when the Summer of Ska 2012 tour made its way through Syracuse, NY! Thanks to their awesome tour manager, Tom, I got to sit down with trumpeter Johnny Christmas and bassist Derek Gibbs from Reel Big Fish to talk about the tour, fan interaction, touring, and their staying power in an often-mocked scene.


G- Hi everyone and thank you for taking the time to speak with Live High Five… It’s great to have you back in Syracuse, NY! How has everything been going with you guys?

JC- It’s hot! It’s so hot in Syracuse today! I’m dying!

G- Yea I think it’s about 95 degrees. Where did you come from yesterday?

JC- We were in Boston yesterday, and it was the same. I think it was the hottest day I’ve ever had in Boston. I got out of the bus and thought I was in Florida.

DG- Yea it felt like Florida or Texas.

G- It was really mellow up here in the winter time, and I’m thinking it’s going to be about 140 degrees this year in the summer… Fucking global warming. You are currently on the road with Suburban Legends, Big D and The Kids Table, and Goldfinger on select dates…

JC- And sometimes Goldfinger.

G- Yea like using of ‘Y’ as a vowel this tour. It’s a very solid, energetic lineup. How have the shows been going and how are the responses?

JC- It’s been spectacular. We’re very lucky… I don’t think we’ve ever seen a down turn in the fan base that comes to our shows. Fortunately, having great bands like Suburban Legends and Big D and the Kids Table out with us makes it that much stronger. And Goldfinger. We love all these bands and it’s really great to be able to watch them every night.

G- Reel Big Fish has been a band since 1991, and has managed to survive and stay relevant long after the mainstream 3rd Wave Ska movement left us in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Do you find yourself consistently playing for new audiences, or is it more an older fan base of long time fans?

DG- A little bit of both. A lot of the crowd recycles. Is that the right word… ‘Recycles?’

JC- Regenerates? Turns over?

DG- Like, people get older and don’t want to go to shows, or get into a different style of music, but they give our cd’s to their little brothers and sisters. And then people have kids and they get their kids into it, because we’ve been around that long where kids are coming to the show that are walking and talking and liking it as well.

JC- And I think Aaron (Barrett) has really written the soundtrack to everybody’s lives from the time they’re teenagers until they graduate college… Right before real life hits them in the face. But that whole time being awkward and not really fitting in, we all really relate with. That’s huge!

When I went to high school, I didn’t fit in with anyone aside from the band kids. That was my family. And I’ve known Derek for 23 years.

DG- We were in the high school band together.

JC- And I think the Ska scene is really welcoming. But they can be mean sometimes.

G- A mean Ska kid? Explain.

JC- Because this is the place where they fit, and they are kind of protective of it a bit. They can be really possessive of the band and of the scene. But usually, they are really awesome!

G- Oh ok… I gotcha. Are you still heavily attached to the Huntington Beach Scene? What is it like going back to your hometown when you play shows there now? Do you still consider H.B. to be your home base?

DG- I think to claim Huntington Beach is being a bit specific because we are kind of spread out across Orange County and even LA County. I think the band was always a bit spread out. But it’s usually great! We still get a lot of people to come out.

JC- It’s a nightmare for guest lists!

DG- Yea there is that part of it. You’ve got a lot of friends and family that wanna come and the venue doesn’t want you to have 150 people backstage. Actually, we don’t either (laughs).

G- Yea when I was on tour and got off stage, I pretty much just wanted a smoke, a beer, and 10 minutes alone.

JC- That would be very nice! I wish that would work in our dressing room.

DG- Yea sometimes it feels like the show starts after we’re done playing (laughs)

JC- But the actual shows in Southern California, no matter where they are, they are always awesome! I think our fans are the most spectacular people in the world, and the shows are awesome. You could transplant those kids to Russia, and you wouldn’t know the different.

G-As a native East Coaster, I think it has something to do with all that sunshine and great Mexican food, cuz we don’t have a lot of that here. We do have Chipotle down the road, though. So, you are currently an independent band with no major label record deal. How was the initial transition from a major to working as an independent artist, and how has the switch helped and/or hindered your forward momentum?

JC- The switch was really hard. We were really excited when we found out that Jive dropped us, but then all the costs… Every single one of them… was all on us. When we got dropped, we were making our live album, and we had to pay for the manufacturing of all the cd’s and getting them distributed, and we didn’t end up getting paid. It wasn’t making enough money to pay for new cd’s, and it was a real hassle. We barely made it out alive.

Now we have a deal with Rock Ridge music and it’s just a distribution deal… They get the record pressed and they put it out for us, but we pay for all the recording costs.

G- Right on, and speaking about that, are you currently working on any new music for release in the near future? If so, can you tell us a bit about the songs?

DG- Absolutely. We just finished recording a new album of original stuff.

G- Ha! Perfect timing!

JC- Actually, when’s that gonna be out?

DG- End of July? July 31th or something like that.

G- Can we get an exclusive on the title if it hasn’t been released yet?

DG- Uh yea we know what it is. Can we say what it is?

JC- I think so. I don’t see why we couldn’t.

G- And the title of the new Reel big fish album is…

DG- “Candy… Coated… Fury!”

JC- Just like the music!

G- Perfect! I dig it. Can you tell us a bit about what your writing process is like? Who in the band typically comes up new music, and how often do ideas flow… Is it constant, or something you have to sit down and think about for a while?

JC- Usually Aaron writes most of the songs and we contribute our own parts. The horns write a lot of the horn parts, as well as Aaron… He writes a lot of horn parts. Some really great horn lines. So it’s all of us contributing to it once Aaron brings the skeleton of a song to us.

DG- We kind of came in one at a time, because it is really hard to get everyone together when you’re home. We’re on the road so often that once we get home, people kind of scatter. So we recorded a rough version of it and took it with us to Europe this winter and practice in our bunks alone, or practiced at sound checks.

G- The Frank Zappa Method.

JC- Yea, and it worked out really, really well. I think this is the best way to do it… So we had a little time with the songs, and I think it worked out awesome.

DG- On our off time in the spring after college shows popped up, we did it for real. We laid it down, and there you have it!

G- Excellent! Well I’m looking forward to hearing it. It’s coming out in July, folks, so be ready for that! Can you tell us about any up and coming bands that you are currently listening to, or any project aside from RBF that members are currently participating in?

JC- I’m not the person to ask this question to.

DG- Yea I don’t pay a lot of attention to that stuff. MTV is all reality shit now.

JC- That’s really interesting and Derek is right… I don’t even listen to the radio anymore. I’ll listen to Pandora or stuff on my MP3 player or on the internet, so it’s kind of hard to get exposed to new music that way. Unless I hear about something from the other band members, I’m really out of it in that way.

G- So if you get done with a show, you’re showered and comfortable for the evening, what would you put in?

JC- Oooohh… Wow. Uh, my gosh… Maybe a little Chet Baker.

DG- We like to put on the reggae when we want to relax.

JC- Yea we love the reggae, and the first wave of Jamaican Ska… All the old school stuff. That’s some of my favorite music in the world.

G- Agreed. So in terms of touring, you guys have been just about everywhere. Where hasn’t Reel Big Fish performed thus far? With such a lengthy career and extensive touring credentials, are there any places or countries you have not performed in yet? Anyplace in particular you are still trying to play?

DG- I think we are still trying to get into the Pacific Island area… Thailand. The band has been to Japan, but it’s been a while.

JC- China.

DG- Yea we haven’t been to China. India would be cool. Even South Africa would be neat… It’s just so out there.

We’ve done Australia and most of Europe, and we’ve even done Russia now. That was pretty exciting. Those shows were good!

JC- I think there are still some Eastern European countries we haven’t visited yet. Slovenia, Hungary. Greece!

DG- Yea Greece would be great!

G- You haven’t played Greece yet?

JC- No we haven’t played Greece yet, and my wife is Greek.

G- I’m Greek, so…

JC- Oh excellent! Yasou!

G- Yasou!

DG- Opa!

JC- And getting closer to home, we’ve never played Alaska. That would round it out. Then I can say that we’ve played all 50 states.

G- Right on! Can you tell us a bit about the craziest show you’ve played to date? Where was it and what was it like?

JC- Well, it was here.

G- At the Lost Horizon?

JC- Yea. Aaron… We had been watching VH1’s Behind The Music, the one with Motley Crue, and we were all engaging in a little bit too much alcohol at that moment, and Aaron had an affinity for dirty martinis. Perhaps he had 4 or 5 too many. When we all came onstage, I turn around and he has his head on his amp and he’s singing into his microphone with his head on his amp and his guitar dangling. Then I heard ‘wham wham wham wham wham,’ and it was Aaron smashing his $4,000 Les Paul onstage. Then, he took the microphone and started whacking it and smashed that. Then, he kicked over the keyboard that we had and ran out to the bus, jumped in his bunk, and went to sleep.

So, we all didn’t know what to do, so we just said ‘Ok that’s it. We’ll sign anything for you and talk to you the entire night,’ and we stayed out here for another hour just talking to people and apologizing. It was a real rock and roll show! I’ll always remember that for the rest of my life.

And I still have the beat up microphone cover… It’s at home. I tried to get the guitar, but it was gone. I wanted a piece of it! I know some people were disappointed that we only played for a half hour, but you’re not gonna see that ever.

G- Ahh the spontaneity of the live show! Lastly, what advice can you give some of the young, up and coming bands out here in Syracuse, in NYS, and everywhere who want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician?

DG- Don’t quit. Don’t break up. Keep writing songs.

JC- I think that is something Aaron really needs credit for… Keeping this band together for 22 years. To run a business and write songs and tour… This is all he knows and all he wants to do. We gotta give him a hug for keeping it together this long.

G- I think he’d probably prefer a drink.

DG- Hugs come after drinks!

G- Of course they do!

JC- Another thing… Don’t be an asshole. I think that’s another thing that has made this band… We are easy to work with, and we’re really professional. Our crew is really good, and a bunch of good guys, and we’re nice to people. You really need to be cool to other people. I know some people can be assholes and take advantage of it, and they get some success, but it doesn’t stay around for 22 years if you’re that way.

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3 responses to “Reel Big Fish Interview with Johnny Christmas and Derek Gibbs”

  1. Ben Horney says :

    Truly great interview! I’m also a journalist and I’ve been trying to get in contact with Tom Ames, Reel Big Fish’s tour manager (as you said, he’s the man). I’ll enter my personal e-mail below, and I would appreciate if you could hear me out and possibly help if you’re able. Thanks!

  2. Jill Hoffman says :

    Reel Big Fish is one of the few bands I listen to that isn’t from the Frank Sinatra silver screen era. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I like them, not only because I enjoy their music, but because – unlike most bands I’ve heard about these days – Reel Big Fish is a group of genuinely talented musicians who are real people I like hearing about and from.

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