Though Fishbone's home turf -- South Central L.A. -- may not have been a typical rock and roll breeding ground, plenty else about the band's birth was fortuitous. The band's early musical brew, heavy on ska, reggae, and a liberal helping of rock, was largely created in an incubator. (These were the early '80s, when underground music news traveled through fanzines on actual, you know, paper.)
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Still, it unwittingly dovetailed with the genre-bending post-punk and so-called "Two-Tone" ska revival over in England, which eventually washed back to the shores of mainstream-ish America through bands like the Clash. This, in turn, musically fortified Fishbone other like-minded Southern California acts, including a pre-stardom No Doubt, and helped to touch off what was later known as the "third wave" of American ska.
By the same token, as the '80s progressed, Fishbone itself, never one to have much truck with stylistic complaints, later veered in another direction. Out went most of the straight Jamaican rhythms, in came a new distortion and heaviness, as well as a marked funk. Again, the band found itself at the crest of a movement -- the so-called burgeoning "alternative" scene spearheaded by fellow SoCal scenesters like Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Later funk-rock acts like Incubus point to this era of Fishbone's output as particularly influential).
But while many of their paler counterparts eventually achieved superstardom, Fishbone remained in a unique musical ghetto, band population one. Despite legions of street-level fans, neither rock nor "urban" radio programmers or A&R types knew what to make of an all-black band wielding guitars. It didn't help that the band didn't, at times, know what to make of itself. As the years progressed, their wanderings into heavy music became even more left-field, and although their fans usually willfully traveled with them, it created internal strife and a latter-day revolving door of side members.
With the early '90s now looking downright retro, though, Fishbone has buried the hatchet and is back. Well, except the band never really went away -- longtime core members, lead singer/saxophonist Angelo Moore, and bassist Norwood Fisher, never totally abandoned the group. And to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their first, self-titled EP, they've also convinced longtime trumpeter Walter Kibby II to re-join for a national outing with Two-Tone survivors The English beat. (The tour also supports the recent release of the CD/DVD set Fishbone Live in Bordeaux.)
New Times caught up with Norwood by phone recently to discuss the band's history, the current tour, and to generally geek out about ska. Here's what he had to say.
Fishbone, with the English Beat and Outlaw Nation. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 17. Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $20. 954-564-1074; cultureroom.net
Going back to the Two-Tone thing, when and how did you first become aware of those bands?
The English Beat and the Selecter were the first ska bands I ever heard. I thought that we'd invented ska music when we first played it! I didn't know the term "ska," we were just playing around with reggae rhythms, because they had been playing a little bit of reggae on the radio in LA. Then we just started speeding it up.
So you didn't know about the older Jamaican stuff, even before Two-Tone?
Personally, I did not. Kendall kind of had a little bit of knowledge of it, but he didn't know it was called ska either. This was 1979. He knew the song "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker, but he did not know it was called ska music. He thought it was a soul song with a different twist.
Walt knew what ska was, though. The day we took a reggae song and sped it up, super-fast, I went, "We invented our own kind of music! Punk rock regggae! What are we gonna call it?" Walt turned to me and said, "We didn't invent nothing, you fool! That's ska music!"
I honestly thought we invented something, and a couple days later, Walt brought by the Selecter and the English Beat. That's when I first heard a Two-Tone band, and got into the history of it later. Then I began to understand what we were in the lineage.
When did you eventually get to meet all those people? Did you get to see any of them play in Southern California? Or, did you find that there were other local bands, early on, that were like-minded?
There was a scene in Los Angeles of bands like the Untouchables, the Skanksters.... There was an amazing reggae scene with bands like the Babylon Warriors and the Rebel Rockers. We did get to see Funboy Three in California, but we didn't get to meet those people.
But when we got to England, at our first show, a place called Dingwall's, Suggs from Madness came to see us, and he was really gracious and welcomed us to England, and that was incredible. And through the years, we eventually met Dave Wakeling [of the English Beat], and eventually we met Neville Staples [of the Specials], and Lynval [Golding, also of the Specials] I think came out to a show in England eventually. We got to meet Pauline Black [of the Selecter] and Buster Bloodvessel [of Bad Manners], and everybody was gracious and gave us love.
Do you feel like you all were in some part directly responsible for touching off the so-called third wave of ska in the States in the '90s?
Yeah! We knew that we were a part of why that was, you know. The unfortunate thing is like, we couldn't get it together to put out a record where we could actually take advantage of that. I knew that when we made Chinn Chinn's Badass Revenge [in 1997, a more hard-rock oriented album.] I loved the songs on that album, but we meant for that to be a grimy underground record, and the follow-up that we made never came out. It had the songs that would have been right for that time. It got caught up in politics, and I think the masters are just buried in a vault somewhere. Maybe we'll be old men and it'll come out.
I remember that the critical reaction to Chinn Chinn's was, sort of, confusion.
Yeah, yeah. We crafted those songs as a response to Sony saying, "You lost the pop guy," in [original keyboardist/trombonist] Chris [Dowd, who left the band in 1994]. And I was like, "We did lose the pop guy. Why try and write pretty pop songs? Let's write some ugly, gnarly songs!" And we let our anger out. But I listened to those songs as we wrote them, and I knew, Okay, I know this is not what commercial success is made of. But it was cathartic.
Why do you think you've managed to stay in the band throughout its whole existence, when almost everyone else has come and gone?
I'm forever attached to the legacy of this band. At the end of the day, I look at this like it's my baby. It was my baby from the beginning; all of our babies, all of the original cats, we birthed this thing. So I look at it personally, I'm like, This is my baby. I'm not abandoning my baby! And I love the music! It's like, I don't feel like I have to love every single song that we've done, but I tell you what, it's about 95 to 98 percent I can stand by! I think that's a great percentage for anybody to be able to look back on their legacy and say, Yeah, I love that, you know? And I'm always looking forward to the future and what's possible, you know?
Do you think you might write material for a new studio album any time soon?
I hope that during the course of this tour, we can actually put our heads together and collaborate and come up with songs that we can release periodically. Like, right now, we've actually been talking about not even worrying about doing a full-length album, but maybe a series of singles released digitally, or EPs. We can do between one and six songs at a time, every few months. So we can do what we consider a full-length, or not. The digital release possiblities create that.
I don't even care about buying CDs as much as I used to. It's so easy to go on iTunes and download what I want. I haven't been to a store -- I feel like I should be ashamed, but I'm not! [Laughs] It's just the way things are.
So you're not one of the artists who bemoans the current state of the industry.
No, not really, because it opens up another door. I hope in the future we can marry the music with animations. The fact that you can make videos cheap, you don't have to do a fucking $150,000 video to get attention. If you've got something interesting, or the song is that good, you can just pop something on YouTube that was fun to do or funny.
Or maybe you put a little more thought into it, and created a scenario that reflects the sentiment of the song -- but it doesn't have to cost $20,000, $10,000, or $5000. You can do it for $500, or nothing! And that's exciting! You can put whatever information you want on your web site, and people will know who wrote the song, who did whatever. You can give people something to investigate.