Fishbone Bassist Norwood on Being South L.A.'s Only Funk-Punk-Ska Band

Fishbone | Photo by Jeff Farsai
Fishbone Bassist Norwood on Being South L.A.'s Only Funk-Punk-Ska Band

Fishbone was South L.A.'s, and quite possibly the world's, only ska-punk-metal-funk freaksters. In the early 1980's, they spazzed out in Hollywood clubs and Compton recreation centers, then broke into global music scene when their frenetic brand of genre soup became MTV fodder during the "alternative" age.

Bassist John "Norwood" Fisher, has been through it all. As a founding, and consistent, member since 1978, he has seen career ups and downs -- including a kidnapping charge, after a botched intervention of a mentally ill band-mate. Last year, the documentary "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone," brought the band back into the public consciousness and provided a look at their inimitable and influential impact on Los Angeles.

Artbound recently caught up with Norwood, who talked about playing punk in Compton, missing the hip hop generation, and throwing exotic fruit at Fishbones' hyper-kinetic lead singer, Angelo.

Fishbone has been around for nearly three decades, but there has been a resurgence lately. Why now?
We stuck around long enough to experience a career curve. Most musicians experience some kind of career curve, and especially with all the changes in the music industry, the way music is distributed, the digital revolution, the demise of the process for major record labels and the levelling of the playing field. So we just stuck around long enough, persevered long enough to be rediscovered, and the documentary "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone" definitely gave a boost within the last nine months too.

So let's talk about the early days, what was the cultural landscape like where you guys grew up and what was that thing that brought you guys all together? Can you set the scene for us?

We just started rehearsing in my apartment building building, in my bedroom.

Was that in South L.A.?

Yeah, yeah. It was in my bedroom, we disturbed our whole building. The manager lived above us too!

We were just kids that were partially a product of our environment. There were people in our neighborhood, family members and friends that were all influences. And L.A. radio, you know. Also just being children at a time where we could be exploratory in music. We were coming off the Sixties, we were able to have inspiration from Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and Funkadelic, as black kids looking at black artists making amazing things possible. Then right at the teenage years this punk rock thing starts scaring people and this new wave thing was a kind of like wild and weird and Devo shows up on "Saturday Night Live." We had "Soul Train" and "American Bandstand," all of those things enabled us to have broad influences.

How did you guys get influenced/interested in Ska, though? It doesn't seem like something that showed up on American television and it didn't seem like something that was happening in your neighborhood either, right?

No, we stumbled upon it organically by taking reggae music and speeding it up, like punk rock reggae. We thought we invented something, but our original trumpet player knew a lot better, and he actually brought us the English Beat a couple days after I thought we actually invented a new form of music: reggae with punk rock energy.


So how was your brand of punk rock received in your neighborhood in South L.A.?

We were spread all over L.A., from South Central to the Valley. You know, ultimately we claimed South Central L.A., but we were cultivated on the Westside. Because at this time, anytime there was a black neighborhood, it was considered South Central L.A. by the news.

Did you feel like venues at this time were split into "white clubs" or "black clubs?" Did you feel any racial tension?

Not that I recall. It was just hard to find clubs at that time.

Really? Because it seems that the punk scene at that time was a little rough, with Orange County skinhead punks, were they a problem for you at all?

No skinheads really. There were some punk rock gangs that could be racial, you know that wasn't really a problem. You know, we were from Crip neighborhoods and so we were not afraid of any punk rock gang. I traveled through Crip and Blood neighborhoods on a regular basis growing up, so skinheads didn't pose like the biggest threat to me, in my mind. It might have been a danger, possibly getting killed along the way, but it was not really what was in my mind.

Angelo Moore.
Angelo Moore.

Where were for first shows? Hollywood or South L.A.?

In '83, we played three talent shows, and one was El Camino High School in Woodland Hills, and one was Dorsey High, that was in like South L.A., right at the foot of the jungle. The other was in Compton, at a rec center in a park, and then we played our first club show which was at Madam Wong's Chinatown. We just played for like two hours cause I thought that was just what you did, from seeing P-Funk. I think we got paid $25. I didn't expect to get paid at all. Later, my grandmother came to that a show, which was really cool.

How did you guys meet up with Angelo?

We were all schoolmates, we were all part of a bussing program that takes kids to the valley and vice versa. We were bussed to Woodland Hills. It was a brutal drive. You had to be at the bus stop at like 5:30 in the morning or something.

So what was that like, you guys come from South L.A. and you show up in Woodland Hills for school? Was it a culture shock, or was it no big deal?

Well, you know, at the end of the day, we were just a bunch of kids trying to figure things out, hormones are just starting to pop and all that. It was not so much a culture shock, I think most of the guys in Fishbone had some relationship with rock music. We listened to rock radio, my dad, my cousins, all like rock.

Fishbone started before the hip hop generation exploded on the music scene. So what did you think of hip hop when it started, in relation to that punk-reggae style you were into

Well, really it was all happening at the same time. Fishbone was a band that was started in 1979, and really 1979 was the year that Sugar Hill Gang's "Rappers Delight" hit the radio in a big way, it kind of all started at the same time.

And so what made you guys choose going the more punk route other than going more hip-hop?

Punk rock was speaking to us. I mean, hip-hop was fun, we dug it as party music but it took Kurtis Blow doing "The Breaks" and Grandmaster Flash doing "The Message," to really impact me personally in a whole other way. We were already on our path, but everyone in our neighborhood was going towards this hip-hop. We were just different. We were just discovering Bad Brains. Hip hop fed something else. We were into dudes with guitars, and we identified with that.

Fishbone plays classic albums and early cuts tonight at the Greek theater with Primus.


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