For Chris Dowd, songwriter and keys player for the genre-defying musical group Fishbone, a band is like an artistic movement. Like a painter who unveils a new style that legions imitate (read: Picasso and Cubism), a band can usher in a new sound that changes the proverbial angle upon which the world’s axis spins. And the founding six members of Fishbone, which began formally in L.A. in 1979, got to see how their music influenced myriad bands to come after them, despite some of those bands earning more financial success.
Yet, the movement was felt and it’s still being felt. Just weeks ago, Fishbone played a series of shows from Portland to Seattle that caused fans to line up around street corners for the doors to open. But for those who know the band and its history, the soaring highs and the harsh lows are all part of the journey for Fishbone. Still, though, the band keeps moving. Pushing boundaries. Breaking conventions. And now there are rumors of possible new music for fans in 2022.
“I love playing,” the Los Angeles-based Dowd tells American Songwriter. “I think because of the losses in life, and I’ve had some pretty heavy ones—I don’t know, man. I always feel like you got a shot. If you make a great song—a great song could change all of it. How insane is that shit?”
Unlike painters, if a musician writes a hit single, they have to play it over and over, perhaps for the rest of their careers. Leonardo only has to paint the Mona Lisa once. To continue the metaphor, what if you don’t have a Mona Lisa-famous song? What if your acumen, prowess, and spells cast on stage are your calling cards? Life as a musician is even harder then. Tastes change with the times, careers are in the balance. Lives, too. For Dowd, whose band rose to relative fame and popularity in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, many of his peers and friends who were even more famous are now gone. Jeff Buckley, Chris Cornell, Scott Weiland, Layne Staley. There are more. To wit, Dowd remembers meeting Linkin Park’s, Chester Bennington. They chatted, took photos.
“Then I watched him hop in this super nice all-white Jaguar,” Dowd says. “He pulls off and I’m like, well, I guess that’s the life. I had my Prius and I drove my ass home.” Dowd pauses. “Then he dies.” The musician adds, “There is nothing fun about somebody being addicted to massive amounts of drugs. It’s sad and some people don’t make it out.”
Dowd is an encyclopedia of music and its history. He remembers records like moments that brought on new eras. Each new release during his formative years both fueled and shifted his creative trajectory. He remembers seeing his grandfather as a kid dancing to “Licking Stick” by James Brown. He remembers hearing “ABC” by the Jackson 5 for the first time. Though his engineer father hated his interest in music, pushing him to follow in the old man’s footsteps, Dowd knew by six years old that he wanted a musician’s life. (Later, he’d find out his father had wanted to be a musician but bitterly gave up his dream.) Ahead of Christmas morning, he hoped for pianos and guitars, not fire engines or army figures. He remembers when The Clash hit, Parliament Funkadelic, David Bowie, the B-52s, DEVO, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on.
“Why do whales swim 10,000 miles every year to go back to Alaska?” Dowd says, musing about his interest in the art form. “It’s just something instinctual.”
Growing up, Dowd lived in Las Vegas until he was six years old. When his parents split, he moved to L.A. to live with his mother and her sister. Then when that got too dangerous in the ‘70s with gangs and drugs, he moved to Arkansas to live with family. Then back to L.A., and later to live with his dad in Tri-Cities, in Eastern Washington. Finally, for his senior year, Dowd moved back to La-La land. Around middle school, though, during one L.A. stint, he’d met Kendall Jones, who would later play guitar for Fishbone. The two bonded over music, especially Parliament, and decided they’d be in a band one day. Eventually, something like 30 kids, including Jones, ended up going regularly to Dowd’s mother’s house in L.A. before Dowd moved to the Tri-Cities. They’d jam out on whatever they could find.
“It started before I had to go to Washington,” Dowd says. “It started off where it was 30 kids. That would get whittled down to the six, which was the original Fishbone lineup.”
After he’d moved to Tri-Cities, the remaining musicians would send him cassettes from their practices (now done in another band member’s mother’s home), telling him he had to come back to L.A. and join their group and play keys. Finally, Dowd moved back to L.A. for his senior year, got together with the fellas, and Fishbone was born in earnest. They played their first gig at the famed punk rock venue, Madame Wong’s when Dowd was 17 and just at the end of his high school tenure. The first night they played there was the day after Jones’ prom and the day of Moore’s. There was even a little date-swapping at some point. That’s what happens in a rambunctious group of style-pushing close friends. But life wasn’t all songs and good times. In L.A., life was rough.
“Seeing first-hand violent things happen,” Dowd says. “People getting shot at, people getting shot. I watched a dude almost get beaten to death with a baseball bat.”
Moore was the one member who didn’t live in the ‘hood. So, the band would often find themselves at his place in the Valley. It was one of the few places the group could feel some semblance of safety. Even in the Tri-Cities, far away from L.A. gang violence, Dowd remembers feeling great culture shock and acerbic racism in the largely all-white region of the Pacific Northwest. As such, all of these experiences landed in the songs the band wrote together, as they interspersed vocalists, horn lines, guitars, keys, and dance moves.
“We had to think about what block we were going to walk down,” Dowd says. “Because we didn’t want to run into the Crips or someone slinging drugs.”
Fishbone released its debut LP, In Your Face, in 1986 and its follow-up, Truth and Soul, in 1988. Both on Columbia Records. The latter hit No. 153 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s third album, The Reality of My Surroundings, came in 1991, hitting No. 49 on Billboard. Four more studio LPs followed. In between, the band influenced groups like The Red Hot Chili Peppers (who were peers of the group), No Doubt and many others. They went on tour with the Beastie Boys, had Spike Lee direct a video, and played Saturday Night Live. But maybe the biggest relationship Fishbone forged was early on with the ‘70s-born L.A. rock band The BusBoys (of “The Boys Are Back in Town” fame).
“They were our mentors,” Dowd says of the Black rock group. “At the time, they were the biggest band in L.A., other than like Motley Crue or some shit. They came out to see us play at Madame Wong’s and we started opening shows for The BusBoys!”
Fishbone enjoyed its success. With their famous skeleton fish logo, they were the apple of many rock fans’ eyes, as well as those who enjoyed funk and jam band tunes. Dowd remembers over a decade of seemingly constant touring, from clubs to major festivals. Eventually, all the time on the road combined with never breaking through in the way other bands had, built up enough frustration and Dowd left Fishbone in 1994. He was just shy of 30 years old.
It was then he began working on his own stuff. Dowd later released his sole solo album, Puzzle, with the name The Seedy Arkestra. That record included a guest appearance from Buckley. Dowd remembers the day he met the legendary singer around 1990 when Fishbone was beginning work on its most successful LP to date. When Dowd met Buckley, it was raining. A friend had picked him up in her Jeep. Dowd put the window down and felt the raindrops hit his face. Then at some point, he realized there was someone else in the backseat of the Jeep. It was Buckley.
“I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” Dowd says. “He was sitting behind me getting soaked. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry! Why didn’t you say anything?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know. You seemed like you were enjoying yourself.’”
The two became close ever since. It was an important friendship in a precarious time for Dowd, who has grown down on himself and his musical abilities after leaving the band he helped get off the ground. He was in a place of self-doubt when he met Buckley, who was in a similar place himself. Together, along with other musical compatriots, the two helped to build back each other’s confidence. Since then, oceans of water have passed underneath many metaphorical bridges. Dowd even went on to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu and became a chef. But in 2018, he rejoined Fishbone to play keys full-time.
“We’re dysfunctional,” Dowd says. “But I give zero fucks about being told I’m difficult. At the end of the day, I got this one chance to impress people and make a great song. Nobody is going to make any of us do anything—including each other—before it’s ready.”
Yet, despite the 40-plus years of acrimony and beauty and the various band members coming and going (all but two of the founding six members have left at some point), Fishbone subsists—and loudly. Say the name to Gwen Stefani or Flea and their eyes will light up, memories flooding back. And while the band may not be playing to 5,000-person venues, there are still hundreds of people who will line up along a city block and wait for their concert doors to open and for the subsequent two-hour musical onslaught, complete with trombone tossing (the band’s next gig is tonight).
Not to mention, none of the members have ended up like Bennington or Cornell, or Staley. If life is indeed a journey, music has been the vehicle forward for Fishbone and its members—Dowd, especially.
“It’s like Willy Wonka,” Dowd says. “You can get on that one boat and get all freaked out with the Oompa Loompas. Or you can end up making it to the end and getting the entire Chocolate Factory. It’s such a transcendent gift. You can experience this higher idea of self and where we fit in the universe. It’s cool when it comes from a really good place and you’re doing it to exalt and lift people. That’s the best thing in the world.”
Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns