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“It started with a kiss,” sang Aerosmith, Hot Chocolate and The Killers in various songs. Sometimes it starts with a kiss and sometimes it starts with Kiss.
For John Fishell, IPFW’s director of music technology, it started with Kiss.
“I was a little kid and I was over at my friends house,” he said. “It was grade school. Somehow I was introduced to Kiss and we were all losing our minds.
“That was my first concert with the explosions and the blood and the volume and the craziness,” Fishell said. “And I just thought, ‘That is it.’”
Fishell has dedicated decades’ worth of his professional life to education but on some level, it’s still all about Kiss.
And Queen and the Seattle sound of the early 90s.
And the Beatles, of course (whatever else an aspiring musician is listening to, he always seems to be listening to the Beatles).
Fishell is preparing to release his first album, a collection of hard rock that touches upon all these influences.
Sample songs can be accessed on Fishell’s Soundcloud page.
He has produced and performed on other people’s albums, but this will be his “first all-Fishell collection.”
“My friends tend to roll their eyes at me when I tell them I’m finally putting the Fishell record together, since I’ve been saying that for years,” he said.
Playing music has always been a part of Fishell’s life, but teaching music is what has carried him across the globe.
His first band, when he was a boy growing up in the Washington D.C. area, involved guitars fashioned out of badminton rackets and ad hoc drums jury-rigged from giant laundry detergent boxes.
Fishell eventually graduated to piano lessons and a $29 guitar.
To this day, he has never taken a guitar lesson.
“If anybody who knows what they’re doing watches me play guitar,” he said, “I mean, I have the worst guitar technique. I’m sure people who know what they’re doing look at me like, “Oh my god. This guy has taken no lessons.’”
Fishell went on to study music in college and spent the entire time regretting having quit piano lessons in his teens.
“I was the worst pianist my entire college career,” he said. “Somehow, I made it through.”
Fishell said he was asked three times by university staffers to give up being a music major.
“They sat down with me and said, ‘You know, you’re not going to make it,’” he said. “I just thought, “Oh man. If I don’t make this, I’m going to be a plumber.’ So I sort of doubled down on the practicing.”
After he earned his bachelor’s degree, Fishell moved to L.A. where he briefly tried to break into the music business.
“It was an ill-informed, ill-conceived decision,” he said. “My dad was often in Los Angeles for his work, and he flew out there with me after trying to tell me it would never work. I’m not sure my mom even knew what I was doing. I just naively thought I would be living in a Great White/White Snake/White Lion video when I arrived.”
Fishell said he instead encountered there many “bloated, strung-out ghosts” who had tasted success a long time ago and were desperate for more of it.
“I’m not sure how a place so sunny could be so dark,” he said.
Fishell said he’s been beneficiary of many last-minute cosmic and earthly rescues in his life. An unexpected offer to go on to grad school (with tuition waiver and stipend) rescued him from L.A.
“I didn’t understand that one doesn’t just walk out of college with a music degree and start making records for people. Or for yourself,” he said. “It was very clear that I was not going to survive that situation.”
Fishell’s career as a music educator started at Alabama State University.
His next stop was an exotic and improbable one: the University of Durban-Westville in South Africa.
“That was ’94, the year Mandela got elected,” Fishell said. “I’d applied through an ad. They came over and interviewed me in New York. I didn’t hear from them for a while, and then they sent me an honest-to-God telegram. I thought that was something that only happened in film noir movies.
“They moved me, my dog and my stuff over,” he said. “They even moved my trashcan over.”
Remnants of apartheid system were still very much in place when Fishell arrived. The university branch where he taught was set up expressly and exclusively for the Indian population of the country.
“A mile and a half down the road was the nice white university,” he said. “They had resources that weren’t available to us and I thought, ‘Oh, this is not going to be good.’”
Apartheid may have been yet another “bloated, strung-out ghost” encountered by Fishell, but he said that most of the people and institutions he encountered were working hard to put that ugly policy into the nation’s past.
“There were a lot of things that were really cool,” he said. “I miss the people. I miss the food. I was the healthiest I have ever been, maybe because the food didn’t have all the preservatives that our food does.”
Fishell said he had to leave because he sensed that the university was on shaky ground.
“In a lot of ways I wish I was still there,” he said, “but I perceived that the university was going to fold. And it eventually did.”
After his South Africa stint, Fishell taught at schools in Virginia, Tennessee and Denver, Colorado.
He taught briefly at American University in Washington, D.C. and then spent six years at Ball State.
He arrived at IPFW two years ago.
The school formerly known as IPFW was renamed Purdue University Fort Wayne last spring, after Purdue and IU decided to split control of the Fort Wayne campus.
These moves raised concerns about the future of music education at the campus.
But Fishell said his department intends to become the Purdue School of Music and “grow significantly.”
“I created, with support of our administration, department chair, and music faculty, three new degree programs that are based in popular music studies,” he said. “A recording/production degree, songwriting/performance degree and a music industry studies degree. We are moving these proposals forward.”
With everything that has been going on at the university, Fishell has been forced to delay the release of the CD several times.
He is shooting for December now.
He already hosted an album-less album release party back in August, so he is not sure yet what he’ll do to commemorate the actual release.
Even though his ambitions and satisfactions have evolved considerably over the years, Fishell said he still dreams of “fame and fortune.”
He believes that hunger is what keeps people making music.
“Honestly, if you don’t have at least a bit of megalomania – a burning desire to take over the world and the feeling that your music is better than everyone else’s – I’m not sure you can really conjure the energy to do it,” he said.
Fishell’s primary goal at this point is related to those aforementioned “cosmic and earthy rescues.” He calls them “dei ex machina,” those moments in the opera when all seems lost and a plot device saves the day.
Fishell hopes to one day substantively thank all those living and breathing dei ex machina who have saved so many of his days over the years.
“Really, the best case scenario would be that I’m able to pay everyone back, with interest, for all of their time, energy, and support,” he said. “I’d like to be able to do that through this music and future music. That would be fantastic. Right now, I owe everyone a lot.”