An American Original
Southern California funk-punk-ska pioneers Fishbone continue down the musical road much less traveled
In this wild, multihued 21st century, few musical absolutes exist. But here’s one: No band on Earth is like Fishbone. Formed in the early ’80s by six black Los Angeles-area teenagers, Fishbone merged elements of punk, ska, funk and hardcore at a time when none of those genres existed within the American mainstream. Yet Norwood and Philip Fisher, Angelo Moore, “Dirty” Walt Kibby, Kendall Jones and Chris Dowd still rocketed to underground fame, thanks to socially conscious lyrics, innovative instrumentation and a madcap live show.
Fishbone had trouble achieving conventional success, however. Some chalk it up to the band’s democratic decision-making approach, which led to half the original members quitting between 1993 and 1998. Some chalk it up to American audiences’ inability to appreciate Fishbone’s lunatic creativity. And some chalk it up to each band member’s outlandish individual personalities. All of these storylines are on full display in “Everyday Sunshine,” a 2010 feature-length documentary that’s equal parts fascinating and depressing. Thirty years later, however, Fishbone is still touring the world, staying true to its oddball art and trying to discover a groove that hasn’t been danced to yet.
Folio Weekly: What’s new with Fishbone, Norwood?
Norwood Fisher: We’re embarking on this winter tour and engaging in the regular shenanigans: rocking, rolling and having as much fun as possible. Beyond that, we’re in the long, beginning stages of writing for a full-length record. We have five songs in the can, and our intention is to release those as an EP.
F.W.: When Fishbone tours, do you mix up that new material with old favorites?
N.F.: We try to present a career retrospective and give the hardcore, old-school fans what satisfies them. But it’s really important for us to present the band as current as possible, too.
F.W.: For years, critics have said that the Fishbone live show is far superior to the Fishbone album. Do you feel that’s true?
N.F.: The stage is still the place where we’re most creative — where we get a real interaction with our audience. It’s in-your-face reality, everybody’s blood, sweat and tears mingling in the air.
F.W.: Are the band’s political and socially conscious viewpoints still present?
N.F.: A bit, but really, today there’s a lot more introspection and self-inquest. There are some songs that, although they were written before the Occupy movement, do voice opinions in line with that frustration. It’s not particularly political, but it all adds up to about the same thing, right?
F.W.: Your and Angelo Moore’s dynamic in “Everyday Sunshine” was fascinating. One minute, you’re bickering like a married couple; the next, you’re keeping the Fishbone flame alive.
N.F.: It gets better, and then it gets worse. Right when you think everything is about to smooth out, you’ve got new obstacles. But we make sure that the music doesn’t suffer for it.
F.W.: Did Fishbone ever make an effort to fit in with any scene or musical genre?
N.F.: Our mission was always to absolutely be our own band. We did what came naturally and then migrated toward where we fit in after the fact. Overall, I guess ska was probably the thing that we honed in on the hardest. It was aggressive dance music, so as teenagers, it worked. We liked punk rock and being in the pit, but ska had its roots in Jamaica and spoke to us a little differently.
F.W.: How do you think Fishbone has influenced younger African-American musicians?
N.F.: Some younger ones have taken a cue from what Fishbone did and then injected it into their own music; probably one of the biggest is Outkast. But some have been more underground than others, and you feel that influence in different people’s individuality.
F.W.: How about Jacksonville band Whole Wheat Bread, which will open for you in Florida?
N.F.: Definitely. It’s important to me that they stick in there and influence a couple more generations of kids, too. They’re doing it their own way — they don’t sound like Fishbone at all! That’s the beauty of it.
F.W.: Much has been said about how Fishbone never achieved massive commercial success. Do you have any regrets about that?
N.F.: Maybe it’s hindered my ability to buy my mother a house. But artistically, I wouldn’t change a thing. If we did something that wasn’t honest to ourselves, maybe we’d be in a different place financially. Deep down, I probably wouldn’t be as satisfied, though.
F.W.: What does the future hold for Fishbone?
N.F.: The mystery of the ever-unfolding now is a wonderful thing. So we’re just going to keep making music, keep pushing boundaries, and keep trying to figure out if it’s possible to create a groove that hasn’t been danced to yet. If we fail? So what?