Roots Maneuver: Talking Ska, Reggae + Movies with Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher

November 24, 2011

Words by Jesse Serwer

Last month I caught a screening of Everyday Sunshine, a documentary about Fishbone, one of the most eclectic and original bands to come out of the U.S. during my youth. Not only did the movie do an exceptional job of capturing the essence of this now-overlooked yet memorable band but attendees at this particular screening were treated to a riveting surprise performance by frontman Angelo Moore and bassist Norwood Fisher. It had been over a decade since I’d thought of or listened to Fishbone but the quality of the movie and Moore and Fisher’s electric performance instantly reawakened my interest in the group. (Perhaps some others might be feeling the same way now that the Roots used their “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” in their controversial Fallon show reception of Michelle Bachmann the other night.)

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak to Fisher as the band traveled between tour stops in Washington D.C. (where they performed at the Smithsonian) to Philadelphia. Although Fishbone grew out of Los Angeles’ ’80s punk scene and would come to hone an eclectic sound equally driven by funk and metal, they were among the first American bands to put a spin on Jamaican ska music. We covered a variety of topics (in addition to the film, the band has just released a new EP, Crazy Glue) but I took the interview primarily as an opportunity to speak to Fisher about the band’s connection to Caribbean music.

LargeUp: Have you been playing a lot of gigs that are tied in with screenings of the movie?

Norwood Fisher: It’s kinda difficult to coordinate that effort but we do that as much as possible. [Last night’s show] was tied in with Fishbone being a part of the African-American Music exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute in DC.

LU: Can you tell me about that exhibit and how you are reflected in it?

NF: I actually presented them last night with the first bass that I ever bought for myself. It was the bass I played on the first EP with “Party at Ground Zero,” “Another Generation” and all those songs. The exhibit won’t open until 2015. But they told me about the company that we would keep. They got Chuck Berry’s Maybelline, his Cadillac… and they got the Mothership from George Clinton.

LU: There’s a crazy story about the Mothership, about how it disappeared for years and turned up somewhere in Maryland recently.

NF: We have a similar… I mean I don’t know how similar it is but it’s still kinda uncanny. If you look at Fishbone’s “Servitude” video, there is a 25 x 14 foot big metal fish that had red glowing eyes, a goatee, and one dreadlock coming out of his head. We didn’t know where that was. Kevin Lyman from Warped Tour had kept it for years and when they started asking for items, I told them to go and get that from Kevin. Well, they reached out to Kevin and he didn’t know where it was. He didn’t have it anymore. And they told me yesterday, for the first time, that they think they have found it. It was not an absolute answer… but that piece will sit next to the Mothership and my bass will sit next to Chuck Berry’s guitar. So it’s good company.

LU: Everyday Sunshine is probably one of the better music documentaries that I’ve seen in awhile. They were filming you in a state you might think of as a low point. You guys seemed to be unhappy with the way things were going. Has the movie helped improve things?

NF: Well, you know what, it is helping with public awareness of the band. Like last night, at the Lincoln Theatre, there’s people who haven’t seen us in almost 15 or 20 years. They grew up, they’ve got families, they don’t look at papers to see who is playing around town but they see this movie. They don’t go to concerts but they might take their kids to the movies. So these kinds of people are coming out of the woodwork. When we were 19, we signed to one of the biggest major record labels on the planet. We enjoyed the publicity machine, you know? We’ve fallen below the radar on that level. So having a documentary out helps that. Promoters don’t promote like they would in the 80’s and 90’s. They don’t take chances, they don’t spend money like they used to for promoting bands. It raises the profile of the band. The documentary is going to show on PBS next year, January 14th I believe. That’s going to change it.

LU: One of the things about the movie was that it had a surprise ending. I didn’t know that you had had that reunion with Kendall [Jones, the band’s original guitarist, who left Fishbone under tumultuous circumstances in 1993]. I see some of the members, or at least Walt, are back in the picture. Has the movie brought original members back together since everybody was pretty much in the movie?

NF: Well, it gave us the opportunity to re-connect with people who are some of our oldest and closest friends. They’re the people that we changed the world with. It had 100% to do with why Walt’s back in the band. The directors suggested that I ask Walt to participate in the scoring of the movie. And that opened the door to a conversation with him because the guy that we had filling his spot couldn’t make it on the tour and he was like, “I could do it.” I kinda had to sneak Walt in because I knew Angelo would be so against it, it wouldn’t be funny. But I worked it out. I’m really happy that’s Walt’s back. It’s one of the best things that happened to the band besides the movie.

LU: The movie leaves it open to Kendall working with you guys again. I know you have Rocky George in the band so you don’t necessarily need a guitar player but has he worked with you? Is he going to be working with you?

NF: No, as of right now, Kendall is nowhere near working with the band. We did a showing in Marin County and he came to the showing, saw the movie, said he liked it and came to the performance afterwards. He came on stage and actually sang “Party at Ground Zero” with us. Beyond that, I haven’t talked to him very much since then. That was a long time ago now. I’m thankful that we got to re-connect for the time we did. I hope whatever the issue is, its possible to resolve and me and Kendall can connect again. I would love to have Kendall back in the band. I appreciate the way Kendall approached me about an all-original Fishbone reunion. I don’t know if it could happen with the other guys. To have Kendall and Rocky George playing together would be awesome.

LU: Coming from South Central LA, in the late 70’s early 80’s, how did you come to be playing ska music?

NF: Well, I thought that we invented it was how we first came to play it. We were fucking around with reggae rhythms. I had never heard of ska, personally. We just started speeding up the reggae rhythms to punk rock tempos. I thought we invented something but Walt knew better. Walt was the first person that brought to us an English Beat and a Selector cassette that proved to me that no, we did not invent that music.

LU: Let alone the Skatalites and all the Jamaican bands 15 years earlier.

NF: Yeah, [knowing about] that came later. First, we got completely turned on to the English ska movement and then later we discovered that all of that music had its roots in Jamaica. I didn’t know that reggae was the great grandson of ska until a little later.

LU: So you said you started playing around with reggae rhythms. Was reggae big in LA at that time, something a lot of  your peers were listening to?

NF: Well, you know it was creeping into the airways in Los Angeles on black radio. They played a little bit of Bob Marley and then Third World came after that and then Steel Pulse and Black Uhuru after that. So we were becoming aware through that first. There were Jamaicans in the neighborhood and whatnot. I can’t say they educated me as much but it gave me somewhere to look for that was in my neighborhood and I could say okay I get the connection.

LU: Is anyone in the band West Indian at all?

NF: Not that we know of. Through the slave trade, I’m sure but not directly as far as any of us know.

LU: Were you listening to a lot of reggae records, personally?

NF: Well, it was the music that we were exploring, Fuck yeah. You know, it was brand new. We explored reggae, like we explored punk rock, like when we discovered ska. We dug as deep as we could. We thought about playing and tried to play it as physically as possible and you only get that through education.

LU: You said there were some Jamaicans in the neighborhood. I’m curious what these neighbors would have thought of Fishbone playing this crazy, punk, sped-up manic version of reggae. Did you ever get any interesting responses?

NF: Not really. They’d be encouraging us because we didn’t just do the ska thing. We did reggae rhythms. They’d comment and they were glad to see that we were experimenting with those rhythms and they’d tell us like oh, you’re getting closer. We were young and it was all positive encouragement.

LU: When I see Angelo doing his whole Dr. Madd Vibes thing, I see a lot of Lee “Scratch” Perry.

NF: Yeah man. All of that came later, though. That was in the age of discovery. We were already starting to play clubs. There was a radio show called The Reggae Beat, a guy named Roger Steffens, every Sunday. We discovered The Reggae Beat and college radio and there were different places that we could find eclectic music. And through The Reggae Beat we got to hear Prince Far-I and Prince Buster, as far as being people that we would look to in the dub realm, and then came Lee “Scratch” Perry. Those dub records that Black Uhuru did as well. They were actually one of the first bands we got to see live. One summer, they had a lot of music at USC, a couple summers actually. And Black Uhuru was one of the bands we got to see.

LU: As a bass player, what did seeing Robbie Shakespeare do for your creative genesis?

NF: It set my spirit on fire, bro. That was brain nutrition.

LU: Being this all-Black punk band, at what point did you become aware of the Bad Brains and how did knowing about them encourage you?

NF: It absolutely was one of those things. It was like, we grew up Sly and the Family Stone and P-Funk. We knew of Mother’s Finest. There was an awareness of the Bus Boys. And then after Bus Boys we discovered Bad Brains. And Bad Brains flipped our lids cause it was real true punk rock. There was a big difference between what the Bus Boys did and what the Bad Brains did. We loved them both. But it was all inspirational and all bands that opened doors that we could go through.

LU: It’s interesting too how both you and them combined punk and these Jamaican sounds but in a completely different way. You know, they separated it. They would move between the two. Whereas you guys just mashed it together into a pulp.

NF: ‘Cause it was important for us not to sound like any of those bands that we admired so much. We wanted to have our own way. That was the most important thing.

LU: I’ve always wondered how you ended up being in Back to the Beach [the 1987 movie starring ’60s ‘beach movie’ idols Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, in which Fishbone perform “Jamaica Ska” with Ms. Funicello]. My parents took me to see that movie in the theater, and that’s the first time I was aware of Fishbone. I didn’t know that you guys were this cool band until I saw you on MTV a few years later.

NF: What people don’t understand is that Annette Funicello introduced America to ska music by and large. You know, Harry Belafonte brought us Caribbean music, the whole region. Annette Funicello actually covered Jamaican ska and that is why ska music to this day is intertwined with surf culture and why reggae music is intertwined with surf culture, because of Annette Funicello. So it makes sense in that realm because we were pioneering the new generation of ska in America, the west coast sound or whatever, however you want to slice it. Somebody saw it and put it together. We didn’t know.