A Conversation with Norwood from Fishbone
Talking with John “Norwood” Fisher…founding member of the legendary FISHBONE…
RYAN MIFFLIN: No matter who I interview, I always ask them to introduce themselves, just to hear that description in their own words. So, tell us who you are.
NORWOOD: Well, my name is Norwood. I’m an original, founding member of Fishbone. I play bass. And I spend most of my time just trying to appreciate the life that has been afforded to me.
If anyone’s not familiar with Fishbone, you guys are one of those bands that you could describe 57 different ways and each description would probably be somewhat appropriate. How do you guys describe your sound and what you do?
We are the sound of the vibrations that emanate from the center of the universe. And that’s why it’s so hard to describe. It’s like you said.
And that is only to say that we are listening. We are trying to hear what the universe is trying to bring forth, rather than put our egos into it. It is to listen for things. For what’s missing. And express that which has not been expressed.
It’s like the parable about the five blind guys holding the elephant. One guy’s got the trunk and he’s like, “this is an elephant,” another guy’s got the leg and he’s like, “this is an elephant,” one guy’s got the tail and he’s like, “this is an elephant,” one guy’s got the ear and that’s an elephant to him, another guy’s got the tusk and that’s an elephant.
There you go…And you put it all together and it’s still an elephant.
Yeah. And nobody’s wrong. They’re all right.
How did you guys form up and bring all these styles together; the hard rock and the soul and the ska and funk and all that?
Well, you know, we’re a product of the times we came up in. That’s the basic, honest way it feels. We are all kids that were born in the mid-60’s and became really aware of the world around us as it turned into the 70’s. So, things like Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Funkadelic, as far as black music, were really speaking to most of the guys that are the original members of Fishbone. So that overall kind of connects things. And then, as well, culturally, in the early 70’s, TV shows like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert really kind of gave us a window into live music by all kinds of artists. As well as Soul Train. And, later on, the live guests on Saturday Night Live in the 70’s.
As we became teenagers, punk rock became the thing that was scaring parents all over the world. Punk rock and new wave. Bands like Devo on Saturday Night Live. And later on, Fear. And the Talking Heads and Blondie. And then the Specials, like, really flipped our lids. And at the same time, there was these other bands in the underground, like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys.
So we took all of that and we never felt like we couldn’t enjoy everything. And even though people in the neighborhood laughed at us, we were like, “Yo, this is what we like.” We didn’t feel like it was illegal, because there was a band, Funkadelic, that kind of did everything they could imagine. So we just did the same thing for our generation.
You’ve mentioned Funkadelic and Bad Brains. It seems like every time I got turned on to a rock group that was made up mostly of black guys, people were always pointing out that they were African American. For me, first it was Living Colour. Then when I was in high school it was you guys. Then Body Count. It seems like anytime a mostly-African American rock group got some attention, everyone had to point out that they were one of the “few black rock bands”. And that’s just not true. As you said, there’s Funkadelic, there’s Bad Brains, there’s Parliament, Sly & the Family Stone were kind of pioneers in this regard. There’s years and years worth. What was it like for you guys to deal with that?
You know what? That, in and of itself, exists in every generation. I could name the all-black rock bands – the ones that mattered, right? – and it’s only going to amount to two handfuls. It was like Mother’s Finest, Funkadelic, Bad Brains, the Bus Boys, Fishbone, 24-7, Spyz, and Living Colour. You know? But there WERE more. And there were integrated bands as well. And all of it matters.
I think our obstacle was never with the fans. It was never with the kids who were coming to our shows. It was with people behind the scenes who got confused by the color of our skin. The kids didn’t care! People at the record label got confused. Concert promoters didn’t think they could promote our shows in black neighborhoods and sell tickets.
I was always thinking, well, I grew up a black kid and it didn’t need to be an all-black band for me to come to a punk rock show. You know? I was curious! And I was able to seek it out. And I wasn’t the only one.
So there was that.
Those, I think were the real obstacles. But to people who heard the music for what it was, it didn’t matter what color we were. All that mattered was the content that they were hearing in a show.
You guys have been doing this since the late-70’s and you’ve had all the ups and downs, stops and starts, legal trouble, disagreements, and everything else a band can go through. What’s kept you going all this time?
Well, at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, it really is the love of music and the privilege of being able to do something that you love and something that you aspired to do as a child. You know, we were 14 years old when we formed the band and most of us had aspired to be a musician. I really had it in my mind since I was 6, and probably a little before that, too. It became a solid idea that I followed through with. I’m living the dream of a child.
Every day, I appreciate that. All I have to do is practice my craft and honor it. And everything being fair, I could live my life out doing something that that six-year old kid wanted to do.
If I got money invested in Wall Street and became a billionaire, it wouldn’t stop me from playing music with the band that I’m in, because I love what I do.
Let me ask about the movie, “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone”. How did that come about?
The director approached us and I immediately scoffed at the idea, but did pass on the information to our management, because I think Angelo was maybe a little more for it. Management saw the value in doing it. I personally took a little more convincing.
Eventually it all came around and I took the position that I could be wrong and just went along with it. And I’m glad I did!
So, you’re happy with how it came out?
I think that those guys really did a great job. It’s really more or less telling in the response that we’ve gotten from the critics and from audiences. The subject matter is a little too close for me to judge the entertainment value. But, overall, I can say that I see it and I like it and it’s honest.
What do you guys have coming up next?
You know what? We just finished mixing five new songs. Hopefully this is what will maybe be released at the end of this year. Maybe next year. We’re not exactly sure. I want it to be as early as possible. We’re figuring that part out. We’re gonna keep doing new music and exploring. You know, part of what we do is try to discover that thing that has not been done yet. That’s part of what we see as our job, is to explore music and keep doing things in ways that have not been done before. And I don’t know what that really looks like and that’s the fun part about it.
Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a “Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show” featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.
Mifflin blogs about music and life at OTIS RYAN PRODUCTIONS