No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani says they were “the band that gave us the inspiration to be a band.” Their fans include Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, the Roots’ Questlove, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Metallica’s Rob Trujillo. Primus’ bassist Les Claypool cites them as a major influence and says, “They should have been the band that went way beyond any of us.”
The band they’re talking about is Fishbone, the funk/punk/jazz/ska mind-scramble of a band that came out of South Central L.A. They formed when the fledgling musicians were in junior high school in 1979. A few years later, they were on their way. An all-black band, they weren’t playing straight-up funk, R&B or hip-hop, but playing, mostly, to post-punk audiences that had also embraced the Bus Boys, Living Colour and the Bad Brains.
The frenetic Fishbone was quite a jolt. “We put our first record out when I was a teenager,” says bassist and band co-leader Norwood Fisher, “and we were signed to one of the biggest record labels on the planet [Columbia], the home of Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen.”
That first record EP came out in 1983, featuring a funky, punky Reagan-era counterpunch called “Party at Ground Zero.” And Fishbone quickly gained a reputation as a ferocious and fun live band, with singer Angelo Moore (aka Dr. Madd Vibe) stage-diving and wreaking havoc.
Fishbone is back – at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet Monday Aug. 25 – but it’s been a rocky road. Trumpeter Walter Kibby II (aka Dirty Walt) is the only other original member in the septet. Two years ago, a documentary narrated by Laurence Fishburne, “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone,” won awards and critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes’ critics score: 100%. Variety called it ““an inspirational happy film about failure.”
We talked with Fisher about the turbulent, resilient band, a group that refuses to quit despite numerous bumps in the road, including massive lawsuits, one of which is still ongoing.
JSInk: When “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” came out, did it boost your profile? Reintroduce you to your own fans?
Fisher: In a great big way. It did on a few different levels. On one level it actually woke up a sleeping giant of an audience because we were flying under the radar. We started seeing people when we were signing autographs after shows saying, “We haven’t seen you guys since 1987 or 1993!” There was a lot of that. That in turn, allowed a lot of those people to introduce their kids or other family members and then bring them to the show.
You kind of went multi-generational viral?
Yeah. And at another level, there were people who weren’t in general looking for something like us. There’d been that whole other blind spot. It had a most profound effect.
It must have recharged you guys, too.
It absolutely did. The documentary comes out and it got a lot of great reviews and awards and things I didn’t expect, and then on top of that when we come to the show, we’re seeing our audience expand. It made us really excited to go out and hit the stage.
Your phrase, “People weren’t ready for something like us.” I smiled when you said that. What is “us”? You’re a crazy quilt of sound.
(Laughs)This far into the game I can understand how Fishbone to this day can be challenging to people’s concepts of how things should be. In my head we were never that, but I get how people perceive us. In my head, [in our sound] there was the Clash, there was Frank Zappa, there was Parliament–Funkadelic, there was Sly and the Family Stone, all of those things. I don’t feel what we do is that much different than those people, but the way people perceive us is that we’re doing something completely new and I can kind of see it now. It might musically be challenging and visually – the guys that are doing it, we’re black guys. That may still challenge some people’s notions of what should be. And that’s people black and white, from all walks of life. We got some people that wasn’t ready for us.
In the documentary, Angelo said you and he were like a married couple who’d like to be divorced but can’t because of the kids.
It is pretty accurate. There’s the music itself, which we’ve been creating music together since we were 14-years-old. We were fortunate enough to be able to do this long enough to look back and see a legacy. If we don’t continue to do this then it will be difficult to move the legacy forward as well. At some point you get to the unique space that we occupy, there’s an experience that people have [seeing us] and apparently it’s profound. It makes it difficult [for us] to take that and say, “Aw, we’re gonna stop doing it.” Honestly, that’s the same way I feel about the bands I’m fans of I’m totally filled with joy that George Clinton is still going around doing his show.
I’ve got to ask about the lawsuits. A woman named Kimberly Myers had her collar bone and skull fractured in Philadelphia four years ago when Angelo stage dove and landed on her. Your manager tells me she initially won lawsuits against the band, venue, promoter and agency and in February won a civil suit against you guys individually for $1.4 million. And you’re appealing now.
It’s rough, one of the most difficult obstacles we’ve faced and we’ve had some difficult obstacles. It’s very unfortunate and it caught us off guard. Somebody comes to a Fishbone show and they get hurt? That’s never been what it’s about. We were a band that always appeals to our audience to help each other, pick each other up when you hit the ground. We always thought we had one of the kindest [audiences]. We weren’t prepared in a lot of ways for it. It’ll be coming to a close very soon, whatever the judge rules in our appeals process. When it comes down to the legal fees, it’s crippling – the $1.4 million ruling is astounding. Wait a minute. They’re gonna collect that from my children when I’m gone? My grandchildren?
Has it affected how you play, what you do on stage?
I haven’t stage dove in so many years, but it definitely is making Angelo think about what he does and how he does it. It’s all really bizarre, insane, the whole thing. We’ve been stage diving since ’83 and Angelo has jumped off all manner of things – balconies, speaker columns. To be at this stage, after more than 30 years of that thing …
On your latest EP, “Intrinsically Intertwined,” you’ve got the song “Interdependent” with the lyric “Every hurdle is an opportunity.” Perhaps it’s about that situation.
It absolutely fits.
I love “Bustin’ Suds” from that disc, too. It’s crazy fun and I think it’s maybe the only song I’ve heard about doing the dishes.
I wrote those lyrics. It’s one of the most mundane things in life right, washing dishes? But I put in all those analogies about relationships. Like the first lyric – “I’ve got this full plate of expectations on the floor while washing the sink full of things I usually ignore.”
Dishwashing as relationship?
It’s metaphors. I was happy with how it flowed out. The last verse – “How are you supposed to get clean dishes out of contaminated dishwater?” – that’s how most humans in relationships don’t know how to let go of the past.
You began recording with a major label, Columbia, and now are an indie, on your own. Your thoughts about those two worlds?
I wouldn’t change anything. I fully appreciate my journey. Columbia’s ability to promote has everything to do with why I have a career today. But there is nothing that can actually replace the feeling of artistic freedom, even through the difficulties. Now, in the current paradigm with the internet, the possibilities when it comes down to being an independent artist are endless. It takes a lot more work to have that direct interaction with your audience but the best interaction you can have is way more intense than it ever was.
You came of age in the Reagan era, with songs like “Party at Ground Zero” and other songs that criticized right-wing politics. Are you still as political?
I very much feel political as a human being, but as a writer I’ve grown more introspective and am trying to share more of myself, as I’m trying to figure out myself. I’m trying to find the space of vulnerability. But we live in a time where I can’t let go of my political edge. We got St. Louis on fire right now and it ain’t the first time. I believe people should have stood up. The violence of it is a reaction to violence. As a kid, I was never a gangster, I was never a criminal, I was never a drug dealer, but I encountered the suspicion. I’ve never been beat by police, but I’ve had plenty of guns to my head and my chest and my back.
Well, you were guilty of doing something in public while being black.
Is the enthusiasm for what Fishbone does in concert the same as when you started or has it changed?
That part, honestly, deep down, it has not changed. I’m honored to have nothing but appreciation that I have the privilege to have a career that has lasted this long. As long as it makes sense and we’re having some kind of fun, we have every reason to continue. Things are never so bad, I have thought we might need to end this. But when it comes down to it I rethink and say it’s worth pushing forward. And each time I do that, I’m so glad I did.
Fishbone at the Beachcomber Monday Aug. 25. Tickets: $25. Set time: 10 p.m.
1120 Cahoon Hollow Rd., Wellfleet, 508-349-6055 www.thebeachcomber.com