Back in the '60s and '70s, the outline for a career in heavy rock was quite simple and universally endorsed by those pursuing it: Pump up the sound, project ego, reap big rewards and plunge right in for a life of rampant hedonism.
Now it's the '90s, and in Fu Manchu's heavy-rock equation only the first step applies. The Orange County band certainly pumps up the sound as it carries on unabashedly in the crunch-rock tradition of bands its members grew up loving, among them Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, Grand Funk and Ted Nugent. Pumping up the sound is what Fu Manchu has been all about since front man Scott Hill launched the band seven years ago.
But having served the sonic crunch, Hill can do without the rest of the drill--the ego enhancement, the lucre, the binges.
"I never wanted to have anyone look at me. I just wanted to play guitar and that's it," Hill said recently, on the eve of Fu Manchu's first national headlining club tour. He inherited the singing spotlight because auditions failed to turn up anyone he liked. "I figured I'd do it. I couldn't leave it in the hands of just some chump."
But isn't it traditional for heavy-rockers to be rock's prime peacocks and wild men, like the bat-chomping, whiskey-swigging Ozzy, the famously decadent Led Zeppelin or the ever-maniacal Nuge?
"I guess so," said Hill, 30, a lanky, longhaired man who starts out reticent and heats up conversationally to a few degrees below matter-of-fact. "But we didn't get into it for that. We just like the sound big, huge."
In fact, Hill and bassist Brad Davis fired two other band members last year partly because they were living it up a bit too much on the road.
"Our idea of touring was a lot different," Hill said. "To me, you've got to do everything you can to stay healthy, get enough sleep, take care of your equipment."
Worse, the deposed members, lead guitarist Eddie Glass and drummer Ruben Romano, had committed the ultimate musical sin by forsaking the grail of heaviness.
"They'd always try to get us to play kind of like psychedelic, really wimpy stuff," Hill said. "I was [thinking], 'Wrong band for that.' . . . We just wanted to keep playing [heavy] rock, and I don't think those guys wanted to do that."
Replacement players surfaced quickly. Drummer Brant Bjork was an old friend who had played in the Palm Desert hard-rock band Kyuss and knew Fu Manchu's approach well, having produced its 1994 debut album, "No One Rides for Free." Bob Balch, who works with Davis at a musical instrument shop in El Toro, became the new lead guitar player.
Together they made Fu Manchu's recently released fourth album, "The Action Is Go," a more crisp, but no less heavy, successor to the sludgier-sounding ones made with the old lineup. Now, Fu Manchu is on the road, seeking to expand upon a small cult following.
As a small boy in Huntington Beach, Hill got his indoctrination into heavy rock from a friend's older brother.
"He was listening to Deep Purple and all the heavy-rock bands. His muscle car had "Highway Star" [a vrooming Deep Purple ode to speeding hot rods] written on it."
That song might be taken as a sort of keynote for Hill's work in Fu Manchu: The band's four album covers have been adorned by a custom van, a dune buggy, racing cars and a flying skateboard rider. Motion, whether it's a van careening down the highway or a UFO hurtling through the atmosphere, is the main lyrical theme.
Hill, who moved to San Clemente after sixth grade, went from heavy rock to hard-core punk in the '80s, favoring such bands as Black Flag and Minor Threat, and playing guitar in an Orange County hard-core band, Virulence. But by the late '80s he felt the punk scene had lost its punch, and he was back listening to his old Sabbath records. They inspired the launching of Fu Manchu in 1990.
Hill found the name in a film magazine and figured that everybody would know about Fu Manchu, the old B-movie villain. But the mustached menace hasn't proven as enduring as Hill expected among today's youth culture. Out-of-town promoters' fliers and concert ads routinely mangle the spelling.
What's in a name? Well, a clever concert pairing, for one thing. A bill of the Foo Fighters (led by former Nirvana member Dave Grohl) and Fu Manchu almost came about when Grohl invited Fu Manchu to open shows this fall in Europe, Hill said. But, with "The Action Is Go" months away from its European release, the band decided to concentrate its fall campaign in the United States.
Fans will hear heavy guitars arrayed with an astute sense of dynamics to prevent plodding sameness. They'll see Hill drawl his lyrics in a muffled, half-spoken tone. The words hardly matter, anyway, he said.
"I don't stress over them. Music comes first, and then the lyrics come about third, after the artwork. [Cars and UFOs] seem to be easy to write about. We'll never have songs dealing with feelings," he said, a smirk on his face and a mock lounge-singer's croon in his voice.
As for the artwork, don't look for this least preening of heavy-rock bands to turn up on any of its own album covers. "We try to obscure ourselves as much as possible," Hill said. "We're pretty uninteresting to look at."