Interview with Ryland Steen of REEL BIG FISH
Reel Big Fish
Hot Sweaty Awesomeness
Interview with Ryland “Rabbit” Steen (Drums)
By Michael Luis
Welcome to Victoria. Have you ever been here before? If not, what are your first impressions?
Ryland “Rabbit” Steen: This is my first time ever being here, and I think it’s the band’s first time being here. We got a chance to walk around the city a little bit. It’s a nice quaint little town. It’s very peaceful and I got a chance to see the sea planes take off and cruise around. We’re excited to be here and play.
Have you heard anything about Victoria’s ska scene or ska festival?
Steen: I have heard that there is a ska festival here and that there is a thriving ska scene.
Yeah, it’s the longest running ska-centric festival in North America.
Steen: Oh nice. We’ve been fortunate to have a big loyal fan base over the years, so people come and they’re really excited, but it’s always an added bonus when people are like “Oh, there’s a really good ska scene here.” It’s weird because scenes will have ebbs and flows, so it’s cool when you go to a place and it’s really coming back in, and people go to the show and they’re stoked to be there. So we’re excited to be here, and especially for tonight because it’s in a smaller venue. They tend to get a little rowdier, a little sweatier. The energy translates a little more.
And is that something you guys look forward to? Because you guys play a lot of big European festivals. How does a big festival compare to a smaller bar or club venue like this?
Steen: We’re fortunate as a band where we get run the gamut of crowd and venue sizes. I think the feedback in a place like this is much more immediate, whereas with a festival you’re just trying to throw out as much energy as you can, and you’re trying to project your vibe to the very last person that you see on a hill or something. And maybe not everyone is there to see you so you’ll have a few people at the front who are excited to see you, but then the rest are just standing there watching. It is fun to play to giant crowds though. It’s quite a rush.
So let’s talk about the new album, Candy Coated Fury. What was the writing and recording process like? You’ve been in the band since ’05, correct?
Steen: Yeah, ‘05.
So how does this compare to past albums you’ve played on?
Steen: Well, almost soon after I joined the band, the band went independent. We’ve had our music distributed through Rock Ridge Music and they’ve been great. We’ve sort of been self-sufficient. We have our own recording studio, so, whenever we wanna record, we do, whether that’s a covers album or that greatest hits thing we did [2010’s Best of Us For the Rest of Us, which featured re-recorded versions of their most popular songs. Their former label owns the original recordings]. Since we’re always touring and travelling, we never take like six months off to write and record. Aaron is definitely the musical mastermind behind Reel Big Fish, so it’s like whenever he’s ready to go in and record the songs. And it had been a while since the band put out a record of originals, like 2007 or ‘08, so it was definitely time. It was like, “okay, we’re home for a week. Let’s do some drums here, and some bass here, and some guitar here,” so it was like we’d have these little pockets of time when we were home where it would all come together. That’s sort of just been the process ever since I’ve been in the band. We just do what we can when we can. We don’t do what other bands do where you just sit there and obsess over your album for months at a time. What’s nice about the way we do it is that you can distance yourself from it for a little bit and then come in fresh. When you sit for months in a studio that’s when the crazy starts, whereas if you go away for a few weeks or even a few months, then you come back and you’re like “oh, I didn’t like this before, but I’m cool with it now.”
I was hoping you could touch on the lyrics of the album. The music is quite upbeat, but the lyrics are pretty damn dark. I saw on twitter where this guy tweeted to you guys saying, “Hey Reel Big Fish, love the new album. Thanks for writing the soundtrack to my divorce.”
I know Aaron writes most if not all of the lyrics, but I was hoping you could touch on this because it’s a pretty ironic and funny concept.
Steen: It seems to have been a running theme with the music of Reel Big Fish, where we have this happy-go-lucky energetic dance music coupled with sarcastic and sometimes hateful lyrics. When you put them together, it works. You’ve got the sweet and the sour. They complement each other somehow. It’s all inside of Aaron’s brain. I think he’s written like that for so long that it’s just what he’s used to now. And it’s nice when you’ve got a writing style, because if you change it — maybe writing happy music with happy lyrics – people might start to think it sounds cheesy. Everybody has a little bit of spitefulness and sarcasm in them, and I think with Aaron’s style it gets a chance to come out. A lot of people can relate and be like “Hey, I feel that way too.” As long as people are enjoying what they’re listening to.
And I noticed that you guys had some guest appearances on the album. For example, the singers from Sonic Boom Six and some dancehall-style vocals as well.
Steen: Yeah, we had the singer from The Pilfers [Coolie Ranx, also previously of The Toasters] do some of the patois reggae vocals. And then yeah, we had two of the people from Sonic Boom Six from England, and they did some vocals, all the in the same song.
And how did you guys link up with them?
Steen: Just from touring. And for that song, “Hiding in My Headphones,” we knew we wanted to add more elements, splashes of colour if you will, to the song and make it a little cooler. At first we were just playing the song and it wasn’t really going anywhere, and it was like “let’s do this and add this.” It turned out great. I think it just gives it a different vibe.
Their thick accents really stand out too.
Steen: I think when a lot of people with accents sing, they lose their accents because maybe they’re so used to listening to American music. But the fact that they keep their accents when they sing I think is great because their character really comes through.
The new album also has some cover songs on it, which has been another sort of running theme with you guys. Of course, you guys did the cover album and most people know the A-Ha cover. So how do you guys pick which songs you guys want to cover?
Steen: A lot of it is just Aaron going “I’ve always wanted to do this song.” A lot of the time he’ll have a clear vision of how he wants the cover to sound, but as far as the 80s tune goes, “The Promise,” that was literally we were doing background vocals for other songs, and before a take we were trying to get the pitch of a note we needed. And our saxophonist Matt has an app on his phone with a little keyboard and when he was trying to get the note, he played the little [Steen sings the melody] and both Aaron and I were like “I love that song. Keep playing it.” Within literally half an hour we were recording that song. So that just came out of nowhere. So there’s no real process.
It’s kind of spontaneous?
Steen: Yeah, it can be spontaneous. We did a version of “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. Aaron was at the grocery store and heard the muzak version of it, and he was like “Huh, I think I like this song.” But I think if all of a sudden it inspires Aaron or inspires the band and we have this clear vision of how the song could sound—- well, sometimes we do up a song and it just doesn’t work and we’re like “Never mind. We’ll ditch this.”
Cool. Well, let’s get to the current tour. What’s it been like going around with Flatfoot 56 and Less Than Jake? And Mrs. Skannato was on the tour too if I’m not mistaken.
Steen: Yeah. I’m not sure what happened there. We were in Seattle last night and they announced to the crowd that it was their last night.
They were actually on the poster here for a while.
Steen: Yeah, I’m not too sure. But anyways we’ve only done a few shows with them [on this tour], and it’s been great. We love touring with Less Than Jake. We get along and like each other’s bands and [each other’s] music, so it’s all around really good vibes. You never know what you’re going to get when you’re on tour with other bands. Maybe they’re annoying or hard to work with, you know? But both of us are just here to party and have a good time. It works out pretty well for both our bands. And I think the fans just love seeing both bands together, so it creates this excitement. Maybe people who wouldn’t go to just a Reel Big Fish show or just a Less Than Jake show see that both bands are together and go “Wow, I have to go to that.” It’s not only a treat for us, but it’s a treat for the fans.
And what are we looking at for the set list of this tour? Of course you’ve got the new album and there’s an urge to play those songs, and then you’ve got the hit songs that people know, and then there are the deep cuts for the hard-core fans. How does it all come together?
Steen: Since we’ve been touring for so long, I think we’ve got a good handle on a good all-around set where we’ve got the ten staple songs, like Reel Big Fish hit songs that everyone wants to hear that we always play, and then there’s room for those 5 or 6 songs, the deep cuts that will weave in and out of the set list as tours come and go. And on this tour we’re playing three songs from the new album. But it’s not the same three songs on each date. And that changes sometimes nightly. And Aaron does the set lists, so sometimes I’ll hop on stage, look down and go “Oh, that’s what we’re doing tonight.”
So it mixes things up for the fans.
Steen: Exactly, and so we don’t go crazy playing the same songs every night.
What can be look forward to tonight on that stage behind us?
Steen: Hot sweaty awesomeness. We kind of bring the circus whenever we play a show so not only are we trying to bring some good old-fashioned fun to the fans, we’re also trying to have fun ourselves. When the crowd’s having fun and we’re having fun it creates this great carousel of energy that goes round and round. And I’m hoping to lose my virginity tonight, really to be honest.
We can set you up with some hot Victoria women. Or men! You know, we got it all here.
Steen: [Laughs] It’s all about the pleasure thing, man.
Lastly, what’s next for Reel Big Fish? Are we going to see another 20 years? Is it going to crash and burn tomorrow morning?
Steen: I think that’s the great thing about Reel Big Fish is that you never know. When I first joined the band I was like “Maybe I’ll just do this for a year or so. The band will probably break up.” And [now it’s] seven years later. So not knowing is actually kind of exciting. We’re always going to be making records and we’re always going to be touring because that’s what we do.
To check out a video excerpt of this interview as well as live performance footage, check out Absolute Underground TV on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePdTBWxohYs
Michael Luis is a writing/journalism student at The University of Victoria. He writes for Absolute Underground and Concrete Garden, is the director of the UVic Ska and Reggae Club, and plays drums in Victoria-based reggae/dub/ska band Blackwood Kings.
Posted: May 2, 2013