In the gruesome evening some lunatics invaded the Eagles Of Death Metal show at Bataclan, Paris, we at RMP attended a concert too. Unknowingly of the tragedy, we had a chat with John Christianson, better known as Johnny Christmas, from the band Reel Big Fish. We talked with him about Belgian beer, the touring life and when to expect some new material.
- Hi, welcome! First of all, how are you doing here in Belgium?
I’m tired. We’re at the end of the tour and this is a great place to end it. We’ve been through the UK, Holland, Germany and Switzerland this time and we’ve been out for I think four weeks. Wow, I can’t believe it that’s gone by so quickly. All the shows were great, it’s really wonderful to be in a nice venue and be in Belgium where the world’s best beer is! We were sampling some of that after sound check. We were at a place called “Het Kapitool” and were enjoying the crazy Belgian beer selection because that’s what we do.
- So you already know that you are in the capital of Stella Artois but do you have any favourite Belgian beers?
Yes, of course. My favourite Belgian beer is the St.Bernardus 12. I also like the Westmalle Tripel. Belgian beer is my favourite because they’re really carbonated and it’s a little sweet. I also like the ‘gueuzes’, we had a great gueuze today at the bar. It just makes your face turn inside-out because it’s so sour. I really love that. It’s good to have real beer because that has been a while.
- We too are very big beer fans and the gueuze is also one of our favourite beers to drink and to share with people.
Yeah, you know that’s one of our favourite things about beer, that you can experience it together. We’d like to get either big bottles and pour them out a little bit for everybody and it’s a really nice way to share an experience with everybody. That’s one of my favourite things to do.
- Let’s go back to touring. You’ve been touring all over Europe and these last months you toured with Suburban Legends as a support. The last time we saw you, you also performed with Suburban Legends. Is this a coincidence or is it just that you take them with you a lot along the ride?
It happens every couple of years that we take those guys out because they’re a great band and a great bunch of guys and we’ve been friends for the longest time. So it just happens that the last time you saw us that they were on the bill and this time again. There were just enough years that went by that it worked out that way but I think this is going to be one of their last tours that will happen for a while but we’ll see what the future brings. It’s hard to keep a band together and try to make a living. It’s really difficult, even for us, it’s the hardest thing just to pay everybody and you can only go through for so long out of love and not make any money to support yourself or your family. So I think that’s the point that they’re at now.
- Today is the last day of your European tour. What do you expect from this show?
It’s going to be fucking crazy! The first show that I played in Belgium in Brussels in 2004: as we played the last song the whole crowd rushed the stage and the whole crowd was on stage with us while we were playing “Take On Me”, it was just one of the most memorable and scary experiences of my life. Because, you know, I play trumpet so if anybody bunks me or bunks my horns and cuts my lip, it just makes my life a living hell. So I was all freaked out like ‘Oh my God, look at all these people!’ and then I finally decided ‘Okay, I’m not playing, I’m running away!’. I was fearing for my life at that point.
- Reel Big Fish is known for their energetic, full-on shows with lots of humour and lots of jokes. Do you prepare some jokes or does it just come natural for you?
They all happen organically. They’re never planned out and it’s great that Aaron (Barrett, vocals and guitar) has a great sense of humour and I think that everybody in the band has. So sometimes things will get thrown in that we don’t expect or jokes will happen that we never thought would have happened. Last night, the song “10,000 miles” came out for some reason and that was awesome because as soon as the ‘tadadada’ came, the whole crowd did the same and it was totally unexpected and so much fun. We were all smiling like little schoolgirls.
- The music you play is very danceable. What is your favourite song to dance to?
To dance to? Oh my God! Well, it just so happens that I’m always in the band so that the opportunity to dance comes to me rarely. And when I dance with my wife, on special occasions when I’m home, when I’m not working, I never get to pick the music. I just go ‘we’re dancing girlfriend, wife, lady’ and we both go with it. So whatever song that allows me to be close to my wife and give her hugs and look her in the eyes. That’s all good with me.
- Last year, you treated us very well with “Happy Skalidays” and our Christmas became a thousand times better! Was it something you wanted to do for a long time, making a Christmas album?
[Laughs] Yes, we’ve been throwing that around for many years and it just so happened while we were on tour through Canada we started figuring out Christmas tunes during the sound checks. It happened kind of organically that we were all like ‘Well, let’s try “Little Drummer Boy”.’ and we tried to do it a Jamaican ska kind of way and put some Jamaican ska-quotes in there from some famous songs. It was initially going to be a full-length record and it turned out to be an EP so I don’t know if we would go back and record some more songs and make it a full-length record or what’s going to happen. Our engineer, David Irish, who was out with us, he lost his studio; the studio that we would do recordings at for about ten years so now he’s looking for another building so it’s going to take us a little while to start recording stuff again. So just be patient.
- Are their maybe any plans to have some sort of split record Easter/Christmas? Or is it maybe that you don’t like Easter as much as Christmas?
There is not necessarily any Easter music in the States. At Easter play the hallelujah chorus… I guess we could play a hallelujah chorus/ska-thing. Can you skank to the hallelujah chorus? [hums the hallelujah chorus]. Yes, we could make it work!
- Here in Belgium, ska is sort of an underground genre. You don’t see many ska bands performing in really big venues like Sportpaleis. How do you feel about that, that ska still is sort of the underdog?
It always kind of has been. When the music started out in Jamaica, those guys were playing for people at casinos, for white people at casinos, mixing soul and jazz and R&B and then mixing it with the traditional rhythms from Jamaica. So it was kind of always an underground thing. It just happens that it sometimes gets really popular like with Madness and The Specials in the UK and then it came to California primarily with bands like Fishbone and No Doubt and us. You know, it’s always around. It just takes another band that scores another hit on the radio because that changes things. When they hear you on the radio all the time, there will be another wave of ska bands. But it’s all over the place: it’s in the commercials that you watch, it’s in the movies that you watch. If you just keep your ears open, you’re like ‘Where did that ska-sound come from?’ in this TV-commercial for a Toyota Prius?
- Your lyrics and songs are mostly very funny to hear. Who writes these lyrics to for example “Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer”, “The FU Song”, “She Has A Girlfriend Now”?
“Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer” was a previous song so it’s a cover of… I don’t remember the artist but that’s been around for about thirty years. “Another FU Song” and the rest, that’s all Aaron and his whit, his view on life. It’s easier to look at your life and laugh when stuff kicks you in the head than to get upset about it. And I think that’s one the great things that Reel Big Fish has done for people. We allowed them to laugh with themselves and laugh with the world and not just yourselves too seriously. It’s not that you try to get through live trying to do the best you can, because you are, but if you laugh at yourself and go ‘Okay, this is just bullshit and I’m going to laugh at it.’ you’ll be fine. You know when somebody cuts you of as you are driving to work who’s trying to drive everybody else of the road that’s just… There are too many people in this world who take themselves way too seriously. That’s definitely a problem. That’s why we have people chopping people’s heads off because they’re taking themselves way too seriously. Because they can’t laugh at themselves, because they can’t allow people to do other stuff. I mean, when you want control over the rest of the world and other people, you will run into problems. Even if you’re in a relationship and you want control over your significant other. Things don’t work out well that way. You can’t tell people that that is what they have to do. No, it’s give and take and the more that you can laugh, you can say ‘Well, this didn’t work out very well but I’m going to laugh about it and move on and do the next thing and do my best and of someone kicks me in the head again, I’m going to laugh and then keep going!’. It’s a good way to a good life.
- How many versions are there from the song S.R. (Suburban Rhythm)?
There are a ton of versions! And another ton of versions that you have never heard, like there’s a beat-jazz version, there’s a White Stripes version and so on. That song started out just as the reggae-ska version of that and it was a really short song and Aaron was like ‘Why don’t we try it doing this way, or that way?’. And then we all adapt and laugh and think ‘Oh, this is great!’. It got to where that part of the show was becoming so long, like over 15 minutes long because of all the different styles we would do. It just got to be too big and take too much time so we kind of condensed it down so there are about five versions that we do now. It’s another way that we’re laughing at ourselves, but also to go ‘Oh yeah, we can do all those other things too.’. I mean, we’re good musicians. All of us are really good musicians. Of course it’s always a hit, like when we’re going to a festival and play like after Mastodon or something and we play S.R., everybody just eats out of our hands, everybody just loves it so much! We can kind of be that comic relief, I guess, on some shows or festivals and it really is like a breath of fresh air for everybody, I think.
- We also saw you at Groezrock some time ago and of course at that festival you have a lot of hardcore bands and then you guys played among them and it was nice to have something completely different.
The first time that I remember that happening we played after Mastodon, but right before My Chemical Romance and I was going like ‘How is this going to work?’. Because all these people were roaring their lungs out and then we take the stage and they just go crazy! I think after that Groezrock show we went to play in Dubai and we played this festival as a replacement of a band called Saxon, the old eighties hair metal band, and the bill was us, Testament, 3 Doors Down and Megadeth. “Souls Of Black” by Testament is the very first cd that I ever bought and “Peace Sells” of Megadeth was one of the tapes I had and I loved both of those bands. So just standing on the side of the stage watching those bands, I was like a little schoolgirl ‘Oh, this is so amazing!’. But to go after a really hard metal band like Testament and take the stage and everybody just goes crazy, you know you’re doing something right. Something somewhere we’re doing right!
- You just mentioned Testament and Megadeth. What are your favourite bands aside from the ska genre? Maybe some sort of guilty pleasures?
Oh no, I have no guilty pleasures! I love all the traditional Jamaican ska, I love bands like Desmond Dekker and The Wailers. We’ve been fortunate to play quite some shows with The Wailers and it has always been awesome. It’s just we’ve been really lucky to play with some of the biggest names in Jamaican ska. So aside from that, I love traditional bands like Madness, The Specials, I love it all. It’s really hard to pin me down because I listen to a lot of different stuff.
- With this we’re at our last question. Thank you very much for the interview. Do you have any last words for our readers?
We’ll be on tour so come and see us, come say ‘hi’! We’re really approachable guys that are really sweet, shall we say. We’ll be in a town near you soon! [laughs]
– Jolien Krijnen & Frederik Geuvens