Fishbone Skanks Down Memory Lane

The 25-years-young band keeps the old-school Ska rhythms moving

John Norwood Fisher remembers hearing Two Tone Ska for the first time. It was the early 1980s, and fellow Fishbone member/trumpeter “Dirty” Walter Kibby introduced him to The Selecter and The English Beat. The bassist's reaction?

“I was disappointed,” he jokes. “We didn't invent Ska?!”

While it might sound both preposterous and solipsistic for Fisher to figure his band pioneered an entire style, Fishbone could have had a legitimate claim … at least in the U.S. Ska had already existed since its creation in Jamaica in the '60s, yes, but it was still fresh to America when the high-schoolers in Fishbone were banging out music in California.

Although it’s not the genre he hoped to create, Fishbone is assuredly one of the archetypal purveyors of Ska Punk. Fusing bouncy beats with high-energy Rock (and eventually everything from Funk to Metal), the combo found immense popularity for a stretch in the ’90s. Oddly, Fishbone barely profited from the cachet they earned as the style’s elders — the cultural focus shone on younger bands like No Doubt and Mighty Mighty Bosstones — but the group stayed steady the entire time. This year Fishbone turns 25, an age especially monumental in band years.

In their early days, Fishbone was untested but ever-eager.

“We were 19 when we were recording that first EP," Fisher says, referring to 1985’s Fishbone, which spawned the band’s seminal cult hit, “Party at Ground Zero.” "It was an honest teenager's-eye view of the world. (Drummer Philip Fisher) was 17. I had to take him to and pick him up from school.”

Delving deeper into the sound behind the racially mixed Two Tone Ska scene played an integral role in firmly aligning Fishbone with the musical style.

“We were black kids in the multicultural world of Los Angeles,” Fisher recalls. “The Two Tone movement gave the youth something else to hold onto that set them apart from their parents.”

(Once his discontent with not conceiving Ska passed, Fisher recalls thinking, “Fuck, these bands are amazing! I've got to hear more of this.”)

Though typically recognized as Ska Punk, Fishbone has also pulled in elements of Reggae and Funk, crafting a volatile cocktail. Considering that the group has seen more than a dozen members enter and exit (the current lineup is seven members, including originals Fisher and vocalist/sax player Angelo Moore), Fishbone’s focus has remained remarkably cohesive.

Whether their tone is lighthearted (“Skankin' to the Beat”), incensed (“Subliminal Fascism” rallies against institutional problems in America, noting, “I read the paper and I watch the news/ It don't give me the blues/ It just gives me the blacks”) or even melancholy (“Black Flowers” muses, “Like the auction blocks of castrated dreams/ Kills the heart of love turned into disease”), the music was always played with hyperactive gusto. All of that coupled with Fisher's notion that they were an American Ska band when few were prominent meant that Fishbone found an audience easily.

The notoriety of Fishbone's accessible but kooky flavor has landed the group a variety of admirers. Testimonials have come from both the expected (spiritual descendants 311 and Slightly Stoopid) and the unusual (Metallica bassist Rob Trujillo and actor Tim Robbins, who appeared with Fishbone in the 1988 movie Tapeheads). Fisher is unwilling to pin down his favorite fan (“It's like, 'Which one of your kids are you most proud of?' ”) so he considers a couple.

“(Thrash Metal band) Anthrax was one of the first bands that I was shocked how much they said they liked us,” Fisher recalls. “They called us an influence, and I was like, 'What the fuck?' They were around the same time as us and I'm not sure how much we could influence them, but they said some really nice things.”

The other favorite fan leads one of the most famous Ska bands going.

“Gwen Stefani is, to this day, talking about Fishbone,” Fisher asserts proudly, noting how the No Doubt vocalist mentions that her on-stage routines were inspired by the physical antics of Fishbone frontman Moore. “That is one of the biggest validations of what we've accomplished.”

Even after seeing groups like No Doubt push themselves away from Ska when the genre fell out of popular fashion — all while Fishbone stuck to its core aesthetic — Fisher keeps an open mind.

“It's every artist's right to evolve into whatever they feel is necessary,” he says. "We held onto our roots because it was fun for us. To this day, Fishbone is an all-black band. No matter what we do, it's going to be looked at strangely, unless we turn into your average black act. We felt like we could always build on our foundation rather than let go.”

Still smoldering at the base of Fishbone’s foundation is a rage the band releases through its music. Fisher calls it “youthful anger” but quickly modifies his response.

“It’s (about) things the average citizen may be dissatisfied with when you look around and see people suffering," he says. "The same sociopolitical shenanigans fueled us (on) the first record.”

More than two decades after Fishbone’s inception, the bassist maintains that his band remains intoxicated by that original freewheeling, mischief-making spirit — maturity be damned.

“We're the same people,” he says. "I forget that I'm over 40. Sometimes I look at guys my age and think, 'Those guys are really old.' Deep down inside, I'm running on something else.”

FISHBONE plays The Mad Hatter Monday with The English Beat, Outlaw Nation and The Pinstripes. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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