Fishbone found

Eclectic rockers return to the surface

Fishbone?!, went a friend's response upon hearing of the group's upcoming appearance at the Montreux Atlanta Music Festival. "Damn, are those brothers still around?" "We fell out of the public eye a little," concedes bassist Norwood Fisher, on the phone from Toronto, where Fishbone's current tour with Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chili Peppers stopped. "But we've been touring constantly, so maybe mainstream media wasn't catching us."

Long known as one of most hyper-active and vers- atile bands going, Fishbone's incessant live schedule has built and maintained its reputation for artfully destroying musical barriers. The band's ability to meld rock, funk, punk, ska and reggae has been crucial to its nearly two-decade existence, especially because it gets no support from commercial radio, where strict categorization reigns supreme.

But for a band that dependably released a new album every two years, four years has proven an unusually long wait for its current release, The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx (Hollywood Records). A strong return to form, Nuttwerx includes guest appearances from George Clinton, Rick James, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani and the Chili Peppers' Flea and John Frusciante.

The reason for the delay? Personnel and label drama that caught fire almost simultaneously. "It was just like a bad marriage," Fisher recalls of the parting with longtime label Columbia. The flashpoint was promotion. The band wanted Columbia to get involved in street promotions before the method had gained widespread recognition. Street promotions are now a standard part of any record label's ad campaign, especially in hip-hop, where many labels have developed the practice into an art. But earlier this decade, growing grass-roots support was a foreign concept and unaccepted in rock; at least until the Dave Matthews Band leveraged the practice into a huge following.

"The label was buying ads in Billboard and doing all the radio buys," Fisher says. "We were like, 'Radio may never play us, but these kids out at the park will buy us if you give them a snippet tape.' We just got more and more frustrated with the situation."

There was also a painful band shake-up, beginning with guitarist Kendall Jones, who left Fishbone to join a religious cult. "He had a severe nervous breakdown and got into a situation where he was being manipulated," Fisher says. Next, songwriter and keyboardist Chris Dowd left to pursue a solo career, as did original drummer Fish, Norwood's brother.

"Shortly after that Columbia said, 'Your top guys have left, what are you going to do?,'" Fisher recalls. "They weren't seeing it as we were seeing it. That's when they let us go."

Their subsequent venture with Arista was also fruitless, as Fishbone released the commercially and critically unsuccessful Chim Chim Badass Revenge in 1996. So while they watched similarly funk-punk-styled bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers garner the industry and commercial props that also should have been theirs, the 'Bone was without a label. Fisher is sure race and color were factors.

"Friends were saying that we were perceived in the industry as being difficult," Fisher says. "And I was like, 'What the fuck is that?' Then I had to look in the mirror and say, 'Oh you're black, so you may be perceived as [being] difficult.' I don't know when all that got started; maybe it was when Fish hit the [Columbia Records'] A&R guy or maybe it was when I called the president of Columbia racist on MTV. But all of those things don't add up to me. We're definitely not worse than the Rolling Stones. But that's past us."

Part of getting past it involves introducing fresh blood into the band, including drummer John Steward and guitarist Spacey T. "Some of the people who left were really frustrated [with the industry and racial politics]," Fisher says. "I know Fish was. The people that are here don't mind fighting that fight. It's a little like rock climbing: we kept slipping off the rock and now we're in the place where we can get a grip."

And it took a partnership with Hollywood Records, a Disney imprint, to help the repositioning process. The irony of typically irreverent Fishbone being connected with family-friendly Disney is not lost on Fisher. "I must say that if 10 years ago somebody told me that I would have ended up on a label owned by Disney, I would have said, 'That's the stupidest shit I ever heard.' But the fact is that when they approached us, they could hear where we were coming from. In the more recent time, shit has been really good."

Fishbone performs as part of the Montreux Atlanta Music Festival, 6 p.m. Sun., Sept. 3, at Piedmont Park. Admission is free. For more information call 404-817-6851 or visit www.atlantafestivals.com.