Reel Big Fish with opening act P-Nuckle headline Copper Sunsation
My daughter is equally as terrible as she is beautiful, and she’s definitely driving me crazy,” said Johnny “Christmas” Christianson with a laugh, as he expertly juggled his daughter, Olivia, and his cellphone.
The 2-year-old explored the playground as the trumpet player thoughtfully answered questions about life with his band, Reel Big Fish. Heavy hitters in the ska scene in the mid-’90s, Reel Big Fish has been through a few personnel changes in the past two decades, the result of musicians getting older and their priorities evolving.
“I think since the band has been around for so long and started so early, it’s a whole new crop of musicians and people who actually want to be there in the band and have the life of a touring musician,” Christianson said. “It’s hard to maintain a family being a touring musician, and it’s not for everybody.
“You can do whatever you want whenever you’re out on the road — drinking, drugs, the things that can get you in trouble — and if you’re not able to quell some of that stuff and take care of business, it can make your and everybody’s life miserable.”
Musicians discover that constant touring — and the trials and temptations that go along with that — isn’t their lot in life and bow out, Christianson said, and it’s been like that ever since vocalist and guitarist Aaron Barrett started Reel Big Fish when he was 16. The trumpeter paused to rescue Olivia from a particularly treacherous ladder and deposit her safely elsewhere on the playground before continuing.
“We’ve been used to changes in lineup since then,” he said. “It’s nice to have all people who want to be here, do a good job and have a commitment to what it is now.”
23 years of skank
With a repertoire spanning 23 years, Reel Big Fish is never at a loss for tunes old and new to throw down at a live show, and the band has plenty of great songs that people really love, Christianson said. From the early hits like “Sell Out,” “Beer” and “She Has a Girlfriend Now” to more recent stuff like “Dare You to Break My Heart” and “The Setup,” it’s all a blast to shower on the masses.
“It’s a chance for me to be a rock star with a trumpet in my hands,” he said. “It’s fun to play music like that where everyone is so into it. When I’m at home, I play jazz gigs, I play salsa gigs, classical trumpet, and the audience just isn’t the same.
“(At a Reel Big Fish show) they are there to see you, and they are just going crazy. They just want to rip off all their clothes. I run the gamut of musical experiences, and there’s nothing as fun as playing in this band.”
Christianson said a strange thing happens when you’re on the road, playing to a college crowd at Notre Dame one day and somewhere in Virginia the next. As the demographics change, so does the familiarity with the band’s music, and people aren’t always clambering for the ’90s radio hits.
“It’s weird what some generations pick up,” he said. “We’re not one of those bands that necessarily has a fan base that ages with us. There’s a high rate of turnover, and they’re still picking up the records they identify with. I think Aaron has written the soundtrack to everyone’s 10 through 25, the soundtrack of their lives.”
Though he admitted it’s largely a mystery how new people get exposed to Reel Big Fish, Christianson said it’s likely from friends and siblings sharing their favorite tracks with the younger generation and handing it down the line, supplemented with a bit of radio play. His own path to ska and punk music followed a similar trajectory.
“Our bass player, Derek (Gibbs), he and I were in high school band together,” Christianson said. “He played bass trombone, tuba, and I played trumpet. He’s a few years older than I am. He started playing in a ska band called Jeffries Fan Club. That was my first real exposure to ska music, aside from the bands that I knew, like Madness, those were my first exposure to ska.”
The rock element came from the trumpeter’s older brother, whose prized possessions were vinyl copies of The Clash’s “Combat Rock,” Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” and Def Leppard’s “Pyromania.”
“Those were in constant cycle in my room, and my brother had a Herb Alpert record called ‘Rise,’ which was my first exposure to the trumpet. I’m going to start blaming my brother for me playing the coil of torture,” Christianson said with a laugh, revealing his nickname for his trumpet. “You have to practice constantly, but I don’t mind. It’s a labor of love, but it can be a bear at some times.”
Ska lives on
Ska might have declined in popularity as a genre from its heyday of Orange County, California, bands like No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Save Ferris, but it’s still out there if you look, appearing as a familiar guitar beat dancing across a movie soundtrack or lingering in the back of a TV commercial. And Reel Big Fish is still touring endlessly in support of what Christianson calls their “happy music.” The band recently finished a Christmas EP titled “Happy Skalidays” and there might be another EP in the works this coming December.
“We’re always willing to make music,” he said. “So who knows? It’s just having enough time to get into the studio and with the touring schedule. When we’re not touring, nobody gets paid. That’s hard when everyone has mortgages, rents, car insurance. It tends to keep us on the road a lot; we’re on the road six to eight months a year, which we love.”
Christianson has been to almost 30 countries with the band and said he’s met wonderful people all over the world, but Colorado is a stop the band always looks forward to.
“We played at Copper Mountain about maybe four years ago, and it was so gorgeous and the show was so fun,” he said. “That was one of the coldest shows that I’ve ever played. It was actually snowing when we played. I had a margarita — I usually don’t drink while we play — but I had a margarita to keep me warm, and there was snow in my margarita.”
Colorado audiences put out a different vibe from places like New York or Los Angeles, he said.
“Everybody is there to have fun,” he said. “Nobody is putting on airs or trying to be cool and hip like in New York or even in Los Angeles. Those shows are still awesome, but Colorado is one of our favorite places, and you can’t beat the scenic beauty. The Rockies are some of the most beautiful mountains in the entire world, and whenever we are in them, it’s always a pleasure.”
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