Fishbone is a California-based band. Band co-founder and bassist Norwood Fisher recently discussed how Fishbone came together, how he became interested in reggae and ska and his love of music. Norwood’s passion for music is inspiring. Fishbone plays a free show at CrossroadsKC June 9th.
What first got you interested in playing bass? How did it get going for you?
Ultimately, it was a Grand Central Station show. It was my first concert. It was Larry Graham, from Sly and the Family Stone. I think I was eight years old, if my memory serves me correctly. It was during the course of that concert that I made up my mind that I was born to play bass. I had actually wanted to play music since I was six. I asked my mom for a guitar for Christmas at six. The dream was fostered early. I look at myself as one of those fortunate people who get to live the dream of their six-year-old self.
It just made you realize exactly what you wanted to do.
It put it right on point. He had this bass where the pick guard was a mirror, right? We were sitting in the second to the last row in a venue called the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles. The light from that pick guard hit me and blinded me, and that was that moment.
So, it was this serious physical moment?
You incorporate so many different styles into your sound. How did Fishbone get started?
Well, ultimately, we were guys that were friends in junior high school. Most of the band met in the eighth grade, right? Fish, the original drummer, is my younger brother. I asked for a guitar, and he asked for a snare drum. He played in marching band, and that’s really the ultimate beginning of the band. These kids asked for Christmas presents. Actually, the band as we know it started in the eighth grade. I met Kendall Jones and Chris Dowd. We bonded over music, mainly Funkadelic.
It was a lot of other music, too, but Funkadelic was one of those pivotal things that all of our households held. The three of us talked about playing music, I was like, “Me and my brother are a band. They were like, “Well, we’re a band, too.” That was really the moment where it all started to come together. Angelo came to school a year later. Me, Kendall, Chris, and Fish would do whatever we could to play. Kendall didn’t have an instrument and Chris didn’t have a drum set. I think he had a snare or something. There was an acoustic guitar that he would beat on the back of. Some of the other guys lived in my building. It was a neighborhood thing. Chris lived in a whole other neighborhood. In fact, the gang in their neighborhood was rival with the gang in my neighborhood. I never had any problems. Chris’s uncle, Alex, would facilitate us getting together. He’d come and pick us up, bring us over to Chris’s house. I had a bass and an amp and a speaker. Alex would come and pick up my stuff. We’d go to Chris’s house, because Chris had a piano. We’d go over there and jam. We did that until his mom couldn’t take it any longer. Then we started doing it over at my house. Somebody got a little Casiotone. We figured out how to work the Casiotone, and eventually Kendall got a guitar. Angelo came to junior high school. We all came together. I remember the day that Walt asked me if he could be in the band. We were just kids. We were friends, really, first. We were guys that became friends. We talked about playing music. Probably a year later, it actually started to happen in the way to where the original six guys of Fishbone would be playing together, with about six to eight other people in the same room, like we were all, again, a neighborhood hing. Those other six to eight people eventually fell off. It was the original six that remained.
In the early days, did your songs mostly evolve out of just playing and jamming? How did it come together in terms of writing songs?
Fish and I had done stuff. We started out writing our own songs immediately. We jammed on playing covers at first, with the original guys, with everybody else. When it broke down to the six that were left, we still tried to play a bunch of covers. It was Dirty Walt that said, “We better write our own songs if we ever want to become anything. We want to make something of ourselves.” It seems like it was Kendall that actually wrote the first song. There was a bass player that gave me a riff. He was like, “Here, learn this riff, take it and do what you want with it.” I don’t even remember who that guy was, but we wrote a song out of that. It seems like Kendall was really the first person that wrote. He would call me on the phone, and we would write over the phone. We’d come up with things, present the bare bones idea, and then the band would flesh them out. As time would go on, we would begin to jam and make stuff up. We would create altogether as a band, too.
Yeah. Do you start with bass lines first, melody first or lyrics? Is there a certain process?
To this day, there is no rule to the process. It happens however it has to happen. I’m a bass player, so I’m going to write bass a lot. It might just be a song title that inspires something or a whole set of lyrics. Angelo comes to me with a poem. I’m going to have an emotional response to his words, and I’m going to be like, “Oh, I got an idea.” If he doesn’t already have an idea, you know?
Yeah. Playing off of ideas, emotions and making real music.
Yeah, that’s always been the way that it’s been. There’s no set way to do anything. Sometimes, somebody will come to the table with an idea. As a collective, we can go, “Well, you know what, let’s try something else.” We can bring it from another angle. Somebody brings something that had been internalized. We go, “Well, let’s try it.” The collective brings forth something inspired by the lyric.
What are some of your favorite Fishbone songs to play live? What are some of your favorite ones to always jam out on?
I never get tired of playing “Party at Ground Zero.” When I look out at the audience, the energy that’s actually being expended is massive. Songs like “Party at Ground Zero,” “Ma and Pa.” It doesn’t matter where they are in the set. It could be two hours in and people dance like they just got in the building. “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” is another one. I like, because there’s a give and take. Those become my favorite. As a player, I always love playing “Lemon Meringue,” or “Unyielding Conditioning.” Actually, “Give It Up” is one of my favorites. It’s a great dance song, but also, there are certain parts of it where I do a lot of improvisation. As a player, I really enjoy those moments.
Really being able to dig deep into the songs.
Yeah, exactly. We leave a lot of room for that in a lot of things.
Yeah, that’s cool. You guys have always mixed so many different styles, too. You exist within your own styles. What kind of got you into ska and reggae initially?
Black radio in Los Angeles started playing reggae in the later seventies. It seems like it was around ’78. I’d catch it late at night sometimes. Wake up to take a piss in the middle of the night, kept my radio on all night, and there would be this sound of Bob Marley. It was just a few Bob Marley sounds that would be peeking through, sometimes on the weekend, off hours. Then, it actually started happening in the day. It seems like it was Bob Marley, Third World, Steel Pulse, and then Black Uhuru, is how I really remembered it. There was other reggae, it was like coming from other areas. Once you became aware of Bob Marley, then Peter Tosh became an awareness. Te things that the Rolling Stones had done in the late seventies, “Walk and Don’t Look Back,” in a Saturday Night Live performance. Suddenly, you became aware of Peter Tosh. Peter Tosh sprinkled on some of the black radio, too. It was mainly those bands between ’78 and ’81.
There were others. Once you kind of got the picture of what it was, then you wanted to explore. There was others, but those were the main ones. Stevie Wonder was dabbling in it, “Hotter than July” really went there, but even before that, “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” was a huge hit. Although I didn’t recognize it as reggae or as an attempt at reggae.
Touching on those ideas.
I’m just really digging in with the answer, because reggae was important.
Yeah, of course.
It was really us jamming on some reggae and speeding it up. I didn’t know anything about ska. I thought we invented something new. Walt was like, “No, we didn’t invent anything.”
When you found out about it.
A couple days later, he came with these two cassettes. It was the English Beat and Selector, and he’s like, “This is ska music.” It’s like, “Okay.” We fell in line. We play ska. It was really the movie Dance Craze that really lit us up. It seems like the whole band went to see Dance Craze. Things were happening on television that really, where you could check out what was happening. Again, Penelope Spheeris’s movie, Decline of Western Civilization, really impacted us. The Specials were on Saturday Night Live. John Belushi brought Fear on Saturday Night Live, Devo, Saturday Night Live. You got a certain experience because of Saturday Night Live. We lived in Los Angeles, so there was some things on television. Eventually it was a TV show called the New Wave Theater, which was dark, underground and it had punk rock. Real, underground, artsy shit, and real punk rock on the New Wave Theater. You can maybe catch some episodes on YouTube. I think I ran across it. There was another show called MV3, which was hosted by a guy named Richard Blade. He was an LA radio personality. He was on the radio station KROQ. KROQ used to play local bands. They had a local radio show, hosted by a guy named Rodney Bingenheimer. There was support for the local scene. Then, there was a college radio station. College radio was super meaningful. It was called KSLU. I still listen to it to this day.
It had so much to do with the discovery of music, in general, that was below the radar.
Yeah, those underground sounds. All of the new sounds.
Yeah, it’s where I first really got to hear Kate Bush, Tom Waits. Metallica, “Battery,” the first time I ever heard that song was on KSLU. Tons and tons of punk rock bands, too vast to mention. All kinds of music, they had no format. KSLU had a lot to do with my musical education.
It’s wonderful to be able to hear so many diverse sounds It makes your music better, too. It makes you more informed. It makes you more creative.
Well, let’s say Fishbone is a direct reflection of all of this. We had the freedom to listen. We felt the freedom to express ourselves. You might call that artistic license. We grew up in a time where lots of people were exercising artistic license. Bad Brains, the Clash, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone. They all took great chances, some of them won and some of them didn’t.
Yeah, that’s true.
Like Frank Zappa.
Yeah, Frank took so many chances musically. P-Funk too, there’s so much risk out there. Do you feel like people play it too safe with music these days?
In popular music, that’s always been the case, right? Except for the sixties, and by the very early seventies, pop music was back in the control of the major corporations. Although, some of that music is still fun to look back and listen to. You want to hear some Bay City Rollers every now and again. I wouldn’t have listened, or give a fuck when I was fifteen, but now that I’m fifty, it’s like, okay. I can feel like pop music at that time had that certain level of artistic merit. It’s fun to listen to now. I think it’s always been that way, like what they considered bubblegum in the sixties, right? Basically, it was the producer day. That component was always a part of music. The seventies brought forth more artist-producer and full expression music. The sixties started it though, really.
What advice would you give to musicians just starting out? What’s the biggest advice you’ve received about playing music as a career?
We were at a Canadian border crossing. BB King was crossing at the same time. I think Angelo and BB King were talking directly, and I was just standing there. BB King said, talking to all of us, but speaking to Angelo, he was like, “You’re doing this for the rest of your life. Get ready for the ride.” Something to that effect, I know I’m leaving out something there. Whatever you’re doing, life is too short to be miserable playing music. Make sure you love what you’re doing, if it’s for the love of music. If it’s just for the fame, then you’ll do anything, right? It doesn’t matter. I received something amazing from the people that I grew up listening to. From the Beatles, to Parliament-Funkadelic, to the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains, to Bad Manners, and Madness. My whole vision is in the hopes that I’m giving it back. If you just want fame, brother, it doesn’t matter. I knew that I was in it. I knew before I met BB King, it was like, “I’m a lifer.” I didn’t exactly need BB King to tell me that.
But he did anyway.
Yeah, he kind of solidified it.
Your music brings joy to so many people. Obviously, you’re giving it back to them. That’s beautiful, that’s what it’s all about.
Exactly. I hope that I paved the way for another generation of musicians that will be emboldened to express artistic license, whether the playing field is stark or abundant.