"Stoner rock" has yet to gain entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but few bands define the genre better 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. That's been more enough to keep the band going for over two decades. Fu Manchu's latest album, Giagantoid, comes out next week (June 3), and it's what guitarist Bob Balch presently calls "my favorite."
Up on the Sun caught up with Balch in cyberspace (he was in Canada, but his phone wouldn't work properly), to discuss the making Gigantoid and its place in Fu history, being in a band he listened to in high school, and why bassist Brad Davis no longer skateboards.
Up on the Sun: First, I heard your voice mail when I called indicating that you're also a guitar teacher. So I'm wondering what styles you teach, and if that at all influences your playing (or at least generates ideas) with Fu Manchu?
Bob Balch: I teach all styles. It definitely influences my playing. I've been teaching for the past nine years, five years online using Skype and FaceTime, etc. My playing has gotten way better. All I do is play guitar. All day. I borrow ideas from all styles of music. It's cool because a lot of the people I teach are into Fu Manchu, and we have the same influences. So I just sit around all day figuring out solos and cherry picking ideas. I never rip stuff off directly, just certain areas of the neck. Solo structures, things like that. Most of my solos are improvised though so I guess I just lied.
Fu Manchu's sound is typically called stoner rock, but in hearing the diversity on each record -- sometimes within a single song -- that seems somewhat limiting. How do you define what you do, and is there a sound -- named or otherwise -- the band strives to create?
You can call it what you want. It's funny when people call us desert rock, because we are from the beach. I call it desert rock! No really, it's just Fu Manchu: LOUD guitars, fuzz, live sounding drums, Hill's voice. That's the only way I can describe it. We never set out to create a certain type of record. We write and what ever comes out comes out. We did have sounds in mind for this record. Other than that it's pretty organic.
The band is known for its live stage intensity. How does that influence the recording process?
It doesn't. We are pretty laid back. The live thing is another story. I think that just happened over the years. We never sat down and discussed "we need more of an intense stage show."
Where does Gigantoid fit among other Fu Manchu releases?
It's my favorite. We released it ourselves so we did exactly what we wanted. Also, it's been years since the last release so I think we were all trying different stuff just to try it. Lots of weird pedal combinations. Phaser directly into the board, two fuzz pedals at once, Zvex sonar which sounds crazy and won't have a place with FU. But all that stuff went out the window. At least for me. I just wanted to try anything to see what works.
The band started in the late '80s as a hardcore punk band, shifting somewhat quickly into a heavy rock sound. It's now been more than 20 years as Fu Manchu... so how has the band changed over the years?
Hardcore into slower fuzzier stuff, into more hardcore, into both. Our song writing 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.
It seems the spacey rock side has been creeping in more and more over the years -- longer, jammy interludes. I am I correct in this assessment, or just smoking too much before spinning your albums?
I like that stuff. Not all the time, but there is a time on Fu records for it in my opinion. "Last Question" on the new record has that. "Saturn III" on Action has that. "Last Question" is my favorite song on Gigantoid. I love the outro. I really like the outro to "Dimension Shifter" too. It has the same vibe. I figure most of our fans are high so why not try to mess with their heads.
Speaking of smoking, do you have to be a stoner to make stoner rock?
You don't at all. Most of the people I know who smoke massive amounts of weed don't ever listen to stoner rock. It's doesn't really go hand and hand.
All the band members came from similar, yet slightly different backgrounds -- punk, metal, harder rock, etc. What ties you all together?
Probably all those styles. Hill doesn't listen to metal. But we all love '70s rock and hardcore. And bands like TAD, Voivod, Soundgarden, Helmet. I think our love for Eddie And The Cruisers 2 (soundtrack) plays a major role as well. That and the movie Airborne.
I see the 20-year anniversary edition of No One Rides for Free is being released this year. I know you weren't on it, but how do you think it holds up 20 years on, especially in relation to where the band is now?
I dig it still. That was my introduction to the band. I love playing those songs live too. It always trips me out because that came out when I was in 10th grade. If you would have told 10th grade me... "You'll be touring the world playing these songs from 19 to 36 and beyond" I would have called you a liar and an asshole.
Finally, I see the band has a skate deck with a Fu Manchu image/logo on it. I read somewhere that bassist Brad Davis still skates.
Brad was in Gleaming The Cube. He caught massive air over a cop car. He never received his backend Cube money and I think it left a bad taste in his mouth for skateboarding. He hasn't skated since.
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