Fu Manchu are nothing if not consistent, both in their creative process and their musical direction. Like the Ramones and AC/DC before them, the seminal Southern California stoner-rock quartet has never strayed far from its original recipe. Beginning with their full-length debut, 1994's No One Rides For Free, every Fu Manchu album has been up to its neck in riff-centric, fuzz-caked, wah-stomping odes to skateboarding, dune buggies, custom vans, hot hitch-hikers and UFOs.
"It always starts with one riff," says vocalist/guitarist Scott Hill. "We've been writing songs the same way since 1990 one of us will show up and go, 'Hey, I've got this riff,' and we'll play it, and our drummer will mess round with different beats until we're like, 'Yeah, that sounds good.' We record it onto a four-track, listen back to it between practices, and try different things with it until it becomes a song, and then I'll write the lyrics to it. But it always starts with one riff. Always."
Fu Manchu's reliable riff-worship is on full display on their twelfth and latest album, Clone of the Universe (which drops February 9 via their own label At the Dojo), but Hill and his band guitarist Bob Balch, bassist Brad Davis and drummer Scott Reeder (not to be confused with the Obsessed/Kyuss/Fireball Ministry bassist of the same name) also throw an unexpected curveball into the mix.
The first half of the album is entirely comprised of roaring road-burners including "(I've Been) Hexed," "Don't Panic" and the title track, all of which fit snugly within the parameters of Fu Manchu's previous work. But the second half is completely filled by the 18-minute track "Il Mostro Atomico," a mostly instrumental riff odyssey featuring guest guitar wailing from none other than Alex Lifeson of Rush. "Il Mostro Atomico" is like nothing else in the Fu Manchu catalog, but it still kicks some serious stoner-rock ass.
LISTEN TO "IL MOSTRO ATOMICO" FEATURING ALEX LIFESON:
Revolver caught up with Scott Hill to ask him about the new album, working with Lifeson, writing killer riffs, and the joys of living in Southern California.
WHAT SITUATIONS ARE MOST CONDUCIVE FOR WRITING KILLER GUITAR RIFFS?
SCOTT HILL Um I have no idea. [Laughs] I don't think I've ever sat down and gone, "I'm gonna write a song!" I have all my guitars out, my fuzz pedals and a little amp; they're in a room in my house, right off the hallway, and I pass by it every day. I'll just go in, sit down and start playing. It doesn't matter if it's nighttime or the middle of the day, I'll just pick it up and start playing something. And then I've got a little recorder next to me to keep riffs, and I'll make notes about which ones I want to bring to practice. Maybe I'll have something in my head, and I'm like, "I wanna try that." Or maybe I'll just be in there playing for an hour, and something will come to me.
IT DOESN'T SEEM LIKE YOU EVER RUN OUT OF RIFFS, THOUGH.
Yeah, luckily and I'm finding wood to knock on we've always had riffs floating around. I don't think there's ever been a time where it's like, "Oh no, no one's got anything? What do we do?" It'd be like, "Well, maybe let's go surfing today, instead!" [Laughs]
LYRICALLY, IS IT ALWAYS THE SEVENTIES IN THE WORLD OF FU MANCHU?
Uhhhh Yeah. [Laughs] It's just all stuff that I've been into since I was a kid sci-fi stuff, old custom vans and choppers, you know. It's easy stuff for me to write about. Don't look to us for any answers! [Laughs] You're not going to find anything personal, political or religious [in our songs] we barely know what's going on with anything, as it is! And half the time, what I'm writing about is just an inside joke among us four, since so much of our practices are just us screwing around and telling jokes.
YOU GUYS ARE TYPICALLY CLASSIFIED AS STONER ROCK BUT AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, THERE HAVE NEVER ACTUALLY BEEN ANY FU MANCHU SONGS ABOUT GETTING HIGH.
Yeah! I mean, whatever drugs you want to do, that's great. And if you want to sing about smoking weed, or drinking or whatever, awesome! Monster Magnet, probably three-quarters of their stuff is about drugs, and that's one of my all-time favorite bands. But that's not my deal; I'd rather sing about a Bigfoot getting sucked up into the belly of a UFO that's my deal!
LET'S TALK ABOUT "IL MOSTRO ATOMICO." NOT ONLY IS IT THE FIRST 18-MINUTE SONG IN THE FU MANCHU CATALOG, BUT YOU'VE ALSO GOT ALEX LIFESON ON IT!
Yeah, it's like, if it all ended tomorrow, that would be a pretty good note to end on! I think we had already written 12, 13, maybe 15 songs for the new record, and we knew we were going to have to weed them out, but we still kept coming up with more riffs. I told everybody, "Hey, I've got this one riff that's really heavy and slow what if we take all these newer riffs that we have, and instead of making full songs, let's put the best riffs together and make a song that's the whole second side of the record." And everyone was like, "Yeah, that's it!"
So we recorded like maybe 18 or 19 riffs that we really liked onto a four-track, and we listened to 'em and picked the best ones that really flowed together. There wasn't like a Part 1 and a Part 2; it was more like, "Hey, let's go here! Now, let's go this way with that riff! Hey, let's double that part! Let's put a drum break there!" Just the best stuff that we thought fit together. We'd never done that before, and we were like, "Crap are people really going to sit through an 18-minute song?" And then we were like, "Fuck it we've got six songs on the other side that are all fuzzy, heavy rock stuff."
SO HOW DID LIFESON GET INVOLVED?
Our manager is friends with his manager, and they were talking. Without asking us, our manager was like, "Hey, would Alex want to play on their new record?" His manager asked him and got back to our manager, like, "Oh yeah, he totally will. Send him a song!" When he told us, we were all like, "Holy shit!" We immediately reverted back to the Rush fans we were in seventh grade! [Laughs] So we sent him the four-track, which was a little lower than normal demo quality and he was like, "This is great. What do you want me to do on it?" We were like, "Holy shit, he's asking us?!? Dude, do whatever you want, wherever you want!"
So we got in the studio and recorded the song, and then we sent it to him in Canada; he sent us back a bunch of stuff, and it all just sounded insane. He was like, "Use whatever you want," so we picked this one section of stuff that he did; it's in the first part where the band drops out he's playing a really effected guitar riff along with the bass and drums, and then the bass and drums drop out. He's doing stuff with a bunch of different effects, all these sci-fi sounds and pick slides, and we were just flipping out listening to it. We still can't believe it! [Laughs]
WHAT'S COOL IS THAT IT'S NOT JUST A "SPIRIT OF RADIO" OR "TOM SAWYER" KIND OF LICK RANDOMLY LAID OVER THE TOP OF IT YOU CAN TELL HE'S REALLY PLAYING ALONG WITH THE TRACK AND GETTING INTO IT.
Exactly, and I'm glad you caught that. He could have been doing leads over it, and we would have been like, "Fuck yeah!" But he really added to it; that riff that he played, that wasn't even in the song! I remember leaving the studio that night after we first got it back from him, and we were all like, "Fuck, this is insane!"
WHAT'S YOUR ALL-TIME FAVORITE RUSH SONG?
It's "Subdivisions" [from 1982's Signals LP]. I would hear that song all the time at parties in the mid-Eighties. And from '80 '87, all I listened to was hardcore punk rock stuff. That's it! No rock but that Rush song, I would just listen to it all the time. I mean, I love "Fly By Night," I love "Working Man," I love all their songs with the gnarly riffs. But I really love "Subdivisions," I just love it.
WHEN DID YOU START GETTING INTO HEAVY ROCK STUFF?
Well, when I was a kid, I think the first thing I got into was like, Deep Purple. I lived in Huntington Beach in the early/mid-Seventies, and the kid next door to me had an older brother who was so gnarly he had a Dodge Challenger with "Highway Star" painted in glitter on the side of it, and he would park it on their lawn! I was like, "Highway Star? What's that?" So of course, he turned us onto Deep Purple, and then we get into Kiss I think Rock and Roll Over by Kiss might have been the first record I ever bought and into Led Zeppelin and stuff and then my dad would always play Blue Cheer's "Babylon," which is one of my favorite rock songs to this day.
But then in 1980, a friend played me a live Black Flag EP. I was like, "What the fuck is this?!?" He made me a tape of it, and the other side of the tape was Circle Jerks. And that was it I just went into punk rock headfirst. All the rock records went into the back of the closet, and I bought every punk and hardcore record I could find. I remember me and my buddy, we would take all his Maiden and Sabbath records and fling 'em down the street; we'd skip the vinyl down the asphalt, going "Fuck rock!" [Laughs] Of course, my records stayed in the back of my closet; I still had the sense that, "Hmmm, maybe I'll get back into these someday!" And then like '87 came around, and a lot of the hardcore and punk bands were going speed metal, and then Soundgarden, Tad, Mudhoney, Laughing Hyenas and Melvins were starting to happen. So I pulled the heavy stuff back out, started mixing Blue Cheer with Black Flag, and there you go!
YOU MENTIONED SURFING EARLIER. DO YOU STILL SURF REGULARLY?
Yeah; I just went this morning. I live just right down the beach from where I surf, and I try to do it every day. I've been doing it since when was the first time I stood up? probably 1977. We're in San Clemente, California; I love it, because it's at the very end of Orange County, where it's not too crowded.
WHAT ABOUT SKATING?
No! No, no, no, no! [Laughs] I grew up skating, and I've still got my old boards; but if I fall down and break an arm, there goes the tour. I think when we started getting really serious about touring, maybe '95, I was like, "Okay, that's it; I can't take the chance."
DID YOU EXPERIENCE SOME PARTICULARLY GNARLY INJURIES IN THE PAST?
Oh yeah, I'd fallen on my shoulder before, fallen on my back, fallen on my leg, twisted my ankle, my wrist; so when the label was putting together the tour, I was like, "If I fall, we can't go." I'll still sometimes skate down the street very cautiously "Oh no, there's a rock!" [Laughs] But if you fall in the water, it's not as hard!
YOUR MUSIC IS SO DEEPLY ROOTED IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. DO YOU THINK YOU COULD EVER LIVE ANYWHERE ELSE?
No, no, no. I'll be here the rest of my life, and I know that. And we've been everywhere! When we go on tour, even after two weeks I'm just itching to get back in the water. [Laughs] I mean, I could possibly live in Hawaii, or maybe somewhere in Australia, because everything's along the coast. And I remember there was one place in Scandinavia; we'd played a festival, and we were getting driven back, and there was this really crazy-looking fishing village on the water, with mountains right behind it, and it was insane. But I never bothered to ask where we were. It's stuck in my head, and I can picture it exactly, and I always try to explain it to friends in Sweden or Norway, and they're like, "No, we have no idea what you're talking about."
MAYBE YOU HALLUCINATED IT.
You know what? You're probably right! [Laughs] I was probably so jetlagged, I dreamt it. So yeah, I'll be here the rest of my life!