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Reel Big Fish band leader Aaron Barrett brings new, upbeat tunes to the Knitting Factory

January 10, 2019

Aaron Barrett has spent the past 25 years writing songs about heartbreak, professional outrage and losing girlfriends, sometimes to members of the opposite sex.

His latest effort as the main songwriting force behind Reel Big Fish, the ska punk luminaries who rose to moderate commercial acclaim in the mid-1990s, has something new.

Hope.

“I think that’s just more how I feel nowadays,” said Barrett in a phone interview last month, the same day the band’s ninth studio album, “Life Sucks, Let’s Dance!” hit stores. “A lot of the old stuff is real sarcastic, but I’m feeling happier now and appreciating life more.”

The album is the first new studio offering from Reel Big Fish in six years, and they’ll be at the Knitting Factory in downtown Spokane on Jan. 15 to promote it, along with California pop punk quartet Mest. If the new tunes sound nostalgic to longtime fans who first started listening to the brassy Orange County outfit with 1996’s “Turn the Radio Off,” that may be by design, Barrett said.

“A couple things I’ve been working on for 20-plus years,” said Barrett, who has earned the majority of the writing credits on all Reel Big Fish’s albums. “Like the song ‘Bob Marley’s Toe,’ that one is ancient.”

A riff on the illness that killed the legendary Rastafarian band leader, the track is emblematic of the optimistic songwriting Barrett has turned to after albums that included predictably biting tracks like “Don’t Start a Band,” “Everything Sucks” and “Somebody Hates Me.” Even their most popular song, 1997’s “Sell Out,” lampooned the music industry and the young band’s entry into it.

The track on the new album references Marley’s cancerous appendage. But its focus is the message of Marley, the singer whose work is largely credited for the infusion of dance hall horns with quick guitar riffs that typified Reel Big Fish and their contemporaries, among them No Doubt, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Less Than Jake.

“The world still needs to learn to get along/But thanks for trying to save us with a reggae song,” Barrett croons on the track, backed by Reel Big Fish’s three-piece horn section.

That section is completely different today than it was 20 years ago, when Reel Big Fish was getting minor airplay on MTV and appearing on the big screen in “BASEketball,” starring “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. But Barrett, the only remaining member of the band from those triumphant days in the late 1990s, downplayed the shuffling of talent on-stage.

“It’s just been like that since the very beginning,” said Barrett, who started out as a backing vocalist in the early days of the band’s gigs in southern California in 1992. “We’ve always had people coming in and out of the band. Everybody talks about the original lineup, but we’d already gone through some changes. That lineup was only around for ‘Turn the Radio Off’ and ‘Why Do They Rock So Hard?’”

Despite the shifts in lineup, the Reel Big Fish stage show has largely remained the same, with Barrett out front sporting signature mutton chops and bantering with the crowd. The comedy has become part of the act, and often is ad-libbed, Barrett said. That included a show at a California House of Blues in 2003, when Barrett demanded the curtains be closed once again to start the show because of malfunctioning equipment.

“Everybody that’s in the band, and me, just kind of go with whatever disaster happens,” Barrett said. “A lot of times those train wrecks are a part of the show.”

January’s show will mark 20 years of the band playing gigs in Spokane, Barrett said. They still tour heavily, including several stints on the Vans Warped Tour. Reel Big Fish has now successfully outlived that tradition, once the stomping grounds of punk superstars like blink-182 and the Offspring, with organizers ending the nationwide tour last year. Reel Big Fish, fittingly, played all dates this summer.

Barrett echoed his contemporaries in the 1990s ska surge, like Chris DeMakes of Less Than Jake, saying it appeared the once nerdy and underground genre might be making a comeback. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and even the English Beat, a 1978 member of the 2-Tone ska movement in Britain, put out new records this year.

“I feel like, earlier in the 2000s, it was dipping down a little bit,” said Barrett. “It was really a guilty pleasure, and people didn’t want to talk about it that much.”

But Reel Big Fish still continued churning out albums, and touring. As they’ll continue to do in the near future, and as they’ll do once again in Spokane later this month.

“I’m excited to play the new songs and see the reaction live,” Barrett said. “I see all the comments, and the tweets and stuff. But you never know if those people are going to show up to the shows.”

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