In 1996, SoCal ska-punkers Reel Big Fish released one of the most ironic songs to get chewed up in the MTV machine: “Sell Out,” a song about a band signing to a major record label—and selling out. Sure, sarcasm was big in the ’90s, but what exactly was their angle?
The song is off of the band’s major label debut, Turn the Radio Off, but it wasn’t written by the major-label-signed Reel Big Fish, it was penned a year earlier when they were slogging through half-filled clubs like every other underground ska band. “Sell Out” was inspired by watching Berkeley ska band Dance Hall Crashers get backlash from their fans because they released the more rock-oriented album Lockjaw that year. Everyone was screaming “sellouts!”
“It was the opposite of what most people think it was about,” says frontman Aaron Barrett. “I was just like, ‘Dance Hall Crashers are a good band and they just came out with an awesome new album.’ I was making fun of the people yelling ‘sellout’ to anyone that gets any kind of success for anything.”
In fact, it was the record label that pushed “Sell Out” as Reel Big Fish’s breakout single. They had, as Barrett explains, a sense of humor about the whole thing. The song captured not just the confusing feeling ska fans had when their music was suddenly on MTV, but also the essence of what the ’90s were like for bands. Whether a band “sold out” was of utmost importance, even though few people could agree on what exactly that meant.
“The people yelling ‘sellout,’ they don’t know what they’re talking about. Now everybody’s technically selling out. They’re trying to get their music on commercials,” Barrett says. “Selling out would be changing your music because the record label told you to so you can sell more records. We saw some people do that.”
For any grief Reel Big Fish got for signing to a major label, they did actually face a “sell-out” moment after they recorded their follow up album, Why Do They Rock So Hard?, but they turned the other way. Ska’s mainstream popularity was dying, and bands were either breaking up or trying to repackage themselves as rock bands. When the label received the first mix of Why Do They Rock So Hard?, they asked the band if they could hear a version of it “without the horns.”
“We didn’t do that. We were little brats—‘Fuck You, we do whatever we want.’ We already had a following, people that liked this music,” says Barrett. “So why would we make music that we really don’t like, rather than music that we like and we know that other people like? Makes more sense to me.”
Aside from a couple of songs off Turn the Radio Off, and a cover of “Take On Me” from the BASEketball soundtrack, the group didn’t have another hit. But by staying true to their sound and touring nonstop, their fan base remained steady.
“Since we put out Turn the Radio Off in ’96, we went on tour and we’ve been on tour ever since,” says Barrett. “We were never so big that we were playing stadiums. We got to a certain level in ’97, and we’re still playing all the same clubs we were back then. It’s pretty awesome.”
In their post-MTV years, they got to travel more globally; they made it to Europe for the first time in 2001, and their 2002 record Cheer Up was their big hit over there, not Turn the Radio Off. Since then, they keep finding new countries to play in. Recently, they played a ska festival in Indonesia.
Wherever they go, the crowds tend to be a mixture of old fans and young kids just discovering the music. As the road warriors that they are, Reel Big Fish still draw the same diehard fans, mainly because there are not a lot of other ska bands still doing what they’re doing. Besides, they know how to put on a good show.
“This kind of music is really fun live. The best way to experience it is live at the show, so people keep coming back to see these shows because it’s so fun. Everybody always has a good time watching ska music,” says Barrett. “We’ve been building our following all these years. We have a reputation as a really fun live band, so people keep coming back to see us and they bring their friends—that’s one theory, I guess.”
INFO: 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23. The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 429-4135. $20-$23.