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Interview: Chris Dowd (Fishbone)

12 June 2023

Photo by Pablo Mathiason

Fishbone needs no introduction. In a class all their own, the L.A.-based outfit has blended punk, funk, ska, jazz, hard rock, soul and experimental sounds since their formation in 1979 and, for the first time in recent memory, four of the six founding members – Angelo Moore (vocals/Saxophone), Chris Dowd (Keys/Vocals), Dirty Walt (Trumpet/Vocals), Norwood Fisher (Bass) – have reunited to record and release new material. Going back to the basics not only in sound, but with cover imagery as well (the self-titled EP uses the same photo – with the addition of some duct tape – as their debut self-titled 1985 EP), these are the first Fishbone songs Dowd has played on since 1994.

On a personal note, early in my music journalism career I sent a hand-written letter to Fishbone’s record label at the time, Columbia, to request an interview but never heard back. For 30+ years, Fishbone has been on my bucket list of bands that I’ve wanted to chat with so it was with great enthusiasm that I joined a Zoom call with Chris Dowd shortly before Fishbone was set to perform at the Punk Rock Bowling and Music Festival in Las Vegas.

I know the new EP has been a few years in the making. This is your return to Fishbone, is it good to finally put new music out in the world?

CHRIS: I might be the wrong person to ask that question. It’s complicated. It’s very convoluted. I’m a perfectionist and I want everything to be a certain way. There are things that I felt like were great, and there are things that I have problems with. But, I’m going to have to accept that. I’m just super-fucking weird that way. It drives Angelo crazy. “You need to let go of that shit.” And I’m like, “No. There’s just one more thing …”

I didn’t take a hiatus from music but everybody’s always like, “Where were you?” I just did a lot of different things. I moved to New York. To give you some of the story, not like I’m trying to go into what happened to Chris Dowd, but I walked off the Fishbone tour bus with all my bags in 1994 and I was like, “Deuces.” I moved into my friend’s apartment in New York and I ended up building a recording studio with my then partner, a guy named Hod David. We proceeded to do a lot of artist development.

The only record I did that I feel like was of any note is The Seedy Arkhestra. I guess you would have to be a hardcore Fishbone fan to know about that. There’s a lot of people who don’t know anything about it. I’m a different front man than Angelo. He’s a big-time front man in the classic sense. If Angelo is like Mick Jagger, then I’m like Elliott Smith, the reluctant front man.

As a perfectionist, it must be tough. You want it to be perfect but it could take years and years before you’re satisfied enough to release music. Do you have to figure out where that middle point is where you can feel okay with putting something out if it’s good but not perfect?

CHRIS: That’s where Angelo goes with me. I have to laugh at myself about it. The only person that I can relate to that’s a friend of mine that is kind of like this is Q-Tip. Everybody talks about how he is in the studio. I’m like, “Yeah, I might be worse.” But at least I know I’m not alone. It’s like a cavalcade of us perfectionist weirdos. I’m just with the music. You’ve got one shot for people to like what you do. I try to treat that with the utmost respect for the listener. That’s where that stuff comes from. It kind of creeps in there. But, Angelo is right. If I was to be completely honest, I have five or six albums worth of shit that nobody has heard. I have close friends of mine, they are walking around with some really cool demos, let’s just say that.

Do you have any plans to go back and finish any of that stuff?

CHRIS: I am definitely going to finish it. Angelo has some stuff that he does and he’s always like, “You need to put this out,” and lecturing me and shit. Norwood has his project, Trulio Disgracias. Eventually, in the not too distant future, in a galaxy far, far away …

I notice that you said in the future rather than giving a date. So, the future could be later this year or in 10 years.

CHRIS: See how I do it? I’m the worst. I’m working on it. How about saying that I’m a work in progress?

Fishbone started in 1979. You got off the tour bus in 1994. That’s a pretty lengthy stint. Did you remain friendly with anyone after you left or did you feel like you needed a clean break?

CHRIS: I would say that the two people that I was closest to when I left would be Angelo and Kendall, because I left a year-and-a-half after Kendall left. I felt a lot of different ways about it. I felt like I just wanted to be true to what we had created originally. I felt as though that was the greatest statement we made as a band. We were six people that created that sound and there’s something to be said for the creationism of something. But then a lot of life got lived afterwards.

They kept doing the band and I stepped back from doing music. I was doing artist development stuff and trying to get people signed to record deals and maybe not have to go through the same sort of struggles that we went through creatively. It’s a tough business. Did you ever see that movie, Conan the Barbarian? In that movie, they’re chasing this symbol around and the symbol was a snake eating its own tail. I started to feel like that symbol, like a snake eating its own tail. I think what happens with musicians is that when you do something at such a high level for so long and you feel like there’s a disconnect, you start to second guess, and third guess, and 115th guess. I think that’s a lot of the reason why we stayed in this process for this EP for so long. It’s six different people with very different ideas of how to get to the same thing and that can be really hard.

After you left, Fishbone continued. Did you listen to anything they were putting out?

CHRIS: I was doing The Seedy Arkhestra. I was in New York and a friend of mine brought over a record and put it on. I was like, “Okay.” I felt good about what I was doing. I’m not trying to say anything about anybody’s level of talent like I’m some Superman. It’s not like the original and, fair enough, they built a whole other thing with who they had in the band at the time. Stepping back from that, I honestly think one of the greatest components that they got from that era of music was John Steward. He’s such a great drummer in a completely opposite way from Fish. How do I put it? John Steward is like having AC/DC’s drummer. Fish is like having Billy Cobham or Bill Bruford. Both have their own place but I like a really good punk rock drummer for this kind of music. I think it’s about capturing the energy. For what I want to do as a writer, or what I want to do creatively, John definitely fits that mold for me.

What brought you back to the band?

CHRIS: I think they were kind of at an impasse with each other and there were a lot of people advocating for the original band to get back together. We tried, as close as we could. I had this epiphany that you can’t really change shit from the sideline. That armchair warrior shit is real. You can sit there and be like, “If I was Patrick Mahomes, I would have passed the ball instead of doing what you did.” “Okay, sure you would.” I did a lot of that shit, that armchair warrior shit and, at a certain point, it was like, “Okay, let’s see what you would do.” And I came back to do that very thing.

There was a lot of stuff to work through emotionally with us and there still is. It’s super hard when you love someone. It’s just hard because we are alike in a lot of ways but we are also very different. Angelo is like a shark that has to keep moving. I would say my approach is like a flower that blooms in the desert every seven years (laughs). Those two things are trying to coexist with each other and it’s hilarious when you think about it.

I had stepped away from the band but not from doing music. My partner and I had produced a bunch of stuff and got an artist we were working with signed to Sony, of all places where I was like, “I’ll never go back to that building. Fuck those people.” Then I’m like, “Here I am, back in this building again.” If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s like the shit you’re trying to run away from, good luck, because you’re going to have to deal with it one way or another even if you don’t want to. You just have to come to the realization that it is what it is. You have to confront your demons.

I think I had a lot of demons and was probably upset about the way that things got handled. It was no one’s fault. To be honest, we were never going to be the kiss-the-ring motherfuckers. Nobody is going to be like, “You just jumped through this one last hoop. They’re going to really market the album better.” After a certain point, you’re like, “You guys don’t even understand what the fuck we are.”

When you’re the first at doing something, you’re the sacrificial lamb. That shit is hard. It’s hard taking the loss, especially when you have that level of talent in the band. Any one of us could have gone off and had solo careers or had careers as musicians before and after. Angelo could have gone off and been his own artist. Kendall. Myself. Norwood. But, the thing is, that’s kind of what made the band what it is too.

Ultimately, people like Flea and Anthony [Kiedis] would be like, “What are you guys trying to do? You’re all these different things. We love it but you’ve got to understand it’s confusing to the listeners.”

I don’t think people understood our philosophy. We wanted to be like, “We’re all just freaks. If you like this thing, we’ve got a song for you. If you like this other thing, we’ve got a song for you.” We wanted to bring everyone under the tent. “We’re all just human.” That would have been it. Instead, people were always trying to figure us out and they assumed they knew. “They were bussed to the Valley and then they heard Led Zeppelin and The Clash.” We were like the original black eccentric punk kids from the jump. I blame it on the radio in some ways, especially in Los Angeles.

We were having this conversation the other day. There were records when we were kids growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, like, I remember when they played Devo on the black radio station. “Whip It” was such a big song that they were playing it on 1580K. You hear it shouted out in NWA songs or whatever hip-hop shit was coming out at that time. It was that influential. I heard the B-52s on that same radio station, they were playing “Rock Lobster.” You’ve got to imagine these really hardcore thug life, tattooed, crips guys pop locking in the streets to “Whip It.” That wouldn’t happen now.

I feel like there’s all this musical freedom, there’s so much music that you can get anything at any time. But, the difference is, the music of that time was curated. When you heard something that you liked and you went to the record store, the guy at the record store knew you. He knew the type of records you liked. When you came into the store, he’d be like, “I’ve been holding a special AKA album for you for a month. I kept the last copy to the side because I knew you would want it.”

That rapport was the kind of thing that created your palate. I have to be realistic. Some people just showed up and they were just trying to buy fucking Huey Lewis and the News or whatever was popular at the time. That shit’s fucking corny. “When are we going to the Dead Kennedys concert?” We were those kids.

I’m not trying to hit on this racial thing but I just watched the Little Richard and Chuck Berry documentaries back to back. It was very insightful when you realize, and I feel especially now in this country that it’s this way, that we don’t want that race music. Now it’s like, “We don’t want your woke agenda” or whatever the fuck it is they’re talking about. Oh, you mean you don’t want to be aware? You want to stay in this bubble of whatever the modern equivalency is of Huey Lewis and the News or whatever. Music is this powerful thing. Somebody like myself or Trent Reznor or Fat Mike or Flea or James Blake, Moses Sumney, those are the people that I would consider if I was a musician in my 20s. Those would be my contemporaries where I’d be like, “They are making real music with instrumentation.” It’s modern and there’s some thought and passion behind it.

So much stuff now is so cookie cutter. People want to fit in these boxes, it’s so weird. It’s the exact opposite of what I came up listening to. We were like, “Fuck your boxes. Fuck your trying to telling me I have to be this thing.” It’s so different now and it’s really weird because it’s all intertwined with human sexuality, which is all great and amazing. But, I feel like people just know that something isn’t right with modern music. They can’t put their finger on it but something doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel real. I hear that a lot from people who are younger than me, especially younger musicians because they are so frustrated. They don’t know how to break through all the white noise.

We’ve got these modern devices. You can call me on a Zoom call. We can be like, “I’m in fucking Canada,” but who gives a fuck? You know what I mean? We don’t have any real, true sort of human connection beyond, “Oh, I’ve got this electronic thing,” and it’s a goddamn lojack, I can’t get away from this shit. Where’s the humanity in that? These things are supposed to be tools to help us communicate better. And really, it’s done the exact opposite. It shut down all communication. And because there’s so much information, everybody thinks they know everything, but they don’t know one fucking thing. There’s so much information, they don’t know what to pick and choose from.

Going back to the record store thing, your personal tastes are great. It is great to curate your personal taste to you. But when your personal taste becomes a singular-only experience, that’s not what music was ever about. Connectivity. Artists spoke to you. And that’s what I try to explain to people that are starting out and doing anything now. The telephone is a false sense of social interaction, and it’s not real. It amplifies, really, in a lot of ways, our worst instinct as a society.

Are there any current artists that you get excited about, that you think are a future generational talent?

CHRIS: I’ll be honest with you, man. Here’s the thing that I feel bad for everybody, but I only say this to say that I am so lucky to live in Los Angeles, because KROQ was there when I was in my teens and 20s. That was the thing. And then somewhere that became super corporate, and it became more about how many giveaways can you have? And that’s fine, because people got to make money, and art has to generate something just to sustain itself. But when it got to this point, it got kind of stupid and something like Afropunk was created.

Some of this shit out here is just some hot vapid garbage. But it’s always been that way. There’s always going to be a great pop song, but the singer is not Peter Gabriel. I’m not trying to knock anybody’s hustle, but, I’m sorry, the idea of going to watch somebody DJ and just standing there like it’s some fucking thing. Like, what’s happening? When’s the show going to start? My idea of seeing a show is like the sixth time I saw Fela Kuti play. That’s a show!

You’re getting ready to go play in France. Are you looking forward to that?

CHRIS: Absolutely. When I first came back, we did a small tour and we went to Europe. I feel like now we’re building back to something. The band maybe had this reawakening. I think this new EP is really trying to get back to that initial spark of what brought that group of 12 and 13-year-olds together to start a band when we were in the 8th grade. It’ll be great, I’m looking forward to it.

I got very disillusioned around 2004. I had an experience that made me go, “Fuck music.” I stepped back from it. I was producing a record at BMG, I was helping with these demos and it just all got fucking crazy and weird. And I’m like, “I’m done with this shit.” Nobody knew what was going on with music at that point anyway. The old way was dying and this whole new computer download thing was happening. I stepped back and went to culinary school. I cooked as a professional chef for like six years. And then I realized that shit is way crazier than music and that’s where the song “Cubicle” came from. It was from that experience. It’s just like, “This is what everyone does.”

It made me realize what a gift I have. That’s what I felt changed. I felt like I had something to offer. That’s what made me want to come back to the band. In the grand scheme of things, I felt I had something to offer creatively and something to say and the balls to say it. Somebody has to speak up. I don’t see a lot of these modern artists saying anything about what’s going on politically in this country. They just kind of go along to get along. Some people I know, the artists, I’m not going to name names, they’re like, “Oh, man, that would fuck my money up. That’s why I’m not doing that Fishbone bullshit. I mean, I appreciate you all speaking up on the truth or whatever. You all trying to fuck my money up.” I’m like, well, “Okay, so you’re the guy with all the toys on top of the big fucking hill but the entire society around you is crumbling. So I guess you’re like the king of shit hill now, and that’s important?”

Everything I’ve heard makes it sound to me like you’re back, like this is not a one-off temporary reunion with Fishbone. Will there be more music, more touring?

CHRIS: I’m going to ride this until the wheels fall over. I think we’ll definitely put out more music.

You’ve done so much touring in the past, thinking about going out now, does it make you remember all the bad parts about touring?

CHRIS: Yeah, it does. I also got to step away from this, and there are things that I appreciate that I didn’t appreciate then and a lot of this other shit I just sort of discarded. I’m not the same person.

People think, “You guys got robbed and should have been this, you should have been that.” Look, man, you have no fucking idea how proud I am of the people I have been blessed to have associated with in life. We got to fucking open up for Chuck Barry, and Joan Jett, at the same time. Our contemporaries were the Chili Peppers and No Doubt and Jane’s Addiction and Suicidal Tendencies. The people that I had admiration for, the reason why I started doing music, were bands like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. I got to hang out with Lee Ving. I’m like a fucking kid. That’s just not gone yet. It’s just like, “Oh my God, that dude is my friend now.”

Keith Morris is my friend. That is fucking crazy to me. And it means nothing to anybody else but it means the fucking world to me. It really does. And I’m just so fucking grateful. And there was some hard shit. There was some shit I went through when I left the band. I told Angelo there were some episodes before I came back to Fishbone. It was shocking. I can’t believe I survived some of the shit I did. And it’s all just part of the journey.

I’m so fucking proud of Flea and Anthony and what they accomplished. That is a massive undertaking. And you give up so much of who you are as a person to do this thing. It’s just like people have no comprehension of it, of the sacrifice you made of your life. Just as human beings, it doesn’t matter if you’re like Jimi Hendrix or whoever, just the normal parts that we need to function as humans that you sort of give up to be a rock star. All the glitters is definitely not gold.

When you say that it’s crazy to you that you’re friends with Keith Morris and it means nothing to anybody else, that’s the way I feel about this interview. I’ve wanted to talk with you for 30 years and now I have. The fact that we’re both still around 30 years later is just amazing.

CHRIS: I think about the friends that I’ve lost. The last time I saw Chris Cornell was at another friend’s funeral. And if you would have told me that’s the last time I would see him, I wouldn’t believe you. Every moment, every second, good, bad, painful, it’s all part of the thing that makes us human. It’s not easy but what’s the alternative?