When O.C. rockers Fu Manchu perform this Saturday night at The Wayfarer in Costa Mesa, the gig will celebrate twenty-five years of fuzzed out hard-driving riffs. It will also celebrate a band that is quintessentially Californian.
During their rise to major-label prominence in the '90s, the group was lumped in with the desert-rock scene birthed by acts such as Kyuss. But Fu Manchu's inspirations were more firmly rooted in the band members' coastal roots.
"My entire upbringing revolved around the beach," says Fu Manchu vocalist/guitarist Scott Hill, the driving force and remaining original member from the band's early '90s roots. "I remember being a kid about to enter the fifth grade…walking up to the Huntington Beach Pier one day and seeing a guy in an El Camino. There were surfboards hanging out the back and he talking to a pretty girl. I remember wanting all of that."
This pivotal scene in Hill's childhood would be re-enacted on the cover of the group's 2001 album California Crossing. Other moments of a Southern California upbringing were reflected by a 1977 photo of skateboarding icon Tony Alva on the cover of 1997's The Action Is Go and a boogie van adorning the cover of 2000's King Of The Road.
It is the latter album that will play a prominent role in Fu Manchu's show this Saturday night. The band will be playing two sets that night. One of them will consist of King Of The Road in its entirety. The 2000 record is a fan favorite, with the majority of songs being heavy rockers that make perfect background noise for driving fast up and down the PCH.
"That's the record people yell out the most songs from when we perform live," says Hill. "It's a little more laid back compared to our previous records to that point. It was maybe heavier but not quite as aggressive."
Fu Manchu's current drummer Scott Reeder did not join the band until after 2001's California Crossing. But for him, King of the Road represents what Fu Manchu is all about.
"The hook of the band isn't big singles or catchy choruses," says Reeder. "The riff is the hook of this band. There are great riffs all over King of the Road."
The band's riffs are what have sustained their fanbase throughout their 25-year career. While lyrical subjects over the years have evolved from cars, skateboarding, and surfing to more esoteric themes of science-fiction and the supernatural on 2014's Gigantoid, the group's sound continues to mix '70s hard rock warmth with a slight early '80s hardcore punk edge.
That edge comes from Hill's teenage years in the early '80s attending shows headlined by local legends such as Black Flag. Hill's first band, Virulence, was formed initially with the intention of playing nothing but fast-paced 45-second hardcore songs. A 1985 performance by SoCal hardcore act BL'AST! – who recently reformed in 2013 – threw Hill for a loop and made him rethink his musical direction.
"They had these songs full of crazy weird timings," said Hill. "They were going from slow to fast and back again. We saw that and said, 'Oh, we don't know if we should continue along the 100 mph pace any longer.'"
Virulence went on to release one album – 1988's If This Isn't A Dream – before evolving into Fu Manchu. The newer band's sound evolved into its current state after they started revisiting records by '60s and '70s rock acts such as Blue Cheer and ZZ Top.
The band's guitar sound eventually saw them grouped with the '90s stoner-rock scene populated by acts such as Monster Magnet. But Reeder is quick to point out why that tag does not really apply to Fu Manchu.
"There's not a single Fu Manchu song that mentions weed," Reeder says. "There are plenty of songs that mention cars, UFOs, pinball, skateboarding…we're inspired by living life fast, whether you're skateboarding, surfing in the water, or riding dirt bikes on a desert track."
As for that Huntington Beach childhood memory that inspired Hill, he eventually got what he wanted. The El Camino on the cover of 2001's California Crossing was owned by him, and the pretty girl on the cover is now his wife.
Fu Manchu performs this Saturday, June 13th at the Wayfarer in Costa Mesa. For full show details click here.