From punk to funk, ska to hard rock, Fishbone is a band defined by its diversity. While their genre-jumping would go on to influence countless bands– many of whom would go on to superstardom– it became a self-induced curse for them as pioneers. The lack of a centralized sound eventually grew unappealing to record companies. And that’s when things started to go wrong.
Shown explicitly in the 2011 documentary, Everyday Sunshine, the Laurence Fishburne narrated film comes complete with tip-of-the-hat respect from big names, but in the end, the movie is about struggle and perseverance. Following the band through its mile highs and tragic woes, the struggle to “break through” is only compounded by power struggles and the constant departure of band members.
Members came and went—and some even come back again—but only founding members Angelo Moore and John “Norwood” Fisher stayed with the band through the entire journey.
Pursuing a multitude of sounds with satire, a social consciousness and a reputation for being one of the best live acts of all time, Fishbone weren’t the most marketable of bands, but they remain one of the most respected, and they continue to play to this day.
I was lucky to catch up with “Norwood” over the phone from his Long Beach home as he prepared for his upcoming US tour. The following interview is unedited, and the photos and video clips are exclusive and taken from their March 3, 2013 show at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts just a few weeks after our chat. Enjoy!
Hello, is Norwood there?
Yeah, that’s me.
Hey this is Nolan. How are you doing?
I’m doing great.
So when does the tour get under way?
Ultimately on Friday.
Did you have to cancel part of the European tour?
Yeah. That was last year. We had to cancel last year’s tour because of Angelo’s unfortunate staff infection situation.
So, I watched the documentary “Everyday Sunshine” last week and I though it was very well done. I was curious what your thoughts were on the final product?
Ultimately, I think it is honest. That was my initial reaction. It’s honest and accurate to the stories as they were told. It didn’t seem to me like added anything. They got things as they happened and went with them. It’s something I can stand by.
There were some big name fans and friends interviewed to help tell the story. Were those all people that you guys knew well and considered friends and longtime supporters?
That was the intention. There were a lot more interviews with a lot more people, but the ones that they actually chose, most of them, were people that we actually had relationships with and were pivotal at some point in our career. At some point these people were actually considered friends… almost all of them.
You guys went through a lot of ups and downs, but did Fishbone ever officially split up?
No, the band has always been continuing on. The band never stopped. For better or worse, we figured out a way to keep it rolling. Many times it was bad, but more times than not, it was pretty cool.
Do you have any person specific highlights from over the years that you hold dear to you?
There are a LOT. There is a long, long list of those, but really some of the things like our first club date. Our first club date where we got paid $25. That was an unexpected moment for me. I got called into the office and somebody was giving me money for what we had just did. That wasn’t the part I was thinking about that day. And I was like “Whoa”. You couldn’t do much with that $25, but it was like ‘damn, we got paid for that’. And actually, that place was Madame Wong’s Chinatown, a place that nurtured punk rock. It was like CBGB’s West. That was what it meant for LA punk rock. So, yeah, there’s times like that, and then there are times rolling with different bands. I like to think about the time in the early 90’s when Fishbone and Primus were touring. We were in a stripclub in Atlanta with Les Claypool, right, [laughs] and we went to this black club and all these black dancers were ALL over Les Claypool, right [laughs]… I mean that happened and it was an amazing moment. Girls come in high heels and stripper garb for the time and they take off their shoes and actually sweat. It was amazing. Black strippers LOVED Les Claypool.
Do you see any cohesive scene in punk rock anymore– specifically LA punk rock. Is LA even a place where underground punk rock, or music with a message is possible anymore? Or is there less of a time and place for that now.
I’ll tell you what man—we, as a nation, as a culture– by in large, I think that those days have passed. What the new emerging paradigm is, I don’t know. You know, punk rock was the last thing that was really scary and bands with a political statement… it’s been so long… because I think the generation that went to go fight in Afghanistan and Iraq missed those opportunities to make those political statements. Those statements were made by people that were too old to have the same stake. People who are 16, 17, 18, 20 years old were not the ones writing the protest songs. When Green Day started doing their political thing, they were out of that age ring. And I appreciate everything they had to say, but there were bands I was looking for it from. They were the ones who, if they didn’t go to the front lines, their friends were—their high school buddies, their uncles, their aunts, their brothers, sister, parents, whoever– were the ones doing it. And they didn’t by and large speak of their concerns. It may have been the climate around 9/11 where you’re either with us or against us. That kinda drew a line in the sand, you know. When I think about it, the very first people that I saw stand up and say– whether you believe it or not– but they did suppose the question that they think it was an inside job, was the Black Eyed Peas. I was like, ‘Whoa’. A lot of people we thinking it, but no one was saying it. That’s where it came from. Not the 18 year olds who could have been in that war—they were out of that age ring. So, anyway… I think that that time will come again, but right now there is something happening politically that is pretty amazing. The Right is out of step with the majority of the population. And there’s a lot of conversation about that Right and about the GOP knowing where the fit. I’m one of those people who feel that you DO need both sides. You need that and you need MORE. You need a lot of ideas and I don’t need to agree with everyFUCKINGbody. But again, we live in a time where it would be pretty cool if there were a lot of young people expressing themselves. Like, I don’t with everything Obama says and does, but I like the guy. I like him like I like Bill Clinton. I liked Bill Clinton. It’s the same kind of “like”. I’m not looking to follow anybody or for anyone to express my feelings. But I think it’s great to have a guy who connects and you can tell your kid, ‘hey you can be like that, dude’. Because he’s intelligent. Bill Clinton was like that and Obama’s got the same kind of thing—it’s different, but I like that part of it. I think it would be nice to have some 18-year-olds who can say, ‘hey, my interests are possibly being overlooked,” in a song.
So there’s a part in the movie where your former manager, Roger Perry suggests, “Had Fishbone been less of a democracy, they might have been a more successful band. But had they been less of a democracy, they wouldn’t have been Fishbone.” Do you agree with that statement?
Yeah, I absolutely believe that statement. There is a point where not everybody in a democracy is speaking about the best interests as a whole. You have some people who are making decisions based on personal feelings. I guess yeah, in a way, we turned into a band that that whoever was screaming the loudest… well, you know… the squeaky wheel was getting the oil. And as I saw it happening, I saw what it was, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I didn’t have the tools to distinguish it exactly for what it is and reason with everybody and say ‘Hey!” We reached that point and that was when… you know. And sometimes in hindsight it all wasn’t bad, you know. Sometimes it was really bad.
Can you talk about the initial struggle of people leaving the band and the strain it put on the band. And did that ever make you question if you wanted to leave, or for the band to breakup?
Yep! Absolutely, because my respect for the original members was so strong that I didn’t actually honestly think there could be a Fishbone without those original six guys. And the fact that we continued on without them was me breaking a promise to myself. I made a promise to myself that if any of those original six guys ever left, I would break the band up. Well, I broke that promise. And right now, I’m glad I did. I’m glad I broke that promise because it brings us… I got to see that it’s not the same and every change and every band member who left and every band member who replaced them made it different. But, hundreds of thousands of happy faces in the audiences later blessed it.
Do you keep up with the former members, or at least some of them?
Yeah. Absolutely. If they were all available I would talk to them all.
Did you and Kendall ever reconcile the whole lawsuit situation officially after you rescued him from a religious cult?
Well it wasn’t a lawsuit, right. It was a trial—a criminal trial where me, his fiancée, his brother and one more person were all facing 9 to 11 years of a prison sentence [for kidnapping]. Personally, me… the fact that I didn’t spend a day in prison for it. We got a full acquittal for it. Was that really Kendall? No, that wasn’t the guy that I know who did that. It just drove his, brainwashing, or whatever. I don’t really know what it was. But it allows me to forgive. However I was feeling, I knew that wasn’t the same guy. It allows me to know that whenever I see that guy, the person who I grew up with, I can get right with that person.
What would you say Fishbone’s legacy is and will be, and to what do you owe the band’s longevity?
The longevity is really that we were in a very unusual position of having artistic license and full creative expression. That is our legacy. We are the band that opened the door for more people to do that on a larger scale. And as actual people, in the landscape of rock n roll, we made it a little more colorful—in a physical and ethnic way as well as the musical tapestry, so that people could wear their influences on their sleeves freely.
In the movie it seems that everyone is interviewed separately and by themselves, and some people seem like they have so much animosity that they can’t even be in the same room as the others. Is that just the interviewing style or is their some truth to it?
Nah, it’s a stylistic thing. You might be forgetting at this point that they captured a couple of connections that were made during the making of that movie. Me, Kendall and Chris were actually in the same room—and that’s something that hadn’t happened in 15 years. And it was an awesome moment; it wasn’t a setup. Me and Kendall actually connect for the first time. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you what, everybody else was cool. That was the only thing that couldn’t happen. But it happened and you get to see it happen. You see Kendall and Chris see each other. I had seen Kendall and Chris each separately. But I think when Kendall and Chris saw each other it was the first time they’d seen each other since 1992. [Laughs]
At the end of the movie it shows you and Angelo expressing your issues with one another, but trying to find ways to meet half way and fix your dynamic. How is that going? And are you guys planning on making more music?
You know what? It’s ROUGH. It ain’t easy right. We recorded five songs which we agreed upon to release an EP and then beginning to work on a full-length record. And right now, I’m ready to release those songs and Angelo’s saying he doesn’t want to release them. So I have to sit down with him and ask him why. He agreed to do these things and at one point… more than one point… he said he really liked these songs. So, he’s having a power struggle within his own head, you know. I’m not struggling with him, so it’s like if you don’t want to release the songs then they don’t get released. I’m not going to whine and cry about it. It’s unfortunate, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what happens. Other than that it’s been a slow process getting the songs together for the next full-length. I knew that that would be the case, so that’s why I wanted to put together the EP and put something out before working on the full-length. I wanted to take a little time, because as a producer I want it to be EPIC. I want it to speak our future into existence. Right now there is something with Angelo and I in our relationship that is making it difficult. I don’t know what’s going on in Angelo’s head right now. I just want to sit down me and him and talk about and figure out where he’s at. It ain’t easy.
I’m assuming playing live is more what defines Fishbone than the recordings.
Yeah, like really. I actually like all of it. I like recording, I like…LOVE… live. In the past few years, actually, I’ve been producing records more than any other time in my life. I love being in the studio. I’m going to the studio as soon as I put down this phone! I’m doing this project with members of Mars Volta, P-Funk and Eric Burdon of the Animals. We’re doing a project together and I’m headed to the studio to lay down a bass line and record some rough mixes. I love it all. The thing is, with Fishbone, there’s nothing like impacting the audience and looking people in the eye and seeing the joy and seeing the dancefloor do what you imagine it could be. There’s a moshpit, people skankin’, girls winding it up… it’s all lovely.