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Then, as Now, Fu Manchu Made of Solid Metal

Pop Music * The Orange County band marks 10 years of hard rocking and songs about the '70s pop culture.

May 24, 2000|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In this ever-changing world of new technological innovations and pop culture trends, it's nice to find that some things remain constant.

Take Fu Manchu. The hard-rockin' Orange County quartet recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Yet the band's musical philosophy and lyrical orientation have barely changed.

Fans can still depend on the band (which performs tonight at the Palace with headliner Motorhead, Nashville Pussy and Speedealer) to whip up thick slabs of pedal-to-the-metal guitar riffs and rumbling rhythms.

There's little chance vocalist Scott Hill is suddenly going to spit out a rap-laced rock song or deliver a pop-punk ditty that will be embraced by commercial radio.

"When people buy a Fu Manchu record, they know what they're going to get: a heavy rock record," Hill says.

About four years ago, Fu Manchu guitarist Eddie Glass and drummer Ruben Romano dared to suggest the group go in a more psychedelic direction. This insurrection was quelled when the blasphemous duo was replaced by the more like-minded Brant Bjork on drums and Bob Balch on guitar. (The group also includes bassist Brad Davis.)

Bjork and Balch also share Hill and Davis' music-first philosophy. When it comes to road living, Hill generally chooses rest over heavy-duty recreation.

"I couldn't get wasted every night and be on the road for six weeks straight," he says. "After a show you've got to get back in the van and drive for eight hours to play the next show. You've got to take care of yourself. I'm pretty much out there to play music. People don't want to see you on stage drunk and falling all over the place."

Ironically, Fu Manchu is often categorized as a stoner-rock band. Hill believes it's a misplaced tag. Not only are Fu Manchu songs devoid of any drug references, but the music also tends to be more up-tempo and less jam-oriented than the slightly more lugubrious metal of stoner-rock exponents such as the defunct Kyuss and Monster Magnet.

Thematically, Fu Manchu is all about muscle cars, custom vans, '70s pop culture, Bigfoot and UFOs. These are subjects that lyricist Hill can write about ad infinitum. You'll never catch Hill writing about political issues or deep emotions.

The cover of the group's most recent album, "King of the Road," features a photo of a line of custom vans at a '70s car rally. Fittingly, fans will sometimes bring their custom vans to Fu Manchu shows to show off.

The images in Hill's songs are all rooted in early childhood experiences.

"The old muscle cars, the motorcycles, the surfboards, skateboards, custom vans. Even the way girls' hair looked all feathered. The '70s was the coolest era for all that stuff. All of us in the band are into that so it just worked its way into the band lyrically and artwork-wise."

Hill, who grew up in Huntington Beach and San Clemente, comes across as the prototypal Orange County beach dude. It's a notion he doesn't dispute. Though he doesn't skateboard much anymore, Hill still surfs every day when he's home in San Clemente. (Davis and Balch also live in south Orange County, and Bjork lives in Palm Desert.)

The vocalist-guitarist is quite proud of "King of the Road." The previous album, 1997's "The Action Is Go," was made just months after Bjork and Balch joined the group. The latest album features a more cohesive musical unit.

The biggest surprise on "King of the Road" is a version of Devo's "Freedom of Choice." Fu Manchu isn't a band that is going to remind many people of that robotic new-wave unit from the late '70s and '80s. But Hill has always been a Devo believer.

"The track was chosen by fans who were asked at the Fu Manchu Web site to come up with a cover song for the 'King' album."

Though its heavy guitar sound immediately distinguishes it from the original, the Fu Manchu version of "Freedom of Choice" won the praise of Devo leader Mark Mothersbaugh.

"We actually met Mark about a month ago," Hill says. "He said he really liked the version of the song. We were kind of nervous. We had no idea what he would think of it. He invited us to go down to the Devo offices in Los Angeles. So we went down there and hung out with him and he signed a bunch of stuff for us. He was really cool."

Hill said the next Fu Manchu album might be a mellower offering than "King of the Road."

Hill hopes the album will be out at the end of the year via Mammoth Records, the band's home for its last three albums. But don't expect a radical departure from the signature Fu sound.

"It's not going to be a night-and-day type of difference," he says. "But it probably won't be as heavy."

*

* Fu Manchu, with Motorhead, Nashville Pussy and Speedealer, performs tonight at the Palace, 1735 N. Vine St., 7 p.m. $22.50. (323) 462-3000.

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