Like the sticky creeper weed they supposedly partake of, Fu Manchu's new album, King of the Road, is wreathed in lazy, sun-baked grooves that sneak up from behind and wallop you on the back of the head. Guitarist/singer Scott Hill, a golden-maned San Clemente surfer dude who exudes a mythic aura of West Coast easy living, and bassist Brad Davis build smoldering riffs as fierce and twisted as coiled snakes into monstrous, cortex-massaging amalgams. Throw in lead picker Bob Balch, whose muscular fingers flash serious technical mastery (along with a yen for flanger patches and effects pedals), and you've got the band's official stamp of big-dick swagger and heavy, arena-sized excess.
Stoner metal, it's usually branded.
"I don't know why we keep getting called stoner metal," Hill says, sighing wearily. "That's the thing I hear from people that bugs me the most. Sometimes we do [get high], but it's not like a requirement."
Because of such misinformation, Hill usually ignores the band's press. "I don't really have time to keep up on it," he says. "If someone's into us, cool. If not, who cares?"
The Fu, though, are more complex than meets the ear. Balch may be the lead guitarist, but don't mistake that for boring-ass, limelight-hogging solo-wank sessions. Instead of setting himself apart with Satriani/ Vai-style showboating and displays of virtuosity (complete with lots of pained facial expressions), he integrates his flourishes and trills into the primary groove.
"Yeah, that was one of the problems we had with the guy before Bob," Hill says, referring to Eddy Glass, who now fronts his own project, Nebula. "He was a little too psychedelic for us. There's nothing wrong with experimentation, but he would just get too into his own world."
The band is great at playing up the slacker beach-bum angle, like four Jeff Spiccoli clones. It's an endearing shtick, but don't buy it: they lug weighty equipment, numb their gluteals on chintzy tour-bus seats, endure endless drives—straining bladders, postponing bowel movements —globe-trotting like nobody's business. In short, they work their asses off.
"Hey, I got no complaints," Hill makes clear. "I'm seeing the world, making some dough, having fun."
Formed in a San Clemente garage in1989, Fu Manchu have basically been writing the same album again and again for the past 10 years. In a fickle, flavor-of-the-month novelty-seeking popscape, their anachronistic ide fixe is refreshing. Their thick, sludgy jams are the embodiment of classic rock, and you just don't fuck with a formula that's perfect. Whether it's their Mammoth debut In Search Of . . ., 1997's The Action Is Go, or the few EPs they did for tiny San Francisco label Man's Ruin, you get Hill's massive hooks finessed with Balch's cavalier axemanship, layered over Davis' sternum-cracking thunder and the Bonhamesque kit-bashing of bushy-headed Brant Bjrk. The tightness of each successive release may be the only difference.
It's another myth that they worship at the altar of Motrhead and Black Sabbath. Curiously, it's the SoCal hardcore of Black Flag, TSOL and the Circle Jerks as well as new wavers like the B-52's and Devo that have inspired Fu Manchu.
"We really dig Devo," Hill says. "We asked fans on our Web site to pick what song they wanted us to cover for this record, and the one request we got most was 'Slow Ride' by Foghat—but everyone expects us to cover Foghat, so we decided to really throw people off." Which is why King of the Road—out Feb. 15—dovetails with a synthesizer-free but otherwise faithful cover of the spudboy anthem "Freedom of Choice."
"Didn't you have to get Mark Mothersbaugh's permission to do that?" I ask.
"No," Hill tells me. "Well, I don't know if we were supposed to or not. We just did it. I'm sure they'll be pleased, though."
"But bands get sued for that all the time," I say.
"I don't know, " he says. "Maybe if we were selling millions of records, but I'm not too worried about anything like that happening."
Seventies pop culture informs FuManchu's dumb-rock sound as much as Crown fuzz pedals and Marshall amps do. Surfing, skating, cheesy TV specials on the Bermuda Triangle and the Sasquatch, aliens-built-the-pyramids theses like Chariots of the Gods, and kitsch too numerous to mention—you don't have to scrutinize the lyric sheet for references, just look at the song names ("Boogie Van," "Hell on Wheels," "Hotdoggin'"), album titles (In Search Of . . .) and record covers. Hell, King of the Road is basically a paean to muscle cars, dragsters and Dodge vans, while pioneering skateboarder Tony Alva graces the cover of The Action Is Go.
"I keep wanting to thank Alva for letting us use his photo, but I can't get hold of him," Hill says, genuinely distressed. The King of the Road track "Blue Tile Fever" is dedicated to the movie of the same name, about the late-'70s/early '80s rogue Venice Beach skate scene—a.k.a. Dogtown—whose mantra was "Skate or Die." Little did LA's upper classes know they were contributing to the growth of a subculture that would be the bane of public squares and pedestrians everywhere. Dogtown's modus operandi was sneaking into the back yards of Beverly Hills mansions during the day to make use of wintertime's drained swimming pools—the perfect riding surface and the model for today's halfpipes and bowls.
"We were in awe of those guys growing up—Alva, Tony Hawk, all of 'em," Hill says. "We never knew them personally, but we wanted to skate like they did. There's this book all about [Dogtown] that just came out which I can't wait to read called The Concrete Wave."
It's a kick in the head that such a whopping slab of Americana goes over so well in the U.K. and Scandinavia, where the murderous pagan recidivism and church burnings endemic to the cliquey black-metal scene hold sway. Fu are the toast of Brit mags like Kerrang! and Terrorizer and are taking Europe by storm.
"It's awesome over there. We started the tour in Greece, opening to, like, 800 people. We never play venues that big in the States," Hill rhapsodizes before chuckling. "I think they're mostly into our shoes. We all wear those old-style Vans slip-ons. I guess you can't get 'em over there."
With all that appreciation, is there ever the temptation to indulge a few perks, such as frisky young groupies? "Well, I can't speak for the other guys, but I got a girl back in San Clemente who I'm steady with," he says. "You can print that—she'll be real happy."
Europe may be golden, but it's Down Under where Fu Manchu is as hot as the sands of Maralinga. Makes sense. If there's a doppelganger of SoCal in the Eastern Hemisphere, it's Australia. "They loved us there," Hill says. "I can't wait to go back. Aussies are great people. When we go through there again, I'm gonna make sure I take a couple of days off for surfing."
The taciturn Hill is a tough interview, really—lots of responses like "yeah," "nah" and "cool." I try a little ska-baiting—a topic rumored to raise the group's hackles —but like the song from King of the Road, it's "No Dice." As the lulls in our chat grow longer, I launch into a rambling anecdote that ends up with me running over my brother's vintage '74 Nectarine Tri-Fin—a sweet board—with our mom's station wagon.
After I tell him this, a deadly silence hangs in the air, not unlike a stray fart in church. Much to my relief, a hearty belly laugh finally ensues.
"Awww, man," he says. "I was gonna ask if you wanted to sell it."
Fu Manchu play with Anthrax and Raven Mad at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Thurs., Feb. 3, 8 p.m. $18.50.
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