The mid-’90s were a turbulent time for Los Angeles-based band Fishbone. In the span of a couple years, guitarist Kendall Jones — sleep-deprived and drinking heavily — joined a cult-like religious group; keyboardist and trombonist Chris Dowd left soon after; and in 1995, the band that had been climbing the ranks of the rock scene was dropped by Sony Records.
By then, Fishbone’s high-energy, theatrical ska-punk rock-funk-reggae-metal performances had earned them a devoted fan base and the admiration of contemporaries from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jane’s Addiction to Alice in Chains.
The album that followed, 1996’s “Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge,” captures a band angry at its former record company and the racism they saw in the music industry and society at large. It remains one of the bands heaviest and most poignant efforts, musically and lyrically, with themes that bassist Norwood Fisher feels still ring true in the era of Trump.
It’s “Chim Chim” that brought the band to Baltimore Soundstage on March 18, where they performed the album in its entirety, joined by some familiar, but long-absent faces — original drummer Philip “Fish” Fisher (Norwood’s younger brother) and guitarist John Bigham (who played on “Chim Chim”), both of whom haven’t been with Fishbone in nearly 20 years.
This was no mediocre reunion. In fact, it was quite the opposite. At its Baltimore show, the band sounded tight, renewed and refreshed, with the Fisher brothers locking in with telepathic chemistry that could only come from playing together since they were kids. Fishbone played “Chim Chim” with such fire it could have felt like the 21-year-old album’s release party to a less-informed concertgoer.
In the green room after the show, Norwood Fisher spoke positively and inspirationally about the past, present and future of the band — having former members back, talk of new music and the possibility of an original lineup reunion.
“All I know is it feels just right right now,” he said, smiling between bites of a post-show sandwich he feared was missing before finding it in the fridge.
If the Baltimore show is any indication, the combination of band members from different eras of Fishbone’s 30-plus years has created quite the synergy.
“It’s so beyond real because everything is working. This is early in it too … I know it’s gonna evolve,” Fisher said. “For these two versions of the band to merge, I couldn’t have written out this stage of my life any better.”
It’s quite the contrast to a very different, tumultuous time during which Fishbone wrote the “Chim Chim” album after the departures of Dowd and Jones and Sony dropping them.
“There was major upheavals leading up to it,” Fisher said. “Our A&R man at Sony Records was like, ‘What are you guys gonna do? Your pop guys are gone,’ talking about Kendall and Chris. I was like, ‘Yeah, the pop guys are gone, so we’re gonna write a really punk-rock record.’”
The band approached the album with the same musical honesty that brought Fishbone to the masses in the first place.
“We had no intentions of making something to become radio friendly,” Fisher said. “Everything was like, ‘F*** all that, we just gonna dig in, go and bring out and deal with emotion,’ and anger and frustration was a lot of it.”
“In the Cube” tells a story of being “deep in the toilet.” “Rock Star” takes jabs at the “racist music industry” and the unfortunate realities Fishbone experienced as a black rock band “signed and ho-in’ for a major label.” One of the album’s heaviest and angriest songs, “Riot,” paints a picture of a black community telling the “white man your government’s failing us.”
Fisher finds that the lyrics are still poignant these days.
“When I was talking about doing ‘Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge’ now, I didn’t believe Trump would be president. But it all seems very appropriate,” he said. “I’m 51, and believe me, the teenage me would have never believed it could end up like this. It’s alarming because people are saying it’s OK, like Steve Bannon is OK. In the White House. Like f*** that.”
While the album was “the angriest statement we made, ever,” Fisher said, it also marked a turning point to introspection for the band. “I personally began to just dig deeper into what is really inside,” he said.
The band could perhaps be at another turning point now, as talk of new music is on the table.
“The band is talking about it,” Fisher said. “They ain’t waitin’ for me to initiate the conversation [laughs]. The energy is good, everybody is happy.”
Outside of Fishbone, Fisher has an album nearly ready to go for his project Trulio Disgracias, along with a “crazy video” with stop-motion animation. He’s hoping to make four or five more videos and release a single by May, he said.
As Fishbone’s current permutation looks toward a bright future and Fisher readies a new Trulio record, the possibility of an original lineup reunion still looms in the background.
Of discussions that took place last year between the original six members, Fisher said, “Everybody couldn’t get on the same page.” With recent musicians’ deaths, including that day’s passing of Chuck Berry, he was acutely aware that “tomorrow ain’t guaranteed for nobody.”
“If one of the brothers that ain’t here passed away, I would be mad at myself if I didn’t try to make it happen,” he said. “So in my mind it will happen, it’s just a matter of … we will work through whatever it is at some point. And that’s coming from somebody who plans on being active about it.
“It’s all love, it’s just sometimes these things take time.”
About THE BEAT: Marc Shapiro, a lifelong musician and concert-goer, writes about regional and national musicians, concerts, festivals and the music industry. He is managing editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times, a sister publication of Baltimore Style. More of his photos can be viewed on his Facebook page, and he can be reached at [email protected].