By Noah Hubbell
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We play what we're into, and what we're into is loud, heavy rock," says singer-guitarist Scott Hill, the leader of California's Fu Manchu. "We're not going to change something just to change something. If we put out four heavy albums in a row, we're not going to do an acoustic record next, just for variety. Maybe we'll throw in an instrumental, or some stuff that's a different speed than what we've done before. But for the most part, we play what we like to hear, and what we like to hear is heavy rock."
As these comments imply, Hill is not a man beset with doubts about his purpose in life. He was put on this planet to rock, and rock he does. He founded Fu Manchu in 1988, and although myriad personnel changes have occurred since then, lead guitarist Bob Balch, bassist Brad Davis and drummer Scott Reeder -- who appear alongside him on Start the Machine, the combo's latest scorcher -- are very much in touch with his original concept. "From the beginning, I wanted a solid, simple, straightforward beat with heavy riffs over it, and we're kind of still doing it," he acknowledges. "Granted, we change up the beats, and the riffs are different, but the rest is pretty much the same."
Descriptions of Fu Manchu's sound haven't shifted for a while, either. During its early years, the group's music was alternately called punk rock, grunge rock, garage rock, psychedelic rock and even, Hill confirms, "bong rock" -- a handle probably inspired by Bong Load Records, an indie that issued the combo's first two discs, 1994's No One Rides for Free and 1995's Daredevil. For nearly a decade, though, Fu Manchu has been regularly referred to as the living embodiment of a metal subgenre dubbed stoner rock. Hill's hated the moniker since the first time he heard it, and in his opinion, it hasn't improved with age. "When I think of stoner rock, I think of the Grateful Dead or some other hippie nonsense," he says. "Real mellow stuff, because when you smoke a bunch of dope, you're not really amped, and nothing is really happening. It's not too appealing to me." At this point, though, he realizes, "There's no use fighting it. Now we're like, whatever..."
Hill's attitude is in keeping with the SoCal beach culture that so firmly stamped his youth. He grew up with a fondness for surfing, pinball machines, tricked-out vans, hot rods and skateboarding that informs essential Fu albums such as The Action Is Go, a 1997 salvo highlighted by the drumming of ex-Kyuss member (and fellow stoner-rock icon) Brant Bjork. Songs such as "Burning Road," "Guardrail" and "Trackside Hoax" sport reams of fuzz-toned guitar, elongated arrangements and enough lyrical nods to cars to make Bruce Springsteen seem like a piker by comparison. Add a cover shot of boarding icon Tony Alva in mid-flight and the result is an adrenalized hour of musical thrills and spills.
Action was released by Mammoth, a mid-level firm that was Fu Manchu's happy home for four recordings. Unfortunately, the Walt Disney Company, which owned Mammoth, shuttered the imprint in 2002, stranding the players in limbo. Thanks to the band's sterling reputation among rock cognoscenti, major labels soon came calling, but Hill wasn't interested. He briefly hooked up with Germany's Steamhammer Records, which unleashed 2003's Go for ItLive!, a terrific throwback to the golden age of double-length concert souvenirs. Then, when it came time to return to the studio, Hill contracted with DRT, a New York indie, to get Machine in gear.
"DRT reminded us of Mammoth, and that was something we were all into," Hill says. "We did talk to some majors, but I didn't think that was the right place for us, especially with this record. There's not a lot of radio-friendly stuff on it, so I was afraid they'd be pressuring us to, you know, write a pop song. And we didn't want to do that."
Instead, the Manchu men got down to fundamentals. Cuts such as "Written in Stone," "Open Your Eyes" and "Tunnel Vision" feature quick tempos and brutal arrangements, and extended instrumental freakouts are kept to a bare minimum. "There wasn't a lot of jamming with this record," Hill confirms. "We got in there, did what we had to do and got out. We wrote, like, 22 songs, and some of them were slower, mellower -- but that kind of stuff didn't really fit in. We kept going back to the faster stuff."
Lyrically, Hill steered clear of writing about wheels and vehicles because "I didn't have anything new to say about them, I guess." The big exception was "I'm Gettin' Away," penned for the new Discovery Channel documentary Motorcycle Mania 3 at the request of its star, chopper expert Jesse James. Thanks to James, a fan of the group since the early days, Fu Manchu songs are staples of Monster Garage, the series he hosts. "A million people watch every episode of that thing, and 95 percent of them don't know who the heck we are," Hill admits. "So those people can check us out, and if they dig it, they can buy our record."
The current popularity of all things automotive plays to Fu Manchu's strengths, but Hill can hardly be accused of cashing in on the trend. He's always stuck to his guns, even at times when such weaponry was out of style. "Back when a lot of that nü-metal stuff was happening, we toured with the Deftones on their first record, and Limp Bizkit opened the shows, before anybody had heard of them," he says. "At first the kids who came wanted no part of us. We just got some kind of confused looks. But because it was upbeat, aggressive stuff and it was loud, I think they wound up kind of digging it."
With nü-metal on the wane, the pendulum is swinging back in Fu Manchu's direction -- not that Hill's noticed. "I don't really know what the heck the mainstream does," he says. "I don't really listen to mainstream radio or watch mainstream TV or mainstream videos. We just do what we do, and it seems that every record and tour there are more people coming to shows and more people getting into it. I mean, we've never really had a bad tour, or a bad time with a record. Whenever it's like that, that's when we stop.
"I don't care what other people around us are doing," he adds. "If our stuff isn't happening right then, who cares? We're doing it anyway."