ife provides seldom few examples that the laws of karma are in place. Yet for all the unfair Player-endings, there are still examples of hope. Take Lyle Lovett. Self-professed odd-ball (and one ugly dude), Lovett made a career producing exactly the sort of art he wanted (and having exactly the type of hair he wanted, too). Public be damned, this Abraham Lincoln look-alike scored Julia Roberts, a prize oh-so-slick David Letterman and Keifer Sutherland found out of reach. He did what he wanted, and without a hint of compromise, made it in the end. Not with breast augmentation or an image makeover. As himself. Then there's Fishbone. One of the most stunning live bands and innovative set of musicians on the planet, they just can't seem to make it outside the ranks of college music. Well, they've come pretty close, but their timing has always been a little bit off. And, to their fans, the public could commit no greater crime than ignoring the band. It only implied music that was different from anything else around. Over time, more and more labels cropped up, distinguishing certain sounds for what they were rather than for what they weren't. Every now and then, though, would-be rock journalists (a sketchy discipline at best) come across something so original that it defies definition. Fishbone exemplifies this phenomenon. Though the usually multi-hyphenated names provide some framework to view the band's sound (how 'bout funk-ska-soul-punk-gospel-metal-reggae-pop-thrash rock) the truth is, they're just Fishbone. They're the originals. And that's all you need to know. P-Funk claimed genre fusion pre-eminence by posing the question "who says a rock band can't play funky?" Fishbone didn't even consider the question. They were the first ones to really pull off the deed by unconsciously piling influences (including P-Funk) and genres with such finesse that the undue attention of the mix seemed wrong -- it is, after all, just Fishbone's music. While genre-blenders (the current musical 'flavor of the month') cut and paste in their own Frankenstein-esque ways, the Fishbone soldiers just went out and played. Fishbone trumpet-player Walter Adam Kibby II explains: "[Our music] comes from our souls. We develop all our music ourselves so we don't really take a blueprint from any particular area. There's labels for different styles of music, and we take different styles and just do what we can do with those styles. But we don't take our influences really from too many other bands." It seems nearly every discussion of Fishbone involves some reference to the seemingly unending styles they work into their own cohesive thang. However, the styles just naturally blend. "If someone wants [a song] to be heavy, we just say go ahead and make it heavy," describes Kibby. "It's not like we say 'yeah that ska song here should have a heavy metal guitar thing. It either happens or it doesn't. The person has to feel it to pull it off" Fishbone came to blossom in the same L.A. scene that fostered such alternative icons as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction. In fact, the three bands share close ties from those local club days, often filling in for one another on albums or showing up in videos. But where both the Chili Peppers and Jane's tasted the prize of mass-appeal cross-over success (and the headlining spot of Lollapolooza). Fishbone was always just too eclectic to reach the mainstream (instead, their former freak-rock opening band Primus snagged the 'Plooza headline gig while Fishbone jammed through a cool afternoon set). Stardom's elusive blessing, while distressing to shallow popsters like media-friendly Evan Dando, could not have affected the Fishbone members any less. These boys have thought it all over, and are doing exactly what they want. And that means, more than anything else, playing live music. Fishbone, by nature, is a live band. Explains Kibby: "Touring's what we do. We just go out and do it crazy and try and give 'em what we got." And it's what they do best, touring nonstop (close to two and a half years between each album). Fishbone shows are relentless displays of energy and lunacy; punk rock intensity coupled with ska's jocularity and funk's swagger. More than with other bands, the audience is drawn into the frenzy; there's not just a stage-front pit -- the entire floor is moving. And Fishbone plays for the crowd. Kibby describes his motivation, "If the crowd is pumped up and the music is sounding good, we get pumped up. Otherwise, it could be a struggle. Other times, the groove is good and we just give it to 'em." The crowd (the Fishbone 'familyhood') keeps up with band's frantic pace. "The familyhood's cool, they just come out and do it," he adds. For all of their innovation and uncanny skill (those who have seen bassist Norwood Fisher's slapping thumb fly through live versions of "Bonin' in the Boneyard" will understand), Fishbone has earned the undying respect of musicians and critics alike. Hell, even Neil Young sports a Fishbone t-shirt for the liner notes of Harvest Moon. Despite their hype, praise, and adoration (and believe it, there's more than one band that borrows from these L.A. boys), Fishbone has never quite made it to the level of success that a band of their status in alternative circles (whatever that means) deserves. eavis and Butthead themselves can tell you that "MTV doesn't show these guys enough." And the reasons for fame's fleeting kiss are obvious: while Fishbone's tunes are indeed excellent, they need time to grow on the listener. Their lyrics, buried under the slickness of street lingo, convey messages that require thought to completely decipher. And with the limited airplay they do receive, it's hard to convince a wide audience. The reason for their limited airplay, among other things, stems from their freak status -- these guys are kind of weird. But, Fishbone is in fact more accessible than intentionally-deranged Primus. Since Fishbone plays styles comparable to MTV-friendly faces like the Chili Peppers and Primus, the issue of institutional racism seems to rear its ugly head. But Fishbone is no stranger to industry hostility, and generally avoids the business hassles of the job by simply playing. The ranks of Fishbone are larger than most bands, weighing in at a hefty six performers (original guitarist Kendall Jones recently split the band, bringing the total down from seven). Fishbone's brass section, comprised of its three interchanging vocalists, is perhaps its most distinctive element. Standing out from the group is hyperkinetic singer and saxophonist Angelo Moore, whose natty braids, trademark round glasses, cane, and frenetic energy make him perfect video material. Goateed funky bass-man John "Norwood" Fisher and drummer/younger brother Fish (Philip Fisher) started the group (well, they all practiced in their house). Trombonist and keyboardist Chris Dowd and brass-master Kibby also take turns on vocals, Dowd for the soul-searching gospel-flavored tunes, and Kibby for the raunchy ones. Guitarist John Bigham, with the band for four years, handles the six-strings. Fishbone, none too surprisingly, began as a bunch of junior high friends gathering to splash songs together: the band, to this day, maintains elements of the crude style of that age. As early as 1979, the kids of Fishbone would gather in the bedroom of the Fisher brothers' house, dubbed the Aquarium, and jam through punk rock covers. Today, covers are almost entirely foreign to Fishbone, with the exception of Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead" that introduces 1988's Truth and Soul. "When we were kids and we just started and we were doing covers, we decided 'why do covers when you could do your own tunes?'" explains Kibby. "So we just made it a statement that we would try to create as much doing our own as possible. Try not to do that many covers." This makes sense -- Fishbone has so defined their own style that it would be strange to see them do anyone else's material. Fishbone progressed, going under the various names including Hot Ice, Megatron, Counterattack, Diamonds and Thangs, and Melodia before (thankfully) settling on their current nom de funk. "On the day of Angelo's prom, May Day, 1983, maybe, we started our venture of clubs," relates Kibby. "Before that, we were doing talent shows and battle of the bands, stuff like that." Fishbone signed to Columbia Records, releasing an eponymous EP featuring the wave-making "Party at Ground Zero." Fishbone, beneath its pop-ska good-time groove, also carried the message that they were more than a party band. Instead, Fishbone focused its acerbic pen on the inanities of the government ("Ugly," the 'ode' to Ronald Reagan), nuclear war ("Party?Zero"), and a diatribe against revisionist holocaust historians ("V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F."). Columbia, however, was far from hip to Fishbone's talents -- it originally chose to market the group as "those crazy new-wave negroes from South Central Los Angeles," said Dowd in a previous interview. Fishbone balked at this ridiculous idea, and Columbia sat on the band, sending them back to the clubs to earn their dues. Fishbone's intensity has sold them more than anything else. Among other things, Fishbone shows were among the first to feature moshing, a toned-down version of the angry punk slam-dancing. "It comes from the punk rock days, when we were young punk rockers going to Dead Kennedys concerts, Fear, [or] whoever else in the world of punk rock was coming through," explains Kibby. "They had slam pits up in there, serious slam pits and we tried to bring that up into another level. [Bassist] Norwood once said 'it would be great if we could play some funk and have a slam pit.' So we strive to do that. We can't help it, we want people to buck-wild, have a good time, we want people to cut loose." Fishbone's insane live shows also popularized stage-diving (another device adapted from idols the Dead Kennedys). Now, between songs, nearly every thrash band frontman will take a spill into the audience. Yet, to this day, Fishbone's Angelo is still head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd-surfers, usually singing entire songs into his wireless while floating across a sea of sweaty hands. ar from a party band or freak novelty act, as Columbia tried to sell them, Fishbone crafted smart, savvy tunes. With the help of their next few releases, In Your Face and Truth and Soul, and several frightful early videos (often featuring Angelo break-dancing) Fishbone rose from an L.A. club band to college music heroes. And the reason, more than anything else, was their marriage of complex rhythms with familiar, yet profound, lyrics that eloquently expressed everything from down and dirty bonin' to post cold war politics. Fishbone treats each topic with a mix of hope, anger, and fun. Over the next six years, facing hostility from their label, Fishbone sought solace on the road, perfecting their live performances at the cost of issuing only two full-length releases (despite occasional EP output). In 1990, Fishbone returned to the studio in the midst of L.A.'s urban angst, gang warfare, and social decay. The result was Fishbone's best work to date, The Reality of My Surroundings, which especially showcases the band's diversity. Fishbone's musical melange captured the fears and frustrations of South Central, ghetto-trapped blacks with more conviction and rationality than furious gangsta rap. With the sullen "Sunless Saturday" ("I see the shards of shattered dreams in the streets/ I face the morning with my customary sigh") and the bitterly real "So Many Millions" ("I can not grow up to be the president/ where only drug dealers own Mercedes-Benz"), Fishbone demonstrated their sharpened political pen. With romps like the optimistic anthem "Everyday Sunshine" and the raunchy (and phonetically spelled) "Naz-tee May'en," Fishbone kept their "positive mental attitude" in sight. hough Reality seemed fit to drop like a bombshell on a ripe alternative market, its popular reception was less than astounding (both artists and critics did, indeed, rave about the album). MTV rotation of singles "Everyday Sunshine" and "Sunless Saturday" (featuring a Spike Lee-directed video) did increase their stock, and a Saturday Night Live gig (where they trashed the stage -- before Nirvana) seemed to have the band on the verge of crossing over. Fishbone teamed up with San Francisco's Primus, and shipped out on a several year tour. But the band's grooves were a little too inaccessible for the mainstream, who were being wooed by the catchy opening riffs of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The year 1993 marked Fishbone's first release since Reality, the heftily titled Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe. After the ascension of alt rock champions like the Chili Peppers, Fishbone seemed in a natural position to rocket to the Billboard upper echelon. However, the Fishbone style took a turn for the heavier, trading in the horn and funky bass sound for straight up metal guitar-driven tunes. Give a Monkey a Brain? sounded like a half-hearted attempt to grungify the L.A. septet, and coupled boring gospel dirges with few tracks that show Fishbone's usual flair. Fishbone had been heralded as The next big thing throughout their fifteen years, but when the moment was upon them, they issued their first disappointing release. Fishbone faced its greatest difficulty, however, during the mixing of the album. Guitarist Kendall Jones, always a devout man, became increasingly obsessed with sin and the apocalypse, after joining a religious cult. Jones anointed the band's instruments before shows and used interviews as religious platforms before finally leaving the band, deriding Fishbone as "demonic." Problems continued, however, when members of the band tried to subdue Jones and take him for counseling. "When Kendall lost his little mind and Norwood tried to take him to get psychiatric help, it turned into a big melee and we had to go to trial," explains Kibby. The Fishbone bassist intended to grab Kendall off of the street, toss him in a van, and drive off. Instead, Jones avoided the abduction, and had Fisher charged with kidnapping. The charges were eventually dropped, but the legal proceedings had tapped out Fisher's resources. So Fishbone friends Porno for Pyros and Primus (among others) teamed up for the Norwood Fisher Defense Fund benefit concert that raised money for the indigent bassist. Despite the internal struggles, the band still snagged a Lollapolooza spot, making them the first band to play the main stage of the tour twice (they completed Living Colour's spot on the first Lollapolooza during the later dates). "It was a light gig, you know what I'm saying," offered Kibby. Fishbone -- unlike the Chili Peppers who found themselves in a similar axe-less predicament a year earlier -- had two guitarists, so John Bigham handled all the guitar himself after Kendall's departure. Despite consistently hot performances throughout the tour, their middle of the day time-slot indicated the lost buzz: Fishbone had missed their best chance to make it huge. Truthfully, though, the glamour of pop stardom holds little allure for Fishbone. These are guys who love nothing more than what they're doing: playing night after night to sold-out clubs of the 'familyhood,' crafting songs to channel their anger or reflect their sense of humor, and travelling around the world to do it. "You never know, we could die today," relates Kibby. "We just keep doing what we do and not worry about tomorrow and just try to make it to tomorrow." Karma perfection incarnate. Josh Leitner is the fair-haired managing editor of 34th Street. Don't let his pretty-boy looks deceive you, 'cause he turns into a nasty, vicious bugbear at 4 am. Es la verdad.Comments powered by Disqus
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