In an era of economic uncertainty in which it’s possible to have dozens of jobs in a lifetime, Norwood Fisher has been lucky to have had a job he loves since he was 14 years old. Now 52, he has spent nearly four decades as the bassist for the groundbreaking rock band Fishbone, which burst onto the Los Angeles music scene with a freewheeling fusion of ska, punk rock, funk, heavy rock and soul.
He has been a steadfast member of the group since its founding in 1979, touring the planet with the eclectic ensemble that has blended a powerful horn-based punch with ripping guitar work and elastic vocals from energetic frontman Angelo Moore to inspire generations of music fans. As Fishbone gears up for next year’s 40th anniversary with plans for epic touring and a new platter of music with a string of shows, including one tonight at Discovery in Ventura, Fisher took time to reflect on what has been a very wild ride.
“It’s just the nature of the band’s relationship with the audience that keeps it exciting,” explains Fisher. “Fact is, we remain true to the original intention of the band musically. Part of that is being exploratory. We keep pushing ourselves as individuals and I’m personally on a quest to try and figure out how to put things together with the goal of possibly doing something in a way that hasn’t been done before. It may be impossible to achieve but we try.”
That quest for sonic adventure began when its founding members were in junior high school. Fisher and his drummer brother Philip “Fish” Fisher, guitarist Kendall Jones, trumpeter “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II and keyboardist/trombonist Christopher Dowd all hailed from South Central Los Angeles, but their horizons were expanded when they were bused to high school in the San Fernando Valley.
It was there that they met Valley native Moore, combining with the wild singer to form a sound that quickly elevated them from the high school party scene to professional gigs at prominent clubs like the Chinatown trendsetter Madame Wong’s. By 1983, the group was signed to Columbia Records, when the four had barely graduated from high school, and in 1985 they shook the alternative-music world with the anti-nuke party anthem “Party at Ground Zero.”
“It’s hard to believe that we put that song out at the height of the Cold War with Russia, and went decades since the Soviets fell, with younger audiences not even relating to what it was about,” says Fisher. “And now, here we are again fighting with North Korea about nukes and it’s as relevant as ever.”
By 1987, they were the worldwide opening act for the Beastie Boys, who were conquering the music world with Licensed to Ill. Their mix of goofy humor with social commentary made them stand out from the pack while also building strong friendships with the similarly adventurous Red Hot Chili Peppers — a bond that continues strongly to this day between Fisher and Peppers bassist Flea.
“That was a vibrant time in music, it was exciting,” recalls Fisher. “Punk rock and new wave were brand-new and our biggest influences at that time were Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy, the P-Funk universe. We had a lot of other influences that would lead us to become who we were, like Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Ohio Players.
“We were also avid watchers of [legendary promoter] Don Kirshner’s rock concerts and [NBC series] ‘Midnight Special’ in the ’70s,” he continues. “Other influences I remember include Chris Dowd turning me on to jazz and Angelo turning everyone on to Bad Brains. We all watched Devo on SNL and we just continue to grow and absorb music.”
Indeed, Fishbone’s determination to grow artistically has come even at the cost of lucrative offers to join the oldies circuit, where they could gain easy paychecks doing half-hour sets on package tours with other ’80s acts. Fisher says the band has turned down numerous such offers.
“One of our booking agents once sat me down and said if you just play the old catalog, I can put you in county fairgrounds, but I was not with it,” says Fisher. “The possibility of actually being relevant is worth the journey. Putting out new material and playing it. I’m here today, bitch! Ultimately that’s a choice.
“If my journey is rough, I made choices that way where somebody said take this easy way out,” adds Fisher. “If I had an oldies band, I’d have old fans without potential for new, young, fresh faces. We’re being discovered by young people on a daily basis because of the documentary on us [2010’s Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone] and the technology of YouTube.”
Fisher notes that two areas he still dreams of playing are Africa and Jamaica, yet he has found Japan to be a particularly welcoming overseas market for the band. His least favorite gig ever came when Fishbone “played a pig farm in Puerto Rico for a big festival,” because heavy rains hit and left the band unable to safely tell the difference between stepping in mud and stepping in “pig shit.”
“You had the audience just going batshit crazy for every band, so now they’re covered in mud and pig shit and you’re going, like, ‘I don’t want to stay after and meet anybody. Get me the fuck out of here!’ ” he recalls, laughing. “But it was interesting.”
While Fishbone remains highly popular in the Northeast from New York and New Jersey through Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Fisher points out that he dreads playing anywhere near their Los Angeles base because “We owe a lot of people favors so they’re calling and asking for the guest list.” Now a longtime practitioner of sobriety, Fisher recalls the flip side of that hometown attention that came with their peak burst of fame.
“When I used to drink and get high, I didn’t have to pay for a damn thing,” says Fisher. “I’d get free drinks in bars. And people would hand me drugs. Marijuana and hallucinogenics were my thing. I didn’t have to spend money, and fortunately I looked at myself and asked, ‘How long can this last?’ I got to the point where I could drink and not get hangovers.
“There was no pain, but I’d lose my appetite and the next morning I’d be like ‘This ain’t cool, pancakes ought to be really good and I can’t do nothing with them,’ ” he continues. “I don’t know why my physiology wound up like that. I just drank a shitload of water, was always about that. The bottom line was, where am I going with this. I was asking questions of myself the whole time and I couldn’t escape anything the whole time; the wheels were still spinning out of control and the thoughts would not calm down.”
That constant mental and emotional imbalance even started to affect the Zen mindset he needed to pursue his passion for surfing, as smoking weed made him dwell on even the most mundane of unfinished task, like washing dishes or making business calls. When he also realized he was smoking from the moment he woke up and even while taking showers, he decided “It was an impossible way to be” and decided to drop the blunts.
Quitting alcohol took longer, with that decision coming after he hit bottom while Fishbone was playing the Warped Tour in 1997. Fisher recalled being excited that the seminal hip-hop trio Tha Alkaholiks were on the tour as well, and he and Deftones member Stephen Carpenter decided “to drink the Alkoholiks under the table.”
“I bought the biggest jugs of Cuervo I could get, took LSD, and Stef went up to the room with two girls,” says Fisher. “The door was open on his room, but I kicked it in, kicked [rapper] Xzbit on the floor, stepped on their tour manager, and we drank until they got me out of the room because they couldn’t drink no more. Ultimately we had fun on the tour, but Monday they wanted to give me a ‘Norwood for President’ T-shirt because they said, ‘You’re up first every day and you got a beer in your hand, drink all day, then kill it onstage before drinking all night.’ That’s how it was back then.”
Fisher says that he’s not a fan of many new artists, although he makes a point of listening to what’s new on the scene and “loves” Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and Cage the Elephant. He says he’s still learning to improve his songwriting skills, but focuses on the classics of the Motown catalog, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, David Bowie and even Burt Bacharach for inspiration.
He also derives sonic enjoyment from leading his side project Trulio Disgracias for the past 30 years. The all-star jam band — which was named in reference to a nickname Fisher gave legendary singer Julio Iglesias after hearing a vile story about the singer — has released only one CD in its three decades of existence, but just headlined four nights at the Anaheim House of Blues amid the influential National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Show, Jan. 25- 28.
He also takes pride in teaming with Flea to raise money for the music charity Harold Robinson Foundation as it attempts to build the Watts Conservatory of Music in hopes of influencing the next generation of unique musicians. The Conservatory offers free music lessons to anyone living in the zip code of Watts, and started a six-week music camp for disadvantaged area youth last summer at the campus of Markham Middle School that took 50 completely untrained youths and prepared them to play a concert by the end of summer.
“We’ve lasted because we were always musically honest and had integrity to a fault,” says Fisher. “I’m only grateful that someone gives a fuck about what I say, period. My aspiration is just to make great art so I can look back and say that as kids we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing, and we just keep doing that.
“We were kids from the streets of Los Angeles where we grew up in an open environment where music was changing, and were able to listen to what was before us, what was happening at the time and what was coming around the corner,” he concludes. “But our aspiration was to create what’s coming around the corner. We’re grateful to do that.”
Fishbone will play at 8 p.m. tonight at Discovery Ventura, 1888 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura. Tickets are $25. Call 805-856-2695 or visit discoveryventura.com.
To hear an extended version of this interview from the podcast “Live With Clive,” visit http://bit.ly/2EmzP2U.