Classifying Fishbone is about as easy as explaining what makes Phoenix a desert environment. Some things just are what they are. So, while Fishbone is simultaneously labeled a funk punk ska soul alt-rock band, it's important to look at how Fishbone got to this place. Though the band formed in Los Angeles in 1979, it was the music happening during the band members' "formative youth" that set the tone for a band often labeled "groundbreaking."
The music of the early 1970s sparked a fertile imagination in bassist Norwood Fisher, most notably Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Funkadelic, the psychedelic wanderings of the Temptations, and the jazz fusion of Return to Forever.
"Sly and The Family Stone was not supposed to be — it was against all odds," Fisher explains of his first musical awakening. "Then there was George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic universe. I remember the day I heard Funkadelic's first record and America Eats Its Young. A cousin of mine came over to play those records at my house because his mother wouldn't let him play those at his house. I was a very young kid. It just sounded so nasty."
That nasty sound revealed music wasn't as simple as radio-ready 2:31 pop songs. Then punk broke, just before Fischer hit his teens.
"Punk rock was scary for people. It was scaring white parents, so naturally I was interested," Fischer says with a laugh. "What the hell is this? I’m living in the city where it's exploding. We had forced busing, integration, so I saw it firsthand."
At the same time, Fisher attended a Sanctified Baptist church. That he is able to link the church's brand of music with punk goes a long way in explaining the genre-blending and bending that would later define Fishbone.
"Sanctified Baptist music is punk-rock music … they played with that punk-rock beat," he says. "It was a way to relate to it. It was through all of that that we could incorporate it [into our sound].
"A lot of it was simple curiosity," he adds. "In 1977, 78 — Devo, that shit was interesting. We could relate to Devo through the prism of Funkadelic. We were drawn to the strange."
Flush with so many influences, including classic soul and vintage ska, notably popping horn sections, Fishbone, fronted by the charismatic Angelo Moore, adopted an anything-goes songwriting attitude. When the band's 1985 diverse, self-titled EP was released featuring the now-anthemic "Party at Ground Zero," the timing couldn't have been better: Punk was faltering, second-wave ska was rising, shoegazers ignored their audiences, and maudlin rock topped the charts. Fishbone was new, fresh, and notably different.
"There was a lot of confusion over what we were doing," Fisher says, laughing again. "We had no idea of the impact we'd make. It was really super organic."
While Fishbone developed a subculture of fans on the popularity of cuts such as "Freddie's Dead," "Everyday Sunshine," and "Ma and Pa," their ever-changing sound kept the band from mainstream success — for better or worse.
"We knew we wanted to make more records, but we didn't want to sell out to do them," he says with, perhaps, a subtle nod to contemporaries Red Hot Chili Peppers, who did sell out. "Maybe we're obstinate to our own detriment of not selling out. But, I think it makes people actually look forward to what we're doing. We're striving to do new things all the time whether we hit the mark or not. We're driven to innovate, but to do it naturally. We have our own standard. It's who we are."
Fishbone is scheduled to perform Thursday, June 23, at Rebel Lounge.
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