“Being middle-age rock and rollers, just trying to pay the bills, isn’t an easy lifestyle.”
The band Fishbone, established in 1979 and still active, could be described as punk-ska-funk, though their followers would still think the phrase limiting. A fusion of styles and forms, distorted guitars mingling with horns and low ends, Fishbone became renowned for their live performance.
While the band’s dedicated fanbase includes numerous well-known musicians, Fishbone has remained on the outside. They reached popularity in the mid-1990s on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour, and their videos went into MTV rotation. It was a taste of what fans predicted for years, though fame came just as their original lineup began to disintegrate. “Theirs is a tale of outsiders,” said Chris Metzler, co-director of the new documentary on the band, Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, which recently screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is touring others. “[Fishbone] didn’t fit into their community, so they created their own.” As the director of the documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, Metzler was drawn to the band’s identity. “Fishbone is similar to the residents of the Salton Sea. [These residents] didn’t fit in anywhere, so they went to the place they wanted and created their own paradise. I like exploring people who live on the fringes of society, and the sacrifices in life you make to be there.”
Co-director Lev Anderson, who debuts here as a director after having worked on Taggart Siegel’s 2005 documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John, approaches the music documentary as a family history. Along with many humorous personalities, within we have the fine and frustrating memories of different artistic personalities. While the final effect of the film may seem elegiac, the filmmakers represent the band and its members throughout their history. At 103 minutes, it obviously lacks the scope of Michael Apted’s Up series, which is the film project closest to embodying what Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 describes as the evolved perspective: the ability to see each man as a “centipede,” all of his steps through life viewable at once. Everyday Sunshine shows the featured bandmembers in full — from whence they came, who they were, and are. It’s about the life of a band, but in the end, the film celebrates life.
When I recently caught up with the two filmmakers for a phone interview, Anderson spoke of how one of the original Fishbone bandmembers, bassist Norwood Fisher, embodies his instrument, with a “low, mellow swinging vibe about him.” These young filmmakers seemed like a team of differing personalities: Metzler, the eager, press-friendly filmmaker, ready to address and defend his work; Anderson, bright, articulate, but more introspective.
Lev Anderson: I was always interested in the band. I grew up in Portland, and saw them at the old Pine Street Theater, which isn’t around anymore. I was a fan of the band as a kid, and then in college I did an interview with (bassist) Norwood Fisher, for college radio. After that, they fell off the radar a little bit, but I knew about their interesting history and I always knew it would be a good story to tell. I figured that if there was a music documentary I would ever do, it would be on Fishbone.
Chris Metzler: It’s interesting how serendipity happens in life. I had been traveling around with my previous documentary, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, and Lev had worked on The Real Dirt on Farmer John. We met at a party one night, and he mentioned there was an interesting idea for a documentary that he had, and I thought, “Why would Fishbone be interesting?” (Laughs) Then he gave me the story and I quickly fell in love with it. We went and saw Fishbone as quickly as possible and pitched them the idea.
Lev, at what point in the band’s career did you first interview them?
LA: That interview was around 1995. They were touring with their Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge album.
CM: But what Lev’s not telling you is he saw a Fishbone concert with his dad when he was ten years old. (Laughs)
LA: Oh yeah — my exposure goes way back. My dad had bought their first EP, and then he took me to see them when they first came through town. He was an eclectic music fan, and just being a ten-year-old I definitely got into the slam-dancing thing.
It’s good to have Dad there to protect you in case a fight breaks out.
LA: Yeah, well, he was there somewhere.
Your film pays a lot of attention to the band in the mid-’90s. Do you think all of the wide media exposure affected them, and maybe caused some of their problems?
LA: Well, I don’t know if [the media attention] really led to those problems. It may have exaggerated some of the tension in the band, in terms of getting attention or getting on MTV, some issues of jealousy. I think more than anything it was the strong personalities in the band that led to some of the founding members leaving.
CM: The thing that’s fascinating about Fishbone is they make a guessing game of why they didn’t reach the commercial success that many people expected. Norwood has said that from the very beginning there were expectations thrown upon them. Everyone told them they were the next big thing. When you hear that every year and ten years pass, you start to question what the problems may be.
It seemed like the national media took notice when guitarist Kendall brought other band members to court for kidnapping. (He had just previously left the band during what was allegedly a zealous religious brainwashing by his father,)
LA: The national media was just catching on to them, mainly ’cause they were doing the Lollapalooza tour.
CM: It was right when they were on the cusp of breaking through to the growing teenage/college audience. They had the spotlight, and then the wrong thing happened.
As filmmakers, did you have a list of conventions, band documentary trappings, you wanted to avoid when you began?
LA: I find that most music documentaries are boring unless you are a dedicated fan of the band. To avoid that, we focused on the social context in which the band came from, as a black punk rock band from L.A. and what was going on there (reintegration of urban kids in different school systems). It wasn’t too hard because a lot of the band’s music addresses those issues, of being black in L.A. and the rich black musical history. It all comes through easily in Fishbone’s story, and it brings the film to the next level. It’s more than a music documentary, but a social documentary.
CM: In addition to the social history elements, we knew that if we wanted to feature talking heads of other musicians, people that were inspired by Fishbone, that they would be an intimate part of the story. We didn’t want to put someone in the film because they were famous. We wanted to show their personal interest in the band and that connection to the story itself.
LA: We knew we wanted to do that from the beginning of the project. Obviously, we didn’t have footage of them meeting in school, but it was such a fun part of their history, a very telling aspect of their story. We wanted to tie things together visually in ways you can’t do with just archival footage.
CM: We had access to a wealth of archival footage, but since the guys were all fans of Fat Albert growing up, it seemed an appropriate style to go with. We used different animation for the social history to help make the subject of the documentary come alive. Archival footage and photos can do only so much.
I really liked Laurence Fishburne’s voiceover narration. It sounds so matter-of-fact. Did you guys coach him on this style, or did it come naturally?
CM: I think that the narration reflects the style that Lev and I approached the film with. We wanted it casual and conversational, and somewhat intimate. Laurence Fishburne was going to tell it like it was. He was close friends with the band, and even a bouncer at Hollywood clubs in the early 1980s, where he met them. He was right there when it was happening. In addition to his having a great voice, and his being a celebrity, he really knew the content inside out. The perfect voice of god for this film. We didn’t want anything too serious — we do have serious issues here, but Fishbone is about having fun.
Interesting — Fishburne went from doing Apocalypse Now at 14 to bouncing in L.A. clubs, where Fishbone played.
LA: One of the reasons he identified with Fishbone is that he had trouble finding good acting gigs. A lot of African Americans were getting stereotyped into roles, so he identified with Fishbone getting stereotyped as a black band.
How did you like working with him?
LA: He was really great. After hanging out with the Fishbone guys, it seemed like he was just part of the family.
It seems like you have a variety of personalities to interview in the band. Did you take different approaches to engaging each interviewee?
CM: We didn’t really take a different approach with anybody interviewed in the film. We tried to have everyone be themselves, to recognize that this is a conversation to get away from artificial, false pretenses. This allowed people to open up and tell the story as they saw it. And then through editing, Lev and I constructed the story.
Your approach sounds pretty open-form. You must have had a lot of footage to go through.
LA: We did multiple interviews with everyone in the film — with the exception of people like Flea and Gwen Stefani. We talked with all the guys in the band multiple times. We tried to get them in their own homes, or places they were comfortable talking, to go for that natural feel.
Was it hard getting a hold of interviewees like Gwen Stefani, Flea, and Les Claypool?
LA: Everyone was really cool about doing it. They are all fans of Fishbone, or friends, so they were happy about the project being made. It may have taken a long time to schedule it all, when it came down to it, it seemed very easy to get these people excited about it.
CM: In some ways, this is the easiest sort of film to make, because you have so many people enthusiastic about the subject matter, and know about it intimately. Fishbone is a band that so many musicians love, but are surprised that so many people don’t know about. They’re all ready to jump on board and spread the gospel.
I really liked when Les Claypool remarked that no recording captures the band’s live presence.
LA: It’s hard to take that energy and enthusiasm and put it on a record. A band like Gogol Bordello also falls into that trap — their shows are great but their albums aren’t quite the same. There’s trouble transforming that energy in the studio. Fishbone’s recording history might have been a little uneven, but the fact is their live shows never suffer.
Did you guys know the importance of all the founding members when you started the film?
CM: One of the things that drew both of us to the project was that Fishbone were six disparate guys with different personalities and influences. The only reason why six of them came together and started the band was the de-segregation efforts in Los Angeles. From different areas, they formed a friendship not only on their love of music but that they were the only few black guys at the school — and that they all liked to pinch girls’ butts. The friendship developed into a band, which was based on a democracy. Everybody has their say, and that resulted in the genius of Fishbone. Without one of those guys, Fishbone wouldn’t have been Fishbone.
CM: Yeah, and I think that this led to some of the resentments in the band. Everyone in the band knew how important each was to the others. But in the traditional way music is sold, one person becomes the traditional frontman. With Fishbone, each of the six men was important to the live show, but you had Angelo, Dirty Walt, and Chris Dowd all doing leads. In a way, when you have three lead singers it is difficult for the commercial music industry to deal with, where they want to compartmentalize things.
Now that your film is on the festival circuit, do you wish you could have represented a band member better, or followed another story?
CM: I think we’re very happy with how it turned out. The tough thing when you are making a documentary is when you have to jam a 25-year story into a 100-minute movie. Obviously, there are sacrifices. The great thing about being able to release the film on DVD at a later time is that we can include things we cut out. Though we both recognize they don’t fit into this streamline narrative, we recognize them as part of the greater Fishbone story.
It’s nice to hear that you would have liked to include the other members, especially when you have people like former Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Rocky George.
CM: When we made this film, we knew we had a long history to explore along with the present-day story. We were making two films at the same time. Then in the editing room, the story developed into the two intertwining narratives, but the current lineup had to be sacrificed. When you see Fishbone today, everyone onstage is essential to the show — I’d say just as great as 15 years ago, just a different set of guys.
So you didn’t discover your alternating structure — history and present day — until near the end?
CM: Absolutely. At first we were following the present day, what Fishbone is now, to see what was going to develop and happen. In the end, we fell in love with the history as well as the present-day story. In the editing style, we had to find a way to show how the past never gets left behind, and how it affects the present day and their current creation of art.
This isn’t just a biopic about a great band that no longer exists. Fishbone has never broken up — they have continued to play and tour, and never stopped. They never went anywhere; some people just stopped paying attention. They’re not out there playing oldies. They’re still out there making new music and changing music culture.
LA: You have an incredible story about rock pioneers, but a present-day story that you cannot ignore. I always felt that it would be a disservice to Angelo and Norwood [the two founding members] if we made the film as a museum piece. When you see their current situation, it testifies to their artistic endurance and dedication.
In an early shot, you show them playing at a city square in Hungary, which looks like a ghost town. Is that representative of what happens to them in Europe?
CM: It does represent a low point in the middle of their tour. It was the night after they played to a club of five people. It is an impressionistic representation of their struggle on the road. As we watched them over the years, they built up a strong fan base in Europe. In our final “Everyday Sunshine” montage, a lot of those shows are from Europe. Willing to play the small, at times empty clubs along with the major festivals shows their perseverance to play music each night.
LA: By the end of that same show in Hungary the square was packed with people. Actually, it seems like they do better in Europe than in the States. They do most of the big summer music festivals there. For a while they had distribution in France and not in the U.S. It does vary at some shows, but in Europe they are like jazz musicians of another era. Those tours are their bread and butter.
LA: We were aware of that as part of their history. At one time, they were more visible on MTV, in videos — which are pretty much extinct, anyway. (Laughs) That was then, and now they are far from that mainstream. In this way they have a rise and fall, in terms of popular success, but still have that dedicated fanbase.
CM: In reality the film is a rise, fall, and rebirth. Fishbone is like a phoenix rising from the ashes — the original band disintegrated and was then reborn by taking a new creative path. So while we knew we’d have the rise, fall, and rebirth structure, in terms of a thematic perspective we looked at it as the subjective notion of success and failure. While Fishbone may have seemed to have failed because they didn’t reach the commercial success of some of their peers, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or No Doubt, they made and continue to make music true to them. In a way, it’s the story of living life on your own terms, and the things you have to give up to do that.
With the rise and fall, you also have a betrayal, by Kendall (during his religious conversion that led to the court case), which incriminates the other members. Did you know that would be a major turning point in your narrative?
LA: We approached Fishbone as a family. This is a band that promised to see things through to the end as brothers. Kendall’s decision to leave the band began the disintegration, on both a personal and professional level. So yes, it had to be a turning point in the film because it was a turning point for them.
In your interviews with Kendall, he looks very unstable. Out of all the members, he’s the one who looks disturbed.
CM: That is one of those things that might be difficult to gauge, as I think a lot of what someone can read into it is based on the events that happened at a trial more than 15 years ago. But I can tell you that when you talk to Kendall and get to know him, he’s a really nice, smart guy, very aware, and pretty articulate. In the end, the great thing is that he was always cooperative with the film and happy that we were making it. And it was a nice surprise when he joined the guys on stage one night, which appears in our film. We connected with Kendall early in the project, but we weren’t sure if he was going to want to participate or not, so we were happy when he decided to do some interviews with us.
Everyone else in the band seems to be open communicators about the band — even Dirty Walt, who seems bemused about their issues. With Kendall, the communication lines are really different from everyone else.
LA: Kendall is more of a poet and a philosopher, an abstract thinker who likes to talk about the larger picture, whereas Dirty Walt just tells it like it is with a dose of humor.
I notice that you juxtapose Dirty Walt riffing on a “me, me, me” syndrome in the band, with Angelo talking to Norwood about his importance in the band. Did you intend to point the finger at Angelo there?
CM: We never want to point blame. I think each of the guys would take individual responsibility for different things. What we were trying to illustrate there is that everyone needs to listen to each other. That’s what Angelo is asking Norwood to do for him, and Walt shows what he needs from Angelo. The band can continue if everyone can step back and listen to one another. Surprisingly enough, Dirty Walt rejoined the band after we finished the film, and is now on tour with them. It would have been great to get this into the film, but it’s exciting to see it after the fact.
LA: I wouldn’t place blame on Angelo. They certainly wouldn’t be where they are without him. He’s a supreme talent and a strong creative force. It’s more the problem of artists who’ve worked together so long, have a hard time communicating, and how they get over that.
CM: We as filmmakers went in with an open mind. We do have a guiding director’s hand — the film you see is the one Lev and I wanted to make, and is filtered through our experience of the band. We also like the subjective notion for viewers to come in and see who in the band they will saddle up with. Some people may go with Angelo, some with Norwood, Dirty Walt, Chris, or Kendall, and they will see the film through that character’s eyes.
CM: Well, if that’s how you come away from the film, that’s any viewer’s right. We like to see it as despite the struggles they’ve gone through, that they’ve come out stronger. Being middle-age rock and rollers, just trying to pay the bills, isn’t an easy lifestyle. They make sacrifices based on their love of music and art. It may be an elegy of one part of the band’s history, but also a celebration of what Angelo and Norwood have continued to do.
The flesh may change, but the ‘bone remains.