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12:00 AM Monday, 9/15/97 |   |

FOR YEARS Reel Big Fish had musician trouble -- horn section trouble, to be exact. In its earliest days, the band comprised singer/guitarist Aaron Barrett, bassist Matt Wong and drummer Andrew Gonzales and they did mostly covers. A horn section isn't so important if you're going to play Wham!, Warrant and Jimi Hendrix hits, but if ska is your biggest influence, well, that's different.

For the love of ska, Reel Big Fish had to get reliable horn players, so they did what a lot of bands do; they put up fliers and they recruited. "We figured out a way around our problem," said Barrett. "We'd grow our own horn players. We got 'em right out of the high school band and we've brought them up to be Reel Big Fish."

He's not kidding. The trumpet players, Tavis Werts and Scott Klopfenstein, and the trombonists, Dan Regan and Grant Barry, were very much in their teens when they joined the band. Even now, none of the four can legally buy a beer in all 50 states.

Barrett said he doesn't expect any of his bandmates to grow up in the near future. Reel Big Fish will always retain their youthful exuberance, which is fitting considering a certain demographic statistic. "A major chunk of their audience is underage," said Ken Fermaglich, one of the band's Artists & Audience agents. "The band won't play any show that's not all-ages. They won't play 16-plus or 14-plus... they want 10-year-olds to get in. We see kids at these shows with their parents."

If Reel Big Fish has its way, those kids will be safe, too. The band has taken a stand against moshing and stage diving. Barrett is so adamant about his audience's safety, he and the rest of the Fish walked off stage during a Warped Tour show this summer when the crowd refused to chill. "We're the band that doesn't like people getting squashed," said Barrett. "I've had too many people complain to me about getting hurt and not being able to enjoy the show because of people falling on their heads and stuff." His viewpoint is understandable since the band came up playing to predominantly ska audiences where kids were skanking, not slamming.

Even though this band's music isn't pure, unadulterated ska, Reel Big Fish definitely has a place on the ska scene. After securing a solid fan base on the Long Beach home turf, the group broadened its horizons by touring with other ska-loving acts. Being associated with a particular style of music comes with the blessing of appreciative fans and the curse of the hard-core purists.

Like No Doubt and Goldfinger before them, Reel Big Fish have been accused of selling out its true ska roots for a shot at fame. "It's so weird. You'd think people would be happy when the kind of music they like gets popular," said Barrett. "I always wanted to share stuff with people. I'd get sad when nobody had heard about a band that I really liked."

Rather than get all defensive and uppity about their music, Reel Big Fish put their usual sarcastic spin on things and wrote a song about what big sellouts they are. The scales of irony just about tipped over when "Sell Out" became their breakthrough radio hit. Their album, Turn the Radio Off, had been out for about six months and the band had been touring constantly when the single finally broke. The late radio success was not a fluke, though; it fit into the Reel Big Fish plan.

"The band had already developed a fan base by supporting several other bands," said Fermaglich. "When we first signed the band six months ago, we wanted them to headline to develop that fan base. We thought radio would eventually catch up and that's essentially what happened. We just got added at the modern rock station in Chicago, but even before that, we sold out the House of Blues in Chicago three weeks in advance."

Read between the lines and it's very easy to see that underneath the airplay and the album sales is a bunch of very supportive fans. A capacity crowd of 3,500 filled the Hollywood Palladium late last month, making it clear that Reel Big Fish hasn't sold out as far as kids back home are concerned. It's not just a So. Cal. phenomenon, either. "Everything on this tour is sold out in advance, whether or not they're doing well at radio in the market," said Fermaglich.

Reel Big Fish is on the road in the States through the beginning of October. Then it's off to Australia for The Warped Tour's run Downunder, followed by some dates in Japan. Their strangest gig will take place November 17th when they perform a Fish-flavored "Star Spangled Banner" before a Miami Dolphins football game.