October 7, 2004

20 Questions in 3 Words

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It was almost a disaster. In fact, it was almost a series of disasters.

Part I: The Interview

I called Aaron Barrett’s cell phone seven times before he picked up. I would start the tape recorder, stop it after five or six rings, hang up the phone, wait anxiously for a few minutes, tap my feet and stare at my clock, and call back again. I would record myself talking while his phone rang to no avail, testing the microphone, noting the time, preparing for the interview. I was more than anxious. I was terrified. There was no telling what I would do if he didn’t pick up. And there was no telling what I’d do if he did.

He did. On my seventh try, Reel Big Fish frontman Aaron Barrett answered his phone, catching me off guard, catching me midway through a to-myself sentence. “Oh hey!” I exclaimed over-zealously, “I mean, hi, Aaron. My name Lynne Feeley, and I’m from the Cornell Daily Sun.” We were off to a rough start, Aaron and I, which was made embarrassingly more rough by Aaron’s first remark, as honest as it was: “I was wondering who kept calling me. I forgot I had an interview.” He forgot. He’s busy, I rationalized, and busy people forget things, and famous people must forget more things than most people because they’re the busiest people. Aaron just happened to be a busy, famous person. And happened to be waiting on the other end of the line while I scrambled to recover.

“Um, it’s OK. No problem, really. So… um… how are you? Uh, how are you doing?” Where this banality had come from, I wasn’t sure. I had planned an exciting first question, a charmer, a knock-your-busy-socks-off opener that would launch the interview into yet unexplored areas of self-disclosure. Instead I asked how he was. And then clarified the question by asking how he was doing. I was a deer in headlights. I grimaced in the pause between my essentially rhetorical question and his expected reply. “Um, I’m good.” I silently begged for him to continue. He thankfully did: “I’m driving home from the studio.”

That was it — my point of entry. The studio. Ask him about the studio. “Right, the studio,” I stumbled over my nervous thoughts, “I understand you’re in the studio right now.” He laughed. I went on. “Mike, your agent, told me you were in the studio. What are you working on?” Finally she asks the obvious question, he must have been thinking. Aaron told me he and the band were working on an album to be out early next year, and that they were producing the record themselves. When I asked him how it sounds, he replied simply: “It’s really good.” We were getting somewhere.

And then I asked him to describe his music in three words. A serious question, I thought, a question that would help potential concert-goers who weren’t familiar with ska music decide if they wanted to see the show. I thought of it as an important question that would get us into a discussion of Reel Big Fish’s style, of the nature and maybe even history of ska, and, if everything went as I had mentally mapped it out over and over again in the preceding days, of Music at large. “Three words?” he answered. “Candy. Coated. Fury.”

“Candy-coated what?” I asked in the midst of his torrent laughter. Candy-coated fury, of course. By the time I realized it was a joke I had already asked him my second question: “OK so what if you had to describe yourself in three words?” From there, it was too easy. He giggled and replied, “Candy. Coated. Fury.”

The problem quickly became apparent. Aaron Barrett is funny. Reel Big Fish’s music is definitively unserious. Their song titles alone are testament to their lightheartedness: “She Has A Girlfriend Now,” “Beer,” “Rock N Roll is Bitchin’.” I should have known that, no matter how much I prompted him to talk about the upcoming election or the condition of the music industry thanks to downloading, Aaron was not interested. Surely no fault of his, our dis-connection made for what must have been one of his more unexciting exchanges with a journalist.

Even though Aaron resisted most of my “serious” questions, my first near-disaster proved not to be a complete disaster. I managed to learn that the craziest moment he’s had during a live show was when a fan threw his prosthetic leg on stage, that trumpet player Scott Klopfenstein and trombonist Dan Regan are touring with a side project called Littlest Man Band, that downloading services like Napster won’t ruin the music industry but rather change it (Aaron digs Cornell’s agreement with Napster), and that Aaron loves Da Ali G Show. I also learned that playing live is fundamental for Reel Big Fish: “That’s what we do. We play live. That’s our only job. That’s always been the best way to see us, to see us live.”

Part II: The Live Show

I was late to the show. By the time I got there, which couldn’t have been more than a few minutes after 8:00, the house lights were off and Reel Big Fish had played their first song. Shocked that they started on time, I half-jogged down the side of crowd to the front outskirts. I thought for a moment that it would be best if I stayed right there, distanced from the crowd, with a clear view of the stage and a chance for uninterrupted analysis of the concert.

Within one song, though, that thought dissipated. From where I was, I could make out a pit tucked away in front of the stage. I weaseled my way sideways through the crowd of cross-armed people and found myself right in it: a pit of loyal Fish fans, skanking, moshing, shouting out lyrics, and dancing wildly. It seemed that here was where the actual concert was, in the frenzy of the mosh pit, where everyone was bumping into everyone else uncaringly, where personal boundaries had gone out the window. It also seemed that I was a little girl among big, sweaty guys whose second job, second only to being a journalist, was to hold her own and stay on her feet.

By the time Reel Big Fish launched into “Rock N Roll is Bitchin’,” which included a massive sing-along, it was clear why and for whom the band was performing: Reel Big Fish was playing for us because entertaining their fans is their “only job.” As much fun as they were having on stage, they wanted us to have in the crowd. So they played some new songs from the upcoming album, but they played all their hits, too — “Sell Out” and “Beer” included. The band seemed aware of the crowd, concerned with our response to their music (but not too concerned), and interested in getting us to dance. “Don’t worry,” Aaron said after playing a newly written song that no one knew but everyone danced to nonetheless, “we’ll play the good songs soon.”

And when they did play “the good songs,” the crowd responded. The skanking and moshing got faster, the pushing got harder, and the singing got louder. It was during these energy bursts that I was reminded of my comparatively small size. I was also reminded what a disaster it can be to fall down in the middle of the pit. My second disaster was evaded with the help of my fellow RBF fans, who pulled me up from a near-fall. This gesture speaks for the whole of the crowd, whose attitude was controlled by the band on stage: energized but not angry. That is to say, the crowd was something like candy-coated fury. Part III: The Second Live Show

Candy-coated, indeed, was Chris Carrabba’s post-Reel Big Fish set. When Dashboard Confessional’s singer took the stage, the frenetic dynamic that Reel Big Fish brought all but disappeared. When the serious-looking Carrabba came on with just his guitar, the moshers dispersed and were replaced almost entirely by Carrabba-obsessed girls. Carrabba and his bandmate (guitar, piano) started in with their emo tunes, playing at first mostly songs off of their last release, 2003’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. They also played some older tunes, covering almost all of 2000’s Swiss Army Romance. Almost immediately, the atmosphere in Barton became somber, filling with high-pitched yelling from both the crowd and the artists. Almost immediately, the atmosphere in Barton became somber, filling with high-pitched yelling from both the crowd and the artists.

A disas
ter, I thought, as I left my position close to the stage and wandered to the back of the standing-still crowd. I noticed couples sitting and a few lying down behind the last row of the audience. A bit tired from the first set and a bit let down by the switch in energy, I joined them on the rubber floor.

And then I began to actually listen. I laid back, stretching my hands behind my head, squaring my feet up underneath my bent knees, and I listened, and it was good. In his own emo way, Carrabba got into his music just as much as Reel Big Fish had. Likewise, Carrabba’s fans, though they didn’t jump around and didn’t push each other around, proved to be equally as into the show as we had been. And they were equally as well entertained. Saved from disaster one final time, I left Barton Hall tired from the first set and emotional from the second. Both bands must have done their jobs.

Archived article by Lynne Feeley
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer