The One After: Reel Big Fish — Why Do They Rock So Hard?

featured / News / Special Features / May 8, 2018

The One After is a feature in which Modern Vinyl writers take on the album AFTER the peak. In other words, what did a band do to follow up their greatest record? How do you follow up “Blonde On Blonde?” What about “London Calling?” Did the artist build off their success, recoil from it, or land somewhere in between?

The ska revival of the mid to late ’90s is polarizing, to say the least. There are few today who have opinions that aren’t either wrapped in nostalgia or decidedly negative, but despite this chasm in opinion, acts like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, Less Than Jake, and dozens of others all had their brief moment in the mass pop-culture spotlight, with horns and 4/4 guitar upstrokes filling the airwaves.

No song is perhaps more emblematic of the ska revival’s punk-edged sound than Reel Big Fish’s “Sell Out,” a mockery of every band that ever changed their tune in efforts of getting a contract and airplay. Of course, the Southern California band had been playing ska-punk for several years before the pop-culture ascension and had already self-released an album, Everything Sucks, before signing with Mojo Records and putting out their label debut, Turn the Radio Off, in the summer of 1996.

“Sell Out” would hit number 10 on the alternative charts, the album would go gold (more on that in a second), and the band rode the success of the album to innumerable festival appearances and near-constant touring. With the smash success of Turn the Radio Off, and the relatively brief shelf life of the genre revival, where was Reel Big Fish to go for their next full length?

After the interim release of the Keep Your Receipt EP in 1997, and an appearance in the sports comedy Baseketball in the summer of 1998 — with a minor hit from the band’s cover of “Take On Me” from the movie’s soundtrack — the band’s official follow-up to Turn the Radio Off, titled Why Do They Rock Hard?, came out in October of ’98.

The new album would prove to be a slight turn away from the upstrokes of their Mojo debut. The first single, “The Set Up (You Need This)” was no less catchy than “Sell Out” or “Beer” from Turn the Radio Off, but those expecting Reel Big Fish to rehash those tracks would be surprised by the fact that the song is, in fact, almost perfectly-crafted arena rock with horns.

The follow-up single, “The Kids Don’t Like It,” sported an unfortunately prescient title, and the album wouldn’t match Turn the Radio off commercially, spending only three weeks on the Billboard 200 chart, peaking in the 60s. To compare, Radio spent 32 weeks on the chart, peaking at #57, going gold. All in all, Reel Big Fish wouldn’t release another studio album for nearly four years. Although the Favorite Noise compilation was released internationally in the gap, the band’s next album, Cheer Up!, didn’t drop until June of 2002.

So, how does a band deal with releasing such a surprise success, and then follow it up? That’s kind of the point of this feature, but in this case, rather than simply pontificating about how dumb kids were in 1998 for not recognizing how rocking “The Set Up,” “She’s Famous Now,” and “Somebody Hates Me” were, we decided to talk with someone who was there.

There’s Scott, with the glasses, right in the middle.

Scott Klopfenstein played trumpet, sang backup vocals, and was the comic foil to Reel Big Fish frontman Aaron Barrett for 18 years, until he retired from the band in 2011. We called him one cold January Sunday and chatted about the success of Turn the Radio Off and the subsequent reception of Why Do They Rock So Hard?.

When Turn the Radio Off came out in 1996, Klopfenstein was 19 years old. Given the relative youth of the majority of Reel Big Fish, it wasn’t so much the commercial success of the album that surprised them, but instead the general interest.

“We always had a tough time grasping the concept that people liked our band,” Klopfenstein explained. “Because of the fact that we were playing ska music, which is already this other thing – “alternative” and all of the things that we had grown up to know as successful radio music – you already feel kind of like an appetizer trying to make its way into the main course.”

The band weren’t down on themselves, though. Klopfenstein was quick to assure me Reel Big Fish always felt they did what they did extremely well, while still possessing a “red-headed stepchild” mentality. But, since they worked constantly, he feels like what happened to the band was similar to what happens to a lot of groups.

“You wind up working so much, you don’t realize what’s going on around you,” said the trumpeter. “You don’t get to stop and appreciate it or go, ‘Oh, my gosh — this is happening.'”

Klopfenstein relates a story regarding the filming of Baseketball, wherein Reel Big Fish had to be on-set at 6 or 7 in the morning. They were there all day, but didn’t shoot until 4:30. After filming for 40 minutes to an hour, they got off-stage, went back home to spend a little while with their loved ones, and then had to be back at the airport at 5 a.m. to go back on tour.

“It was indicative of everything that we did, because we toured constantly,” he stated matter-of-factly. For Turn the Radio Off, as well as Why Do They Rock So Hard?, the press consisted of Aaron Barrett and Klopfenstein constantly on planes, flying back-and-forth to New York because they had to do press for the likes of MTV and VH1, along with morning shows and any number of other outlets.

“Then we would catch our flight, go back and meet the band, play the show, sleep in a hotel, hop on a plane, fly to New York, do the interviews, hop on a plane, and go back and play the show that night,” Klopfenstein continued. “That was just the way Reel Big Fish was. Since we were always on tour or in the studio, we were always in a rush to get everything done. We also never said, ‘No,’ to things, so we were always crammed, but when you get the opportunity, you have to say, ‘Yes.'”

Essentially, whenever Klopfenstein had a moment to breathe, someone would yank him into another room to do an interview, or he’d hopped on a bus or flight. The band was playing nearly every night, never taking breaks, as well as the aforementioned press, which included morning drive-time radio shows or afternoon record store in-stores — essentially, playing two shows a day. It was after several years of this that the band recorded the follow-up.

While “I’m Cool,” one of the songs which would eventually show up on Why Do They Rock So Hard?, had previously appeared on the Keep Your Receipt EP a year prior, the album was a culmination of several factors. Some of the songs were re-recorded and tweaked versions of tracks from their independently-released Everything Sucks, like “I Want Your Girlfriend to My Girlfriend.” Others had been written for Turn the Radio Off, but hadn’t made it. However, Why Do They Rock So Hard? was, ultimately, just a product of a very particular time for the band.

“I love that album. It’s still one of my favorites,” Klopfensteins said. “Because of where we were as a band, doing that album — it was a really prolific time for us, creatively, I feel like. Aaron could focus, we could focus. We just wrote and wrote and wrote.”

He does acknowledge there was a certain pressure that the band always put on themselves going into the studio, saying the sophomore album is always perceived to be a tough thing. Their record label, Mojo, seemed supportive and encouraging to the band, though, to the point of allowing them a proper pre-production period for the record. All of the songs for the group’s prior recordings had been road-tested and worked on in rehearsal spaces, but Why Do They Rock So Hard? was something different.

“This was us locking ourselves in the studio for a bit and really working things out,” explained Klopfenstein, saying that it was even more so the case on later effort, Cheer Up. He continued, stating that the value of pre-production is the time the band has to sit down and really hash some stuff out, together as a band. He credits the ears of producer John Avila on those demos as teaching Reel Big Fish a lot about songwriting and arrangement, along with mentioning the far-bigger budget.

“There was a ton of money invested in this record,” Klopfenstein admitted, before saying that the band didn’t see that as pressure. “We saw that as opportunity, because we really wanted to accomplish a great deal. Our musical tastes were so vast and eclectic; we wanted that all to show. We saw what bands like No Doubt were doing, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

The trumpet player feels that, with Why Do They Rock So Hard?, Reel Big Fish showcases a band having a good time, as well as one learning how to use the studio.

That certainly comes through on the record.

There are keyboards and samples – that intro on “The Set Up” being an impressive example thereof – but the band wasn’t just throwing things at the wall to see what stuck.

Turn the Radio Off is a great record, but it feels more so like a collection of songs than an album proper. Why Do They Rock So Hard?, however, is more of a singular experience, with better flow and a series of songs which seem like they came together at the same time, rather than in a gradual process. “I Want Your Girlfriend” is bookended by “I’m Cool” and “Everything Is Cool,” creating a three-song run of tongue-in-cheek egotism, whereas the “fuck yeah!” of “Big Star” is immediately toned down by “The Kids Don’t Like It.”

“We love it all,” said Klopfenstein of how the record turned out. “Of course, you want to write a record that’s great, but we felt like we had a great record. I still feel like this is a record that’s one of my favorite things that we’ve ever made, and one of my favorite things we’ve ever contributed to. It’s truly collaborative.”

Scott Klopfenstein’s latest work is found on the stage production, Locked Up Bitches, which ran through April 28 at the Flea Theater in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood. Reel Big Fish, although without Klopfenstein, still tour and plays shows, and you can find tour dates at their website.

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Nick Spacek
Nick Spacek was once a punk, but realized you can’t be hardcore and use the word “adorable” as often as he does. Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with four cats and usually goes to bed by 9. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online.

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