Alaska has, to my knowledge, never been known for having a vibrant music scene — at least as it pertains to national acts gracing our stages.
Sure, every once in awhile we’ll get a big headliner and stuff way-too-many-hundreds of people into the confines of the Egan Center, where music isn’t as much heard as it is bounced off cement. Concert-goers squint their eyes — “I think I can see the band!” — and stretch their ears as they try to remember what the songs are supposed to sound like.
Or there’s the seldom occasion where a band stops by for an outdoor show at Koots or Moose’s Tooth in the summer months, which is awesome until — “I still can’t see the band and dude, why are you puking on my shoe?”
But things change. New venues are popping up like retail box stores in Muldoon, attempting to court big names to play increasingly intimate venues. And in Anchorage, the brand new venue in downtown called Williwaw is looking to speed up the transition from “that place where Creed plays the State Fair” to a legit music scene.
Definition of Williwaw according to Google: a sudden violent squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast. Definition of Anchorage’s Williwaw: “a multi-faceted gathering space, featuring fine American dining, craft cocktails & local brews, a concert venue featuring national acts and the finest rooftop in town.”
Absence of Oxford Comma aside, that’s fun. So is Anchorage’s Williwaw, who had one hell of a New Year’s Eve party last week when ska-punk legends Reel Big Fish stopped by.
Ska doesn’t have much traction these days. The genre originated in 1950s’ Jamaica; a blend of multiple musical styles that served as a precursor to reggae. It hit the scene like a mighty sparkler, burning bright and then quickly blinking out of existence, leaving only a sad child confused with the extinguished stick left in his hand.
But, for a short while, it came back with a vengeance in the late ’80s and early ’90s when bands like Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, Suicide Machines, the Might Mighty Bosstones, and — lest we forget — Operation Ivy reminded us all how cool sparklers can be.
“Fire. Pretty.” — Prometheus. (Actual quote.)
I was a teenager when that happened. And I lived in the East Bay of California. A product of Gilman Street, where bands like Green Day, Rancid, AFI, the Offspring debuted atop a graffiti littered stage underscored only by the mass of disaffected youth who occupied every corner. (A stage I would be lucky enough to perform on later.)
When Reel Big Fish exploded on the scene with their 1996 album Turn the Radio Off! I was immediately hooked. With lyrics built for angsty teenagers who wanted to be rock stars (but would be fully content just getting laid), I found a welcome home in their songs. They provided a soundtrack to my ilk.
And then, a couple decades later, I found myself downstairs, in the belly of a sold out Williwaw concert on New Year’s Eve, talking to lead singer Aaron Barrett and trumpet player (and backup vocalist) John Christian — nicknamed Johnny Christmas — who joined the band in 2005.
To recreate the moment, I’m drinking heavily.
“Finally we made it, We’ve been walking for a very long time,” Christian told me. It was his first time in Alaska. He added that he had seen his first moose. “It was on the side of the road and it got pointed out to me while I was in the car. And the passenger went ‘Moose!’ I’d always wanted to see one.”
“I saw a raven,” Barrett chimed in. “And a bichon frise.”
I asked them how they ended up in Alaska to ring in the new year. “Someone asked us to come play and we said yes,” Aaron said with a shrug.
“That’s usually how it works,” Christian flatly replied.
Reel Big Fish are about to kick off a 40-stop tour in the Lower 48. Anchorage was lucky enough to be the destination of the ubiquitous tune-up show. Not that they needed one, honestly. They’re still really, really good. But a packed house in Williwaw appreciated it nonetheless.
The most interesting part about the band is their ability to weather ska’s out-of-fashion condition. After a mic-drop-worthy entrance onto the scene with the mid-90’s hit, “Sell Out,” the band struggled to keep up with their debut’s success. Their second album (which, personally, I think is still their strongest) Why Do They Rock So Hard? flopped — though they scored big with a cover of a-ha’s “Take On Me” at roughly the same time — and they never really recovered. At least, not in major label terms.
In 2006, Jive Records dropped them. They’ve been independent ever since — though Jive gleaned all the residual success they could, releasing an unapproved greatest hits album with all the songs they had title to.
“At first, it was nice being on a record label and having them behind us,” Barrett explained to me. Labels come with tour support and publicity; attributes unkind to DIY artists. He added,
But then we also got to experience the thing that most people complain about record labels, which is you’re just there. They don’t know what to do with you, and they don’t want to give you any money to record and they don’t want to let you record at all and so you’re just sitting there…. We got stuck with all the business side. ‘Well, you know, your last record didn’t sell enough units so we don’t know if we’re able…’ But we have a lot of fans who like us, so we just put out music that we know we like and the fans might like and whatever.
But he kept on writing songs. And Reel Big Fish, picking up and dropping members along the way (Barrett is the only remaining original member) kept going too. In 2002 they released Cheer Up!, followed up with We’re Not Happy ‘Til You’re Not Happy in 2005, Monkeys for Nothin’ and the Chimps for Free in 2007, Fame, Fortune, and Fornication in 2009, and Candy Coated Fury in 2012. And they’re still touring. And people keep showing up. Because — and I might have mentioned this — they’re still really, really good.
“We’ve made it into our career. That’s our job. It’s what we do,” Barrett told me about an hour before he took the stage. “We made the hobby and the thing we love to do into something that makes money so we can live. We don’t have to work a crappy job all week and then get to play. The band is now our crappy job. Living the dream!”
But for now, it doesn’t appear that any new material is in the pipeline. When I asked if there were any plans for another album, Barrett said simply, “Oh, come on. Don’t we have enough?”
Barrett and Christian seem quite content enjoying playing live for fans.
“We were able to get to a certain level with the first album, the Turn Your Radio Off album, that allowed us to make this our job,” he said. More shrugs. “So we didn’t have to worry about if the labels were going to give us money for records. If they don’t then who cares? So, we became very independent early on, even though we were on major labels. ‘No, we will not do that. We want to do this. No?'”
He then sported a pair of middle fingers at the phantom record label thwarting him. He’s jaded, but he wears it well; with a Hawaiian t-shirt and a checker-print guitar strap.
Reel Big Fish didn’t go onstage until 11:30pm. Then, they played for nearly two hours, splicing hits like “Beer,” “Sell Out,” “She Has a Girlfriend Now,” and ending with “Take On Me” — pausing at midnight for the obligatory “Auld Lang Syne” salute amidst a bevy of champagne toasts and subsequent chugging.
There may be no new albums immediately coming, but a return to Alaska is perhaps in the cards.
“I think we will be back up here soon,” Christian told me.
“I think it’s top secret,” Barrett quickly replied, shaking his head. “I heard a rumor that we might be back soon.”
So, Warped Tour might be fun this year. Just a guess.