Fishbone, as Part of Swamp Stomp 2013, at Tobacco Road February 16
It's a dark night in California in 1993, and Fishbone bass player Norwood Fisher's forearms strain as he applies a vicious chokehold to the throat of childhood friend and bandmate Kendall Jones, whose eyes bulge from their sockets. He's nearly unconscious from the lack of oxygen to his brain.
Still, Jones throws elbows, fists, and the full weight of his body against the force of the attack; and his two younger brothers, who've traveled there with Fisher to stop a religious brainwashing by Jones' domineering father, have seen enough. "Let him go or we gon' fuck you up! If he really wants to be here, let him stay." And the would-be kidnappers hop back into their van and roll out.
For Fisher, it's just another wild night in the life of Fishbone. But this one results in a yearlong court battle. "The judge said normally he would throw the case out as a domestic problem. But because it was so bizarre, he wanted to hear the whole story. I was like, 'This is our lives. Really?" The case ended in acquittal, and the band hit the road again.
Formed in 1979, Fishbone sprung up unexpectedly from Los Angeles' urban core and rocketed to cult stardom on the West Coast's rock scene. However, despite tons of buzz and big predictions, this funky ska-punk crew never really scored major mainstream success. Still, 34 years later, Fisher insists, his band is stronger than ever.
"It's easy when you're young and all the girls wanna take you home," he says, "or fuck you right backstage.
"You get older and things take effort. You start to know your band members inside and out, and that's when a positive mental attitude really means something, when it's a challenge to be in a band, when you don't agree."
These days, there are only two founding members left in Fishbone's lineup: Fisher and lead singer Angelo Moore. In the beginning, Fisher's brother Philip was the drummer. But one day, he knocked out a major-label record exec. Another day, he sucker-punched Fisher. Then a decade and a half ago, he walked out on the band.
And over the years, there have been nine other defections, several near-breakups, and plenty of roster swaps. But before all of that upheaval, Fishbone was a hard-traveling, reasonably harmonious outfit. The band's first trip to Miami took place "around 1986 or '87," Fisher recalls, "with the Beastie Boys, on the Licensed to Ill tour.
"They were fans of Fishbone and came to see us at the Ritz in L.A., and we knew them from 'Cooky Puss.' So we were like, 'Yeah, let's go!' We'd play to, like, 15,000 people one night and maybe a smaller venue the next with 3,000, all over the country."
But not all the memories are golden. The American South was shocking. "I saw the new Jim Crow for the first time on that tour in Georgia or the Carolinas or some shit," Fisher says. "They brought the guys from jail to do the work to set up the concert, the stage, the lighting rigs. I was like, 'What the fuck is this shit? Slave labor. Legalized slavery.'
"The privatizing of the prison system is atrocious. I've toured the world, and the U.S. more than anywhere else, and I've seen firsthand that white people are doing more fucked-up shit than anybody. I didn't get it till we started playing a bunch of ski towns and everybody was on drugs, but nobody got arrested. And the police were doing that shit too."
But the good road trips far outnumber the bad memories. One of Fisher's favorite Fishbone tours was with the heavy-metalheads of Biohazard, who took the law into their own hands and dealt out fistfuls of street justice all over the States.
"They were rugged as fuck — real people," Fisher laughs. "They would get out there and fight every night. They had little weapons and shit too. They handled business. And musically, they were really fun to listen to.
"We partied really hard. It was sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. But some of the best memories are just playing pool in the venue, drinking beer, smoking pot, hangin' with the fellas, shootin' the shit, and laughin'. The simple shit is all that's really necessary."
Fisher and Fishbone like to keep the music simple too. Yeah, it can be wild, weird, and filthy. But it's really just a fast and furious mix of ska, punk, reggae, funk, rock, and soul, executed with maximum aggression and superhuman precision.
In nearly 35 years, they've done it for major labels, in Disney movies, at the Playboy mansion, and on the stages of shitty clubs. They've played with No Doubt, Alice in Chains, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Ice T. You might have even spotted Fisher and company with Outkast in the 2006 movie Idlewild, guest-starring in a 1985 Eurythmics video, or on a prominently displayed T-shirt in the raunchy 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine.
"We've had the privilege of stepping on some really cool things in our career," Fisher admits. But the experiences he still cherishes most are those that led to his life in music. Like the time when he was 8 years old and got a weight set for Christmas.
"My cousin came over and said, 'You ain't gon' lift them weights,' " Fisher remembers, snickering. "He said, 'I'll trade you my bass, my amp, and I'll throw in this collection of rock records I ain't gon' listen to no more.' And it had Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Chicago, the first Funkadelic, and a bunch more.
"For a long time, I hadn't seen that cousin. But a couple years ago, we had Thanksgiving at his house, and he said, 'I guess you put that bass to good use.' And I was like, 'Thanks for giving me my life, man. I love my life.'"
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