Fu Manchu: Stoner Rock Isn't Just for Stoners Anymore (And Never Really Was)

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Editor's note: Check out a Q-and-A with the band here.

"Stoner rock" has yet to gain entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, so for the definition of the phrase, look no further than Fu Manchu.

Yet, like so many genres, the name hardly fits the sound. Pink Floyd is stoner rock, while Fu Manchu storms in -- all heavy, sludgy, psychedelic, and fuzzy -- with plenty of searing guitar riffs and a propulsive bottom end. Though Pink Floyd, continuing the comparison, works great when stoned, stoner rock fans need not bother with pot at all, explains Fu Manchu guitarist Bob Balch via an e-mail exchange.

"Most of the people I know who smoke massive amounts of weed don't ever listen to stoner rock. It doesn't really go hand in hand," he says.

"You can call it what you want," he says. "It's funny when people call us desert rock, because we are from the beach. I call it dessert rock! No, really, it's just Fu Manchu: loud guitars, fuzz, live-sounding drums, [Scott] Hill's voice. That's the only way I can describe it."

Rising out of the late-1980s Orange Country punk scene, Fu Manchu evolved by slowing the tempo (while retaining the intensity) and adding heavier elements. Instead of two-minute, 13-second thrashers with Hill screaming his vocals, the band allowed the songs some flow, adding lengthy guitar interludes, and spacey jams and "thickening" the sound in the manner of bands such as the Melvins, Helmet, Black Sabbath, and Soundgarden.

"[We went from] hardcore into slower, fuzzier stuff into more hardcore into both," Balch says. "Our songwriting has gotten better. We always try to find subtle things to add to a structure, so it's not just verse, chorus, verse, chorus. I still think the hardcore influence is there; it's just that we play those riffs way slower."

Occasionally, those riffs turn into spacey interludes that slow the songs even further. Tracks like "Saturn III," from The Action Is Go, along with "Dimension Shifter" and "Last Question," from the band's latest release, Gigantoid (coming June 3), certainly add a stoner element to the music.

"I like that stuff. Not all the time, but there is a time on Fu records for it," Balch says. Gigantoid arrives five years after Signs of Infinite Power. During that span, the band toured behind the reissues of career-defining earlier albums, worked on side projects, and eventually found time for songwriting. Sonically, Gigantoid is loud, heavy, and abrasive (in a good way) but also has a depth of clarity that brings out the subtle nuance in each song. Those features are exactly what Balch and crew wanted after happening upon Moab, another heavy SoCal band. Moab self-produced its album in the home studio of singer/guitarist Andrew Giacumakis, making it clear what Fu Manchu needed to do to make Gigantoid stand out.

The band utilized Giacumakis' studio for much of the recording and mixing. The risk paid off, as Balch says Gigantoid is "our best-sounding record ever!"

"We really wanted to hear each instrument, but keep it heavy as possible," Balch says. "We have a knack for low-end guitars, but sometimes they can eat up the kick drum and bass. We found a middle ground with Gigantoid that I love."

So much so that, among all the other Fu Manchu releases, Balch now calls the new record his favorite.

"We did exactly what we wanted," he says. "It's been years since the last release, so I think we were all trying different stuff just to try it . . . At least for me. I just wanted to try anything to see what works."

Indeed, it truly works, and in a seriously Gigantoid way.

Fu Manchu is scheduled to perform Saturday, May 31, at Pub Rock in Scottsdale.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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