MASTERS OF THE FU-NIVERSE Fu Manchu

Infinite! It’s 20
years and counting for the torchbearers of stoner rock.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Though their name refers to a mustachioed celluloid villain,
Fu Manchu is more like Jeff Spicoli, Ron Slater, and David Wooderson. They
symbolize the older, ostensibly cooler, dudes we grew up around-or saw in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused-and wanted to
emulate, because they had the laid-back demeanor, cool car (or custom van) and
mystical manner of attracting women. Fu frontdude Scott Hill concurs, to a
point.

 

“As a young kid in the ‘70s,” he says, “there was always that
older dude living on your street, the guy, 18 years old, with a custom van
painted all nice, surfing, skating. That was the dude you wanted to be; that was The Guy.”

 

Like Spicoli, Hill lived near-nay, at-the Southern California beach
his entire life. His older sisters ensured Hill had plenty of similar role
models. “I’d always be around the long-haired stoner dudes,” he recalls, “and I
looked up to them.” That’s why Fu Manchu’s music-generally labeled stoner
rock-is silly with references to muscle cars, custom vans, babes, pinball,
skateboarding, marijuana and far-out space shit. But, Hill says, “That’s just
how I grew up. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna cop that image’; it’s what I
know.”

 

That palette has served Fu Manchu well in their 20 years
together, because we relate to those arche-/stereotypical denizens of the
Fu-niverse. Whether we’re like them or not, we relate to those crazy stoner
dudes and their puff-puff-passive resistance to authority (Spicoli), skewed
worldviews (as Slater said, “George [Washington]
toked”), and cool confidence even in the face of their own douchebaggery, as
with Wooderson’s appraisal of jailbait: “I get older, they stay the same age.” Pinball,
skateboarding, sex, drugs and sci-fi are just cool. And when you set that stuff
to music-fuzzy, 4/4, hard rock-it’s like thunder from the mountain, the Word of
God.

 

Hill remembers the thunder that resounded around the beach:
“They’d always be blaring Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, Kiss. That’s where I got
exposed to music, early on.” His biggest musical epiphany, though, came in 1980
when a friend showed up with a cassette tape that veered the custom van off its
course. The blank tape had “live Circle Jerks on one side and live Black Flag
on the other. I’d never heard punk before, and was like, ‘What’s this?!’ The singer was drunk, slurring
words. It was just fast, and loud… the sound of the guitars and the
aggressiveness. And I liked the real short, to-the-point songs.”

 

His friends experienced the same reaction. The ‘70s rock was
summarily dismissed from their minds, at least for a while, as they laid waste
to their wax stacks. “My friends would skip their old Kiss records down the
street,” says Hill. “I was smart; I put all mine in the back of the closet. But
I sure enjoyed throwing theirs.”  

 

Soon the beach morphed into something different, with a new
soundtrack and slightly different heroes. Hill immersed himself in punk rock,
sneaking out to shows and pestering record stores about their punk sections. By
1985, when he became the older guy on the beach, starting his own band, he was
pure punk. Virulence released its first album in 1989, but by then Hill heard a
new sound that brought him full circle back to that 1970s beach.

 

“I started hearing Tad and Nirvana,” he says. “The rawness
of it reminded me of punk, but it was slowed down.” When personnel and their name
changed-here is where they became Fu Manchu-the band gravitated toward a new
sound. “I wanted to slow down but still keep the songs short.” The monolithic,
groovin’ music Fu Manchu came up with became its trademark, and the band built
a following alongside musical kindred spirits Kyuss, Monster Magnet, St. Vitus,
The Melvins and Clutch. Twenty years later, as Fu prepares to release their
tenth album, Signs of Infinite Power (Century
Media), they’re as strong as ever.

 

It’s because Fu Manchu hasn’t created a sound so much as a
fully-formed identity. We know, from listening to songs like “King of the
Road,” “Boogie Van,” “Ojo Rojo,” “Regal Begal,” “Neptune’s Convoy” and “El
Busta” that their muse-all that Cool Shit-that their muse is constant and a
reliable source of escape, perhaps to sunnier days when we still had someone to
look up to, and we anticipated the spoils of adulthood with baited breath.

 

Maybe it’s not realistic to live our entire lives as
Spicolis and Slaters and Woodersons, and we don’t have a kickass custom van with
dingle balls and a waterbed in the back; we’ve grown up. But for three or four
minutes at a time, we can pretend.

 

 

 

 

 

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