Musicians often view lyrics as vehicles to express their innermost thoughts or frustrations. Orange County, California, combo Fu Manchu prefer to use them to talk about cool stuff, and the impetus for their scorching vocals often comes from their favorite films, toys or pastimes.
“We’ve all grown up surfing, skateboarding and being around cars, so a lot of those things have been used in the band since we started,” singer/guitarist Scott Hill said.
While Fu Manchu might not have a lot to say lyrically or in interviews, their simplistic sentiments complement their crunchy, chugging guitar rhythms, insistent beats and powerful vocals. Their music is aimed not at the head, but the heart and groin, and their surging sounds are generated from an engine of plunging pistons and gleaming chrome.
So, singing about such uncerebral subjects as UFOs (“Separate Kingdom”) and the cult movie “Valley Girl” (“Squash That Fly”) isn’t just amusing, it grants the listener a ticket inside the band’s spontaneous world of beaches, fast cars and wild parties.
Nowhere is this more clear than on “Mongoose,” an old track the group re-recorded for its seventh record, California Crossing. “On that one, I’m back to stuff we’ve grown up with in Southern California, like old bicycle motocross stuff,” Hill said. “What we do is come up with the music first, and usually we’ll talk about something while we’re writing the song. And we must have been talking about the old Mongoose bicycles, so I just sort of wrote about that.”
The album title was just about as carefully thought out: “I think a lot of people think we’re a typical Californian band, so we always wanted to use the title ‘California’ in one of our albums,” Hill said. “We were actually gonna use it in on our last album (King of the Road), but Mr. Bungle had that record California, and then the Red Hot Chili Peppers put out Californication, so we said, ‘All right, forget it.’ ”
Fu Manchu wrote many of the riffs for California Crossing in early 2000 while on tour. Last April they got together with producer Matt Hyde (Betty Blowtorch, Monster Magnet) to arrange and fine-tune the material. By the end of May they had 20 songs finished, so they started recording at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys. A month later they entered Henson Studios (formerly A&M) in Los Angeles to master the album. While they were there, Fu Manchu had a strange brush with fame.
“We met Paul McCartney,” Hill said. “He was in the same studio, working on his record. We were mixing, and I was walking on the lot and up the stairs and he was sitting there in shorts and no shoes, just picking at his toe. And he goes, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ He probably thought we were just some punk kids who worked at the studio.”
For California Crossing, Fu Manchu wanted an album that rocked hard, but they didn’t want the heaviness to bog down its listenability. So they worked closely with Hyde on the instrument tone and song structures and made sure the choruses were energetic and exultant.
“We kind of laid off the heavy fuzz guitar that we usually use and made the recording a little more midrange,” said Hill. “We just really wanted to work on the arrangements and getting in and out of the songs really quickly.”
The resulting sound is slick yet turbocharged, not unlike the rumbling thunder of Urge Overkill’s overlooked 1993 classic Saturation. For Hill, one of the highlights of recording California Crossing was having Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris sing guest vocals on “Bultaco.”
“That was cool because the Circle Jerks were one of the first bands I saw live, like in 1981,” he said. “They were a big inspiration for the band and me because we grew up on punk rock in the early ’80s.”
As positive an experience as the creation of California Crossing was for Fu Manchu, the band was dealt a surprise setback afterward when drummer Brant Bjork announced that he was leaving to rejoin his former Kyuss bandmates guitarist Josh Homme, drummer Alfredo Hernandez and bassist Nick Oliveri in Queens of the Stone Age.
“He just wanted to do different music and stuff, and he didn’t know if he wanted to tour for… this record,” said Hill, emphasizing that the split was completely amicable. “He offered to stick around until we found a new drummer. But we found a new drummer right away.”
Fu Manchu are currently on the road with Bjork’s replacement, Scott Reeder (ex-Smile), who coincidentally has the same name as a onetime bassist for Kyuss. “It’s funny because people are always like, ‘Huh, what?’ and we’re like, ‘No, it’s a different guy.’ But he’s an awesome dude and a great drummer. We called him up, practiced one time and it sounded great, so we went, ‘OK, you’re in.’ “