Dont call it a comeback,
I been here for years!
--L.L. Cool J, Mama Said Knock You Out
Heralded in their heyday as the great white hope of black rock & roll, Fishbone, who have traveled a long and rocky road back from semiobscurity, are the first to admit that they made some mistakes along the way. But with a new album, a new lineup, and a world tour just around the corner, the time may finally be right for Fishbone to grab the brass ring. (Not that they havent been within reach before.)
Right now, says co-founder and bassist Norwood Fisher, we may be the only all-black straight-up rock band with a major record deal thats doing viable business. The media is gonna have to deal with us.
Back in 1993, Fishbone were on fire. They had a coveted slot on that years Lollapalooza tour, had wowed em on Saturday Night Live, and had a Spike Lee--directed video rocking the airwaves. With the success of bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More, Fishbone and their powerhouse blend of punkfunkmetal seemed to be next in line for MTV superstardom.
Then the shit -- or rather, a series of personal and professional catastrophes that would hobble the band for years to come -- hit the fan. For starters, their drummer, Norwoods brother Philip, or Fish, for whom the band was named, punched out their mentor-producer at CBSColumbia, and relations with the label (no surprise here) began to deteriorate. Then, in the midst of supporting a brand-new album on the Lollapalooza tour, they were told to rush back into the studio to cut a new one, seeing as their current disc was not selling as well as expected. They were dropped from the label shortly thereafter. Also, there was the sudden religious conversion -- some called it a freak-out -- of guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Kendall Jones, who left the band to move in with his zealot father, only to be kidnapped for deprogramming purposes by Norwood and his posse, who were later hauled up on charges. Other key band members, including Fish himself, jumped ship as well.
Meanwhile, vocalist-saxman Angelo Moore gets married and divorced and loses custody of his baby. Whats left of Fishbone are signed again, and again theyre dropped. They flip, they flop, and eventually theyre left high and dry without a record deal, forced back into the clubs and stuck with a pile of professional and personal debt -- while the bands theyve inspired go on to sell millions. Events that would shatter most bands.
But Fishbone have never been known to give up a fight. As reflected in their marathon three-hour-plus, high-octane concerts, some members of the group, anyway, seem not to know the meaning of the word quit. As the bands who used to open for them (No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger) raced up the charts and scooped up MTV video awards, three of Fishbones founders -- Angelo, Norwood and vocalist-trumpeter Dirty Walt Kibby -- kept plugging away, slowly rebuilding the lineup and recording demos for their next assault. It took years of struggle and endless, grueling club tours to pay off the bills, but Fishbone finally landed their third major record deal and got back down to the business of making music.
But how? How did they manage to write -- save for a couple of burnin covers -- a whole CDs worth of amazing songs without the help of their two main songwriters? How did the Fishbone rise from the ashes?
In 1978, six young black boys were brought together by destiny and the large yellow buses of the Los Angeles Unified School District. And what could be worse for a kid -- worse than having to go to school in the first place -- than having to wake up an hour early to get transported across the city to a new junior high school, far away from the familiar turf of your neighborhood, only to be confronted by a parking lot full of strange new nemeses?
The Fisher kids, Norwood and Philip, grew up first in the Slauson area and then, as teenagers, on the Westside, at La Cienega and Cadillac, and wanted nothing more than to hang in the hood with their pals, explore their love for funk music and screw around on their instruments. Me and Fish, being brothers, had been playing together since he was 4 and I was 6, reflects Norwood. I had a guitar at 6 and was playing bass lines on it. Around the time I turned 8, my cousins traded me a real bass for my weight set. They said, You aint never gonna lift no weights! They was right. As Norwood switched from guitar to bass, Philip, dubbed Fish by his friends, hammered away on the drums. Then they were shipped to Siberia . . . er, make that Woodland Hills. The Valley.
Meanwhile, three other young men -- Kendall Jones, Chris Dowd and Walt Kibby --were also being shipped from the hood to the Hills. At Hale Junior High, the five young imports ran into a wiry, high-energy kid named Angelo Moore who played saxophone, sang, wrote poetry a and generally raised hell. I met Angelo in music class, recalls Walt (later dubbed Dirty Walt due to his obsession with high-grade pot and low-grade porn). He was just this crazy-ass kid, smiling all the time, with big braces and this big-ass orange Ronald McDonald Afro. Oh yeah, man, Angelo chimes in. I used to have fatigues, and a shirt like Prince. Hell, yeah.
Add Charlie Chaplin, Iggy Pop and James Brown to the mix. Friends who knew Angelo back then tend to describe him as a prodigy and a goofball in the same breath. Talented, sexy, whip-smart yet completely aloof, charismatic, lackadaisical -- the ultimate artist. As a young boy, he must have been a handful for any schoolteacher. We wanted to do Bootsy covers in Mr. Lewis typing class, Angelo says. Thats where the idea for the band came about.
Angelo used to write these crazy-ass Bootsy-style lyrics, says Norwood. He would come around and bring us all these lyrics, and at first we must have said, We gotta kick this guys ass! What kind of freak is he? But we was all at the same kind of freaky level. We was all ages 12 to 13 when we met. We talked about getting together and playing -- and then, about a year later, we did it.
By 1979, Norwood and Philip had teamed up with Angelo, Kendall, Walt and keyboardist-trumpeter-vocalist Dowd, and begun to jam in the Fisher boys basement, working out covers of Rick James, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rush, Bad Manners and the Selecter. As a garage band, they experimented with all sorts of sounds and styles, from slamming funk, to breakneck punk, to reggae-ska covers. And where most bands quickly settle on a style and play to the denizens of one local niche, Fishbone ignored such constraints, veering from one extreme to the next. Slowly but surely, they began to find their own sound, to compose a sizable repertoire of original songs. We just kept messin with the funk, Walt says, and we took it to some new places.
After Hale, the boys headed off to different high schools (Walt and Angelo to El Camino in the Valley, Kendall to Dorsey, the rest to Hamilton), but they kept the band together, continued to develop and refine their sound. By the time they took it to the stage in 1983, they were way ahead of the game, despite being a decade or more younger than most of their punk-rock peers. There was one club, Club Lingerie, where we had to stay outside until we went on, Angelo recalls. [As minors,] we couldnt do shit in the clubs.
Fishbone quickly began to catch a buzz in Hollywood. They also developed a penchant for Mohawks and outrageous clothes (or, in Norwoods case, no clothes at all). Along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone helped to define the punk-funk style, but also began crossing over to the Madness-Specials crowd with upbeat ska tunes. And they became notorious for their over-the-top live shows.
At first, we didnt give a fuck, says Norwood. Where it all came from, man, was from seeing Parliament-Funkadelic live. For us, that was the greatest show on Earth. Every member of the band developed into a front man. Angelo and Walt sang lead and played horns, while Kendall and Norwood bounced around and Chris rocked on the keyboards, often yanking his DX7 right off the stand and playing it like a guitar. Meanwhile, Fish anchored the explosion with his brick-house backbeats and relentless precision.
For Fishbone, the future was now.
Columbia Records caught on quick. When we opened for the Neville Brothers at the Palace, says Norwood, well, shit kinda changed after that. We got to meet a lot of different people.
Among them was A&R whiz kidup-and-coming producer David Kahne. He got Fishbone signed to CBSColumbia and began to mentor the band, helping them arrange songs and harness their energy into something a bit more digestible. The result was Fishbones first, eponymous EP, released in 1985, featuring the minihit Party at Ground Zero and fan favorites such as Ugly and Lyin Ass Bitch. The album wasnt exactly a runaway smash, but it did garner Fishbone a ton of press and media attention. Party got airplay and scored the band some major gigs, including the legendary Public Enemy--Stetsasonic--Living Colour show at the Santa Monica Civic.
The band and Kahne went back into the studio and recorded their killer first LP, 1986s In Your Face. A tight, well-crafted party album, it featured an array of terrific pop songs set to upbeat, ska-flavored rhythms. Word began to spread nationally about this young band of black panthers. Hungry, street-smart and young enough to truly not give a fuck, Fishbone were a force to be reckoned with.
The band returned to the studio and kicked out the jams on a 1987 holiday EP, Its a Wonderful Life, to tide fans over till the next full-length. But signs of the decline that was just around the corner had begun to appear. First off, Columbia seemed to have no idea how to market Fishbone, or who their audience was. They were too punk for the pop audience, too funk for the punk audience, too heavy for the ska crowd, too ska for the metal crowd, too white for the black crowd and way too black for the white kids. They were growing into fantastic musicians and solid songwriters, but their record sales were low and their label was clueless. They knew they had something special on their hands, they just didnt know how to sell it to people -- a problem that would plague Fishbone for the rest of their career.
After more than a year divided between woodshedding with Kahne and touring, the band returned with a walloping tour de force, 1988s Truth and Soul (named after the ad agency in Robert Downey Sr.s 1969 black-power-on-Madison-Avenue spoof, Putney Swope). The album took everything Fishbone were great at and brought it to the forefront. From the rippin barnburner Deep Inside, to the Sly-Stone-on-speed Mighty Long Way, to the epic and horny Bonin in the Boneyard, to the subversive Subliminal Fascism, Fishbone were in top form, and they knew it. As the six boys turned to men, their songwriting, under the aegis of Kahne, reflected this change. On songs like Ma and Pa and Question of Life, Angelo began to hit deeper subjects. The band had grown up.
But despite critical praise and a growing fanatical fan base, Fishbone were still not selling records, and MTV wouldnt touch them. They landed a couple of cameos in films like the John Cusack--Tim Robbins comedy Tapeheads, the Annette-and-Frankie pseudo-comeback Back to the Beach and the cult classic Im Gonna Git You Sucka!, but still no big break.
Tension and frustration began to overwhelm. There was a lot of passion in Fishbone, says Norwood. But there came a point around The Reality of My Surroundings where we were just filled with so much inner and outer turmoil. Walt wanted to kick Chris out of the band so bad it wasnt funny. Chris wasnt putting 100 percent into the band. Thats why we brought John [JB] Bigham in on second guitar.
Then Fish punched David Kahne in the throat. David had stepped back a little bit from the band. We was kinda goin nuts, man. We was running A&M Studios and Larrabee at the same time mixing Reality, two of the most expensive studios in the city. We was just spending money like crazy, and he tried to put some breaks on that motherfucker, cause, as far as Columbia was concerned, we was out of control. David was, like, You guys have to stop, and they went to words, cause Fish thought he was trying to stifle us. It escalated, and David got socked. Fish took it to the street level.
Chris Dowd concurs: Theres a lot of things I would have handled differently if I were Fish, but Im not. A lot of the ways he acted and shit, he was justified. We were manipulated. You cant whip a dog every day since hes a puppy and expect it to be this gentle creature and be surprised when it turns on you. I dont think Fishs nature is to be an aggressive, violent person, but in that environment, when you got people catering to you and blowing smoke up your ass, and then you have this gift that you feel someones taking advantage of, how would you act? We grew up in the hood. The only way we deal with shit there is Ill whip your ass. What do you expect?
By the time Reality came out in 1991, CBS had become Sony, and Fishbone had few friends left at the label. For the first time, the songs began to reflect the creative fragmentation within the band. Kendall was heading in a more metallic, progressive direction a la Kings X or Living Colour, and while Angelo kept churning out the ska beats live, Norwood and Walt plowed out that nasty funk. The album stretched in too many directions at once.
When Spike Lee agreed to direct the video for the LP track Sunless Saturday, the guys were thrilled. To hook up with Spike was the apex of our careers at that time, Norwood says. They were also booked to play on Saturday Night Live and did a massive pay-per-view concert at the Warfield in San Francisco. To the casual observer all seemed well, but the threads had begun to unravel. Despite the high-profile tours and the TV appearances, Fishbone was still selling only a disappointing 40,000 to 180,000 records per release. SonyColumbia sent the band back into the studio, this time with ace producers Terry Date and mixer Andy Wallace.
As the tensions continued mounting, Kendall Jones had begun to distance himself from the band. He had gotten in touch with his hitherto estranged father. (As long as I knew Kendall, he hated his father, says Norwood.) There had been rumors that Kendalls dad was part of a religious cult, but no one knew for sure. Then, after a rejected proposal to his girlfriend left Kendall sad and vulnerable, his mental health and his dads influence became major issues. His mother had died while we were making Truth and Soul, and he never grieved, says Norwood, never cried, never came to grips with all that stuff. His family was just upside-down about it, and he felt he had to be the strong one. Then he stopped drinking all of a sudden. He quit cold turkey and wanted to marry his girlfriend. Actually, Kendalls girlfriend played a dirty trick on him, Walt clarifies. He wanted to marry her, and she said, The only way Im gonna marry you is if you stop drinking, and so he stayed off the bottle for a few months and got clean and sober. Then he tries to pop the question over dinner, and she says, All right. Lets drink to that. This motherfucker takes a sip of wine, and she says, Aint no way I can marry you. This motherfucker bought a suit, a ring and all that shit. He was, like, serious. Next thing you know, hes tearing his house up, doing crazy shit. He couldnt sleep. And then all that shit just turned into some kind of insanity.
Kendalls father took notice of the situation, and manipulated it. He told him if he really wanted to get close to God, he had to do a 24-hour prayer and a 24-hour fast for seven days, says Norwood. Dont eat anything, and dont sleep. a
We were making the record, and Kendall was staying up till all hours, adds Walt. He just went haywire by the end of the mix.
Later, when we were in court, says Norwood, they looked at his phone bills and found out that on the first day of the fast, Kendall had been on the phone with his dad for 10 hours. And every day after that it was, like, nine or 12 or 15 hours. Hed be talkin to his father from the studio and reading his Bible in the corner. By the fifth day, shit just got more and more bizarre. Him and his brother threw out all his records -- even Marvin Gayes Greatest Hits. He thought it was all satanic. He thought I was being demonically influenced to write the music and that Angelo was demonically influenced to write the lyrics. Then he became convinced that everything hed ever done was demonically influenced. It was the scariest thing I had ever been through -- and thats when he flew up to be with his father.
It was so sudden, recalls Walt. Thats why Norwood wanted to take Kendalls ass to the hospital. Norwood adds, After he left, we talked to the people at Cedars-Sinai and the Psychiatric Evaluation Team at L.A. County, trying to figure out what happened, what we can do. From the things we said, they assessed that Kendall had had a severe nervous breakdown and suggested we do an adult intervention.
As a result of us going there to try and help him, says Norwood, the district attorney of Marin County put me through a six-week jury trial. Kendall was there every day to help the D.A. in his case against me. We never denied anything we did. We just said the reason why. We had to tell everything in court, and it hurt him like hell, but we were facing nine to 11 years in the fuckin federal penitentiary, so we laid everything out. In the end, they gave us a full acquittal. During the trial, Kendall displayed some odd behavior, so everyone was, like, Okay, maybe there is something to what theyre saying.
While Fishbone played out the court case, they also finished Give a Monkey a Brain and Hell Swear Hes the Center of the Universe and prepared to hit the road. As always, the album found all the members of the band writing, and this time there was even less cohesiveness. Kendalls and Chris songs had become much darker. JB Bigham was going in a heavy-metal direction, while Norwood and Angelo kept the funk alive. The album was released in 1993 to little fanfare.
Fishbone did, however, nab a slot on Lollapalooza with Primus, Alice in Chains and Rage Against the Machine. Midway through the tour, Donny Ienner, then president of Columbia, informed the band that the label wanted them to return to the studio to cut a new album, mere months after Give a Monkey a Brain had been released. He came backstage and told us we needed to do another record, says Walt, and we were, like, Do another record? Thats crazy! Why? He said they had fucked up and dropped the ball on the last one, so we needed to go make another. It was a big battle after that. Wed been there a long time and learned a lot, but it was time. It was getting real sour.
Since neither the band nor the label was happy with the relationship, they agreed to sever ties. The only other Fishbone album that Columbia released was a 1996 greatest hits--rarities double album, called Fishbone 101: Nuttasaurusmeg Fossil Fuelin the Fonkay. The studio album the band had been yanked from the road to record never materialized.
By the end of Lollapalooza, Chris, too, had decided to leave. He wanted to do his own thang and go solo, says Walt. We was, like, Whatever. Go ahead. Do your own thing, because he was an asshole, and the less assholism around the better.
Chris Dowd is mellower about the split-up: Kendall leaving is part of why I left, because I felt this band wouldnt be the same. And theyve gone on, and thats cool. But I love those guys. Its cool. I hope their shit blows up, always have. The type of friendship we had goes beyond even a little quibble, spat, spout or bullshit. Its just your dreams just dont represent my dreams anymore. When you have intense personalities in a band, and youve known each other since you were that young, a lot of times people always like to see you in a particular light. Its kinda like That is your space, but you may not want to be in that space anymore. You may have grown out of that space.
Kendall, says Chris, whos stayed in touch, acknowledges what happened. The meltdown. He was going through a lot of shit, and theres a lot of shit that we put each other through emotionally as a band. He was a very emotional guy. Maybe if we would have handled it differently at the time and at least been communicating, we could have helped each other out better. But I think hes picked up the pieces. He learned a lot of important things by having his breakdown and all that shit. Hes definitely a changed person. That I can attest to.
In any case, with a lackluster sales record, and with Kendall and Chris out of the band, Fishbone had hit a brick wall. Almost 10 years after setting the L.A. underground on fire, Fishbone was unsigned, underpaid and pissed off.
Between 1993 and 1996, Fishbone bounced around from manager to manager, hoping in vain to find someone who could get them back on track. They also set up a rehearsal space--recording studio in Hollywood, dubbed the Nuttsack. Meanwhile, as the group -- or what was left of it -- struggled to fill the local clubs they had once packed, ska was racing up the charts. Norwood recalls their frustration: Ska was just kicking everything in the ass, and nobody would give us a record deal. Then they began to shop some new demos around and caught the attention of R&Bhip-hop mogul Dallas Austin (TLC, Madonna), who signed them to his rap label, Rowdy, and began work on their fifth LP, Chim Chims Badass Revenge. In an attempt to give Fishbone that famous Dallas Austin sound, he enlisted the talents of rapper Busta Rhymes and singer Joi. Unfortunately, Dallas had never produced a real rock band, and found out the hard way that what works on a Southern hip-hop album (jeep-heavy bass, phat kick-and-snare-dominated beats, in-your-face vocals) did not work for a ska-punk-funk band that could sound closer to King Crimson than it did to OutKast.
The band hit the road to support Chim Chims, and even landed a headlining spot on the summer Warped tour. But fans were accusing them of having lost their edge, of not being able to write memorable songs without the help of Kendall and Chris. Several more managers came in and out of the picture, and the business of being Fishbone just seemed to get more complicated as time went on.
Some of the band members began to trip. Midway through the tour, Fish began to turn his drum kit around so the audience could see only his back. He claimed it was because he hated having to look his audience in the eye. JB, who had always been the quiet one and had been trying to help run the business affairs of the band, got angrier and angrier, and eventually left to develop his own project.
Following a tour with De La Soul and Goodie Mob, Fish left the band -- and his brother -- in the lurch. The split came when Fish punched Norwood in the face. Norwood was stunned. Fish was gone.
It was unprovoked and out of the blue, says Norwood. We were talking about doing Tazy Phillips Ska Parade radio show. Fish didnt want to do it, and I did. He thought I was being some kind of way I wasnt, and he landed a sucker punch . . .
When Fish left, he continues, that was scary. Id never had to audition a drummer to do what Fishbone does, and what Fishbone does is hard on a drummer. Fish had laid out the blueprint. Plus, he left the band five days before we went on tour as the opening slot with Maceo Parker.
Chris summarizes: Fish is quite simply one of the best drummers in the world, and he felt like he deserved to get paid. To know you have the ability to get paid and are in a situation where it just wont happen, thatll make a broke motherfucker mad.
Fishbone ran through a series of drummers, finally settling on Dion Murdock (Mothers Finest). They also recruited the talents of keyboardist-trumpeter John Mcknight (from Ben Harper) and guitarist Spacey-T (Sound Barrier, Mothers Finest), whose playing was a lot closer to Kendalls soul-metal shredding than to JBs rhythmic crunch. Back to a six-piece lineup, the band sounded better than ever. Along the way, they also settled on a manager, Will Sharpe, who got them out of their Rowdy contract and had them cut new demos, which he shopped around for over a year. One of them found the band re-teaming with David Kahne for a cover version of the Rolling Stones Shattered, which landed in the hands of the A&R folks at Disneys Hollywood Records. After months of negotiating, Sharpe landed the band a contract with Hollywood, and Fishbone was back on point.
Well, almost. The first week of the Hollywood sessions, Murdock bailed. But they quickly recruited drummer John Steward (whod played in the Fishbone side project Trulio Disgracias) and continued recording. Norwood credits this sudden change with the new albums predominantly straight-funk feel: We had to teach John, and the other drummer who played on it, the songs while we were recording, and that stopped us from doing a lot of stuff.
Fishbone & the Familyhood Nextperience Presents the Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx, featuring an arsenal of guest stars including George Clinton, Rick James, Gwen Stefani, John Frusciante, Ivan Nevill, Jeff Skunk Baxter, Perry Farrell, Blowfly and Lili Haydn, is a funk-o-ramic magnum opus, streamlined, focused and single-minded. Gone are the forays into grunge, metal and progressive rock. Gone are the 12-minute odes to poop (as in Chim Chims In the Cube). Gone is the attempt to satisfy everyone, all the time, within the scope of one album. This is Fishbone at their funkiest.
Angelo has finally morphed into the singer everyone hoped he would become, a true heir to the gospel-R&B vocal style that is almost extinct in todays music scene. And talk about the blues: A recurring theme in Nuttwerx is Angelos love for, marriage to and subsequent divorce from his high school girlfriend, his muse and his tormentor. The Suffering, which Angelo describes as country reggae, is not only the best ballad Fishbone have ever written, but, possibly, the best shot Fishbone have ever had at a hit single. The song has hooks galore, a stick-to-your-brain-like-glue chorus, and lyrics that speak volumes:
The engagement ring,
The wedding ring,
The church bells ring,
Then the suffering . . .
Infectious, jarring, personal and tender, The Suffering is Angelos cry for redemption, and Fishbones attempt at crossover glory. Angelo had a pretty personal year, says Walt, so he wanted to express on that. He was on a one-track mind, and he had to get it out or hed explode.
So. With a terrific breakthrough album ready to strike, several side projects on the way (the long-awaited Trulio Disgracias album, plus Dirty Walt & the Columbus Sanitations), a big record company prepared to get behind them for the long haul, tour dates, videos in the offing, etc., what can go wrong? Or, to put it another way, whats different this time around?
From the end of Reality until now, we were a band in deep inner turmoil, and that reflected in the sound, says Norwood. There was a lot of honesty in the music, whether people liked it or not. We kept it real -- or maybe surreal. Our lives were very surreal, for a long time. Now its a much more cohesive band. Were all happy to be where we are.
Not that there wont be a potential pothole or two down the road. As always, Fishbone are ahead of their time. They are heroes, and underdogs. They go up, they go down. The new album kicks ass, but so did Truth and Soul, and we all know how that one sold.
And there have already been a few scraps with Hollywood Records, mostly over words. (This is Disney, youll recall.) Whered You Get Those Pants was originally titled Weed Plant until Hollywood execs made their uneasiness clear. The song Let Them Hoes Fight was dropped from the album altogether, and an entire song with Primus was axed because it was . . . just too weird. Rumor has it that George Clinton was almost entirely edited out of their Sly Stone cover Everybody Is a Star because some A&R guy felt he couldnt sing well enough to make the cut.
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The band sees this as censorship, no doubt, and maybe it is. On the other hand, maybe Fishbone needs to be held back a bit. Considering how their more self-indulgent albums have fared on the charts, maybe they need someone to tell them what to do and, more important, what not to do. Obviously, Hollywood Records will want the band to release the best album theyre capable of.
The door is open wide for black rock & roll bands, says Walt. But Fishbone, were just trying to keep that originality thing alive. Theres room for a gang of bands. Its just the willingness to be there. Somebody has to stay up in there and set an example.
There are a lot of good bands coming up now who are giving us pounds in their interviews and saying how we influenced them, says Norwood. All of this contributes to a climate where its more possible than ever for Fishbone to see major commercial acceptance. We finally stopped fighting ourselves long enough to enjoy what might be available to us. It seems like everything is in the right place. Anyway, no matter what level of success this record sees, it is a success, because it got made. We went through a lot of stuff, man, and this is an honest representation of how, as a whole, we feel, which is . . . Damn!
Fishbone play Friday, April 14, at Universal Amphitheater.