The kind of, sort of comeback of ska royalty
First off, we have to give credit where credit is due: In the ‘90s, Orange County was a breeding ground for some of the most influential third-wave ska bands, from No Doubt to Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris. These guys (and more: shouts to Buck-O-Nine, Goldfinger, The Skeletones, and many more) helped shaped the SoCal ska sound, and propelled the genre into popularity, getting tracks on the radio and air time on MTV.
It’s been 20 years since Reel Big Fish’s hit album Turn the Radio Off (TTRO) was released. And in celebration of its anniversary, the band (whose only remaining original member is Hawaiian-shirt-wearing and sideburns-sporting frontman Aaron Barrett) is about to embark on the second leg of their celebratory cross-country tour with Anti-Flag in early 2017.
It’s unfair to call this tour a comeback, though. Reel Big Fish never stopped touring and has even released 10 albums since TTRO. Earlier this year the group went on another multi-city tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band’s existence.
“I think I'm finally able to admit that maybe people really do like my band!” Barrett says, reflecting on that 25-anniversary tour. “It was pretty amazing to see all the fans come out to celebrate the band being around for so long and show us so much love. They are the one and only reason this band has lasted so long.”
Being in a ska band for decades hasn’t always been easy. Barrett says one of the biggest challenges is dealing with so many different personalities (obviously, because there are usually a gazillion members in a ska band), especially on long and exhausting tours. Fortunately, the current Reel Big Fish bandmates have been getting along pretty well, Barrett says.
Singer-songwriter Monique Powell is also the only remaining old-school member of ska band Save Ferris, who broke through in the ‘90s with their high-energy cover of “Come On Eileen” and the original “The World Is New.” That energy hasn’t waned: At a recent practice in LA, Powell and her new seven-piece band were catching up like old friends, laughing and joking with each other while getting ready for their upcoming show in Indonesia. Powell’s signature fiery red hair has been replaced with a white, cropped short hairdo; she dons a scarlet wig when she performs live.
It’s a comeback for the band that’s been three years in the making. Like Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris is also about to embark on a weeks-long North-American tour, with some new material in tow. The band has a new EP that’s expected to be released this month, one that was funded through a crowdfunding campaign they launched last year.
Save Ferris drummer Brad Dickert, who joined the band last year, says, “Especially with the EP, we tried to go back to the roots of Save Ferris and throw in some stuff that has that happy, hooky kind of punk-ska sound, and then tried to go from there. [We] tried to recapture that energy of what we do. It’s a live band. It’s important nowadays; not everyone’s doing that, which is unfortunate.”
Dickert had grown up in Chicago listening to ska and going to shows from third-wave bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls and The Blue Meanies. He says he never went to a Save Ferris show in the ‘90s, but was a fan nonetheless and remembers seeing them on MTV, so he was stoked to join the band.
As for why Powell decided to crowdfund their new music, she says, while laughing, “It was just because of a lack of funds. You know when you’re dormant as a band for 10 years you’ve got to figure out how to pay for that shit.”
She was a little nervous about trying to re-start the band. “At first I was really scared,” Powell says. “I was like, you know what, let’s just set [the crowdfunding campaign] at $10,000 and we’ll be lucky if we get that. And we’ve made almost three times that now without really trying and it’s great because the album is funded by our fans, which is really cool. And it gave me faith in the band. It made me go, OK, we’re going to be alright. People still like us.”
Over the summer, Save Ferris played a secret show at the Echoplex as a warm-up gig to their next performances at Santa Monica Pier and in Mexico City. The band was surprised to find a line around the block. At Mexico City’s Ska Fest, where they shared the bill with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, and Less Than Jake, Powell was once again surprised to find fans swarming around her for photos as she stood in the crowd. The band’s star power continued all the way to October when they opened for Gwen Stefani at the massive Irvine Amphitheater.
When Save Ferris originally broke up in the early aughts, the rest of the band members, including songwriter and guitarist Brian Mashburn, formed another OC ska band called Starpool along with Alan Meade, who used to sing with No Doubt. Starpool later went on hiatus, but ever since they got back together in 2007, they’ve been going strong in the SoCal ska scene, oftentimes performing at festivals and shows alongside major old-school names like Fishbone and The Aggrolites.
“The one thing that always brings me back to playing with Starpool, or ska music in general, is the instant reaction you get when performing,” Mashburn says. “Not many other styles of music get people throughout a whole venue dancing and going like you see at ska shows.”