December 13th, 2011 | Published in Interviews
This Is Spinal-Tap may be gold standard when it comes to displaying rock and roll excess on film, and recent documentary The Story of Anvil introduced the concept of “noble failure” by a genuine metal band. Now comes Everyday Sunshine, the definitive biopic of South Central L.A. funk-rockers Fishbone.
Lovingly shot, meticulously assembled, and diligently produced, the new “rockumentary” by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler traces the roots of the influential ska-funk-metal sextet—from their serendipitous formation in high school (courtesy court-ordered busing) in the late 70s to their penultimate 2010 concert campaign. But where most Behind the Music-styled films focus on celebrity substance abuse and impulse control issues, Sunshine never strays far from the topic of Fishbone music and the quirky personalities responsible for it.
Ever-grinning singer / sax player Angelo “Dr. Madd Vibe” Moore and bassist John “Norwood” Fisher emerge as the group’s two leaders, who throughout the 80s and 90s were often at loggerheads over their musical mission. We’re treated to the usual personality conflicts, ego explosions, and rash “I’m leaving!” departures by peripheral players, but the directors emphasize that Fishbone were (and are) a family as much as a creative force—a fraternity of funk whose kooky clan members don’t leave each other behind. We get glimpses of unglamorous life on the road, with Fishbone arguing over music and money in cramped green rooms and Ford Econolines. Alienation, eviction—and even physical abduction—become critical subplots impacting the band and their tight-knit community, which still includes “Mama” Fisher and Moore’s understanding (but perpetually flummoxed) ex-Jehovah’s Witness mother.
Anderson and Metzler use archival footage, newly-shot road video, and eye-popping animation to tell the tale of a band whose message never quite transcended its underground source to lift Fishbone into the mainstream. Angelo, Norwood, and their peers speculate about their inability to break big in the early 90s—when rampant changes both music and the entertainment industry meant greater opportunity for newcomers. The filmmakers even capture views expressed by musician friends who did become famous for their own Fishbone-inspired work: Perry Farrell, Gwen Stefani, Les Claypool, George Clinton, and Branford Marsalis offer their two cents.
“To be a true artist, you must walk through your pain,” surmises Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) of Angelo’s three-decade musical ordeal.
Fishbone are still alive and kicking, having just released the new Crazy Glue EP, and the band—still built around Moore and Fisher—continue bringing their spiritual psycho-pop-a-delic booty rock to the faithful masses, money and fame be damned.
The Cleveland Sound’s Pete Roche caught up with both Norwood Fisher and Chris Metzler to discuss the making of Everyday Sunshine and Fishbone’s ongoing quest for musical truth. The documentary will premiere in Cleveland at the Capitol Theater on Wednesday, December 14th. Metzler gave us the 411 on his project, and why Fishbone are still red hot—but he’ll be on hand after the screening to answer any lingering questions.
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: So why a Fishbone doc? Why now?
CHRIS METZLER: Heh-heh! We thought, “Well why not?” Fishbone’s one of the most unique bands of the last twenty-five years. They’ve gone a little more underground in the last decade, so it seemed like a good time to explore their story. Because they’re a band that never really stopped being a band. They haven’t gone on hiatus. They continue to make music and tour and still sound as great as they did twenty-five years ago, and I think there’s something about the cache, verve, and endurance they have. Plus they’re a bunch of weirdos, and a lot of fun to be around!
TCS: What was the reaction from the band—particularly that of Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore—when you and Lev Anderson approached them about making a movie?
CM: I think they were a little bit cautious at first. They grew up in L.A. They know what it’s like to make a movie, the time and energy that goes into it. I think what they were most concerned about was, “Wait—aren’t documentaries supposed to be about people who are dead?” And I think they felt that they had a lot more to add. Like, a documentary would be the period at the end of the sentence. But they felt they had a lot more things to continue to do. So in some ways it was like, “Hey guys—if you come back in thirty years we can chat!” You know? But the thing we wanted to do was not just capture the band’s history and various circumstances we thought would be interesting, but we really wanted to capture the people behind this band. What makes them keep on doing it? The kind of relationships these were, to get these results and get the kind of creative music they do.
But with that said, within a couple days of talking to them and showing them an earlier film that was a little offbeat, I think they decided, “Let’s just take the risk and see what happens. Come join us on tour for a couple weeks and we’ll take it from there.” I think like, halfway through their European tour they were like, “Man—you’re still in Europe with us. I guess you really want to make this film!” From that point on, they were all in.
TCS: The movie you showed Norwood was your first doc about the stagnant lake in California—the Salton Sea, right?
CM: Yeah, The Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea. I think another thing to mention is that our stuff, and a film like Salton Sea, they’re kind of DIY efforts, you know? And I think there was something about that approach that they appreciated. Like, if someone is going to do a documentary about Fishbone, why not somebody who is fully independent and punk rock?
TCS: Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, who is interviewed in the film, would probably call that approach econo.
CM: Right, yeah [laughs]!
TCS: So how long did it take to make the film? Meaning, how long were you shooting for? Did you tour with the band?
CM: We shot the film over the course of three and a half years. On-and-off, you know? And usually every month or two we would go down to L.A. Myself and Lev—who is from San Francisco—we’d go down and spend a couple days every other week or so over those three and a half years, and kind of capture what was going on. Then we went on tour to Europe with them twice, and a couple times in the U.S. And while this isn’t a tour film, we wanted to get out there and show what life on the road was like for the guys.
TCS: So this was definitely one of those “Cool, let’s party over the weekend with Fishbone and get some footage!” piecemeal fan docs. It was a long, drawn-out process.
CM: [Laughs] We were embedded with Fishbone! Whether it was on the bus with them or being in the mosh pit—but also going home with them. Getting groceries with them, or going to the local music shop to get their saxophone fixed. We wanted some of the glamorous, but also some of the minutia of everyday life.
TCS: The film also has testimonial-style interviews with musicians who were influenced by Fishbone—but who are probably more familiar to casual viewers. How’d you go about soliciting people like George Clinton, No Doubt, Ice-T, Les Claypool, and Flea for their opinions on the band?
CM: The thing of it is, usually it’s very difficult to get these kinds of like, all-star musical celebrities for interviews because they have so many commitments as it is. But it’s kind of a testament to the band Fishbone, because when people heard the documentary was about Fishbone, they were like “Oh, we’re all in. We’ll do whatever is needed.” And that’s true based on their influence, and the respect that they have for the music and themselves as individuals. But also, with the interviews we didn’t just want people to just give testimonials about why Fishbone’s all great. We also wanted to talk to them as friends and families of the band—all these people who grew up with Fishbone, or who were there kind of working the circuit. So in the end, they’re friends first and musicians second.
TCS: Yeah, I noted a lot of the music insiders were from L.A. and that hip Orange County scene. And the film does a good job of separating those punk-rockers from the hair metal bands coming up in L.A. at the time, like Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Poison…
CM: Absolutely. And there were a lot of people who wanted to be interviewed for the film who are all great musicians, but in the end we didn’t feel they had that personal connection. So maybe like, in the outtakes….
TCS: And how’d you tap Laurence Fishburne as your narrator?
CM: He’s got that kick-ass voice, which worked very well for narration. But also he’s been a good friend of the band, and a fan since the early eighties. He was actually a bouncer at the punk rock clubs, and one day he was working the door and he heard all this racket going on inside. He was like, “Hey—this is kinda cool music!” So he connected with Fishbone at that point in time and has continued to do so through the years. He was kind of a logical choice then, not just based on his artistic talents.
TCS: That was probably right before The Color Purple and his role as “Cowboy Curtis” on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
CM: Right [laughs]!
TCS: You premiered Everyday Sunshine at Rerun Theater in New York, then Laemmle Sunset in Los Angeles. How are the screenings going in other cities?
CM: One of the things we try to do at the screenings it to make it more of a special event. Either ourselves or the band are there doing Q&As. It gives you a chance to talk up the filmmaking process, behind-the-scenes stories, and other fun stuff that you couldn’t fit in. So yeah, we opened up in New York and L.A. in October, and since then we’ve got thirty or forty cities to take us through February. So we’re taking the film on the road. When you spend a lot of time on a film, a lot of it is dark days in the editing suite. So it’s nice to get out there and share it with people.
TCS: There’s a lot of humor in the film as well as drama. Have you been getting good reactions from the crowds at the right times? There’s a bit near the end of the film where Fishburne somewhat exhaustedly says the band has been going at it “…for twenty-five goddamn years!” The way he said it—that Morpheus voice of his—just cracked me up.
CM: Heh! Yeah. And I think by that point in the film the viewers realize what a slog going on the road can be sometimes. Sometimes as outsiders we just see the glamorous parts of the band lifestyle—whether it be the shows at night, or getting your CD reviewed. Just seeing them onstage, when the reality is that there’s a lot of work that goes into making those events happen.
TCS: Even a lot of the road footage is decidedly non-glamorous, with the musicians sharing crowded spaces and worrying about the family situation back home, and just getting on each other’s nerves. One scene that really speaks to that idea is when Angelo is on the tour bus chatting on the phone with his daughter. He’s obviously upset when he gets off, because of missing his daughter and the complications with his ex-wife, and he looks right in the camera and says he’s got to push the “numb knob” to protect his emotions.
CM: Yeah. These guys make a lot of personal sacrifices. They’ve got families. There’s the Fishbone family, but then there’s the personal families. Especially as you get older…there’s a reason why so many bands don’t make it for thirty years. I mean, if you’re the Rolling Stones and you’ve got a lot of albums and money, then you’re touring in a much different way [laughs]! If you’re punk rock it’s a bit different.
TCS: Did you and Lev know going in that the relationship between Norwood and Angelo would more or less become the heart of the picture?
CM: No. That was something we kind of discovered while making it. We knew we had a solid back-story. We had their history, and we knew the band was made up of these interesting characters. Just really cool people. But we didn’t know what the present-day portrait was going to be, or how Norwood and Angelo related. That came from kind of filming at all hours and observing it, then piecing together the puzzle pieces until you start seeing the picture. And then you have the core of the band—Angelo and Norwood. That relationship. This is a band that they started when they were like, fourteen years old, in junior high—when Nord smashed a pomegranate in Angelo’s face.
TCS: That’s another thing the film does well: You use a couple different animation styles to help tell about the early years. You have a Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids cartoon style for the high school stuff, but some cool-looking rotoscope effects when discussing things like segregation, the change from 70s to 80s and Reaganomics. You also have some artist sketches from the courtroom sequences.
CM: The thing that’s great about a band like Fishbone was that they were part of so many different scenes. They’ve been together such a long time—there are so many different eras. Neighborhoods, people they’ve been around. So it gets to be this eclectic, collage-based approach to kind of give the flavor of the stew that Fishbone is. Animation is something that brings things to life—and hopefully puts you in the moment. We don’t want you watch and think, “Oh, that happened back then,” but rather make you feel you were there with them. So we were influenced by the times and places Fishbone was part of.
TCS: Was it painstaking for you guys and editor Jeff Springer to compile all your new HD CAM footage and the archival stuff shot by the band and their families back in the day on Hi-8 or VHS or whatever?
CM: Technically, the challenge is in the scope of the footage—and our editor Jeff kind of wrapped it on that. Not just the hundreds of hours of footage that we shot, but hundreds of hours other people shot of the band over the years. So there are probably thirty different Fishbone stories you could tell. So the reality is that you’re trying to put together the puzzle for the story we’re looking for. A lot of it is just digging through it and just kind of finding the gems and weaving it together. So no, it wasn’t easy. But Jeff was able to come up with something that seamlessly told the story that works on a few levels.
TCS: You worked in Nashville for time doing music video work. Did that experience help you on a music-related film like Everyday Sunshine in a way it might not have on your last project?
CM: Yes, hmmm…I think in the sense that, just having worked in the music video industry, the entertainment industry—I think there were things brought to this film about how to approach things. Requests for interviews, the bureaucracy involved, negotiating music rights. That sort of thing. I think the experience helped that, you know? But what’s really funny sometimes is that each film is kind of its own beast—but a lot of the work that you do is pretty similar for each one. I know that sounds kind of contradictory, but I think working on music videos gave me more of an appreciation of how bands and the industry work. It helped grease the wheels for starting off the film.
TCS: It’s kind of serendipitous that the film is being screened just as Fishbone releases a new EP, and last week on Jimmy Fallon the house band played “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” when Republican Presidential nominee Michele Bachmann came out. The fact that nobody knew right away what the song was—or whose song it was—only verifies the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of a band that, for all its triumphs, ever quite jumped to the next level.
CM: Absolutely. It’s one of those things….Well, there are two things interesting about it. One is that there are a lot of successful musicians now who were influenced by Fishbone—one of them being ?uestlove and the Roots—and it was just cool that they played a Fishbone song, you know? It’s cool that it’s out there in the culture that way. Then with the political synopsis: I think the thing that’s interesting is that Fishbone’s always been a band that appreciates a bit of humor and political criticism. It doesn’t really matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on; I think it’s just important that the messages get out there for debate. That’s in the spirit of Fishbone.
TCS: There’s a sense of victory in the movie, of Fishbone’s having come this far without permanently imploding or breaking up. Even if they didn’t hit it big time, they succeeded in what they set out to do—although it took a lot of work. I know there are a lot of very talented musicians out there who deserve to “make it,” but haven’t—and probably never will—who might be encouraged by a film like Everyday Sunshine, which suggests that sometimes being able to pursue your passion is its own reward.
CM: Yeah, and the thing is, when we made this film we wanted make diehard Fishbone fans happy, but also—whether you’re familiar with the band or like the music or not—just to show that there’s something about that kind of struggle and perseverance we can all kind of recognize. People who wanted to try doing something different, you know? Sometimes we confuse what real rewards are, or what success and failure is. In some ways, people might label Fishbone a failure because they didn’t sell gold records and don’t live in mansions. But in reality, Fishbone is a true success because when they started out they wanted to do something unique and original. And they keep on doing it. They never stopped. And they have a lot of fun doing it. And that’s the kind of thing that pushes them along, you know? If something more happens, great! But in the end, they’ve already accomplished what they wanted to.